Ask a German about Kassel, especially one from Kassel, and they’ll tell you how ugly it is. Our primary reason for visiting was to visit Heather, followed by the day-trip potential, so for us it was perfect. Though we wandered around Kassel on our second morning, we actually got to see much of it over the entire weekend, sneaking glimpses whenever we could between our side trips.
But first maybe we need a little history primer? From Wikipedia, on the city’s history:
The city’s name is derived from the ancient Castellum Cattorum, a castle of the Chatti, a German tribe that had lived in the area since Roman times.
Kassel was first mentioned in 913 AD as the place where two deeds were signed by King Conrad I. The place was called Chasella and was a fortification at a bridge crossing the Fulda River. A deed from 1189 certifies that Kassel had city rights, but the date when they were granted is not known.
Kassel and the larger region of Hessen then flip-flopped back and forth between various German states, including being a part of the abortive Kingdom of Westphalia erected by Napoleon. During the War however Kassel, like so many of Germany’s large cities, was hit hard:
During World War II, Kassel was the Headquarters for Germany’s Wehrkreis IX, and a local subcamp of Dachau concentration camp provided forced labour for Henschel facilities. The most severe bombing of Kassel in World War II destroyed 90% of the downtown area, some 10,000 people were killed, and 150,000 were made homeless. Most of the casualties were civilians or wounded soldiers recuperating in local hospitals, whereas factories survived the attack generally undamaged. Karl Gerland replaced the regional Gauleiter, Karl Weinrich, soon after the raid.
The Allied ground advance into Germany reached Kassel at the beginning of April 1945. The US 80th Infantry Division captured Kassel in bitter house-to-house fighting during 2–4 April 1945, which included numerous German panzer-grenadier counterattacks, and resulted in further widespread devastation to bombed and unbombed structures alike.
Like some other German cities subjected to such heavy bombing, Kassel largely rebuilt itself in a practical post-modern way with little emphasis on the preservation or restoration of beautiful pre-War buildings. I can see then why so many people think Kassel is so ugly. To be entirely honest it cannot compare to cities with large-scale restoration efforts like Dresden, or cities left untouched like Konstanz.
Today Kassel tries its best to encourage cultural growth, partly by sponsoring semi-annual modern art exhibitions. After each year one or two installations remain standing, leaving little surprises sprinkled through the city for pedestrians to stumble across. Some installtions however can be quite weird, hence the cheeky question and the title of this post: “Is this Art, or can we remove it?”
On our second morning in Kassel we drove up to the Kassel Palace, from which a path of some 600 steps leads up to the Hercules Statue. This statue rises up on the hill above the city, and I like to think it creates a near-straight line through the core to a large church whose two spires also dominate much of the city centre. these spires however are modern, thin walls cut out, a reminder of the newness. When walking through Kassel you must keep in mind its history and destruction. With so many German cities like this that wishful thinking that the War hadn’t happened and that all those old beautiful buildings would still be standing can only do so much.
Still, we enjoyed ourselves well enough, and after two days or so had seem most of what one can without going to the Funeral Museum or ascending those 600 steps to the Hercules. The steps were totally out of the question – several inches of snow still covered all of the stairs, and the glacial winds seemed to pick up over the city to batter us up on the hill. Besides, we had our next destination to get to that afternoon: the university city Göttingen.