If your only experience of Halberstadt was the ugly Soviet-era apartment blocks that you pass on the way to the historic centre, or indeed the modern buildings on the fringe of its ancient core, you might think twice about visiting. That would be a shame because this was once one of the most important trading centres in medieval Germany and member of the Hanseatic League. It has a wealth of history to match.
That said, Halberstadt’s centre is largely a reconstruction of the medieval original. An aircraft factory in the town saw repeated Allied bombing raids in the Second World War. Worse was to come in the final days of the war. As US troops approached, the local Nazi commander refused to surrender and a devastating airstrike killed over two thousand people and reduced the historic centre to rubble.
As we drove through concrete blocks of apartments to find a parking space, we got a glimpse of the unusual spires of the Church of St. Martini, which are connected by a footbridge. St. Martini probably dates from the 10th century, but what you see today is a faithful reconstruction after it was destroyed during the war. As was the nearby old town hall.
A reconstruction of the Rathaus now stands in a soulless shopping centre. The building is very clearly a modern structure pretending to be old, but standing on one corner of it is a Roland statue. The stone knight, sword drawn, symbolising the ancient town rights of Halberstadt dates from 1433 and is one of the oldest original Rolands in Germany.
Halberstadt is dominated by the spires of massive churches, giving a hint of its former status as a major ecclesiastical centre. The first bishopric was founded here in 814 by Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, although the town was already well established by then. You can see the towers and massive bulk of the cathedral from all over the town.
The Cathedral, or the Church of St Stephen and St Sixtus, was begun in the 13th century and only completed in the late 15th century. It’s a magnificent sight and sits on what is one of the more unusual squares I’ve seen in Germany. Long and narrow, and flanked by trees and grand houses, the Domplatz stretches from the cathedral to the Church of Our Lady, the Liebfrauenkirche.
We wandered along it and then descended into an area where many of the old timber-framed houses either survived the war or have been reconstructed. This area was once home to a thriving Jewish community. The 17th century baroque synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938, by 1942 any Jews who hadn’t already fled were sent to death camps. None returned.
We walked down Judenstrasse, where a small memorial to the original synagogue can be found. We wanted to visit the Moses Mendelssohn Akademie which tells the story of Halberstadt’s Jewish community but – and I don’t know when I will learn to plan around this – it was Monday and everything was closed. That included the actual reason we’d come to Halberstadt: As Slow As Possible.
The long – it’s meant to run for 639 years and end in 2640 – slow performance of a piece of organ music composed by John Cage, known as As Slow As Possible, is housed in the medieval Church of St Burchardi. The doors of which were firmly closed to visitors. I’d read about a chord change that took place in September 2020, the first since 2013, and was intrigued.
I suppose we would only have been able to see the special organ and listen to a single chord, but it was galling that even this was denied us. After all, when the piece of music started in 2001 there was literally no noise for a year and a half, the first chords were only added in 2003. The next chord change is scheduled for February 2022, that may be reason enough to return to Halberstadt.