Andrew Demshuk’s Cities after Hitler won the 2023 Alice Davis Hitchcock Award from the Society of Architectural Historians. It is an impressive work of scholarship, a lengthy and generously illustrated text well anchored in a rich array of primary and secondary sources. More importantly, it makes a significant and somewhat unusual argument, which is that the postwar reconstructions of three cities that were part of a united Germany from 1871 to 1945 but during the Cold War were located in three different nation-states—the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and Poland—merit being considered comparatively. Demshuk, a historian, has written previously about postwar expulsions of Germans from land recently acquired by Poland and about the destruction of historic architecture in postwar Leipzig. In this book, he casts what is for architectural historians a refreshingly original light on his subjects, Frankfurt am Main, Leipzig, and Wrocław (formerly Breslau), coining the term “redemptive reconstruction” to describe how three different political regimes restored or re-created historic landmarks in order to reimagine the past within what were largely new and often explicitly modern postwar cities. Identifying similarities between the architectures of the two Germanies is not entirely novel, as scholars such as Greg Castillo, Wallis Miller, Simone Hain, and Hartmut Frank have already established that different political systems did not necessarily generate entirely different forms; this conclusion is not surprising considering that the Iron Curtain never entirely cut off awareness between the two German-speaking architectural cultures. What is new is adding into the mix a city that had been largely German-speaking, and certainly controlled by German-speaking regimes, for roughly a millennium before it was ceded to Poland following the defeat of the Third Reich, whereupon it was populated by an almost entirely new citizenry drawn from across Poland. This population included those resettled from Lviv (formerly Lemberg, Lwów, and Lvov), which became part of the Soviet Union and is now in Ukraine.

Also new is such a sustained consideration of any of these cities, as Berlin has dominated most of the previous analysis of the relationship between politics and architecture in postwar Central Europe. This approach is particularly useful because it shifts the focus away from national considerations (although these are never ignored) and toward more local actors, mostly at the municipal level. In all three cities, the architects who staffed municipal planning offices or worked for private clients encountered quite similar issues at the war’s end. Wholesale destruction of the built fabric resulting from aerial bombardment, followed by subsequent invasion, left the bulk of the cities’ populations (including large numbers of refugees from elsewhere) homeless and local economies shattered. This trauma encompassed the partial or entire destruction of most of the built heritage of these cities, in which collective as well as individual memory resided. In his introduction, Demshuk argues that the “simplified architectural narratives” generated by redemptive reconstruction “illustrate how larger questions of democracy, civic activism and identity, and memory politics took shape at the local level in ways that confirmed, confronted, and transcended state ideology in the shadow of Hitler” (4).

One of the most exciting aspects of Cities after Hitler is Demshuk’s patient reconstruction of the debates that took place among officials, architects, and other residents. In particular, he is able to reconstruct a surprising amount of what could be termed public opinion in Communist-ruled Leipzig and Wrocław, even if this opinion seldom had any more impact than in Frankfurt, where, he argues, a democratically elected government was little more responsive to the desires of its citizens. In all three cases, officials and architects, who were often government employees, generally preferred new construction to conserving or re-creating buildings erected before the onset of the war. The most striking exception—not entirely surprisingly, if one thinks of the reconstruction of Warsaw—was in Wrocław. Here the greatest illusion at least of continuity can be found, whether with the city’s medieval past, whose ties to an earlier Poland the new regime usefully exaggerated, or with its distinguished twentieth-century modernism, only some of which Demshuk references. Re-creating at least a semblance of a historical city may have been profoundly reassuring to Wrocław’s new residents, almost all of them displaced from somewhere else, even if most had no prewar memories of their new home.

Demshuk is a profoundly conservative scholar. I do not mean this in the normal sense of a political view, although his labeling of Frankfurt’s elected Social Democrats as “dictatorial” might suggest that. Instead, his stance, conveyed throughout what is nonetheless a rigorously researched work, is resolutely that the architecture that was destroyed as a result of the war was better than anything that could possibly follow afterward, unless, that is, it was already modern, in which case the less said about it the better. Frankfurt, the West German financial hub, an independent city until it was invaded by Prussia in 1866; the historically Saxon trading center of Leipzig, the location of East Germany’s largest trade fair; and the Polish city of Wrocław, seized by Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, from the Austrians in the eighteenth century—all had very different histories before 1945. All had grown rapidly in the century before the war began; much of the historic architecture whose demise Demshuk regrets was not as old—and thus just as out of fashion—in the 1940s as the postwar buildings that replaced them are now. More could have been done to disentangle and thus distinguish among the varied threads out of which the rich prewar fabric of these cities was woven. In addition, the meticulous specificity of this book is at times also its greatest weakness, as Demshuk pays less attention than most architectural historians would to the larger forces at play during this period that transformed so many cities around the world, even cities that did not face invasion. These forces, such as the increased prevalence of the automobile and the real estate pressures on city centers that eventually transformed Frankfurt into “Mainhatten,” ensured that London would demolish more buildings in the postwar decades than it had lost to the Blitz. And yet that specificity does not always extend in this book to teasing out the difference, particularly to a late 1940s or early 1950s audience, between a Wilhelmine apartment block or department store and an older structure already revered as a landmark. The dynamic changes that the prewar cities had experienced are glossed over somewhat quickly.

But those wanting these stories have plenty of other scholarship available to them. The fine-grained detail Demshuk provides as he compares and contrasts the processes as well as the products of postwar rebuilding in these three cities is exemplary, so that even those who have a more dispassionate (or, opposingly, a passionate) point of view would be hard-pressed to find a better place to turn to for help in understanding any of these cities, or even postwar reconstruction in Central Europe more generally. Nor is there a better place to turn to in order to understand the historical context out of which emerged so powerfully, in the Federal Republic of Germany following unification in 1990, the urge to construct facsimiles of long-gone landmarks as a badge of democratic participation. The grassroots movement that resulted in the reemergence of Dresden’s Frauenkirche on that city’s skyline, if not necessarily as convoluted as the process that generated the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, becomes the sign of the fully participatory democracy that Demshuk believes will almost certainly generate a reverence for historicist and premodern historic architecture. He is astute about the multiple ways in which structures such as Goethe’s reconstructed birthplace in Frankfurt are significant, not because they are authentic, but because they contribute to a sense of specificity of place. These structures thus assist in constructing community identity that has nothing to do with where people come from and everything to do with where they are when they stand in front of or inside such buildings.