Gotham, Metropolis, Shanghai, Warsaw: On the Anxieties of Cities
Ben Wilson Considers Urban Life as a Psychic Threat
In an age and a city overshadowed by big buildings, congestion, crime, social breakdown and economic turmoil, one beset by alienation, loneliness and anomie, it was lucky that there were still heroes able to overcome the superhuman scale of the mid-20th century metropolis. Such men saw skyscrapers not as forbidding monuments, but as mere playthings; undaunted by the concrete jungle and the crowds of humanity, they remained individuals, albeit hidden behind the kind of dual identity assumed by other denizens of the teeming metropolis.
First appearing in March and April 1939 respectively, Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are lonely men dedicated to cleaning up their fictional home cities, Gotham and Metropolis, both based on New York. As their alter egos Batman and Superman they are figures of escapism and wish-fulfillment. They are vigilantes taking on the bogeymen of urban life: big business, organized crime, crooked politicians, corrupt policemen and muggers.
The skyscraper is reduced to human scale as Superman bounds over it with a single leap or Batman scales it with laughable ease. Both melt into the crowd and become anonymous when it suits them. As Clark Kent, Superman is an unassuming, mild-mannered, spectacle-wearing professional who goes about the city unnoticed. It is no accident that the Kent side of his character is based on Harold Lloyd, the ordinary-looking silent movie actor who had adventures on skyscrapers. As well as taking on the usual suspects, Superman is an urban warrior. His X-ray vision unpeels the city’s secrets, and in a very early comic strip, like an omnipotent town planner he razes slums to prompt the government to create better housing for the working poor.
Batman and Superman came into being at the right moment. The city was dwarfing individuals in terms of physical size and population: both characters take on the forces that crush the city-dweller in the twentieth century. The high-rise was set to become the norm not just as a place of work, but of home. No wonder they became so popular so quickly. Batman and Superman were the products of the Depression and organized crime, of urban utopianism and anxiety about the high-rise future. But in 1939, they also represented escapism from bigger threats facing the city.
Shanghai: this was where the Second World War began. W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood visited the legendary neon-lit, glitzy, bawdy International Settlement at Shanghai in May 1938 and found it marooned amid “a cratered and barren moon-landscape” which had recently been the biggest city in China. The full horror of Blitzkrieg, aerial bombardment, protracted siege, snipers and house-to-house fighting had been visited upon China’s megacity, well before European cities confronted the same nightmare. Only a few months before the battle, German bombers had leveled the Basque town of Guernica in support of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The world was on notice after Guernica and Shanghai: modern aerial warfare was capable of obliterating entire cities.Batman and Superman were the products of the Depression and organized crime, of urban utopianism and anxiety about the high-rise future.
The blood-soaked siege and battle of Shanghai was the opening encounter in the war between Japan and China that had been simmering for years. After three months of bombardment and intense urban warfare, the Chinese forces were broken. A Pathé newsreel shows Japanese troops advancing, house by ruined house, through the mauled carcass of Shanghai against a hail of machine-gun fire; plumes of smoke billowing above tiled roofs; tanks forcing their way over bare twisted metal and bricks; and, according to the grim narrative, “bombs falling through the air like raindrops from an April shower.” The most shocking photograph of the 1930s, “Bloody Saturday,” shows a crying baby in the ruins of Shanghai South Station after sixteen Japanese planes had bombed refugees trying to flee the destroyed city. The photographer, H.S. Wong, wrote that his shoes were soaked in blood as he recorded the carnage; the platform and tracks were strewn with limbs. This was the torture inflicted on the world’s fifth largest metropolis and its population of 3.5 million.
“The International Settlement and the French Concession form an island, an oasis in the midst of the stark, frightful wilderness which was once the Chinese city,” wrote Auden and Isherwood in May 1938. “In this city—conquered, yet unoccupied by its conquerors—the mechanism of the old life is still ticking, but seems doomed to stop, like a watch dropped in the desert.”
What had happened to Shanghai in 1937 was the fulfillment of fears that had been building up since the end of the First World War. Novels, films, defense reports, military strategists, academic theses and urban planners had become obsessed with the fate of cities in the next war. At the heart of this thinking was the notion that modern, technological metropolises were inherently fragile: damage the precious and intricate life-support system of a city—its power, food and water supplies, transportation, civil administration—and it would quickly descend into primitive chaos. It did not take an enormous leap of the imagination to envisage the sheer hell of millions of urban people deprived of water, food, healthcare and shelter. Statesmen were desperate to avoid war at all costs.
The history of mankind’s attempt to eradicate cities tells us more about how cities function than almost anything else. Tested to their limits, cities reveal themselves. Even in the face of Armageddon, the clock keeps ticking in the urban wasteland, somehow.
Long before the German invasion of Poland, plans had been drawn up for converting Warsaw into a Nazi model city for 130,000 Aryan Germans. It would have wooden-framed medieval houses and narrow streets, set in extensive parkland. Relegated to a suburb on the east bank of the Vistula would be the only Poles allowed, 80,000 slaves to minister to their German overlords.The history of mankind’s attempt to eradicate cities tells us more about how cities function than almost anything else.
Planning the campaign before the war, generals had suggested that Warsaw need not be attacked because, once the Polish army had been defeated, the Germans could simply walk in. “No!” Hitler had shrieked. “Warsaw must be attacked.” He reserved a particular loathing for the Polish capital. According to a witness Hitler elaborated “how the skies would be darkened, how millions of tons of shells would rain down on Warsaw, how people would drown in blood. Then his eyes nearly popped out of his head and he became a different person. He was suddenly seized by a lust for blood.”
What does it take to destroy a city? Humankind has devised numerous means. Between 1939 and 1945 almost every one of these tactics was visited on the Polish capital.
Warsaw experienced the terror of air raids on the very first day of the Second World War, 1 September 1939. Over the next few weeks, as the German army pushed back Polish defense forces and bewildered refugees streamed into Warsaw, the city was subject to continual air raids. They got more ferocious as the Wehrmacht closed in on the capital. Unrestricted aerial bombardment was combined with artillery assault. “The damage in Warsaw is colossal,” reported the Warsaw Courier on 28 September. “Electricity, plumbing, filters and telephones are out of operation. All the hospitals have been bombed . . . there is not one historical building or monument which is not totally or seriously damaged. Whole streets have ceased to exist.” That was the day Warsaw capitulated to the Nazis. People emerged from cellars into the smoking ruins, bewildered that the city had surrendered; left to themselves Varsovians would likely have fought on. The Germans entered and occupied Warsaw on 1 October. On the 15th the city was handed over to the Nazi colonial administration, headed by Heinrich Himmler.
In a war against urban life, the Nazis tore the heart out of the city, systematically stripping it of its cultural, political and economic significance and suppressing ordinary citizens in a campaign of terror. Universities and schools were closed; textbooks, history books and foreign-language literature were confiscated; opera and theatre were banned; bookshops were shut down; cinemas showed “ancient” movies or propaganda pieces; printing presses fell silent. It was forbidden to play any music by Poland’s favorite composer, Chopin. His statue in Lazienki Park was blasted off its pedestal and the bronze presented to Hitler; that of Copernicus was removed, the Nazis claiming he was German.
Bit by bit the memory of Warsaw’s culture and history was erased; the Germans partially destroyed both the National Museum and the Zacheta Fine Arts Gallery and confiscated what was left. The only books published were on the subjects of cookery, preserving food, growing vegetables and rearing domestic animals. On the grounds that slaves should not understand their masters’ language, Poles were forbidden from learning German.What does it take to destroy a city? Humankind has devised numerous means.
A campaign of extermination against Warsaw’s intelligentsia—Operation Intelligenzaktion—began as soon as Poland was taken. Hitler told Hans Frank, the head of the General Government in Poland, that the occupied lands were “a Polish reservation, a great Polish labour camp.” And labour camps did not need intellectuals or artists. “The covered Gestapo truck is the scourge of Warsaw,” wrote Thaddeus Chylinski, U.S. vice consul. “People shudder when these trucks careen down the streets. At night conditions become worse; everyone prays that the trucks will not stop in front of their home. The sound of grinding brakes is often the forerunner of tragedy for those within earshot.” By 1944, 10,000 members of the Warsaw intelligentsia had been murdered.
Those middle-class professionals who survived mass arrests and killings were forced either to seek work as manual laborers, or to become beggars. Their jobs were taken by German colonists. The most salubrious districts were reserved for German colonists, bureaucrats and soldiers. The new overlords of Warsaw—many of them low-status before the war—could not believe their luck, taking their pick from the best apartments, along with art, jewelery, rugs and furniture. Signs saying Nur für Deutsche (Germans only) and Kein Zutritt für Polen (No Entry for Poles) appeared on trams, parks, playgrounds and restaurants.
From Metropolis by Ben Wilson. Used with the permission of Doubleday Books. Copyright © 2020 by Ben Wilson.