The World Needs to Come Together. Here’s What It Did in 1963.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The 1963 Skopje earthquake killed hundreds and destroyed Macedonia’s capital, but it came with an unusual silver lining.
This story was originally published on July 27, 2018. In light of the 2020 global coronavirus pandemic that’s straining governments, threatening economies and tearing at the very fabric of societies around the world, we found it more relevant than ever.
The rumbling began just before sunrise and lasted all of 17 seconds. But within that quarter-minute, the fate of Skopje, a centuries-old city at the crossroads of southern Europe, was altered forever. Hit by a 6.1 magnitude earthquake, more than 1,000 people were killed and several thousand more wounded. Around 75 percent of the city was either leveled or seriously damaged, and Yugoslavia’s socialist government was overwhelmed by the destruction.
Now picture the rest of the world on July 26, 1963: The Soviet Union led the space race, stoking Western fears that the communist empire would win the Cold War; Berlin, along with much of Europe, was freshly divided by an Iron Curtain; and just nine months earlier, the Cuban missile crisis had brought the world’s two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war.
Times, in short, were tough.
Then came the Skopje earthquake. In a spontaneous show of unity, dozens of countries rushed to rebuild the shattered city, an unprecedented global effort that cut across political divisions and earned Skopje the nickname “City of International Solidarity.” In fact, modern-day Macedonia owes much of its development to this early and inspiring example of globalization done right. That’s in addition to what it did for the international community during such a tumultuous and uncertain time. “I have this thesis,” says architect and author Milan Mijalkovic, “that the rebuilding of Skopje kind of saved the world in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Skopje’s reconstruction was marked by a sense of idealism and international cooperation that seems all but impossible today.
By the time the earthquake — whose tremors were felt as far away as Sofia, Bulgaria, and Thessaloniki, Greece — was over, between 150,000 and 200,000 people were left homeless. The Macedonian capital, a provincial outpost of stately socialist structures and lingering Ottoman traces in the Vardar River valley, was decimated. “When the wind blew, windows and chunks of masonry would come tumbling down from the abandoned buildings of the city,” wrote Dennison Rusinow, an American researcher with the Institute of Current World Affairs who arrived in Skopje 10 days later, “and the dust rose chokingly again, smelling of death where death still lay undiscovered.”
The images were frighteningly similar to the destruction wrought across Europe just two decades earlier. Nearly every European power, from France and Germany to Poland and Russia, had seen mass devastation firsthand, an experience that sparked major rebuilding efforts in towns, cities and other urban centers throughout the Continent. Whether newly allied with NATO or the Warsaw Pact, most countries shared a single determination, however unrealistic it may have seemed: to build a better future. That’s why a kaleidoscope of countries rushed to answer Yugoslavia’s call for help.
Immediately after the quake, France sent emergency workers to rescue trapped residents; the U.S., Sweden and Romania provided hospitals and health centers; the Soviets dispatched an entire building component factory, while the U.K., Czechoslovakia, Finland, Italy, Mexico, Norway and Poland all sent prefabricated dwellings to house the displaced.
By the end of 1964, more than 14,000 new units housed some 70,000 people in a city that had mushroomed in geographical size. In the following months, the United Nations approved a sweeping assistance program that gathered some of the best architects of a generation — from Croatia, Greece, Poland and Japan — to execute a yearslong plan to rebuild the city center and create sprawling residential outskirts.
All told, some 80 countries contributed to the effort in one way or another. The fact that Josip Broz Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia was a politically nonaligned country, sandwiched between NATO and Soviet satellites, only boosted enthusiasm from all sides to court the respected leader. Mostly, though, Skopje’s reconstruction was marked by a sense of idealism and international cooperation that seems all but impossible today. “That’s one dimension which is quite important,” says Igor Martek, a lecturer in construction at Australia’s Deakin University. “There was genuine optimism and hope.”
For Macedonia, meanwhile, the unprecedented global effort was an invaluable crash course for budding local professionals. Entire neighborhoods went up, linked by all manner of social and physical infrastructure — planned by international experts, who in turn helped train future cadres of Macedonian workers educated at new technical institutes. Taken together, the knowledge transfer and economic foundation forged by the reconstruction, which was finally completed in the early 1980s, catapulted Macedonia into the postindustrial age, Martek says.
Today, some streets still bear names and plaques commemorating the countries that came to the rescue. And even though the city has gone through another reconstruction effort since then — this time, a controversial political project called Skopje 2014 — observers say the event remains a defining moment. “Everything is a legacy of the earthquake,” says Mijalkovic, the architect and author. As for the spirit of international solidarity, that too lives on in the city’s historic fabric — even if it seems more fleeting than ever just several decades later.