Marienkirche in Lübeck

No one had created anything like it there before. Massive towers, flying buttresses and huge vaulted naves were familiar in France and Flanders, where they were constructed from stone, but the people of this small town in northern Germany were the first to build these features in brick, simpler, with less adornment. The first was the Marienkirche, begun in 1250 in the heart of the Hanseatic port of Lübeck, and its magnificent north German Gothic style set the standard for 70 other churches built throughout the Baltic region in the 13th and 14th centuries.

On the night of Palm Sunday 1942, the Marienkirche was devastated in an air raid – the first major success for the RAF bomber command against a German city. The subsequent firestorm destroyed two other significant churches and a large swathe of the historic wooden city centre. Two of its bells crashed through the Marienkirche and still remain where they fell, smashed into the ground beneath the spires, a reminder of the horror of that night.

The bombardment of Lübeck came two years after the Nazis had decimated Coventry cathedral in 1940 and writer Thomas Mann, a son of Lübeck (his childhood home, now a museum, is next door to the Marienkirche), spoke to the BBC after the raid to say: 'I am thinking of Coventry – and I have no objection to the doctrine that everything has to be paid for.'

Now both of these churches belong to the 300 around the world which contain a cross of nails, made from metal fragments from the roof trusses of Coventry cathedral. The Marienkirche, Coventry cathedral and the others represent the futility of war and the importance of peace and reconciliation.

That message is strong in Lübeck. One of its other famous sons is Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm, born in 1913 in a working-class area of the town. Frahm, the only child of a single mother, was politically active from a young age, agitating against the rise of Hitler. In 1933 he was forced to escape the country, fleeing to Norway and adopting a new name – Willy Brandt.

Brandt lived in exile in Norway and Sweden for several years, engaged in political struggle, only returning to Germany after the end of the second world war to cover the trials of war criminals in Nuremberg as a foreign correspondent. This is where he witnessed the emergence of the new post-war democracy in Germany, a democracy in which he was to play such a huge and significant part. There is a museum in Lübeck dedicated to Willy Brandt, as there is, around the corner, to writer Günter Grass, once a serving member of the Waffen-SS, who later became a member of the German Social Democratic party and a big supporter of Willy Brandt. Grass, born in Danzig (now Gdansk), lived much of his life in Lübeck.

Mann, Grass, Brandt – two Nobel prize winners for literature and a chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, each living and working in this small north German town in the 20th century. But Lübeck's fame long precedes these luminaries.

Founded in medieval times, Lübeck, situated between the rivers Trave and Wakenitz, and just a few miles from the Baltic Sea, developed into a hub for trade between north, south, east and west – furs, wax, honey and wood from Russia, salt from Lüneburg, cloth and weapons from Flanders, fish from Norway. Trade thrived on the Baltic and Lübeck was the centre of it all, the queen of the Hanseatic League. The league was, initially, a loose community of interests established by various trading towns, which co-operated by securing transport routes, negotiating business privileges, imposing blockades and, occasionally, waging war. It became one of the largest commercial networks of all time comprising over 200 cities and towns in many countries.

Lübeck's recently-opened European Hansa Museum traces the 800 years of Hanseatic history – its rise, its supremacy – and its ultimate fall, following the emergence of new economies, the schism caused by the reformation and the 30 years' war in the 1600s, which finally destroyed the trading area. And there is a link to Scotland: William Wallace and Andrew Moray wrote to the German traders in the city on 11 October 1297, a month before Moray died from wounds sustained in the Scottish victory over the army of Edward I at Stirling Bridge, inviting them to deal directly with Scottish merchants. The letter, thought to have been destroyed in the second world war, was found in a Lübeck museum and is now on permanent loan to the Museum of Scotland.

There are some great cafes and restaurants in Lübeck, there are some quirky shops, some off-beat bars, but the draw of this glorious city, created a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987, has to be its history, which remains powerful, fascinating, tangible and relevant.

A symbol of the futility of war
Photographs by the author

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