Nowhere in Germany gives such a powerful impression of the highs and lows of German history as the former free imperial city of NUREMBERG. Despite terrible destruction during World War II, much of the city remains convincingly medieval in appearance, and when touring the forbidding Kaiserburg or exploring surviving lanes of half-timbered houses in the city’s Altstadt, which is still encircled by its medieval city walls, it’s easy to imagine how the Nuremberg of Albrecht Dürer, Veit Stoss or the Meistersingers might have looked. Not surprisingly the museums – from the intimate Albrecht-Dürer-Haus to the encyclopedic Germanisches Nationalmuseum – are compelling.
From 1050 to 1571 – when the custom died out – Nuremberg was the nearest thing the Holy Roman Empire had to a capital, for it was here that newly chosen emperors held their imperial Diet or Reichstag. At the same time, commercial acumen and artisan skills – above all in metalworking – made the city one of the wealthiest and most important trading centres in Europe, despite the poverty of its rural hinterland and the lack of a navigable river. And then – happily for today’s visitors – it fell into a long decline, which spared its medieval monuments from ruinous “improvement” or replacement. As for a historical low point, what’s remarkable is how much is still recognizable from Leni Riefenstahl’s hypnotic film images of the 1930s Nazi party rallies, not least at the Zeppelintribüne where Hitler addressed the massed, uniformed crowds. The dictator purloined the medieval credentials of this most German of all German cities in order to lend credibility to his regime; as a consequence no other city is more closely associated with the Nazi movement – certainly not Munich, where it was actually born.
The introduction of driverless trains on the Nuremberg U-Bahn in 2008 prompted the quip that things run better without a Führer – Führer also being the German for driver – but the city of the Nuremberg rallies, Nuremberg laws and postwar Nuremberg trials can never be entirely rid of the association. It’s greatly to the city’s credit that it handles this sensitive legacy with such honesty, and a visit to one or more of Nuremberg’s Nazi monuments south and west of the city is an essential counterpoint to the Altstadt’s medieval glories. Away from the centre much of Nuremberg is surprisingly industrial and working class, which helps make it a rare stronghold of the left-of-centre SPD party in conservative Bavaria.