Hidden Hotels and History Right Beneath Your Feet...

The Marktplatz as it appears today.

The Marktplatz as it appears today.

If you're living near or visiting Stuttgart, chances are you've visited the Marktplatz.  The historic Marketplace has been a scene of trade since earlier than 1283, when the then small city of Stuttgart was granted the right to hold a market by the Holy Roman Emperor.  Continuing in that tradition, the Marktplatz is both the scene for 3 weekly farmers markets (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, 9:00 -13:00) and a host of seasonal festivals like the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market).  

But hidden history lurks beneath.  Bunkers to protect Stuttgart's citizens from Allied air raids during World War II were constructed all over Stuttgart, including right under the Marktplatz.  The Bunker im Marktplatz was completed in June 1941 and could house 1,010 people long term, or 3,000 people in the event of an emergency air raid.

The Marktplatz after the war, with the ruins of the "Neues Rathaus".

The Marktplatz after the war, with the ruins of the "Neues Rathaus".

Because of the immense destruction to the center of Stuttgart by the end of the war, there was a housing shortage, let alone enough space to provide shelter for visitors.  Out of 30 large hotels, only 3 survived the war, making the space available from 3,600 rooms pre-war to less than 300 by 1945.  So the highly practical Swabians devised to turn their air shelter bunkers into hotels.  Thus the "Bunker hotel" was born.

There were actually 6 bunker hotels operating in Stuttgart after the war - in addition to the largest at the Marktplatz, there were hotels at Marienplatz, Wilhelmsplatz, Leonardsplatz, and near the Rosensteinbruke.  They gradually fell out of favor as the city rebuilt into the modern form known today, but the "Hotel am Marktplatz" survived all the way until 1985, when it was closed for health and safety reasons.

The Bunker Hotel is only open to the public one night out of the whole year!

The Bunker Hotel is only open to the public one night out of the whole year!

Today, this unique artifact of the war and Swabian resourcefulness can only be visited by the public one day out of the year - the famous "Lange Nacht der Museen" or "Long Museum Night".  On this night, dozens of museums across Stuttgart open their doors after 19:00 for special events, tours, music, drinks, and dancing.  But because of it's mystery, the line for the Bunker Hotel at the Marktplatz is always the longest.

The "Lange Nacht" provides special shuttle service in between the far-flung venues including the Mercedes Museum, the Neckar River port, wineries in Unterturkheim, and much, much more - over 80 exhibitions and special events ake place all over Stuttgart for this very special annual event.  You can find out about more with the English FAQ on the

Want to make a day of it?  To kick off the Spring tour season, I'll be providing a Stuttgart City Tour at 16:00 this Saturday, March 17th ending with enough time to grab dinner before the event starts.  I'll point out some of my favorite exhibits of the Lange Nacht in between deep diving into Stuttgart's hidden history.

Unlike most tours, you do NOT have to reserve in advance, (although you're welcome to if you wish!)  so if you're feeling spontaneous, it's no issue to roll up to the meeting spot.  Just be aware that tours do depart promptly.  Hope to see you there!

A room in the Bunker Hotel in the late 1940s

A room in the Bunker Hotel in the late 1940s

The Holy Roman Empire and YOUR Travels!

This is essentially part two of "Why You Should Care About the Holy Roman Empire" - in which I outlined how the HRE began.  But now I'm going to talk to why it matters to you, the expat or tourist in Germany.  But first, a (brief) continuation of the history.

 Within the HRE, there were countless kingdoms, duchies (lands ruled by dukes), counties (lands ruled by counts), and various tracts of land owned directly by the church or the Empire itself.  Kings, dukes, and counts often chafed at the power of the Emperors and many wars were fought as a result.  (For Games of Thrones fans, think of the Emperor as being the guy who sits on the Iron Throne - and the various kings and dukes as being like the Starks of Winterfell in rebellion against them).  Control of the empire passed through several different families in the early centuries, including local Swabians like the Hohenstaufen dynasty.  By 1450, however, the Hapsburg family had gained control of the Empire and didn't relinquish it until Napoleon put an end to the HRE entirely in the early 19th century (which then made the Hapsburgs "only" in charge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)

Enough with the history, though.  Why does this matter to you?  Because of Free Imperial Cities.  Here's my equation for travelers in Germany: Imperial city + economic decline in the 17th century - Allied bombing in WWII = Great place to visit!

Like I mentioned before, while local lords owned much of the land in the HRE, some of it belonged directly to the Empire. These places were known as "Free Imperial Cities" or Freiei Reichstadt in German.  These cities were not beholden to a local petty lord - the only outside power they answered to was the Emperor himself.  As such, the citizenry had much more control over their lives than those living under the thumb of a lord.  Imperial Cities also enjoyed many special privileges as a result of their status, which meant more trade and wealth during the high middle ages, which the townsfolk used to build beautiful buildings and impressive fortifications (important because local lords of neighboring lands often went to war with the Empire, and the wealth of Imperial Cities made them a tempting target.)  Because of the HRE's association with the Roman Catholic Church, they were fertile ground for religious orders, so many of the grandest churches and monasteries were built in Imperial Cities.  

However, eventually most of the Imperial Cities went through a decline, starting with the spread of Martin Luther's Reformation in the 16th century, which meant that in much of Germany, the religious orders were kicked out and many churches vandalized and no longer places of pilgrimage.  Another factor in the decline was the resulting Thirty Years' War and following plagues, which killed off as many as half the population of Germany.  Most cities never fully recovered from that war.  To make matters worse, most Imperial Cities gained importance as market towns because they were on heavily trafficked trade routes, but by the 1700's, overland trade was losing out to sea-based trade.

This was all bad for the citizens of these towns, but great for travelers who want to enter a well-preserved bit of medieval history.  Because the towns became impoverished, they didn't tear down existing buildings to make way for more fashionable and modern Baroque and Classical buildings as in the now-ascendant capital cities like Berlin, Munich, or Stuttgart.  The result is a large town center with buildings almost exclusively from the cities' golden period of 1200-1500.  

As for the Allied bombing, well, that's fairly self-explanatory.  But a surprising number of former Imperial Cities did manage to escape WWII relatively unscathed, largely because they hadn't been centers of political or economic power for centuries at that point.  (Cities that retained their importance throughout the centuries, like Frankfurt, weren't so lucky.)

If you look at the list of Imperial Cities, you'll find that they include some of the most famous towns for tourists to visit, such as Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Nuremberg, and Colmar.

But the secret is, nearly all the cities on the list remain beautiful, evocative "hidden gems" that isn't on the typical tourist itinerary.  I'm talking about places like Bad Wimpfen, Ravensburg, and Esslingen, which may be known to people who have lived in Germany for a time but can't be found in a Rick Steves' guidebook. 

Although I've only been to about a third of the Imperial Cities so far, my educated guess is that most of them are well worth a visit by anyone who seeks to get off the beaten path and experience a beautifully-preserved city (just make sure you check the "Allied bombing part before you go - Heilbronn didn't fare so well in that regard.)

And if you'd like to understand more about how Free Imperial status created a dynamic and exciting medieval city, be sure and check out my tour of the Free Imperial City of Esslingen, which debuts next Sunday!  



Why You Should Care About the Holy Roman Empire

I think the "Why you should care" thing is going to become a regular series.  Because there's so many historical things about Germany and Europe that most Americans know little about, that provide the crucial context for really understanding what makes a particular building, church, or city important and interesting.  So with that in mind, let's talk a little about the Holy Roman Empire, shall we?  I'll try really hard not to be boring!


The Holy Roman Empire is one of those topics that's covered for maybe a day or two in U.S. high school world history courses, and maybe slightly more in-depth in a university course, if you're lucky.  I remember being really confused about it in high school.    How was it Roman?  What kind of power did it actually have?  I wasn't the only person to wonder this - the French philosopher Voltaire famously quipped, "The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire."

First, a little backstory:  We're all acquainted with the ancient Roman empire, that huge swath of land that included all of Western Europe and a good chunk of Eastern Europe as well - it was really, really big.  Especially when it was united.  But politics and later, religion, in the Empire led to a split - the Western Roman Empire, headquartered in Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire, with Constantinople (today's Istanbul) as it's capital.  The two segments of the empire recognized each other, but when Rome fell in the 5th century, the Western Empire basically ceased to exist as a political entity.  The Eastern Empire chugged along for many more centuries, and was eventually called the Byzantine Empire, until it was brought down by invading Turks.


When Rome fell, the Western empire was plunged into disarray, and the native tribes  of those areas began many, many wars for control of the land.  Eventually, the Germanic tribe of the Franks managed to subdue the inhabitants of these lands and ruled over an empire that encompassed most of France and Germany and parts of Italy.  Within the Frankish nobility one particular figure rose to power - Karl der Grosse, better known as Charlemagne.  

Charlemagne not only succeeded in administering the Frankish kingdom well, but brought much more of present-day Germany, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, and Spain under his control. In short, he was a badass.  He also followed in the footsteps of his father, Pippin, in being buddy-buddy with the Pope in Rome, often coming to his aid as this or that group of barbarians threatened the Eternal City.  As a reward, or maybe just as a shrewd political move, the Pope crowned Charlemagne "The emperor of the Romans."  

It seems a little silly, since the Franks weren't Romans nor was Rome even part of the Empire. But it was a brilliant symbolic marriage between political power and divinely-ordained rule.  It's worth noting that the Byzantines didn't care much for this arrangement, since they still saw themselves as the only existing Roman empire, not this Germanic upstart band of savages.

But still, this was the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire.  Despite the fact that the Frankish empire had controlled nearly all of France, due to political upheavals (sons of emperors had a habit of fighting against their fathers or amongst themselves for a bigger piece of the pie in the first few centuries of this arrangement) a good chunk of France came to be an independent kingdom, and the Holy Roman Empire was centered mainly in Germany, although it included Austria, northern Italy, and Alsace-Lorraine.  This new political entity would continue to be extremely influential for the next 1,000 years.

"That's great," you say, yawning, "But you still haven't told me why I need to care about the Holy Roman Empire."  True - I'm saving that for part two.


Jewish Life - and Loss - in Stuttgart

Tomorrow, November 9th, marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of terror and destruction that is commonly regarded as the beginning of the end for Germany's Jews.   Being an American with an interest in Jewish history living in Germany can be very upsetting sometimes, but it's important to commemorate the full spectrum of that experience over the centuries - the good and the horrific.

Jewish residence in Stuttgart dates back at least to the 1300's, possibly earlier.  For most of the medieval era, Jews were not allowed to settle within the city walls, and were instead crowded into a ghetto on what is today Brennerstrasse in the Bohnenviertel, or Bean Quarter.  Early Counts of Wurttemberg were relatively tolerant of their presence, but the populace often wasn't, with numerous pogroms and expulsions taking place for the next two centuries.  Things got worse for the region's Jewish population in 1492, when Count Eberhard the Bearded of Wurttemberg issued an order expelling all Jews from the County.  This in spite of renowned Stuttgart priest Johannes Reuchlin, who was affilated with the St. Leonard's Church in the Bohnenviertel.  He was the first non-Jewish German to learn Hebrew and a great humanist, but even his influence could not save the Jewish communities of Wurttemberg from exile.  

 The exceptions were in Free Imperial Cities like Esslingen - cities controlled not by the local counts and dukes, but directly by the Holy Roman Emperor.  As a result, Imperial Cities almost always had larger Jewish populations than other capitals, and Esslingen was no exception.  There are far more traces remaining today in Esslingen of medieval Jewish life than there are in Stuttgart. 

Fortunes changed for the better in the the late 1600's, when small numbers affluent Jews were permitted to settle in Stuttgart, and throughout the 1700's several Jewish men and one woman served as economic advisers to the Dukes of Wurttemberg.  This period of relative harmony ended tragically in the case of Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, a trusted advisor to Duke Karl Alexander.  Oppenheimer was unpopular with the court of Wurttemberg, and when Duke Karl died, a mob arrested him and had him hung for treason.  Once again, the Jewish families of Stuttgart were exiled in 1737.  This story was the subject of a Nazi-produced antisemitic propaganda film Jud Suss in 1940.

Duke Karl Eugen Ludwig, founder of Ludwigsburg and otherwise known as the guy who built all the fancy palaces in the area (Neuesschloss, Ludwigsburgschloss, Schloss Solitude, and others) permitted again Jewish merchants to settle in Stuttgart, and after Wurttemberg was elevated to a Kingdom by Napoleon in 1806, conditions continued to improve.  This began the closest thing to a "golden age" the Jewish community of Stuttgart ever experienced, although it was not without widespread antisemitism from the public and setbacks.  Nonetheless, this period marked the beginning of integration into public life for Stuttgart's Jews, with an official city rabbi, a synagogue, ritual baths, and other elements of Jewish religious life appearing.  Bad Canstatt, now part of Stuttgart but then a separate village, also had an increasingly populous and influential Jewish community during the mid-to-late-1800s, and it was during this time that Albert Einstein's parents met in Canstatt and were married at the synagogue there.  Meanwhile, in Stuttgart, city Rabbi Josef Mayer was elevated to the rank of nobility by the King, in recognition for his contributions to literature, poetry, and religious texts as he was an important figure in codifying religiously liberal Reform Judaism.


Within 100 years, the population of Stuttgart's Jews went from 124 in 1825 to 4,548 in 1925, and they had fully equal legal rights under the law.  Jewish people in Stuttgart were teachers, professors, industrialists, judges, soldiers, and politicians.  It's hard to imagine all that progress could be stripped away less than 10 years later, with the rise of the National Socialists and the passage of the Nuremberg laws, which again codified legal discrimination against Jews into German law.

By 1939, the year after Kristallnacht, the Jewish population had been reduced to 2,413 as defined by the Nazi racial laws - which actually counted more people as Jews than previous censuses, as anyone with a Jewish grandparents was considered Jewish, regardless of conversion to Christianity or intermarriage, both of which were common in Stuttgart in the 20s and 30s as Jews continued to assimilate.  This number does not reflect well that as much as 60% of Stuttgart's German Jews, who were mostly middle class, had immigrated, mostly to the U.S.A or what is now Israel by 1939, many of them notable scholars, artists, musicians, scientists, and politicians.  Meanwhile, from the 1910s onward, poorer Jews from Eastern Europe, fleeing antisemitic pogroms, had settled in the area in those decades and lacked the funds to immigrate overseas to escape Nazi persecution.


The synagogue in Ludwigsburg burns on Kirstallnacht

The synagogue in Ludwigsburg burns on Kirstallnacht

Kristallnacht was a Nazi-organized, nationwide pogrom against synagogues, Jewish-owned business, and Jewish homes.  As with nearly every city, Stuttgart's synagogue and most of its holy objects were destroyed.   91 Jewish people died during the attacks, and many were rounded up and jailed under false pretenses.  The "night of broken glass" shattered any remaining illusions that German Jews may have held about attempting to wait out the Nazi regieme as they'd survived so many bouts of antisemitism throughout the centuries.  Those with the ability to immigrate did, but securing visas was difficult and even "friendly" countries like the United States and England severely restricted the number of refugees they would accept.  Nazi laws had made Jews stateless persons, with no legal rights.  For nearly all of Stuttgart's remaining 2,400 Jews, there was simply no way out.

It was under this situation that the first mass deportation of Stuttgart's Jews began on October 24, 1941, from the now-destroyed trade center at Killesberg.  Most Jews deported from Stuttgart went to the Theriesenstadt camp, or to Auschwitz.  Less than 10% of deported Jews from Stuttgart survived the camps.

Memorial to the deportation of Stuttgart's Jews

Memorial to the deportation of Stuttgart's Jews

Some of Stuttgart's Jewish population did manage avoid deportation, through hiding, often assisted by "righteous gentiles" who opposed the Nazi regime.   The vast majority of those who survived the war left Germany in the years immediately after the war.  

Stuttgart's Jewish community has never come close to fully recovering, although it is estimated that the population today is around 500 people.  A new synagogue was built on the site of the old one in the 1950s.  Many of Stuttgart's Jewish population today hails from the former Soviet Union, seeking refuge here to avoid persecution. 

Evidence of the slowly reemerging Jewish community is evident in the Jewish Culture Week, which takes place this year from November 4th through the 17th.  The program includes lectures, klezmer concerts, cooking classes, and tours of the city and synagogue.  A schedule (in German) can be found here.  

This is by no means anything other than an introduction to the topic of the Jewish history Stuttgart.  A trove of more detailed information exists online, and I highly recommend reading this history of Jewish life in Stuttgart as well as this harrowing description of Kristallnacht and the repressive laws that followed.

I also highly recommend watching this 30 minute documentary, in English, about the last two Holocaust survivors from Stuttgart.  It is incredibly moving and informative, and stresses how important it is that this history is never forgotten even when the eyewitnesses have ceased to exist



Two Holocaust survivors on the train from Stuttgart to Theresienstadt. Sharing memories of the deportation of the German Jews with a group of young people and artists from their former home town. www.swr.de

Hidden Stuttgart History: A Native Son's Plot to Kill Hitler


The Alte Schloss, or Old Palace in Stuttgart is a beautiful yet imposing building.  Its history goes back nearly 1,000 years, yet some of it's most interesting history has to do with the 20th century.  In the early 1900's, the Alte Schloss was the  home of one of Nazi Germany's more controversial and interesting figures: Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a man instrumental in a failed plot to overthrow Hitler known as "Operation Valkyrie".  

If that name rings a bell, it's because it's the title of the 2008 Bryan Singer film "Valkyrie," starring Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg.  The movie portrays the formulation of the plot through to its inevitable tragic conclusion, focusing on the dashing Stauffenberg, although in reality there were dozens of co-conspirators, including Claus' brother, Berthold.

But who was the real Claus von Stauffenberg?  Born into one of Swabia's oldest noble families, Claus' father held the hereditary title of Oberhofmarschall (roughly translates to "Chancellor") of the Kingdom of Wurttemberg, and as a result Claus and his brother spent their childhood residing in part of the Alte Schloss alongside the Wuerttemburg nobility.  Claus was a teenager when the German defeat in World War I and the resulting revolution ended the monarchy - and the privileges of nobility.

Claus and Berthold as children

The brothers left Stuttgart to attend university.  Berthold then launched a career in law, while Claus began what would be a remarkable military career in the Wehrmacht, or German Army.  While both were conservative nationalists who desired a return to the monarchy,  neither of them saw Nazism as a reflection of their values and as such, neither ever joined the Party.

Despite his moral opposition to Hitler and Nazism, Claus von Stauffenberg did not oppose the invasion of Poland, which kicked off World War II in earnest, believing that Poland was meant to be a German colony. His first strong resistance to Nazi war crimes came with Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.  As an Army officer on the Eastern Front, von Stauffenberg was appalled at the ill-treatment and murder of Russians and Jews.  

In 1943 he was transferred to Tunisia to fight in the Afrika Korps, where he was strafed by an Australian fighter plane.  He lost an eye, a hand, and two additional fingers as a result, and was sent home to Schloss Lautingen, one of the Stauffenberg estates south of Stuttgart, to recover.  Despite talk for years of wanting to overthrow Hitler, it was only then, when the war began going very badly for Germany, that von Stauffenberg became active in the plan for a military coup.  Although many have ascribed von Stauffenberg's rationale being a moral conflict with the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis, it was also surely motivated by the fact that Hitler was no longer listening to Army leadership in terms of tactics, and the results had been disastrous for the war.  It was clear to von Stauffenberg and many others in the military that Germany was losing the war, badly, and the only way to end the suffering of the war was to kill Hitler.

Klaus and his future wife in 1933

The details of the plots - there were several  unsuccessful attempts previously - - are complicated but fascinating.  The final July 20th 1944 plot was a plan to unite the German army under high-ranking defectors after the death of Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials.  This was actually based on a contingency plan that had in fact been approved by Hitler but modified by the conspirators.  Stauffenberg's role was instrumental as he was the only person involved who had regular personal access to Hitler.  He was to put a briefcase bomb next to Hitler at a meeting of Hitler, his inner circle, and Army leadership at the "Wolf's Lair" base Hitler was operating out of.  Stauffenberg would then leave, and phone his co-conspirators in Berlin to begin mobilizing the coup.

Von Stauffenberg executed his part of the plot perfectly, despite having to arm the bombs with delicate pliers quickly in a bathroom and having but one hand with three fingers - but still it went amiss.  The bomb did in fact go off, and it killed four people.  Unfortunately, it was moved from the spot von Stauffenberg had placed it because another person at the meeting kept bumping into it.  It was then separated from Hitler by a large oak table leg before it exploded, and the heavy table ended up shielding Hitler and saving his life, although his arm was injured in the blast. Stauffenberg at attention in front of Hitler

Claus is on the left, standing at attention in front of Hitler.

The coup still could have succeeded in the confusion following the blast, as many people in leadership believed that Hitler had been killed. A mixture of ineptitude and cowardice by a few key players in the plot resulted in a total mess, which made it easy for the Nazis to determine who was behind the assassination attempt within a matter of hours.  Von Stauffenberg and a number of co-conspirators were executed shortly after midnight on July 21st by an impromptu firing squad. Berthold was executed by slow strangulation a couple weeks later after a show trial.  Virtually everyone connected to the plot was executed, as well as many who had nothing to do with it.  By the end of the summer, over 20,000 people were either executed or sent to concentration camps based on a suspected involvement with the plot, including the families of anyone involved.

The harrowing details of the plot make for an entertaining movie, but for a deeper look at von Stauffenberg as a man, the Alte Schloss has a memorial museum dedicated to the two brothers that's accessed from Stauffenbergplatz, across from Karlsplatz - the starting point of my city walking tour.  Artifacts and interactive exhibits  illustrate the life of this daring and complicated figure.