Later this summer, I’ll be leaving Cologne and moving a few hundred kilometers south down the Rhine to Switzerland. Cologne has been my home for the past three years and eleven months. Now that I’m about to leave, I’ve been thinking about my time in Cologne and how I will remember the city.
From its unorganized and lackluster infrastructure to open, jolly (and patriotic) nature of the citizens, there’s a lot to Cologne that is puzzling and not traditionally German. Four years haven’t been enough for me to get a full grasp of the city, so I needed to consult an expert on what makes Domstadt (Cathedral City) the way it is.
There is maybe no better source of insight regarding Cologne than Heinrich Böll, a Nobel Prize-winning German author and one of Cologne’s most famous sons. Böll wrote prolifically about his city. I thought to turn to him for two thoughts about Cologne and what makes it distinct.
The many manifestations of the city and the significance of the war.
Over the course of his lifetime, he watched the Domstadt take on numerous different manifestations, each characterized by its relation to World War II: pre-war German jewel, focal point of wartime destruction, and post-war city in a hurry to rebuild.
As Böll told the German radio program Hessischer Rundfunk:
When you ask me about my home, I think of the Cologne from before 1933, the Cologne of my childhood and my youth. A second version of the city was the Cologne between 1933 and 1939, characterized by Nazi Gauleiters and SA Troops. The third Cologne was the destroyed city. A fourth was the rebuilt city. But home, when you ask me about where I feel as my home, it is the Cologne before 1933.
For Böll, there was no returning to the pre-1933 version of the city after the war. He even reveals traces of skepticism at post-war rebuilding efforts, suggesting they destroyed a sense of charm and tranquility that existed before National Socialism took over. He rightly decries the desecration of once idyllic city squares reconstructed into “stone deserts.”
Reading his ruminations, one gets a clear sense of Böll’s eye-rolling posture toward Cologne’s reconstruction efforts. He speaks of a “disappeared, sunken” city, where revitalization just doesn’t belong.
The Rhine as border.
No matter the stage of Cologne’s civic makeovers, the Rhine is the city’s one constant. In an essay introducing himself, Böll writes, “I was born in Cologne, where the Rhine tired of its own middle Rhineland charm, flows broad.” It is one of the city’s steady through lines. The Romans built their cities along it, and Cologne was a centerpiece.
But Böll sees the river as a means not just of transport, but also of division. “The Rhine is both a street and a border, not a border to Germany, not a language border, it separates things other than languages and nations. He talks of the bridges—like Hohenzollern—that were thought of as unifying structures, but were all too easily destroyed in war. He talks about the efforts of Napoleon to establish national borders along the riverbanks. But most of all, he talks about the role the river has played in separating one shore from the next.
“Besides Basel,” he writes, “no other city has succeeded with both halves on either side of the Rhine, as is the case on the Seine, the Tiber, and the Thames.” Historically, the Rhein was used as a funnel for toll collection, for personnel checks, and for military defense. It kept apart as much as it held together.
“The Rhein doesn’t flow through cities. It flows past them, past Straßburg and Mainz, Koblenz and Bonn, Cologne and Dusseldorf.”
In a few months, I’ll be making my own journey down the Rhine. On the way, I’ll think about the things that have changed and the things that haven’t.