THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE THIRD REICH
A prime reason for the construction of buildings that are feats of architecture and engineering is to display immense wealth and power. This is seen historically with structures like the Great Wall of China or the Arc de Triomphe, with the former built to symbolise Chinese strength, and the latter to celebrate French military glory. However, only a leader as ambitious and forceful as Adolf Hitler would fantasize about breaching the limits of what mankind could design and build.
Hitler wanted to transform Berlin into a monumental megacity, which he planned to be the capital of the world (‘Welthauptstadt’) after he won the Second World War. With the seemingly infinite resources he would have after the war, he dreamed of a Berlin ‘comparable to Ancient Egypt, Babylon and Rome’, with buildings so magnificent that even the hungriest of megalomaniacs would drool. The reformed Berlin was to be called ‘Germania’, a name given by Hitler himself to instil a sense of unity between the people who would be controlled by the new empire.
So it was in 1937 that he instructed his architect Albert Speer to begin drawing up plans. Speer first joined the Nazi Party in 1931 as an architect in training. Thanks to his architectural talent, he later became a close friend of Hitler, and he served as the leading architect for the party, as well as the Minister of Armaments and War Production during World War Two.
The main architectural style used by Speer was “stripped neoclassicism”, whereby structures have characteristics inspired from the classical era but without any ornamentation. This style of architecture was mostly used in the 20th century, by both totalitarian and democratic regimes, for large and official Government buildings. The idea behind this style is limited decoration but a simplified classicist style offered by a large form and structure. Because of Hitler’s belief that “form follows function”, where the shape of a building should originate from its intended purpose, Speer also took a utilitarian approach to his designs. An architectural definition of Utilitarianism is the maximisation of efficiency with space, light and materials. Therefore utilitarian buildings, like neoclassical ones, also have limited or no decoration.
The most significant structure drawn up by Speer was the ‘Volkshalle’ which translates to ‘People’s Hall’. The building, based on the Roman Pantheon, was going to be the centrepiece of Berlin, with a 250-metre diameter dome and 180,000 seats, twice the capacity of Wembley today. The dome would have been so colossal that its own internal weather system would form. Clouds would be able to form from condensed breath, which would subsequently rain down on the numerous occupants seated inside. An alternative name for the building was ‘Monster Building’ (‘Monsterbau’), because of how impressively large the hall was intended to be. If the Volkshalle was viewed from the front, the people on the ground would be specks in comparison.
Another devised building was the ‘Triumphal Arch’, similar to the Arc de Triomphe, but much grander. The arch was planned to be 100 metres tall, meaning that the Arc de Triomphe would be able to fit completely underneath with its mere 50 metre height in comparison. The arch was to have the names of the 1.8 million fallen German soldiers of World War One inscribed upon its walls.
Another theme of these structures is how monumental they are. Monumentalism refers to any massive structure with a scale that completely exceeds any practical use it performs. The reason behind Hitler’s fascination towards monumentalism is noticeably clear in the etymology of the word ‘monument’ - ‘monere’ - which can mean ‘remind’ in Latin. Hitler believed that his ‘Thousand Year Reich’ would last multiple lifetimes, so he desired the construction of buildings that would remind future generations of his glory and accomplishments.
Despite never being realised, the sketches and models that make up Germania vividly symbolise Nazi ideology. Hitler’s militaristic approach to leadership explains why he borrowed so much architecture from the Romans - classical styles of architecture bring connotations of military victory with them, and by building similarly themed structures, he hoped that people would view him in the same victorious light. For Germany to be perceived as the greatest military power in the world, the country would need an intimidatingly large capital city. Moreover, Hitler wanted to display his army to such a degree, that he planned huge tunnel and subway systems underneath the city, so that the citizens would not travel on land designated for military parades.
Hitler also completely disregarded the human cost - on both the Allied and Axis sides - to the construction of his dream city. First, Berliners who lived too close to the city centre were forced to move out so that their homes could be demolished. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that Speer’s plans prompted mass expansion of the concentration camp system, due to a greater demand for resources and labour, although it is not thoroughly understood how connected the two projects were. Lastly, many prisoners of war involuntarily worked, at all times of day and in all types of weather, for the city’s construction.
Overall, the ideas that Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer had behind the creation of Germania represent the darkest of Nazi ideologies, with both Hitler and Speer taking on extremely misanthropic views on city planning. Although the remnants of Germania still cast a dark shadow on Berlin to this day, they are only obvious to those who know where to look.