St Nikolai Memorial
The 147-metre steeple of St Nikolai Church is Hamburg’s tallest church tower. The ruined church is now a memorial to the victims of war and dictatorship and an appeal for international understanding and tolerance.
History of the church
The first St Nikolai Church was built in the 12th century. It was destroyed in the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1842 and rebuilt in a neo-Gothic style. During the Allied bombing raids on Hamburg known as ‘Operation Gomorrah’ in July 1943, the church – whose tower was used as a landmark by bomber pilots – was severely damaged. Only the steeple, choir and parts of the nave remained standing.
After the war ended, it was deemed pointless to rebuild the devastated church because the local congregation was very small and there were plans to construct a new main thoroughfare in the area (Ost-West-Straße, now Willy-Brandt-Straße and Ludwig-Erhardt-Straße). In the mid 1950s, a new St Nikolai Church was built near the Klosterstern square in the Harvestehude city quarter.
Creation of the memorial
The ruined church was dedicated as a memorial site in 1977, and a plaque was installed in memory of the victims of the bombing in Hamburg. The memorial was expanded in 1987 thanks to efforts by an association known as Save the Nikolai Church (now the Friends and Supporters of the Saint Nikolai Memorial). Volunteer work, public funding and donations made it possible to preserve the structural fabric of the ruined church. The association organised the first exhibition in the crypt on the history of the St Nikolai Church and the bombing of Hamburg.
St Nikolai today
In 2013, on the 70th anniversary of ‘Operation Gomorrah’, an updated and significantly expanded exhibition opened at the memorial. The title of the exhibition is ‘Gomorrah 1943: Hamburg’s destruction through aerial warfare’. It covers the terrible consequences of the bombing in Hamburg as well as the events leading to it and the memory culture that now surrounds it. Other topics include the construction of air-raid shelters in preparation for war, and the start of the aerial war with Germany’s attacks on Warsaw, Rotterdam and Coventry. The exhibition additionally addresses how the bomb destruction was used for propaganda purposes to justify deportations and persecution.
On the 76-metre-high viewing platform in the tower, large-scale photos from 1943 show views of the bombed city from the church steeple. The platform can be reached by a glass lift with panoramic views that was installed in 2005. The supporters’ association organises a variety of events, including memorial ceremonies, lectures, concerts and readings. The large carillon in the tower is also played live regularly.