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A lost heritage: Nazi pictures reveal full devastation wreaked by allied bombers
Box of negatives found in attic show splendour of pre-war German cities\
A newly discovered collection of more than 3,000 aerial photographs of Germany before and during the allied bombing campaign of the second world war presents the most comprehensive record yet of how devastating the campaign was on the country's cultural heritage, historians claim.
Experts have called "spectacular" and "unique" a wooden box full of negatives found in an attic in the northern city of Kiel, describing them as an inventory of 1940s Germany which throw a new focus on the systematic nature of the allied bombing policy.
The black and white pictures, which have now been digitalised, were commissioned by the Nazis to assist in plans to rebuild German cities once Hitler's Third Reich had conquered Europe.
The photographs, taken diagonally with special cameras from low-flying aircraft, offer detailed views of buildings. They concentrate on Germany's inner cities, which are shown in their full baroque and gothic splendour.
They are a painful contrast to the post-war state of many of Germany's cities, most of which were filled with functional postwar architecture, car-friendly infrastructures and soulless inner cities.
"They show a land which no longer exists," author Katya Iken wrote in Spiegel Online, pointing out the irony that Hitler's plan was to reconstruct "a beauty which he had been responsible for destroying in the first place".
Gothic Frankfurt is depicted in the pictures prior to its widespread destruction in allied bombing raids in October 1943 and March 1944.
The late gothic splendour of Stuttgart has been captured in aerial shots taken before its Flemish late gothic town hall was destroyed in a fire following bombing raids of 1944.
In pictures of the baroque city of Dresden, the bombing of which is one of the most controversial allied actions of the war, in which up to 40,000 died, historians say the pictures offer the most detailed pictorial study yet of the extent of the destruction.
"This is a spectacular and unique set of photographs which shows us for the first time the scale of the destruction. They are not photographs of industrial sites or transport infrastructure so we know their purpose was not military, rather they were meant for propaganda and reconstruction purposes," said Christian Bracht, head of the photographic archives, Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, which acquired the images.
Photographers were dispatched across the country between 1943 and 1945 by Hitler's chief architect and armaments minister, Albert Speer, with orders to capture the country from the air as it was then.
Speer's "work committee for the planned reconstruction of cities destroyed by bombing" was to decide the extent to which cities were to be reconstructed in detail.
Hitler personally intervened in the reconstruction project at the same time as he was waging war on Europe. In one memorandum he requested that the rebuilding should include "as far as possible - the widening of streets" to make way for the motor car.
Hitler's wish to preserve a selective array of Germany's cultural treasures is well documented. Shortly before he killed himself he chose to view part of a collection of 40,000 colour images he had commissioned of frescoes in churches, cloisters and castles across Germany.
It is not known whether Hitler saw the aerial shots himself. But, one commentator wrote, as it was Hitler who started the bombing raids on Britain in the blitz, "had he seen them it would perhaps have brought home to him how full of rich architectural jewels Germany was until the war... which transformed town centres to piles of rubble."
The photographs, which are due to be published in German newspapers this week, are expected to reignite an emotional debate, fuelled by recent books and films, about the nature of the bombing campaign and the extent to which it was necessary - despite the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties it caused - in bringing down the Third Reich.
Bracht said he was shocked to see the extent to which cultural centres such as Lübeck, which he said had no military significance, had been destroyed.
He said: "This clearly indicates the extent to which the campaign was aimed at destroying German morale."
The photographs were found in the attic of the late daughter of Hans Stephan, an employee of Speer's building inspection department. He later went on to play a role in the postwar reconstruction of Berlin.
While Speer had been eager to realise megalomaniac cityscapes in place of old centres, particularly in Berlin, Stephan had voiced resistance to the idea. "Every city was until now proud of their centuries-old city centres and they understandably fear barren, stylised projects which are thrown up in two years," he wrote. "We must preserve as much of the old substance as possible."
But after the war such ideas were no longer fashionable. He hid the set of negatives and focused on the reconstruction, which became a struggle between those who wanted careful rebuilding and those in favour of rapid regeneration.