Sunday, 13 February 2011

Rebuilding Cologne

This article appeared in the 'View from the Pew' column in the February 2011 edition of Newslink, the diocesan magazine for Limerick & Killaloe.

The soaring pinnacles of Cologne Cathedral

The best way to arrive in Cologne is by train.
That is how my wife and I arrived last May, on the first leg of our continental holiday, which would take us on by train to Prague (see October’s column), Vienna and Bratislava. The main station is at the heart of the old city, close to the Rhine, and barely a stone’s throw from the soaring pinnacles of the immense and beautiful gothic cathedral. I’m so glad we broke the journey there, because I had never visited it before, and it is one of Europe’s great cities.

Cologne was already a great city in Roman times, named Colonia Agrippina after the wife of Emperor Claudius, an important trading centre, the capital of the province of Germania Inferior, and the seat of a bishop from just after 300AD. It must have been magnificent, judging by the remains displayed in the superb modern Roman-Germanic Museum.

The city and its Prince-Bishops, electors of the Holy Roman Empire, became immensely wealthy in the high middle ages, through trade as a member of the Hanseatic League, but also from pilgrimage. Pilgrims came from all over Europe to visit the reputed relics of the Three Kings, looted by crusaders from Constantinople and taken to Milan, from whence they were brought to Cologne in 1164. Their pious gifts financed the building of the magnificent cathedral started in 1248, with its wonderful stained-glass and amazing treasures, including a seven-foot-long gold and jewelled shrine made to house the bones of the Three Kings. The reformation put an end to the pilgrimage and money ran out to finish the cathedral. The nave and the two lofty spires were not completed until 1880 in a Germany newly united under the Prussian Kaisers.

The Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral

Cologne today is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city full of character.
Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Our small hotel was spotless. We ate well in small restaurants and traditional beer halls. We enjoyed big band jazz in the spectacular concert hall. We strolled along bustling shopping streets. We crossed the Rhine on a ferry, lounged on a beach in a beautiful park beside the river, and returned on a cable-car.

The people clearly love their city, Köln in German, smiling proudly when you admire it. Kölsch is the name of their unique beer. Kölsch is what they call the laid-back atmosphere of the place. And Kölsch people relish local delicacies like ‘Himmel un Äd’ (Heaven and Earth in the Kölsch dialect - black pudding with mashed potatoes and apple sauce), as well as Turkish döner kebab and curry-wurst.

But dark shadows of WW2 lurk everywhere.
Cologne suffered the first allied 1000 bomber raid at the end of May 1942. By 1945, 90% of buildings had been destroyed, with untold numbers of citizens. With love and pride the people rebuilt their city. New buildings, many copies of the old, respect the medieval street-plan in the old city. Ancient Romanesque churches have been painstakingly restored. It is hard for tourists to see the horror of what happened here, almost in my lifetime. But the shadows remain.

In the cloister of the rebuilt basilica of St Gereon, beside a bright modern nursery school, lie scattered modest graves of civilians killed in the final allied assault on the city.

The interior of romanesque Great St Martin today

An Irishman called Arnold was once Abbot of Great St Martin, bare and peaceful inside, and graced with lovely modern stained glass. At first sight I thought the massive Romanesque columns and clover leaf choir had been miraculously preserved. A second glance revealed the seams between ancient and modern masonry. And then I saw this photograph taken in 1945.

Great St Martin church in 1945

Why do I bother to write about this?
Because we must never again allow a European city to be destroyed as Cologne was. Our nations share so much, including a common Christian heritage. The great vision of the European Union is to bind us so close together that such war and devastation becomes impossible. Yet I continually hear people run down the EU and talk as if they would like it to break up, particularly since our recent multi-billion Euro bailout. That is dangerous talk. It would be much better to embrace our European identity and work with our partners to strengthen the bonds which bind us together in peace and freedom.

We are all Europeans!

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