I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post – the first instalment of a two-parter – by Catherine Flinn. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Dr Catherine Flinn is author of the book Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams, Stark Realities, published by Bloomsbury. She particularly looks at the built environment through the lens of politics and economics, as well as social and cultural influences – broadly via national controls and policies, plus locally through micro-histories. She holds multiple degrees in architecture, landscape and history.

Recently on social media someone posted a photo of Münster, Germany, with this comment: ‘The more I read about post-war European architecture, the more I realise how peculiar was Britain’s approach to post-war reconstruction’. An interesting word choice, ‘peculiar’ – it means strange or odd or unusual. But was it? To be fair, I understand where they were coming from. Overwhelmingly, reconstruction in Britain after 1945 was modernist in style. Historic remnants and even substantial remains of medieval and Georgian and Victorian buildings were often pulled down and replaced with architecture that people today love to hate. But was that ‘peculiar’? I’m going to explain why I would not use that term, but also offer an explanation for why Britain’s rebuilding was so very different from many European examples that are much admired today.

Custom House, Hanover Street and the surrounding bomb damaged area, Liverpool, 1946, EAW001911 © Britain from Above

I have heard people ask over and over why architects, planners, local authorities and even property owners didn’t think to rebuild the old medieval core of Coventry, or restore the lovely feel of Dix’s Fields in Exeter, or why there were such drastic changes made to the core of Plymouth. Why did Britain so clearly go for modernist architecture and ignore the historic? As luck would have it, the Germans happily missed many key targets in their Baedeker raids which began in 1942 – the reprisals for the bombing of Lübeck when the Luftwaffe targeted historic cathedral cities such as Bath, Canterbury and Norwich. And a fair number of historic buildings – the Inner Temple in London as well as Portsmouth’s town hall come to mind – were actually restored to their original appearance. But those examples are few and far between amongst the vast amount of city centre reconstruction that took place in the 1950s. (1)

Like pretty much all history, the answers are complex. This post will answer some questions people often ask me about British and European reconstruction, in two parts. In this first part, I will talk about the contrasts between Britain and the Continent, describing some examples in Poland and Germany specifically. In Part II to come, I will discuss the logistics of British reconstruction and pose some answers as to why it was so extensively modernist in nature. Looking at some of the prevailing ideologies in rebuilding British cities, we will see some reasons why they are so very different from historically compelling European examples.

As we know, most bombed city centres in Britain were rebuilt in a mid-twentieth century modernist ideal. By contrast, in parts of Germany – as well as Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland – many cities we know today to have been mostly damaged or destroyed by Allied bombing show off a strong sense of pre-war history. (2)


Here we will look at that stark contrast: what took place in a number of European cities where whole sections of historic streetscape were reconstructed either in an historic idiom or as recreations of 1939 – or even earlier – streetscapes. Today we value and appreciate the historicism in those European cities and they attract a huge amount of tourism with consequent added economic value.

There is a clear and striking difference in local post-war priorities seen in several examples of reconstruction in Europe. Particularly in Poland, and much later in Germany, a number of cities have been ‘resurrected’, or perhaps ‘reproduced’ – that is, they were constructed in large part to look as they had before the war. Several cities gave great attention to the past by rebuilding in a thoroughly historic idiom, re-creating versions – if not some exact copies – of what had been destroyed by Allied bombing. Britain’s post-war Minister of Town and Country Planning Lewis Silkin visited Poland and called the reconstruction of Warsaw ‘an almost superhuman task’.(3)

The Old Town Market Square of Warsaw © Guillaume Speurt and made available in Wikimedia Commons

In the Polish cities of Warsaw and Gdansk in particular we can find a completely different method, timeline and prioritisation of reconstruction values to those in Britain. Warsaw suffered massive damage as a result of Nazi bombing in the September campaign of 1939. However, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi occupier ultimately gave rise to even more far-reaching destruction. After the rising was crushed, the Nazis methodically dynamited swathes of the capital. (4)  Following the war, Warsaw officials took the decision to reconstruct large areas particularly the Old Town: the historic core of the city was rebuilt in its pre-war form – slightly modified – and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. While apparently controversial the decision was also made to replicate a central portion of the city as it would have looked in the eighteenth century. The first phase of the reconstruction of the Old Town was completed on 22 July 1953. (5) An unconfirmed rumour found in my research adds that one good reason for replacing buildings and streets as they were in Warsaw would have been the reduced cost of not changing infrastructure (gas, water, etc) or building all new foundations.

Gdansk Old Town panorama

Another Polish example is Gdansk, or Danzig. In 1945 authorities inherited a city which was almost completely destroyed and they were additionally faced with tens of thousands of refugees and a severe shortage of available housing. An overriding concern for many residents was a very strong desire not to rebuild the Danzig of the interwar Free City or the German/Prussian Empire which had developed since the last time the Poles had governed the city in 1772. (6)

In the end a ‘passionate argument’ was settled with the compromise that a part of the central area of the old town was rebuilt in a style that reflected more closely the Gdansk of 1772 rather than the Danzig of 1939. (7) That is, Gdansk was rebuilt with pro-Polish designs, avoiding the Germanic influences of the 19th century. Birthplace of the Solidarity movement, it’s now a major tourist destination. This example shows us that cultural and spatial identity – often lost or suppressed during the war – was a key factor in restoring and rebuilding occupied places. Some Polish cities clearly prioritised reconstructing with a sense of place, something we will see was not really true in Britain.

Prinzipalmarkt, Münster © Dietmar Rabich and made available in Wikimedia Commons

Shifting attention to Germany we find more of the same but also some big differences. A few West German cities – Nuremberg, Rothenburg, Münster and Freiburg for example – took a similar approach to Warsaw. But in general German reconstruction encompasses a large mixture of building styles and each German city adopted a different approach to post-war reconstruction. In 2010, the magazine Der Spiegel published a series on reconstruction called ‘Out of the Ashes’, and its (nationalistic) tagline says this: (8)

Germany’s rebirth following the annihilation of World War II is nothing short of a miracle. But the country’s reconstruction was not without controversy and it resulted in cities filled with modernist buildings which have not aged well. Now, a new wave of construction is underway coupled with a new desire to rebuild the old.

Luther Memorial and ruins of the Frauenkirche, Dresden, 1945 © Bundesarchiv (Bild_183-60015-0002)

The most notable example of (East) German reconstruction is the city of Dresden, today a popular tourist destination. Notorious for being very heavily bombed by the Allies near the end of the war, it was certainly considered one of World War Two’s most devastated cities. But visiting Dresden today one finds a city that would be recognisable to eighteenth century travellers. A British tourist website claims that it has ‘spires, domes and breath-taking baroque stonework – with an artistic life that … puts most capital cities to shame.’ (9) The site goes on to add that ‘So culturally important, and stunningly beautiful, is this German gem that the United Nations has declared a lovely great chunk of it a UNESCO World Heritage Site – giving it the same protection as the Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal’.

Frauenkirche, Dresden, 2011 © Weyf and made available in Wikimedia Commons

Dresden gives a stark contrast to a city such as Coventry, also very heavily bombed, where the core was redeveloped in a modern idiom and the cathedral famously recreated anew, also in a very modern style. The differences between Coventry and Dresden today clearly juxtapose the ideologies around reconstruction that I will be discussing further. One of the star attractions in Dresden is the Frauenkirche. Reduced to a shell in 1945, the church was left in ruins, supposedly as an anti-war statement, by the East German government.

But the church always had grassroots support for rebuilding and after the fall of the Berlin Wall a 15-year reconstruction project began, which was completed in 2005. Since the consecration of the new building, more than 18 million people have visited the restored Frauenkirche – and ‘with 280 couples married and around 800 people baptized the church is finding it hard to keep up with demand.’ (10) An Al Murray television programme on Germany visited Dresden and focused on the ‘historic’ city (parts of which were much more recently rebuilt, from post-war modern back to a version of the pre-war city). Murray compared it to Britain: (11)

It seems strange to us, but this is what Germany feels it needs to do. It has to claim back that artistic heritage lost during the war by building the old anew. … In comparison, Coventry has hardly had the same five-star restorative treatment.

The city of Berlin is another major tourist destination today, though in fairness its attractiveness now is strikingly different to its draw for tourists before 1989. Berlin has a mixture of reconstructed ‘historic’ sites and modern new institutions. As the 2010 Der Spiegel piece comments: (12)

Berlin, in particular, demonstrates relatively consistently that the upheavals and scars of the past should not be papered over by a yearning for the (supposedly) ‘good old days’. Instead, as is the case with the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, even the sins of the past can be confessed, and one’s own history can be commented on.

Berlin attracts about eight million visitors a year from around the world and it is claimed this is due to the ability to ‘experience contemporary history – both the good and the bad – more immediately here than anywhere else in Germany’. Berlin’s reconstruction has been ongoing since the end of the Second World War, and while the first wave of rebuilding began to slow down in the 1970s, the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall triggered a renewed spate of construction.

In a theme that reappears in many places and different cities, the Der Spiegel writers also claim that in Germany ‘the aim is to undo past mistakes made due to urgency and an obsession with modernization’. They add that in the twenty-first century city planners and residents aim to rid themselves of the ‘principle of pure functionality that was spawned by necessity’. Ideology in 1940s and 1950s planning is replaced with more historicism but mainly cautious renovation and, in some cases, rebuilding. They admit too that new ideologies are often characterized by a ‘growing nostalgia and yearning for history, tradition, focal points and urban centres that provide orientation and a sense of identity within the metropolitan morass’. (13) In other words, historical city centres draw both tourism and local business interest.

In the post-war era, particularly the immediate post-war period, European cities had an unprecedented amount of reconstruction to contemplate. The resulting architecture of rebuilding and local street patterns were carried out in either historic idioms or even literal reconstructions in many cities and towns, though not all. Yet by contrast, British cities did not do the same.

Compared to these Polish and German examples, British reconstruction has been pretty exclusively modern. So why did most British cities ignore so much heritage and particularly the feel of the old narrow historic streets that today we find so interesting? The potential reasons are numerous and complex. Any answers, as such, involve complications not just of funding, labour, rationing and ownership, but conflicting priorities, varying agendas and more. In the next post I will discuss the way people thought about reconstruction in Britain – from owners to planners to local authorities – and suggest how and why modernist ideas prevailed.


(1) Note that no rebuilding actually started before 1952 and most happened much later

(2) For further reading: Jörn Düwel and Niels Gutschow (eds.), A Blessing in Disguise: War and Town Planning in Europe, 1940-45 (Berlin, 2013); J.M. Diefendorf, In the Wake of War: The Reconstruction of German Cities after World War II (Oxford, 1993); also his Rebuilding Europe’s Bombed Cities (Basingstoke, 1990); S.V. Ward, Planning the Twentieth-Century City: The Advanced Capitalist World (Chicester, 2002); A.M. Tung, Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis. (New York, 2001); S. Essex, and M. Brayshay, ‘Boldness Diminished? The Post-War Battle to Replan a Bomb-Damaged Provincial City.’ Urban History 35:3 (2008) 437-61; J. Hasegawa, ‘The reconstruction of Portsmouth in the 1940s’, Contemporary British History 14 (2000) 45-62; N. Tiratsoo, Reconstruction, Affluence and Labour Politics: Coventry 1945-1960 (London, 1990)

(3) Minister Silkin made a trip to Poland and Czechoslovakia to view reconstruction in 1947, reporting back to the Cabinet. National Archives UK (TNA): CAB 129/22 [CP (47) 343, 31 Dec 47, ‘Impressions of a Recent Visit to Poland and Czechoslovakia’. 

(4) A. Jozefacka, ‘Rebuilding Warsaw: Conflicting Visions of a Capital City, 1916—1956’, unpublished PhD dissertation, New York University, 2011 (abstract); also A. Tung, Preserving the World’s Great Cities, for Warsaw: 73-95. On re-using street patterns for large cost savings, see M. Niemczyk, ‘City Profile: Warsaw’ (Warszawa). Cities 15:4 (August 1998), 301-311.

(5) Ibid. Also ‘Warsaw Old Town marks 60 years since phoenix-like reconstruction’, 18.07.2013 10:19 

(6) Note that borders in continental Europe changed fairly constantly for several centuries up to 1945.

(7) Jacek Friedrich, Chapter 5 (pp 115-128) ‘Polish and German Heritage in Danzig/Gdansk’, in M. Rampley ed. Heritage, Ideology, and Identity in Central and Eastern Europe: Contested Pasts, Contested Presents. Woodbridge, 2012

(8) R. Leick, M. Schreiber and H. Stoldt, ‘Out of the Ashes: A New Look at Germany’s Postwar ReconstructionDer Spiegel, 10 August 2010.

(9) Tim Hughes, Travel Reviews, Oxford Mail, 18 February 2009  

(10) ‘Commemoration of the destruction of Dresden’s FrauenkircheDeutsche Welle 11.02.15

(11) A. Murray, ‘Al Murray’s German Adventure’, Part 2, air date 8 December 2010, BBC Four. Also see ‘A German Phoenix’, Economist 327:7808 (24 Apr 93), 91, and Diefendorf, Rebuilding.

(12) Der Spiegel, ‘Out of the Ashes’ 

(13) Ibid. However, they add, ‘Almost seven decades after the end of World War II, Germany is once again [beset] by the emotional questions of what’s worth keeping and which of its lost icons are worth rebuilding.’