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Paisajes de guerra

 | 
Stéphane Michonneau
, 
Carolina Rodríguez-López
, 
Fernando Vela Cossío

II. — Discursos y realidad de la reconstrucción

Further destruction as a result of too much confidence in Communism? Baltic cities after World War II

Andreas Fülberth

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  • 1 Šiauliai is generally said to have been 60 per cent destroyed in the First World War and 80 per ce (...)
  • 2 This refers to the advance by the White commander Pavel Bermondt-Avalov, whose «Western Russian ar (...)
  • 3 One of the buildings to be badly damaged here was the church in Ikšķile, which largely dated back (...)

1Parts of what became the republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are among the European regions which suffered substantial damage during not just the Second World War but also the First. Although Riga and its surroundings were not as badly devastated as some more central war zones such as Belgium in particular and areas in the Baltics like the important Lithuanian railway junction of Šiauliai when it was attacked in 19151, on a European scale the destruction inflicted on Riga was still above average. This was partly due to the damage caused to buildings in autumn 1919 (almost a year after the official end of World War I) during a last desperate attempt by restorative forces to turn back the hands of time to before the Russian October Revolution and the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia as a parliamentary democracy in November 19182. The damage wreaked during World War I itself was concentrated in for instance the area south-east of Riga —because a stretch of the River Daugava (the widest river in the Baltics) extending a few hundred kilometres from there constituted the frontline from summer 1915 until winter 1917/183—. The many early challenges faced by the republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were founded in 1918 and joined the League of Nations in 1921, thus included extensive building repairs —and the scars in places such as the old town of Riga were gradually healed—.

  • 4 Although Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formally requested to join the USSR in August 1940, the prev (...)

2By contrast, even though the Second World War in effect only reached the Baltic region two years after its outbreak, the destruction it brought about was on a totally different scale. Once the three republics had been annexed by the Soviet Union in mid-19404, their former territories were under Soviet rule for about a year before the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941. The Baltics were one of the first parts of Stalin’s vast empire to fall into German hands. In early 1944, Soviet troops entered the eastern outreaches of Estonia as they began to retake the region, and in the second half of the year reached the capitals of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. By the time the Germans surrendered in May 1945, the entire Baltic region had been recaptured with the exception of parts of the Courland Peninsula stretching west of Riga, which went down in the history of the Second World War as the Courland Pocket (Kurland-Kessel).

  • 5 One prominent bridge to be destroyed was Kivisild (Stone Bridge) spanning the Emajõgi, which had be (...)
  • 6 Mintaurs, 2016, p. 155.

3Most Baltic towns and cities only suffered sudden, massive destruction in 1944. In 1941, by contrast, the Wehrmacht’s onslaught on the Soviet Union (with which the German Reich had formally allied itself as recently as 1939) came as such a surprise that the Red Army left many towns and cities in the Baltics to the Germans with barely any resistance, at most blowing up bridges as it retreated5. This is not to negate the destruction which was incurred in 1941 —and of the cities of Riga, Narva and Pärnu compared below in terms of their damage during the Second World War and beyond, it cannot be denied that Riga suffered badly—. Once again, this was down to Riga’s location on the wide River Daugava —the only substantial obstacle for the Germans as they advanced through the Baltics—. The logical course of action for the Red Army as it beat a retreat was to render all the bridges crossing the Daugava in and around Riga impassable, which is why the city centre was bombarded from across the river by German troops on the south-west bank on 29 June 1941. As chance would have it, several dozen buildings between the northeast riverbank and Riga’s Town Hall Square had been demolished a few years earlier to make room for a new administrative block, exposing some of the city’s most magnificent buildings on the square. One of the edifices to be directly hit was House of the Blackheads (whose name had been derived from a medieval guild), destroying its centuries-old ornate gable which had long been one of Riga’s landmarks (fig. 1). Another landmark of the city was the baroque spire of the nearby St Peter’s Church, which also disappeared from the skyline on 29 June 1941. As it burned down, it caused a veritable conflagration in the surrounding districts. Of the 180 buildings damaged, 114 were declared salvageable in the following weeks while the remaining 66 were beyond repair and condemned6. After the city had been captured, German propaganda deliberately claimed that, rather than Wehrmacht artillery, the fire at St Peter’s had been caused by «Jewish Bolsheviks» and that the subsequent inferno was the work of arsonists.

Fig. 1. — Riga, House of the Blackheads (to the right) and St Peter’s Church as ruins after the fire in 1941

Fig. 1. — Riga, House of the Blackheads (to the right) and St Peter’s Church as ruins after the fire in 1941

© Herder-Institut, Marburg, Bildarchiv [Herder Institute, Marburg, Image archive].

4The early damage inflicted on Riga in 1941 combined with German expectations that the city would remain under their control indefinitely resulted in a unique townscape in which the areas between bombed-out shells of buildings left standing in anticipation of future reconstruction were cleared of rubble —something which was not the case in Narva or Pärnu—. Other bizarre sights included the statue of the knight Roland unveiled in 1897 which, despite continuing to mark the centre of Town Hall Square as it had done for the previous forty-four years, now stood in front of a new backdrop: the undestroyed rear gable of House of the Blackheads instead of its front gable.

  • 7 Ibid., p. 159.

5In 1943, the ruins around Town Hall Square changed again when it was found that the walls of some of the buildings earmarked for reconstruction had been so badly affected by the weather that their stability could no longer be guaranteed and they had to be demolished for reasons of public safety, leaving several new vacant plots7.

  • 8 Angrick, Klein, 2006, p. 111.

6That the occupiers managed to remove such large quantities of rubble relatively quickly in 1941 was chiefly due to the use of forced labour in the form of Soviet prisoners of war and many of the Jews who had begun to be forced into a ghetto in August that year. Under a decree issued on 18 August, Jewish men and women were obliged to perform public and private works which were by no means confined to clearing debris, for private entrepreneurs could also apply to be allocated Jewish workers. Such applications were decided by the Abteilung Judeneinsatz (Department of Jewish Deployment), whose offices were located on the edge of the ghetto8. The size of the ghetto is indicated by the fact that Riga had 385 000 inhabitants by the mid-1930s —and that 11 per cent of the city’s population between the wars were Jewish—. The vast majority of these local Jews, probably about 28 000 people, died on 30 November and 8 December 1941 in two barbaric mass shootings in the nearby Rumbula Forest on the southeast outskirts of Riga. Afterwards, the ghetto was repopulated with Jews deported from towns and cities in the German Reich and its immediate neighbours.

7The enormity of this atrocity and the many other crimes committed by the German occupiers in Riga and countless other cities resulted in an abhorrence of everything German in Stalin’s Soviet empire once it had been completely recaptured. But although this loathing might have been expected to peak in a knee-jerk reaction as soon as the war was over, it only did so in the period around 1950. One indicator of this was the way in which architectural heritage associated with Germans was dealt with, especially the remains of House of the Blackheads. Although plans from the very first post-war years assumed that the building would be faithfully restored and incorporated into a future urban development blueprint for the surrounding area, in May 1948 the ruins were suddenly blown up despite the lack of any schemes explicitly or implicitly calling for its removal.

  • 9 Kodres, 1997, p. 255.

8In addition to the obvious intention to make an example of a piece of architecture built by the enemy from the Great Patriotic War and to «punish» it as a «representative» of Riga’s German founders, there was probably a second reason for its demolition. With the Soviet administration keen to quell any doubts about the efficiency of the Communist system, precisely in the Baltic republics, which had not previously been under Communist rule when they joined the Soviet Union in 1940, it was important to take decisions paving the way for either the rapid restoration of damaged buildings or their swift demolition. The resulting wave of demolition reached a climax in around 1953/54 when, for example, Riga Town Hall, which had been located on the same square opposite House of the Blackheads and which had survived as a burnt-out shell after 1941, was also razed to the ground (fig. 2). A partly contrary tack was taken on the territory of the future German Democratic Republic, where the presence of isolated ruins over a comparatively long period was desired in order to remind local Germans of their part in the outbreak of the Second World War and of their guilt9.

Fig. 2. — Riga, the burnt-out shell of the former town hall (and the Dome Cathedral, which had been undamaged) after the fire in 1941

Fig. 2. — Riga, the burnt-out shell of the former town hall (and the Dome Cathedral, which had been undamaged) after the fire in 1941

© Herder-Institut, Marburg, Bildarchiv [Herder Institute, Marburg, Image archive].

  • 10 According to a book published in Swedish in Estonia in 1939, more Swedish architecture was to be fo (...)

9The destruction of central Riga, partly resulting from the war but also inflicted for symbolic purposes, differed markedly from that incurred by Narva in the north-easternmost tip of Estonia, which of the three cities examined here suffered the worst during the Second World War. The old town of Narva, situated on a plateau on the left bank of the river of the same name, had hitherto been an outstanding example of seventeenth-century Swedish town planning. In the 1920s and 1930s in particular, it had been marketed as a destination for Swedish tourists10, and by early 1944 was still completely intact (fig. 3). Shortly afterwards, however, the Germans blew up some industrial plants, and then on 6 March large parts of the city were reduced to rubble by Soviet bombardment. Even so, due to the ongoing fighting, it wasn’t until four and a half months later that the Red Army could finally enter the city it had bombed and which in the meantime was deserted.

10The old town of Narva suffered more than almost any other old town district in the Baltic region and was nearly obliterated. Only in Jelgava, the fourth largest Latvian city 40 kilometres south-west of Riga, and which was subjected to heavy Soviet air raids in late June 1944, was the devastation as severe. Although statistics vary regarding the percentage of living space destroyed in Narva, all estimates agree that less than one tenth of the pre-war housing stock survived.

Fig. 3. — Narva, general view of the old town before its destruction in 1944

Fig. 3. — Narva, general view of the old town before its destruction in 1944

© Herder-Institut, Marburg, Bildarchiv [Herder Institute, Marburg, Image archive].

11When an initial general plan was promptly drawn up in 1945 outlining Narva’s future development, followed by a second such plan in 1948, remarkable optimism prevailed about the recoverability of large parts of the old town. The two separate Estonian architects behind them had evidently assumed that the city’s unique countenance was to be preserved and clearly were not thinking in terms of a Soviet model town.

  • 11 Brüggemann, 2004, p. 90.
  • 12 Regarding the degree of destruction suffered by the town hall as well as how little it differed fr (...)

12One unusual aspect of Narva’s reconstruction was that for a few years during the 1950s, the old town was not treated as a priority area. One reason for this unusual move could be the fact that, unlike in other cities, Narva’s population had been completely replaced because the pre-war population evacuated by the Germans in 1944 was not allowed to return. Accordingly, although the post-war inhabitants might otherwise have had a say in the city centre’s development, they had no emotional stake in it. Another explanation is that all in all, the reconstruction of Narva proved extremely laborious. By 1953, all thoughts of recreating more than a handful of the listed buildings which had existed in the old town had all but vanished. Even so, some of their ruins only disappeared when their rubble was used to erect new residential buildings elsewhere. Since the initial post-war period, recycling reusable parts of the debris had been one of the few ways of breaking the vicious circle typical of the years of reconstruction comprising a permanent shortage of labour, a lack of housing for the few workers who had been mobilized, and a scarcity of building materials to build the necessary living space11. It was not until around 1960 that all the remaining ruins in the old town were finally removed. The only ruin to be spared was the seventeenth-century town hall, which over the next few years was restored to its pre-war condition12. The decision to treat the town hall differently from the rest of the old town may have been taken because it was clearly recognizable in a nineteenth-century historical painting showing the Russian conquest of Narva by Peter the Great in 1704. Then again, perhaps its role as an early site of Soviet history was even more important as for a short period in the turmoil immediately after the First World War, when bourgeois forces in the Baltics only scored clear victories over pro-Soviet forces in 1919, the town hall had housed a Commune of the Working People of Estonia. After 1960, its new neighbours were Khrushchyovkas —typical residential buildings from the reign of Nikita Khrushchev, which were notorious for their extreme lack of charm and initially just meant as a temporary stopgap solution—. The only other edifice to be rebuilt in its historical form was Hermann Castle, which had been erected by the Teutonic Order on the left bank of the River Narva, and which faced Ivangorod on the other side, a fortress built in the late-fifteenth century by Ivan III of Moscow. In this case, there was much to commend preserving the impressive overall impact produced by the two castles together —for nowhere else was the centuries-long hostile coexistence of the Muscovites and the German Order in the late medieval period reflected so expressively—.

  • 13 Here the degree of damage can be quantified at 50 per cent. By comparison, earlier destruction cau (...)
  • 14 Vunk, 2009, pp. 27-29.

13In September 1944, half a year after Narva, the wave of destruction unleashed by the Soviets’ recapture of the Baltics also reached Pärnu in south-west Estonia13. Once a member of the Hanseatic League, this town on the mouth of the River Pärnu had become a popular spa and seaside resort in the nineteenth century. The medieval St Nicholas’s Church, one of the northernmost examples of the Brick Gothic typical of the southern Baltic Sea region, came to symbolize the treatment of the architectural legacy in the town centre which had survived the Second World War. Since the church had merely lost its spire and roof in 1944 and much of its masonry had remained intact, the obvious thing to do would have been to restore it, especially as it had been the central vertical dominant in Pärnu’s skyline (fig. 4). However, the insufficient funding approved every year to secure the church’s stability was often diverted by local officials to other purposes, and from about 1950 the ruins were more or less abandoned to their fate. With their condition slowly deteriorating, the demolition of St Nicholas’s Church was ordered in 195414. Its previous listed status was summarily revoked, like that of Riga’s House of the Blackheads (or what had been salvaged from the war) a few years beforehand.

Fig. 4. — Pärnu, St. Nicolas’s Church before and after the bombing of the old town in 1944 (PäMu _ 211 F 281, photographer: O. Randmäe)

Fig. 4. — Pärnu, St. Nicolas’s Church before and after the bombing of the old town in 1944 (PäMu _ 211 F 281, photographer: O. Randmäe)

© Pärnu Museum.

  • 15 The university was the University of Dorpat (now Tartu), founded in 1632 by King Gustav II Adolf o (...)
  • 16 Vunk, 2009, p. 37.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 32.

14The demolition of St Nicholas’s Church, a final remnant of Pärnu’s medieval Ordensburg, and finally a university building dating back to around 170015, were doubtless the worst crimes committed during the post-war transformation of Pärnu in the eyes of architectural conservators. Yet even more senseless was the demolition of the town’s theatre built in the early twentieth century, even though it had only been burnt out during the war. With its solid walls having lost nothing of their stability, there was no risk of it collapsing, which could have been put forward as the reason for blowing up St Nicholas’s Church. In fact, the walls were so thick that demolishing the theatre with the simplest tools such as pickaxes and crowbars was exceedingly arduous16. Another reason making demolition so absurd was that, by 1953, detailed plans had been worked out to convert the former theatre into a typical «house of culture», which towns of Pärnu’s size throughout the Soviet Union were supposed to have. In the abrupt volte-face in 1954, local officials merely received an astonishing memorandum stating that rebuilding the burnt-out theatre had been ruled inappropriate17.

  • 18 The Soviet regime’s first nocturnal deportation of part of the populations of Estonia, Latvia and (...)

15How quickly an entire area of ruins could be cleared still depended at this time on the availability of prisoners of war alongside other workers. With no POWs deployed in Pärnu, clearing debris was a slow process. Given this, the simultaneous removal of buildings which could still have been repaired should not have been ordered; the fact that it was contributed to the general lack of progress. The first post-war decade can therefore almost be viewed as a lost period in the reconstruction of Pärnu, which only gathered pace in the mid-1950s when numerous victims of the deportations begun in June 194118 returned from Siberian camps and could participate in the city’s regeneration. Since the biggest of these deportations had only taken place in 1949 (to break popular resistance to the collectivization of agriculture), the shortage of labour in the early 1950s was even more acute than in the late 1940s.

16In these circumstances, the zeal with which salvageable ruins were cleared after 1950 might seem even more surprising, were it not for the fact that the Soviet system’s efforts to ensure planning teams and departments of all types were only manned by «conformists» reached their peak in around 1950. Fears of being purged led architects to increasingly suppress individual opinions and only express views which could be safely assumed to be politically expedient. Anyone tending towards small-scale projects rather than excessively ambitious construction schemes ran the risk of being accused of doubting the superiority of the Communist system. It was only in Narva that a sober sense of reality quickly prevailed over unfeasible ideals and that those arguing mainly in favour of solutions which could be achieved there with simple means put neither their careers nor their lives in danger.

17If we tot up how many historical buildings have been rebuilt from scratch in the various Baltic cities since the mid-twentieth century, more vigour and determination have clearly been shown since independence in 1991 than when they belonged to the USSR. There may have been no reconstruction projects worth speaking of at all in Pärnu (in either the Soviet or the post-Soviet period), but Riga has all the more. And whereas decades were spent restoring at least St Peter’s Church and its spire in the Soviet era, between just 1996 and 1999 House of the Blackheads (which had remained unforgotten in historical awareness) was rebuilt in the run-up to the 800th anniversary of the foundation of Riga in 2001. A few years later, the town hall demolished in 1954 was partly reconstructed. Although the possibility of rebuilding House of the Blackheads had been debated in various publications in the Soviet period (strictly speaking from the mid-1960s), such ideas were never fleshed out into practical preparatory measures.

18But what of Narva? The achievements there since 2010 ought to be at least as interesting to experts and conclude our brief examination of three Baltic cities tested by fate.

19Until 1944, on the square in front of Narva’s town hall there stood a second building with a similarly wide façade and an identical roof shape, its front side obscuring the left third of the town hall’s façade to onlookers. This was the former exchange, the construction of which dated back to 1695. When town planners debated the possible reconstruction of parts of the old town in the post-Soviet era, it was proposed launching this gradual process with the second hipped roof construction owing to its central location and magnificent façade. The snag was that by adhering to the exchange’s original position, it would have partly concealed the town hall. With initially just two buildings being restored in their historical form far and wide, the prospect of one of them obscuring the other was unappealing.

20The solution was provided by a proposal which had little to do with faithful reconstruction and was at most an attempt at «critical reconstruction», an approach welcomed by experts in modern-day Estonia with their sceptical attitude to reconstruction ideas (fig. 5). The client was Narva College, a branch of the University of Tartu in southeast Estonia. And being a university institution, it was keen to add a strong dash of innovation to the townscape. The main element of the proposal which was finally carried out was to move the front façade back to the original position of the rear façade and erect the new building with a new function behind it. Another striking element was the «inversion» of the front façade to create a façade relief which looks like a plaster impression of the original. Above all this, a roof slope extending into mid-air was built exactly where the rear long side of the hipped roof had been located on the original structure. Its stability is only derived from the fact that it is connected to the roof of the new building right behind it.

Fig. 5. — Narva, parts of the façades of the town hall (restored after 1960) and of the exchange building (reconstructed after 2010), 2014

Fig. 5. — Narva, parts of the façades of the town hall (restored after 1960) and of the exchange building (reconstructed after 2010), 2014

Picture: A. Fülberth.

  • 19 Specific demands regarding the reconstruction of parts of the old town were voiced above all by the (...)

21When this building was inaugurated a few years ago, those who had dedicated themselves to the vision of the complete recreation of Narva’s old town since the 1990s were disappointed19, for their hopes seemed to have been dashed forever by the curious-looking structure referring to the former exchange erected diagonally opposite the old town hall. Accordingly, current zoning proposals tend to aim at «densification» instead of «perfect recreation», i.e. gradually filling the relatively large open spaces between the post-war residential buildings. Whether some of them are now worthy of being listed is now being debated against the background of aspirations to realistically reflect Narva’s urban development in its future townscape.

Notas

1 Šiauliai is generally said to have been 60 per cent destroyed in the First World War and 80 per cent in the Second. Lankauskas, 1994, pp. 60-61.

2 This refers to the advance by the White commander Pavel Bermondt-Avalov, whose «Western Russian army» comprised about four-fifths Germans and about one-fifth Russians. According to Bermondt’s plans, Riga was to have been merely a stopover on a large-scale campaign against Bolshevism, which made it all the more disastrous for him when he failed to reach the town centre and was repulsed in the suburbs. These battles boosted the reputation of the young Latvian state, which Bermondt had wanted to eradicate.

3 One of the buildings to be badly damaged here was the church in Ikšķile, which largely dated back to the twelfth century and was the oldest stone building in the Baltics. Regarding the impact which Riga’s proximity to the frontline had on life in the city, see Hatlie, 2014.

4 Although Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formally requested to join the USSR in August 1940, the previous June their governments had been replaced by puppet regimes. To legitimize their further activities, shortly afterwards they held rigged elections in which people could only vote for a single list of candidates.

5 One prominent bridge to be destroyed was Kivisild (Stone Bridge) spanning the Emajõgi, which had been built in 1784 in the city of Dorpat (now Tartu in southeast Estonia). Financed by a donation from Russian tsarina Catherine the Great, for many years it was indeed the only stone bridge in the Baltics. From 1941, there was hence a sensitive gaping wound in the centre of Tartu, albeit only a modest portent of the destruction destined to ensue in 1944.

6 Mintaurs, 2016, p. 155.

7 Ibid., p. 159.

8 Angrick, Klein, 2006, p. 111.

9 Kodres, 1997, p. 255.

10 According to a book published in Swedish in Estonia in 1939, more Swedish architecture was to be found here than in the old town of Stockholm. For related citations, see Jansson, 2004, p. 29.

11 Brüggemann, 2004, p. 90.

12 Regarding the degree of destruction suffered by the town hall as well as how little it differed from the damage to other buildings in the old town, see the photos in Ivask, Andrejeva, 2015, pp. 61-75.

13 Here the degree of damage can be quantified at 50 per cent. By comparison, earlier destruction caused during the German advance in July 1941 was very limited.

14 Vunk, 2009, pp. 27-29.

15 The university was the University of Dorpat (now Tartu), founded in 1632 by King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden, and reopened in 1690 after a hiatus of several decades, which was relocated to Pernau (now Pärnu) in 1699 owing to the threat of war and closed there in 1710 following the outbreak of the Great Northern War (1700-1721). Only in 1802 was it re-established in what was then Dorpat.

16 Vunk, 2009, p. 37.

17 Ibid., p. 32.

18 The Soviet regime’s first nocturnal deportation of part of the populations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania took place just a few days before the German invasion of the USSR. It targeted the intellectual elites of the three countries, chiefly politicians who had held high office prior to 1940, but also scholars, journalists and artists.

19 Specific demands regarding the reconstruction of parts of the old town were voiced above all by the initiative «Pro Narva», founded in 2002.

Índice de ilustraciones

Título Fig. 1. — Riga, House of the Blackheads (to the right) and St Peter’s Church as ruins after the fire in 1941
Créditos © Herder-Institut, Marburg, Bildarchiv [Herder Institute, Marburg, Image archive].
URL http://books.openedition.org/cvz/docannexe/image/8467/img-1.jpg
Archivo image/jpeg, 142k
Título Fig. 2. — Riga, the burnt-out shell of the former town hall (and the Dome Cathedral, which had been undamaged) after the fire in 1941
Créditos © Herder-Institut, Marburg, Bildarchiv [Herder Institute, Marburg, Image archive].
URL http://books.openedition.org/cvz/docannexe/image/8467/img-2.jpg
Archivo image/jpeg, 151k
Título Fig. 3. — Narva, general view of the old town before its destruction in 1944
Créditos © Herder-Institut, Marburg, Bildarchiv [Herder Institute, Marburg, Image archive].
URL http://books.openedition.org/cvz/docannexe/image/8467/img-3.jpg
Archivo image/jpeg, 199k
Título Fig. 4. — Pärnu, St. Nicolas’s Church before and after the bombing of the old town in 1944 (PäMu _ 211 F 281, photographer: O. Randmäe)
Créditos © Pärnu Museum.
URL http://books.openedition.org/cvz/docannexe/image/8467/img-4.jpg
Archivo image/jpeg, 186k
Título Fig. 5. — Narva, parts of the façades of the town hall (restored after 1960) and of the exchange building (reconstructed after 2010), 2014
Créditos Picture: A. Fülberth.
URL http://books.openedition.org/cvz/docannexe/image/8467/img-5.jpg
Archivo image/jpeg, 1,2M

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