A beautiful front for a sinister background

Staff Writer
Story City Herald

—by Bill Haglund

I’ve said before that history was not one of my favorite school subjects. For a long time, I couldn’t see how things that had already happened could have any effect on me.

Even though I was born during World War II and just over a decade after The Great Depression began, both of those events were ancient history to me in school. Sure, I studied them; it was required.

It wasn’t until I’d been in the military for a while in the 1960s that I began to take an interest in what had happened before my lifetime. Two things changed that. First, Uncle Sam sent me off to Germany – it was still West Germany back then. Second, I was able to travel to Sweden to meet my Old World relatives for the first time.

Visiting relatives sent my mind traveling back to my youth and conversations with a Grandfather who’d emigrated from Sweden to the United States in 1900. I saw several buildings that Grandpa had helped build before he left the country.

But, it was the beautiful city of Nuremberg, Germany that really was the impetus that created an interest in history. As picturesque as the city was, it was also shrouded with an evil past – it was there that Adolf Hitler dreamed of ruling the world. The longer I spent there, the more I learned about Nuremberg. It was the home Albrecht Durer, the famous German painter, engraver, printmaker, mathematician, perhaps best known for his “praying hands.” Nuremberg was also the site of the annual December “Christkindlesmarkt” or Christmas market.

Among all the beauty of the city, however, Hitler’s influence still remained. As servicemen, we were told to avoid certain parts of the city. In fact, a number of places were strictly off limits to American servicemen, who could face military punishment if they ignored the Army’s orders. It was barely two decades after World War II had ended, barely two decades after Hitler had committed suicide as the Allied Forces closed in around him.

Most of the young people of Nuremberg, near the age of American servicemen stationed at one of several military bases in and around the city, had no ties to Germany’s past atrocities. Naturally, there were exceptions. But, many Germans of our parents’ generation still had Nazi ties. We avoided them, and the locations where they gathered, like the plague.

Still, there were some sites and some quite extraordinary buildings that survived World War II and had close ties to the Hitler regime. The parade ground still stood and it was a fascinating place. I’d seen the black and white footage from the War with Hitler himself standing at the podium as his Storm Troopers marched past in unison. I’d seen Hitler with his raised arm salute as he reviewed his troops. The stands behind Hitler were filled with Germans, all with raised arm salutes, mimicking their Fuhrer.

I stood at the door at the back of the parade grounds where Hitler entered the stadium.

There was one place, though, that captured my imagination more than most, simply because of the beauty of the setting.

My Army friend, John, and I spent many Sunday afternoons with our German friends in a park, walking paths that wound around one side of a large lake in the central part of the city. On the lake a number of small boats – sailboats and rowboats – carried people enjoying time on the calm water.

Behind the people enjoying the water stood a huge building constructed of cement. It stood in sharp contrast to the otherwise serene setting. There were huge gaps in the façade, places for doors and windows that weren’t there. The building was three stories tall and in a horseshoe shape. A smaller, two-story brick served to close off the open end of the horseshoe.

I asked one of my German friends about the building. He told me it was the “Congresshalle,” or Congress Hall. It was being built as an office space and, from within its walls, Hitler would rule the world.

Obviously, construction of the building had begun more than 25 years before I was there in 1967. Work stopped when Hitler’s armies fell and it had remained the same as it was when work had stopped all those years before.

That image never left my mind. I took a picture from across the lake and I’d looked at it often, considering the contrast – the small boats out on the water, people enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon with such a sinister building in the background, a constant reminder of a different time in history.

When my wife and I last visited Nuremberg 15 years ago, I saw that, finally, the building had been finished. It’s wartime past had been replaced by modern office buildings, bustling with the commerce of today. I was somewhat pleased to see that the German people had finally finished the building, had found good use for a building with a horrible past.

This week, though, I was going through thousands of old photos. On top of one pile was the photo I had taken so many years ago of a cold, huge cement building with nothing but gaps where doors and windows should have been. It was in stark contrast to the building as it stands today.

(Bill Haglund is a retired staff writer for the Boone News Republican and the Dallas County News. He can be reached at bhaglund13@msn.com.)