Share This Article

JUST OFF THE A8, about 30 miles northwest of Stuttgart, sits a bustling German city of 120,000. Located in the Baden-Württemberg region near the French border, Pforzheim perches at the edge of the Black Forest in a valley that pours from thickly wooded hills. Pulling off the motorway, I pass a stocky, unnatural outcropping perhaps 1,400 feet high. From the hill’s crest, tall silvery structures poke at the sky. A course through bland suburbs brings me to a parking building, and I head downtown.

The concrete canyon of the commercial district teems. Pierced-lipped university students shuffle among elderly couples holding hands, women in hijabs, and well-dressed businessmen—much like any Continental downtown, except that in other European cities, downtown often consists of half-timbered buildings set among medieval churches and 18th century facades. Pforzheim is different.

Once called the “Golden City” for its tradition of jewelry making, Pforzheim, which dates to Roman times, rarely attracts the large buses that haul sightseers to historic cities around Germany. It’s easy to see why. On both sides of me loom Modernist boxes that cast human activity in permanent shadow. Even in sunshine, downtown Pforzheim’s steel and glass sur faces emit a sterile cool. The main square is a lifeless concrete affair. At one corner an oddly affecting statue of a man stares wide-eyed at the sky, hand cupped to ear, as if scanning the heavens for trouble.

The statue commemorates the trouble that gave the square its name—Platz des 23. Februar 1945—and had its roots in centuries past. Starting in the Middle Ages, skilled craftsmen clustered in Pforzheim. Adhering to standards of quality enforced by jewelry and watchmaking guilds, these artisans brought the city prosperity and respect. Fine handiwork did not require enormous workspace, so makers of intricate mechanisms were scattered all over town. Archival photos show elegant 18th and 19th-century buildings lining wide boulevards, conveying an almost Parisian quality. Cosmopolitan stateliness unfurls before a soaring Gothic cathedral.

Pforzheim’s state of grace lasted only as long as Adolf Hitler permitted. When the war started, the Nazis militarized the city’s workshops. Instead of making jewelry and watches, artisans were to build precision instruments for use in bombs, planes, and vehicles. “This made us a target,” Pforz-heim archivist Christian Gohl told me.

At first RAF Bomber Command hit Pforzheim with “nuisance” raids that did little damage. But when they realized what Pforzheim’s shops were making, Allied strategists decided the city deserved a major strike. Elsewhere in Germany self-contained industrial nodes occupied urban outskirts, but at Pforzheim the city’s centuries-old heart was the target.

In February 1945, the war was going against the Reich. Just a few months more, residents believed, and Pforzheim could resume its peacetime role—until the night of the 23rd, when 367 Avro Lancasters of No. 1, No. 6, and No. 8 RAF Groups roared over and rained incendiaries. The fires, contained by the valley, had nowhere to spread. Within 20 minutes, Pforzheim was ablaze. Flames destroyed 90 to 100 percent of its center and killed 17,000 to 22,000 people—a third of the population. Smoke pillared nearly 1,000 feet, reflecting flames that departing bomber crews could see from 100 miles away.

In the morning survivors clambered from cellars and shelters to see that churches, museums, apartments, government buildings, factories, and family after family were gone. The downtown disaster zone was off-limits to civilians until years after the war, as the ruins waited for Germany to develop the energy and finances to rebuild. In 1952 crews began clearing the rubble, at first by wheelbar row. In the late 1950s, Pforzheim invited leading architects to design an urban center. Like many societies at midcentury, they chose a “city of the future” design.

For this confident new Pforzheim to rise, old Pforzheim had to go. Nearly two miles of railroad track was laid from the crushed city center to the Wallberg, a hill outside town named for ancient fortifications that once stood there. For the next decade and a half laborers, mostly Gastarbeitern (“guest workers”) from abroad, methodically moved thousands of tons of debris to the site. The hill rose by nearly 200 feet. A layer of soil was added, allowing vegetation to grow. All across Germany most cities bulldozed into being similar piles, called Trümmerberge or Schuttberge, meaning “mountains of wreckage.”

Every February 23 Pforzheimers hold a memorial ceremony, convening in the cemetery, then ascending the Wallberg. In 1983, townspeople scheduling that year’s commemoration invited veterans of the RAF raid. To the Britons’ surprise it was citizens of Pforzheim who apologized and asked forgiveness, both for the war their forebears began and for the lynching 40 years before of five airmen captured after the bombing. The veterans forgave, and presented a local kindergarten with a rocking horse as a symbol of reconciliation.

With the winnowing of the war generation, the town in 2005 decked the Wallberg with an evocative sculpture: five stainless steel towers. “The older people still visit the memorial,” Christian Gohl told me. “If they can make it up there.”

But Pforzheim is not all sadness. The Information Office provides tips on cultural outposts, such as the Jewelry Museum, which stages exhibits on gem ology and other aspects of Pforzheim’s historic industry. The adjoining Technical Museum chronicles the precision mechanical craft that brought the city such renown—and heartbreak.

I wander toward the mound through neighborhoods. Those north of the train station are predominantly immigrant districts, home to Middle Eastern, African, and Turkish transplants. Kebab eateries and cheap restaurants in shabby buildings exude spicy aromas, sometimes stinging, sometimes seductive. Dark-skinned children play soccer in alleys. Shop windows feature hookah pipes. Intermingled are bohemian quarters that attract many Pforzheim University students.

The area south of the train station is more staid and homogenous, populated by professionals and longtime Pforzheimers. South Pforzheim buzzes with business headquarters, government offices, and schools, its streets and busy intersections alive with students and business people.

Weaving through a residential subdivision, I come to a dirt path where a small, unremarkable sign reads “Wallberg.” I start climbing. City and suburb recede, leaving me on an overgrown trail slick from the afternoon’s rain. All is quiet. The incline is much steeper than I expected. My shirt sticks to my back as I huff along.

Leg muscles burning, I traverse a steep angle and reach the top, a flat stretch ringed by a low wood fence. Wiping sweat from my face, I see the silver shapes I spot ted at a distance as I arrived in Pforzheim. Some of the towers bear plaques.

The breeze nips my ears as I scan the hills to the north and Pforzheim to the east. I have the memorial to myself. The wind from the Black Forest brings a chilly, bracing hint of autumn, along with a faint hum from the valley. With its university, corporate headquarters, and other hall marks of prosperity—and its Wallberg— Pforzheim embodies Germany’s postwar trajectory: energetic, diverse, and progressive, yet still in shadow.

As the setting sun warms the silver blades, I recall sitting with Christian Gohl to examine the jarring before-and after photos of his hometown. Here those images are again, on the memorial plaques: Pforzheim as it was for centuries, and as it was after the raid, a visceral contrast to the bustle below, and a measure of the meaning of total war.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.