When discussing World War II and its lasting impact on international populations and politics the focus is, rightly, on the human cost of the conflict. Six years of war claimed the lives of over 72,000,000 soldiers and civilians worldwide, and some regions have never regained the prosperity they enjoyed before the battles. Every aspect of society was altered by the massive conflict, which saw the birth America as a superpower, the fall of several empires, the rise of the Soviet Union, and the introduction of some of the most destructive weapons the world has ever seen.
During the chaotic war years when the preservation of human life took precedence over all else, innumerable works of art and architecture fell victim to the astounding destruction. Mystery continues to surround the fate of some treasures, including Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael, and the infamous lost Amber Room of the Czars. Though teams of historians and experts have devoted years to finding stolen works, repairing damaged décor, and protecting sites against future damage, it is an imperfect science. As ISIS’ recent destruction of irreplaceable historic sites across Iraq and Syria has taught us, sometimes the survival of iconic buildings and structures is left entirely to the whim of occupying forces.
Though it may be easy to despair for the art and history of the Mideast during the current conflicts, it is important to remember that less than 100 years ago the treasures of Europe faced the same threat and, impossibly, survived. Read on to learn how these famous landmarks were saved, however improbably.
Cologne Cathedral – Cologne, Germany
Rising to 515 meters above the city, this Roman Catholic Cathedral was built in 1248 and has held the record of the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe since its completion. The fact that the distinctive twin spires continue to beckon tourists today is nothing short of miraculous when you consider that the town of Cologne was bombed a jaw dropping 262 times over the course of the war, including a massive 1000 bomber raid. Considering the cathedral’s prominence, it’s hard to imagine that it escaped the war undamaged, and it didn’t. Remarkably the building withstood 70 direct hits before the Allies decided to leave it standing for navigational purposes. That’s some solid construction work!
Kyoto – Kyoto, Japan
The ancient imperial and religious capital of Kyoto, Japan had survived thousands of years of civil war, earthquakes, and power struggles, but it seemed as if its luck had finally run out in 1945. With the Pacific War limping towards what promised to be a bloody and draw-out conclusion, military leaders okayed the use of the US’s secret weapon, the atomic bomb. Knowing that to head off an endless guerilla war in Asia they would need to strike a city with both psychological and strategic effect, war leaders drew up a list of 4 cities, with Kyoto at the top: 1) Kyoto, 2) Hiroshima, 3) Yokohama, 4) Kokura Arsenal.
As the chosen date for the bomb drop neared, Kyoto found an unlikely savior in US Secretary of War Henry L Stimson. Against heated opposition, Stimson vetoed Kyoto from the list, arguing ostensibly that the city was a purely civilian target with limited military benefit. The truth for his emotional opposition was a bit more romantic: Kyoto was where Stimson and his wife had honeymooned several years previous. Thanks to his stubbornness the list was altered and the unfortunate port city of Nagasaki was added in its place.
Ponte Vecchio – Florence, Italy
Up until August 1944, Florence was a city of many bridges. Medieval and renaissance walkways crisscrossed the area, offering safe passage over the numerous rivers and canals for all who cared to use them. All this came to abrupt end that summer, however, as the Nazis retreated from the city they had used as a stronghold.
Under direction to hamper the pursuing allied forces, the Nazi engineers left behind a nearly impassable city, dynamiting every bridge except one. The Ponte Vecchio, a popular passageway since its construction in 1345 was left alone, but why? The answer is simple but surprising: Hitler personally ordered that it be saved. It may seem strange that sentimentality could move a man such as the Fuhrer, but that’s exactly what happened. Ponte Vecchio had been the site where Hitler and Mussolini famously agreed to the “Pact of Steel” alliance and he just couldn’t stand to see it destroyed. If only he had chosen to be merciful more often…
St. Paul’s Cathedral – London, England
You may not realize it, but St. Paul’s Cathedral has played an important role not just in the religious lives of Britons, but in popular culture and the media. Built in 1711, this beautiful church has appeared in numerous films and shows including Lawrence of Arabia, Mary Poppins, Dr. Who, and Harry Potter. Still not convinced of it’s significance? Then let us mention that the Royal Wedding, yes that Royal Wedding, took place on the steps of St. Paul’s. It’s definitely a big deal.
Unfortunately, the German Luftwaffe didn’t seem to think so. During German Blitz of 1940, the cathedral suffered a direct hit from a massive bomb that…didn’t explode. Thanks to some extremely brave fire fighters working day and night, the device was gently removed and detonated remotely which resulted in a 100-foot crater. This wasn’t the only close shave, the fire fighters were back on site later in the year when 28 incendiary bombs failed to completely set the rafters on fire. Finally, and perhaps most dramatically, a large bomb did explode in perhaps the safest area of the church to do so: the crypts. So, some angry ghosts aside, the cathedral survived undisturbed.
Leaning Tower of Pisa – Pisa, Italy
Considering that this tower was unsteady on its foundations before the war, it’s a miracle that the ensuing fighting didn’t topple it over completely. It was essential for the Allies to wrest control of Pisa from the German occupying troops as they advanced up the peninsula, but on the outskirts of the city, their advance slowed to a halt. Taking advantage of the only “high ground” available the Nazis has installed snipers and observers on the upper floors of the tower, making effective approach or attack virtually impossible. Frustrated, and suffering heavy casualties, the Allies decided that the only way forward was to destroy the tower.
Luckily for future generations the man they sent to call in the artillery strike, Leon Weckstein, hesitated. Though he attributed his original hesitation to being unsure of whether the German troops were in the upper levels that day, he still refused to call in the hit. When asked what caused him to scuttle the mission, he admitted that, gazing upon the beautiful marble building, he couldn’t bring himself to destroy something so impressive. Give that man a medal!