Wars have decimated many of the world’s most famous cities challenging survivors and governments with the task of reconstruction time and time again. In particular after World War II parts of Europe and Asia had been reduced to rubble and had displaced millions of people from their homes. In Germany an estimated 70% of all housing was destroyed while in the Soviet Union—1,700 towns and 70,000 villages were wiped out. Europe lost the majority of its ports and Asia suffered a loss of ports as well.
Cities were faced with the question of whether they should be left in ruins as a monument to the war or rebuilt as if the war never happened. Some saw the opportunity to build entirely new cities. While reconstruction efforts in cities around the world have moved quickly thanks to the inspiring resilience of locals the process is slow—and for some never completely finished. For example visitors to Dresden, Germany will find construction sites throughout the city even though the war ended more than 70 years ago.
We compiled a list of 5 cities that have undergone remarkable and awe-inspiring recoveries from violence. Read on to see how these war-torn places around the world were able to rebuild.
During the Civil War in the United States, Richmond was the capital of the so-called Confederate States of America. In 1865 the city was evacuated and orders were given to destroy stockpiles of supplies; army officials burned tobacco warehouses, causing fires worsened by strong winds.
Mobs seized control of the city when the Confederate army withdrew and riots ensued—portions of the business district were burned down, but the residential areas were left untouched. The Union army proceeded to put out the fires within the city and a week later Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate army to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
In 1870 Virginia adopted the “Underwood Constitution” to reform the tax system create public schools and recognize the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution—which ensure equality for emancipated slaves. However, the state continued to pass further legislation to control the civil liberties of free blacks.
Richmond—along with the rest of Virginia—came under military control after the war ended and took several years to rebuild physically and economically. Former slaves were transported from the countryside to the city and proved to be adept both in the workforce and in the democratic process—so much so that 33 black men served on Richmond’s city council between 1871 and 1898.
Because Milan was an industrial and commercial center, it was an Allied target during World War II. The city was subject to 60 air raids killing tens of thousands of people and destroying a third of its buildings. Thanks to sand reinforcements and struts, the Ciborium of St. Ambrose was saved, as well as Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” but many historical artifacts were lost forever.
By 1943 Milan had been turned into a city of rubble. Historians say that the bombing campaigns led directly to a decrease in Italian morale and war weariness though Italians saw cities as symbols that had to be defended while they were under attack.
During the war the Virgin Mary statue in Milan’s famous Duomo was covered with rags so enemy bombers wouldn’t be able to see it. After the war ended, the cathedral was completely renovated and its wooden doors were replaced with marble doors. In 1969 it was closed for further repairs; it reopened in 1986.
Both the effects of the war and real estate speculation led to a complete redesign of entire areas of Milan and erased popular and wealthy neighborhoods and streets. Italians in the city were faced with the question of whether to reconstruct historic areas or build a new city entirely. This led to the construction of modern buildings including the Pirelli skyscraper.
Bosnian Serbs backed by Serbia sieged the city of Sarajevo with rocket mortar and sniper attacks mainly targeting Muslims, but killing many people from different ethnic and religious groups. Croat and Serb forces also carried out horrific acts of “ethnic cleansing” in the country, leading more than 70 men to be convicted of war crimes by the United Nations.
The 1992 siege of Sarajevo the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina marked the start of the Bosnian War and was the longest siege of a capital city in modern history. Over the period of the war, approximately 100,000 Bosnians were killed and about half of the population fled. The conflict was a result of several republics of the former Yugoslavia proclaiming independence and was made worse by ethnic conflict.
When the war ended, Bosnia and Herzegovina transitioned to a democracy and was tasked with rebuilding its capital city—almost 1,500 historic buildings had been destroyed during the siege. Bosnians reportedly rebuilt their homes after every shelling and the city also reconstructed national buildings and historical sites.
The National Library in Sarajevo—along with many important books—was destroyed in 1992 and finally reopened in 2014. Vedran Smajlovic, a cellist who became famous for playing in the ruins of the library, attended the reopening to perform under more celebratory circumstances.
Labor unions and leftist parties encouraged people to defend their city, which raised morale and encouraged external reinforcements from the Soviet Union. During the siege, Madrid was bombed by German planes and combat took place at different places in the city including Casa de Campo and Ciudad Universitaria.
The first bombing raids in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War took place on Aug. 28, 1936 and began a siege that lasted three years. The government that had been in place before the military uprising vacated the capital and moved to Valencia. By the time the war ended, military dictator Francisco Franco claimed that 12,000 nationalists had been killed in Madrid.
The Palace of Moncloa, the residence of the Spanish prime minister, was destroyed during the siege but rebuilt a decade later. Other war damage was repaired and detailed reconstruction plans were developed but weren’t unilaterally implemented. Instead, the city of Madrid spread outward; during the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of new residences were built.
During the 1990s the city dedicated major efforts toward expanding, building the National Music Auditorium, a new railway station, the Queen Sofia Museum, and Almudena Cathedral. Today the city is once again the capital of Spain. Its status as the center of Spanish government and finance has contributed to its notoriety as well as establishing it as a tourism hub.
Toward the end of World War II in February 1945, Allied forces bombed Dresden and decimated the entire city leaving it in ruins and killing between 35,000 and 135,000 people. Before the war, the German city was considered the “Florence of the Elbe” and was known for its intricate architecture and museums.
By the end of the February raid, the U.S. Eighth Air Force dropped more than 950 tons of high-explosive bombs; by the end of the war, it had dropped 2,800 more tons of bombs on Dresden in ensuing raids. When the war ended, the city was essentially leveled. American author Kurt Vonnegut described the bombing in his acclaimed novel “Slaughterhouse Five.”
After the war survivors and volunteers spent years clearing rubble from the city. Architects and city planners were tasked with deciding which features of Dresden should be rebuilt and what parts of the city should be created anew. The Semper Opera House and Zwinger Palace were among the historic buildings that were reconstructed, but much of the city center was cleared to make way for buildings designed in a style known today as Socialist modernism.
Beginning in the 1990s, people began to push for the reconstruction of the Dresden Frauenkirche, the city’s famous Lutheran church. In 1993 people began sorting through the rubble; the church was finally rebuilt in 2005.