The Miracle of Cologne – how the cathedral survived the Second World War
The fact that the cathedral was still standing at the end of the war is something of a miracle. Cologne was bombed by the Allies 262 times, leaving the entire city in debris and ashes. Only the cathedral towers rose up above the sea of rubble. It was said in Cologne at the time that the pilots had spared them, either out of piety, or so that they could use them for navigation purposes. That is a myth.
The people of Cologne didn’t know exactly what the Second World War would do to the city and the cathedral, but they probably had a pretty good idea. As the people of Cologne cheered on the army, who moved into the Rhineland across the Hohenzollern Bridge in 1936, cathedral vicar Max Loosen had special crates made in which to safely deposit the treasures of the cathedral. Protective measures for the cathedral had to be planned in secret; openly speaking about a possible war would have been a criticism of Hitler’s “Peace Policy” and thus taboo.
Things became serious in September 1939. Cathedral master builder Hans Güldenpfennig posted employees of the building office as fire guards on the roofs, but refused to sanction the removal of the medieval glass windows. He feared that the tradesmen would cause greater damage than an air attack. It was only when the authorities intervened that he gave in. Altars and stone figures were initially barricaded up with wooden forms and sandbags, and later walled in.
A separate bunker was created for the cathedral’s works of art in the north tower, which stood there until 1986. However, the most valuable works, including the Shrine of the Three Kings, were moved away. They would prefer to destroy the treasures rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the Allies, according to the Cologne regional administration of the NSDAP during the last few days of the war. When the left bank of the Rhine was already in the hands of the Americans, the army sent grenades over to the cathedral from the other side of the river.
The church had already had numerous hits through incendiary bombs and aerial mines, vaulted ceilings had collapsed and one pillar of the north tower had been dislodged. Despite area bombardment, the cathedral was not a target for the Allies. The danger lay in its location near the central station and the Hohenzollern Bridge, which were bombarded to prevent the movement of German reinforcements. Since the target accuracy of the bombs was not particularly good, the church was hit by bombs aimed at the railway system.
The survival of the cathedral was due to its Gothic design. A pressure wave triggered in the building by a detonating aerial mine was discharged with ease via the large window facades and the open strut construction.
It can also be attributed to the men of the building office, who spent countless nights on the roofs and extinguished fires. They were only supposed to bridge the gap until the arrival of the fire brigade – but they soon noticed that they were on their own. The fact that the cathedral still stands today is also a tribute to many unnamed helpers.