Bremen & Stade, Germany

Jason R. Matheson
7 min readMay 4, 2023

--

I spent my final days in Germany of this trip in Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) and the city of Bremen (pronounced BRAY-min).

Bremen sat inland, sheltered from the North Sea, but connected to the ocean by the river Weser. It’s port was the second-largest in Germany behind only nearby Hamburg. Drawn by Prussia into the German Empire in the 1800s, Bremen was the principal port of embarkation for German and central European emigrants to America.

The large Marktplatz was ringed by a 600-year-old town hall, a lavish guild house and the soaring twin spires of St. Peter’s.

The Schnoor, small, well-preserved area of crooked lanes, fishermen’s and shipper’s houses from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was preserved just beyond the Marktplatz. The name, similar to German for “string”, seemed to refer to the houses lined up along the lanes as if by string.

I wandered the cobblestone lanes and looked in the shop windows made of uneven old glass. The famous statue of the rooster, cat, dog and donkey standing on top of each other was from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale from 1819 titled the Town Musicians of Bremen.

Just as in Münster and other large German cities, much of what I looked at today in Bremen had been pieced together from the rubble of bombing raids. For Germans who survived the war, midnight on May 8, 1945, was called Zero Hour. It was an absolute break from the past and a new beginning.

I could see magnificent old buildings with ornate decorations standing alone amidst modern construction. These were the few that either survived the bombs relatively intact or were chosen for reconstruction. Oh what a sight old Bremen must have been.

The next morning, I drove west along the river Weser toward the sea. A hulking mass of concrete soon rose above the trees. This was the Nazi-era Valentin submarine factory. U-boats would be assembled and put to sea here protected by 15-foot-thick, fortified concrete walls designed to withstand Allied bombing attacks.

The massive project was constructed by 12,000 POWs, slave laborers and concentration camp detainees. An estimated 6,000 prisoners were worked to death. It was 90% complete in the spring of 1945 when the area was finally overrun by the British army.

The workers still alive were evacuated by the retreating Germans. Many were placed on board the SS Cap Arcona. This German ship was heavily laden with around 5,000 concentration camp prisoners when she was attacked and sunk by the RAF on May 3, 1945; only 350 prisoners survived.

Too massive to demolish, the post-war German government eventually had no use for the facility. In 2011, a local group developed it as a museum and memorial. The self-walking tour took you around the entire structure and inside where you gaped in the dark light at the vast, long open space.

Photos at stations set up along the tour were taken at the time by the Nazis for construction purposes but were used now to illustrate the deplorable conditions for slave laborers.

This photo and caption were interesting to me. It showed representatives of German industry overseeing the construction site in 1944. However, it was evident the original caption had been changed to remove the men’s names. Perhaps their families objected?

Even into the 1980s, the man over this project still maintained the facility was an impressive engineering feat. No acknowledgement was made of the atrocities committed here during construction.

I turned a corner and then saw a group of German students on a tour with their teacher. It reminded me how far this country had come in addressing its troubled past, especially with the younger generations.

Back in the car, I headed north to the old port city of Stade along the river Elbe, between the sea and the city of Hamburg.

The architecture of the preserved buildings lining the port, the extensive use of brick and the ship hanging in the church reminded me this was once a powerful member of the Hanseatic League. But the city fell under Swedish and then Danish rule with fires and the plague further reducing its population. Today, it’s a relic of a by-gone era.

I drove a few miles to the ferry crossing at Wischhafen to go over the Elbe and avoid backtracking a route through Hamburg traffic.

My car nestled in between tanker trucks, I got out and stood in the wind near the railing to watch the sea traffic slide by. Huge ships loaded with stacked freight containers from the docks at Hamburg were headed out to the ocean.

There was a small snack bar below deck serving beer as well as restrooms and warm facilities. I was especially glad we had no need for these:

Soon, I was on the north side of the Elbe and back on the Autobahn rolling north. At the border, I slowed at the inspection area before a young man in the booth gave me the thumbs up. Auf Wiedersehen Germany, I was back in Denmark.

……….

Thanks for coming along on the trip. If you have questions or suggestions, tweet @JasonRMatheson. Missed an entry? Click here.

--

--

Jason R. Matheson

I prefer to travel slow. Enjoy history, design, architecture, cars, sports digital. Auburn alum, Sooner born.