Did a Nazi official save Ponte Vecchio from destruction?

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Florence's Ponte Vecchio. Photo: Colby Blaisdell/Flickr
07:00 CEST+02:00
Florence's Ponte Vecchio is one of the world’s most famous bridges. Rebuilt after a flood in 1345, it was the only bridge across the Arno that the escaping Germans did not destroy during the Second World War. Many put the bridge’s survival down to a Nazi official, as Stephen Caruso reports.

It’s a sunny day in Florence in mid-April — the kind that drives the tourists outside in droves, while driving Florentines mad.

Sightseers gather on the bridge’s ledge, looking east toward the Ponte Alle Grazie. Some pull up a digital camera for a landscape, others pose for selfies.

Yet none of them notice a sign, placed high above eye level, honouring a man named Gerhard Wolf — the Nazi official who allegedly saved the Ponte Vecchio from destruction during the Second World War.

The plaque reads: "Gerhard Wolf (1886–1962). German consul, born at Dresden—subsequently twinned with the city of Florence—in played a decisive role in the salvation of the Ponte Vecchio (1944) from the barbarism of the Second World War and was instrumental in rescuing political prisoners and Jews from persecution at the height of the Nazi occupation. The comune places this plaque on 11 April 2007 in memory of the granting of honorary citizenship."  Photo: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Stewart and Jackie Hallett are two such visitors, in Florence for their first time from the United Kingdom, who hadn’t even noticed the small limestone plaque.

“Unfortunately, I think most people are looking at the Rolex watches,” Jackie, as she gestures towards the expensive timepieces on display — the sort of sight the old bridge is usually known for.

Yet even for Florentines, like Lorenzo Ciccarelli, the sign is an enigma.

“I never noticed the plaque,” he said, despite being born, raised and working in Florence — which has included many trips across the Ponte Vecchio.

As a Florence tour guide, and a Ph.D in Renaissance history, Giuliana Grillotti knows much about the bridge — its construction in 1333 after the destruction of an earlier span, the installation of the Medici’s Vasarian Corridor from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Pitti Palace, and the replacement of the bridge’s butchers with jewellers. But even she wasn’t aware of the story of Wolf.

“I do not know much of the so-called modern age,” she said in an email.

The sign gives precious little information to a passerby, anyway — a birth and death date, and the vague claim the Wolf “saved the Ponte Vecchio”. But hidden away in the Italian inscription is a further claim, about more than simply saving brick and mortar, Wolf helped save lives.

He was born on August 12th, 1896 in Dresden, Germany, and served with honour in the Imperial German Army during the First World War. Afterwards, Wolf joined the foreign ministry in 1927 — when Germany was still a democratic republic, and the Nazis still on the rise.

The Nazis came to power in 1933, and Wolf considered quitting his job over the new government. However, while wrestling with the decision, a friend told him that “a man of [his] pure and decent character would find opportunities to work for goodness and justice...even under an evil system,” to quote The Consul of Florence, by David Tutaev, written in 1967.

Wolf stayed on in the foreign ministry, and only joined the Nazi party in 1939, after it was suggested that he would not be promoted, or even forced to retire, unless he became a member. In the meantime, he saved an acquaintance from the Gestapo after warning him of his imminent arrest, letting him flee the country.

His association with Florence started on November 7th, 1940. On that day, he arrived at the German consulate at Via dei Bardi 20 as the new consul. His easygoing attitude — in opposition to the usual serious Nazi ideologues — quickly won him the friendship of the locals, from Florentines to foreigners. For example, as the highest Nazi official in the city, Wolf received complaints from a loyal party member about an expat not displaying proper loyalty to the party line. Wolf thus invited the disloyal German to his home in San Domenico, and promptly offered her a handshake and congratulations for her independent thought.

Italy entered the war in June 1940, when the Axis seemed unstoppable. By 1943 however, things were turning around. Italy’s king and military banded together to dispose of Benito Mussolini in June of that year, and signed a separate peace with the Allies in early September. The Allies then landed in southern Italy and began to advance north from Salerno, in Campania, and Taranto, in Puglia. In response, Germany invaded its former allies, and with the help of local fascists, set up the Italian Social Republic to block the Allied advance into Europe.

As war approached, Wolf feared for his new found home. Looking at the destruction of other historic cities like Rotterdam and Warsaw by the war, he feared a similar fate for Florence. So, with the help of Florence’s Cardinal Elia Della Costa, they began a letter writing campaign — Della Costa to the British Embassy in the Vatican, and Wolf to his long-time friend and now German Ambassador to Italy, Rudolf Rahn, asking both sides to agree to making Florence an open city — or a city both sides agree not to use militarily.

Field Marshal Harold Alexander, the British commander of all Allied troops in Italy, did not respond to any inquires from Della Costa on making Florence an open city.

But Rahn himself brought up the point to Adolf Hitler in a meeting. The Fuhrer visited Florence in 1938, at the end of a frustratingly fruitless visit to Italy. However, the tour of the city had ended his trip on a high note, during which he visited all the tourist staples — Santa Croce, Piazza Michelangelo, the Uffizi — and took a walk along the River Arno.

The tour had apparently left a mark on the dictator. “Florence is too beautiful a city to be destroyed. Do what you can to protect it. You have my permission and assistance,” Hitler told Rahn in November of 1943.

This statement seemingly plays into one of the legends that has grown around the bridge’s noted survival — that it was the German dictator himself.

According to Ciccarelli, one is that as the Germans retreated, they planned to blow up every bridge, until a rather personal intervention by the Hitler saved the centuries-old crossing.

“Hitler said the bridge was too much of a masterpiece and a historical part of Florence that he said ‘no’” said Ciccarelli.

Grillatti presents another theory, from her time talking to former Italian resistance members.

“The Germans, when going back home, always left one bridge surviving on a river to let the Allies use that one,” she said.

“Obviously it was a trap and with the help of spies [the Allies] knew it was better to build a new bridge.”

However, a far less exciting and romantic tale is the one Ceccarelli thinks is the truth.

“The American tanks were too large to pass on the Ponte Vecchio and would collapse it anyway,” Ciccarelli said. Therefore, the Germans felt no need to blow the bridge during their retreat.

The truth is a mix of all three.

The Allies finally broke through the Axis lines in southern Italy in the summer of 1944 and were quickly advancing north. Rome fell on June 4th, 1944, and had been declared an open city before being handed over by the Nazis. The bridges on the Tiber had remained unharmed. The Allies quickly used them to cross the river and capture 10,000 enemy troops. This left the German commander in Italy, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, facing a cacophony of anger from the German high command and Hitler himself — despite conflicting commands from earlier to not harm Rome. When the Allied lines approached Florence in late July of 1944, Kesselring would not repeat his mistakes.

Wolf heard from Rahn that Kesselring had already been talking to his commanders about plans to blow up the bridges over the Arno. He asked his friend to urge Kesselring to spare the bridges. When confronted by the ambassador, the field marshal refused to save a single one — except the Ponte Vecchio — unless the Allies would also confirm Florence as an open city.

Orders from the Nazi high command had ordered Kesselring to blow up Florence’s bridges, but to save any he deemed “culturally significant” — reminiscent of Hitler’s statement to Rahn earlier. However, Kesselring, an astute military man, knew that bridges considered “culturally significant” could still support a hostile army — except the Ponte Vecchio.

Photo: Vix Aia/Flickr

However, taking no chances, the plan to blow Florence’s bridges — Operation Feuerzauber, or magic fire — included the specification to also destroy the houses lining the approaching streets to the old bridge as well. This would strew the streets with rubble, and delay any possible Allied use for the bridge.

It is Kesselring then, and not Wolf or Hitler, who truly “saved” the Ponte Vecchio. But the reckoning of the rest of Florence’s bridges was coming.

The report of artillery crept closer and closer to Florence every day in mid-summer. The hills south of the city were backlit by night by blasts. On July 30th, German soldiers forcibly evacuated every home within a mile of the Arno.

The Allies approached closer still as the calendar switched from July to August, slowed by the fierce fighting of their German opposites. However, by August 3rd, the Germans had retreated behind the Arno. Feuerzauber was put into action.

That night, the whole city shook as bridge by bridge — the Ponte San Niccolo, Ponte Alle Grazie, Ponte Santa Trinita and Ponte alla Carraia — the Nazis ignited their charges. Ponte Santa Trinita was the last to go — it took three rounds of explosions to go.

After the bridges were blown, the Nazis withdrew to Fiesole and the surrounding hills. The city centre itself was spared any fighting. But the ancient bridges of the city had been annihilated.

But while Wolf had been trying to find a way to save Florence’s history, he was in the process of saving lives.

Florence's destroyed Borgo San Jacopo in September 1944. The woman pictured is the picture author's mother. Photo: Ricce/Wikicommons

The German consul used his diplomatic privilege and position as a Nazi to free political prisoners from the Italian fascist authorities, who on retaking the city, started arresting — and sometimes torturing — many Florentines out of vengeance.

Story continues below…

Wolf’s status as a Nazi party member gave him some pull over the Italian fascist police, even if he was a purely diplomatic figure. Family members would go immediately to Wolf’s office if an innocent family member was arrested, and beg him to intervene. Wolf would then either push the local police to release prisoners held without a just cause, or write to his friend Rahn for additional support from a higher Nazi official.

In a few cases, Wolf also forged documents for Jews escaping the Nazis round-up of Florence’s population in the autumn of 1943. In total, 243 were still deported, of which all but 13 perished.

Wolf’s authority, however, could not save everyone. He was very conscious that any misstep could result in the Nazis relieving him of his post, or much worse. As such, Wolf usually focused on saving innocents, or at least those whose guilt was in doubt. For partisans caught in arms against the local authorities, Wolf could do little. As he noted in his journal notes, “the most I [could] do was to complain, or at times, obstruct. But these were purely passive powers.”

On July 28th, 1944, before the bridges went down, Wolf left the city with the rest of the civilian German citizens in the midst of a nervous breakdown. His stress from 10 months of attempting to salvage the city and its people from the horror of the war got the better of him.

After he recovered from his breakdown, he was promoted and served for the rest of the war in Milan as Consul-General. Upon the war’s end in May of 1945, Wolf was interned by the Allies.

Wolf may not have been able to prevent Florence from any harm. But his efforts were still appreciated by Florentines. Upon hearing of his situation, 29 citizens sent affidavits to the Allied authorities to secure his release.

Wolf’s constant humanity, in the inhuman madness of the Second World War, inspired the city. Wolf “became a living symbol of human courage and fraternity”, according to former Florence mayor, Giorgio La Pira, who presented Wolf with honorary citizenship to Florence in 1955 for his efforts, and had lived through the city’s brush with destruction.

And in the end, the physical destruction was not permanent — the Ponte Santa Trinita’s rubble was taken from the Arno’s bed and rebuilt in 1958, and the bridge again stands proudly next to her older sibling.

As Stewart noted, the construction shows the real legacy of Wolf.

“Bridges can always be rebuilt, but you can never bring a life back,” he said, staring up at the sign.

For millions of people, such rebirth was impossible. But Wolf did his best in the middle of the tempest to reach out and shelter many from the storm of terror.

For Ciccarelli, Wolf’s work is emblematic of all the struggles Florentines went through during the war.

“Everybody that lived through those terrible years will have stories to tell you,” he said. Ciccarelli’s grandmother sheltered Allied soldiers and other refugees, while his father was caught by the Nazis’ smuggling food for escaped resistance fighters and was arrested. Only his escape from his captors saved a cruel fate.

The plaque that stands sentinel on the Ponte Vecchio then is more than just another historical marker in a city filled with history. It’s a constant reminder of what one good person with a conscience can do.

By Stephen Caruso in Florence

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