We spent a day and a half in the lovely medieval town of Rothenburg, Germany, located in the southern part of the country, about 100 miles east of Heidelburg. The town is quite large for a walled city, and boasts a number of very large and impressive houses (mostly 5-6 storeys), some gothic churches, clock towers, cobblestoned lanes, and beautiful shops full of high-quality items. The place is a tourist trap, of course, but it is the real thing. Walt Disney may have visited this lovely little town, and modeled much of the magic kingdom after it.
We learned, however, that the eastern half of the town was bombed to smithereens on March 31, 1945. Because of heavy fog, the 16 American bombers missed their target—the center of town—which explains why only about a third of the town was reduced to rubble. Rothenburg was a target because several members of the Nazi high command had been driven out of Berlin and had holed up in Rothenburg. On the night of March 31, 1945, however, these folks had left town, and the town was under the command of local military commander Major Thömmes, a native of Rothenburg. This proved to be a stroke of good fortune.
A second stroke of good fortune occurred from the other side. The next morning, when the American army learned that the bombing raid had been unsuccessful, it decided to destroy the rest of the town with artillery, and was preparing to do exactly that on April 1, 1945. By happenstance, the Undersectretary of War, John J. McCloy, was in the area. He had grown up in Manhattan, and while he had never been to Rothenburg himself, his mother had visited the town, and had purchased a painting of the lovely Market Square and hung it over the fireplace. Mr. McCloy had grown up looking at the picture of Rothenburg, and had developed a fondness for the beautiful village. Pulling rank, he ordered the Army to stand down for a day to see if Rothenburg would surrender, rather than be destroyed.
Mr. McCloy’s ultimatum was received by Major Thömmes. The entire German army was under strict orders by Hitler not to surrender one inch of soil. However, Major Thömmes could see the writing on the wall, and knew that the war was almost over. He also understood quite clearly that the artillery bombardment would destroy the rest of the town beyond repair. In an act that would have been deemed treason and would have led to Major Thömmes’s execution by firing squad, on the afternoon of April 1, 1945, he delivered the town to the American army, which occupied it until the war ended a mere five weeks later.
After the war, the town of Rothenburg sent out an official plea to the world for help in rebuilding the demolished eastern half of the town. The money flowed in, and the city was rebuilt over the next twenty years. All along the eastern wall of the city appear plaques commemorating the generosity of companies, individuals, and governments from all over the world.
Rothenburg is definitely a town worth seeing. We are grateful for the mercy of an American who had never seen the town, and the treason of a native of Rothenburg, for sparing the town from oblivion. Reaching across the aisle definitely has its advantages in some cases!