Germania, Hitler’s Dream Capital: Albert Speer’s plan to transform Berlin into the capital of a 1,000-year Reich would have created a vast monument to misanthropy

February 19, 2012

History Today:

In 1937 Hitler’s architect Albert Speer was given the task of transforming Berlin from the sprawling metropolis that it was into Germania, the gleaming new capital of a Greater German ‘World Empire’, the centrepiece of the civilised world.

It was a vast undertaking. Plans, swiftly drawn up by Speer’s office, were presented to the public on January 28th, 1938. The reaction within Germany was predictably enthusiastic, with newspapers carrying detailed explanations and commentaries. Der Angriff stated that the designs were ‘truly monumental … far exceeding all expectations’, while the Völkischer Beobachter proclaimed grandly that ‘from this desert of stone, shall emerge the capital of a thousand-year Reich’. The foreign press, though less effusive, nonetheless concurred. The New York Times, for instance, described the project as ‘perhaps the most ambitious planning scheme’ of the modern era.

The plans certainly did not want for ambition. In accordance with Hitler’s original sketches they centred on a grand boulevard, which was to run from north to south for around seven kilometres through the heart of the city, linking two proposed new rail termini. Given carte blanche in redesigning this vast swathe of the city centre, Speer and his minions had had a field day and their plans read like a catalogue of comparatives and superlatives. The vast Grand Hall, for instance, close to the Reichstag, would have been the largest enclosed space in the world, with a dome 16 times larger than that of St Peter’s in Rome. Designed to host 180,000 people, there were concerns among the planners that the exhaled breath of the audience might even produce ‘weather’ beneath the cavernous coffered ceiling. The 117-metre tall Arch of Triumph, meanwhile, was designed – on Hitler’s express instruction – to carry the names of Germany’s 1.8 million fallen of the First World War engraved upon its walls. Similarly massive, it would have comfortably accommodated its Parisian namesake beneath its arch. Linking these monuments along the new axis would be a plethora of new buildings, civic and commercial, flanking broad avenues, ornamental obelisks, an artificial lake and a vast ‘circus’ peppered with Nazi statuary.

The image that will be familiar to many is of Hitler inspecting the white scale-model of this main axis, which was presented to him on his 50th birthday in April 1939 and was erected in a side-room of the Reich Chancellery. Though Hitler’s interest in the project was restricted almost exclusively to the north-south axis – and he would often return to muse over the model – the plans were not limited to that one area. Speer had succeeded in incorporating those headline designs into a much more thoroughgoing reorganisation of the city’s infrastructure.

First of all, Berlin’s rail network was to be overhauled, with the two new stations replacing three old termini and with many miles of sidings being replaced by a new line that would circle the city centre. Roads, too, were to be redrawn. The two new boulevards – the proposed north-south axis and the east-west axis, completed in 1939 – were only the centrepiece of a radical redevelopment. In addition Speer foresaw the city’s formerly organic urban growth being rationalised by the addition of radial thoroughfares and four concentric ring roads, the outermost of which would provide a direct connect-ion to the German autobahn network.

Visions of Germania: How the city might have looked

Entire suburbs were to be constructed to provide modern housing stock, administrative buildings and new commercial developments, which, it was planned would accommodate over 200,000 Berliners, moved out of the slums of the city centre. New airports were foreseen, including one for seaplanes on the lake at Rangsdorf. Even the city’s parks would be revamped, with horticultural studies being commissioned to report on the species that were required to restore the 18th-century flora of the region. Such was the scale of the Germania plans that, when Speer’s father – himself an architect – saw them, he summed up the thoughts of many of his contemporaries, saying: ‘You’ve all gone completely crazy.’

Of course only a tiny fraction of these grandiose designs would ever be realised. The visitor to Berlin today will struggle to see much evidence of Speer’s Germania unless he or she knows where to look. Most obvious is the boulevard west of the Brandenburg Gate, which is the old east-west axis and which is still illuminated by some of Speer’s original – and rather elegant – street lamps. Meanwhile the Victory Column (inaugurated in 1873 following Prussia’s victories over Denmark, Austria and France in the 1860s and 1870s) was moved to its present location to make way for the projected north-south Axis. Most bizarrely, the southern suburb of Tempelhof still contains a huge circular concrete block weighing over 12,000 tonnes – the Schwerbelastungskörper, or ‘heavy load-bearing body’ – which was supposed to help Speer’s engineers gauge the ability of Berlin’s sandy soil to take the vast weight of the proposed Arch of Triumph. Too large and too solid to demolish, the block stands to this day as a silent monument to Nazi megalomania.

 More than a pipedream

Given that so little of Germania was ever completed and that only a fraction of it remains, it is easy to underestimate its significance. Speer’s planned rebuilding of Berlin is too readily dismissed as a Nazi pipedream; a still-born manifestation of Hitler’s architectural fantasies thankfully confined to the drawing board. Yet, in spite of the fact that Germania never came into being it would be a mistake if we were to allow ourselves to view it merely as an abstract: a folly, or an architectural curiosity somehow divorced from the odious regime that spawned it. For, as we shall see, Germania was in many ways a rather perfect representation of Nazism.

First, the issue of its feasibility must be assessed. Despite its soaring ambition the plan to re-model Berlin was part of a veritable orgy of building that had gripped the later, peacetime years of the Third Reich. Much of that, certainly, was relatively small-scale – barracks, settlements, schools and so on – but a number of projects showed similarly monumental tendencies and were themselves considerable feats of planning and construction. Most famously, perhaps, there is the example of Hitler’s vast new Reich Chancellery, which stretched the entire 400-metre length of the Voss Strasse in Berlin and was completed in 1939 at a cost of over 90 million Reichsmarks.

Other Berlin landmarks were similarly grandiose: the Olympic Stadium, opened in 1936, seated 100,000 spectators and was part of a much larger complex that was intended as much for political as for sporting ends. Göring’s Air Ministry, meanwhile, also completed in 1936, was once the largest office building in the world, offering 2,800 rooms across seven floors with 4,000 windows and nearly seven kilometres of corridors. Today it is home to the German finance ministry.

Elsewhere construction was no more modest. In Nuremberg Speer’s famed tribune on the Zeppelin Field was dwarfed by the nearby Congress Hall, modelled on the Colosseum in Rome, which was built to accommodate 50,000 of the Nazi faithful. Though it only reached a height of 39 metres – as opposed to the 70 metres that was planned – it is still the largest surviving building of the Nazi period; while at Prora, on the Baltic coast, a huge holiday resort was constructed, which, though unfinished at the outbreak of war in 1939, stretched for 4.5km along the seafront and would have housed over 20,000 holidaymakers. Even Hitler’s folly above Berchtesgaden – the Kehlsteinhaus, or ‘Eagle’s Nest’ – was an ambitious project. Completed in 1938, after little over a year in construction, it was sited atop an Alpine ridge at an altitude of over 6,000 feet and was accessed via a purpose-built seven-kilometre mountain road, which had to be blasted into the mountainside.

When considering Hitler’s plans for Berlin, therefore, one must bear in mind the wider context of Nazi construction and the astonishing track record that Hitler’s architects already had in successfully realising his visions. Germania was not mere Nazi ‘pie in the sky’. It was a part of a concerted programme to provide Germany with a portfolio of grand-scale, monumental architecture, which, Hitler believed, would be seen as the defining buildings of the age, rivals to Egypt, Babylon and Rome, inspiring future generations of Germans. It was certainly not merely a dictator’s architectural wish-list…

Read it all.

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