Germany / France: Can a city live down a dark past?
25 August 2010
How does a city that symbolises Nazism or French collaboration bear such an enduring burden? Nuremberg and Vichy are each struggling in their own way to live down the past.
Hardly anywhere else in Germany is the aesthetic of National Socialist ideology as plainly on display as in Nuremberg, on a site to the southeast of the city where the Nazi party rallies were held from 1933 to 1938, as well as the eponymous trials of Nazi leaders from 1945. The Reichsparteitagsgelände (literally Imperial Party Congress Grounds) was never completed due to the war, and some of the existing buildings were bombed or subsequently demolished. Those that survived were declared a national heritage site in 1973 as exemplars of the regime’s architectural megalomania.
But despite sporadic repairs over the past few decades, some of the complex is falling into ruin. According to preliminary estimates of the damage to the buildings, explains Siegfried Zelnhefer, spokesman for the Nuremberg city council, the structural repairs needed would take a decade and cost €70 million. To restore or not to restore, that is the question: whether it is justifiable to spend money on preserving such symbols of horrors past. While some see perils and inherent contradictions in any such undertaking, a number of historians stress the unique documentary value of the colossal architecture.
A debt to history
"These structures illustrate the criminal Nazi regime’s will to dominate, which led to a world war with 55 million casualties,” says Zelnhefer, “and they tell of the racist madness that culminated in the murder of six million Jews.” Despite its thousand-year history of alternating light and shade, "for over half a century the name Nuremberg has been associated, more so than those of many other German cities, with the National Socialist period and its atrocities”, Zelnhefer points out. “Even if that past does not concern Nuremberg alone, the city understands that it now has an historical responsibility to bear owing to its role during the Nazi dictatorship.”
So the Nuremberg authorities organise all manner of activities and back a wide range of initiatives to promote world peace and safeguard human rights. The latest such initiative, albeit still in embryonic form, involves the city’s other emblematic venue: Courtroom 600, where the Nuremberg trials were held, which receives some 40,000 visitors a year and is to be transformed into a memorial museum this autumn. The city is applying to UNESCO for Courtroom 600 to be declared a World Heritage site as the cradle of international penal law. "History was written at this site,” says Zelnhefer: “for the first time ever, states with different forms of government and legal systems sat together to try a common enemy.”
"Vichy isn’t just Pétain"
Over in France, the city of Vichy is playing up its cultural capital and tourist attractions to live down the memory of its status as the capital of collaborationist France. At number 3 Place Joseph Aletti in Vichy, 400-odd km south of Paris, a couple from Madrid are just beginning their holidays. Francisco and Sofía are brimming with enthusiasm: “We’ve come to enjoy this famous spa town.” But these two Spanish tourists will soon discover that every street corner here is weighed down by a dark past that the French have tried in vain to forget.
The city itself seeks to put that past behind it, though without forgetting it. From 1940 to 1944, the aristocratic town of Vichy was the capital of the French State governed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, albeit in the vice-grip of Nazi officials. Unoccupied France was left in the hands of the collaborationist regime. The city’s population at the time was 35,000 – now it’s about 110,000 – and it had some 400 mansions and hotels.
Hotels used as seats of government
"Vichy put an end to the Third Republic. Pétain and his ministers opted to put the capital here and not in París on account of its spacious hotels and its high-capacity telephone exchange,” explains writer Sylvain Beltran. The hotels were used as seats of government.
Getting back to 3 Place Joseph-Aletti, this is the entrance to the Aletti Palace, just a few steps from the opera house. 70 years ago, this hotel was called l'Hôtel Thermal and served as headquarters for the French war ministry. The military also used the Hôtel du Parc, where Marshal Pétain resided on the third floor. It has now been turned into an apartment building. Meeting in council at the Hôtel du Parc, Pétain’s ministers decreed the mass deportations of Jews from occupied France to the Nazi extermination camps. Under orders from the Third Reich, the trains bore 75,721 Jews – including 11,400 children – to the death camps. Only 3,000 ever returned.
"A very active cultural life today"
"How can we ever forget that thousands of people were condemned to death in Vichy because Pétain chose to collaborate with Nazism so as to avert worse evils for France?" asks Beltran. The idea now, at least for this writer, is to acknowledge that indelible past, but by transforming it into a cultural asset. Since 2001 Beltran has been organizing political colloquiums, known as Les entretiens publics (Public Interviews), at the Aletti Palace. Noteworthy past attendees have included ex-UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Palestinian envoy to the EU Leila Shahid, and Chief Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim.
"I want to show that Vichy isn’t just the age of Pétain: it has a very active cultural life today,” explains Beltran. While there are plaques here and there commemorating this terrible chapter in the history of France, the city has been striving for years to play up its assortment of hotels and events strictly for tourists. Vichy is bent on overcoming its past and looking to its present. Hence its inhabitants’ insistence on the right nomenclature: “We’re vichyssois [i.e. people from Vichy] and not vichystes [i.e. collaborationists]!” stresses Jérôme, a municipal employee.
Translated by Eric Rosencrantz