Albert Speer’s imagined Nazi Berlin

An essay that discusses the legacy of German architect Albert Speer briefly highlights his plans for turning Berlin into the grand Nazi capital:

Speer quickly moved into the Führer’s inner circle, where Hitler shared his vision with the young architect. Hitler wanted to make Berlin into the most impressive city in the world, conveying the beauty and overwhelming strength of the triumphal Reich that would dominate the world — and Speer was to be the master planner. Speer conceived of the city’s buildings to have what he called “ruin value” — meaning that they were meant to be built to last for thousands of years, like the ancient ruins of Greece. Hitler embraced this concept, which accorded with his vision of a Thousand Year Reich.

The dream of Hitler’s new city, which was to be renamed World Capital Germania, was without parallel in the modern world. Speer planned as the centerpiece a gargantuan domed Great Hall that would hold 180,000 occupants as they listened to the Führer’s speeches. Had it ever been built, Speer’s dome would have dwarfed any structure nearby, and could have contained several domes the size of the U.S. Capitol. Along the sprawling grand avenue leading to the Great Hall would be a German version of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, intended to dwarf Napoleon’s. Elsewhere, at the Nuremberg rally grounds, construction began (but was never completed) on a German Stadium that would have held 400,000 spectators.

It is not certain that these plans could have been realized. Among other issues, Berlin was built on converted swampland, and there are serious doubts that the ground would have been able to support the huge weight of such structures; test structures built by the Nazis suggested that the buildings would sink well beyond tolerable limits. Regardless of the feasibility, this was art and architecture based on ostentation and megalomania. The plans, of course, spoke of the intoxication with power not just of the state, but of the men who ran it. Speer found himself elevated with breathtaking rapidity to the highest echelons of power, and developed a close personal relationship with the most powerful man in Germany, who was idolized and worshiped by millions of Germans and feared by millions more around the world. Speer looked up to Hitler and seemed to crave his approval. Hitler, for his part, spoke of having “the warmest human feelings” for Speer, and regarding him as a “kindred spirit.” Gitta Sereny writes that “in looks and language, the tall, handsome young Speer probably came close to being a German ideal for the Austrian Hitler.” Speer admitted at the Nuremberg trials that “if Hitler had had any friends, I would certainly have been one of his close friends.” Hitler formed a deep admiration for Speer’s architectural style and ambition. He had always considered himself an artist first, who only became a politician to realize his dream of a powerful Germany, and he saw in the young Speer his own unfulfilled self — someone who was technically capable of achieving his artistic dreams for a Germany that would rule the world.

It is little coincidence that powerful dictators aspire to design and build expansive cities: they want such places to provide a long reminder of their power. There is something about imposing buildings, long avenues, and public memorials and art that can reinforce the powers that be. Of course, as this essay suggests, architects and engineers can get swept up in such plans. Speer went from grandiose plans for Berlin to running the armaments ministry for Germany and increasing production through late 1944 even as Nazi Germany was losing the war on two (three, if you count Italy) fronts.

Wikipedia has more on Speer’s plans for World Capital Germania:

The first step in these plans was the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the 1936 Summer Olympics. This stadium would promote the rise of the Nazi government. A much larger stadium capable of holding 400,000 spectators was planned alongside the Nazi parade grounds in Nuremberg but only the foundations were dug before the project was abandoned due to the outbreak of war. Had this stadium been completed it would remain the largest in the world today by a considerable margin.

Speer also designed a new Chancellery, which included a vast hall designed to be twice as long as the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. Hitler wanted him to build a third, even larger Chancellery, although it was never begun. The second Chancellery was destroyed by the Soviet army in 1945.

Almost none of the other buildings planned for Berlin were ever built. Berlin was to be reorganized along a central 5 km-long boulevard known as the Prachtallee (“Avenue or Boulevard of Splendour(s)”). This would run south from a crossroads with the East-West Axis close to the Brandenburg Gate, following the course of the old Siegesallee through the Tiergarten before continuing down to an area just west of Tempelhof Airport. This new North-South Axis would have served as a parade ground, and have been closed off to traffic. Vehicles would have instead been diverted into an underground highway running directly underneath the parade route; sections of this highway’s tunnel structure were built, and still exist today. No work was ever begun above ground although Speer did relocate the Siegesallee to another part of the Tiergarten in 1938 in preparation for the avenue’s construction.

The plan also called for the building of two new large railway stations as the planned North-South Axis would have severed the tracks leading to the old Anhalter and Potsdamer stations, forcing their closure. These new stations would be built on the city’s main S-Bahn ring with the Nordbahnhof in Wedding and the larger Südbahnhof in Tempelhof-Schöneberg at the southern end of the avenue. The Anhalter Bahnhof, no longer used as a railway station, would have been turned into a swimming pool.

At the northern end of the avenue on the site of the Königsplatz (now the Platz der Republik) there was to be a large open forum known as Großer Platz with an area of around 350,000 square metres. This square was to be surrounded by the grandest buildings of all, with the Führer’s palace on the west side on the site of the former Kroll Opera House, the 1894 Reichstag Building on the east side and the third Reich Chancellery and high command of the German Army on the south side (on either side of the square’s entrance from the Avenue of Splendours). On the north side of the plaza, straddling the River Spree, Speer planned to build the centrepiece of the new Berlin, an enormous domed building, the Volkshalle (people’s hall), designed by Hitler himself. It would still remain the largest enclosed space in the world had it been built. Although war came before work could begin, all the necessary land was acquired, and the engineering plans were worked out. The building would have been over 200 metres high and 250 metres in diameter, sixteen times larger than the dome of St. Peter’s.

Towards the southern end of the avenue would be a triumphal arch based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but again, much larger; it would be almost a hundred metres high, and the Arc de Triomphe (at the time the largest triumphal arch in existence) would have been able to fit inside its opening, evidently with the intention of replacing the rather long history associated with this Arch and in particular the unique ceremonies, with reference to the history of France, connected with it, see the French government website on this history.As a result of the occupation of Berlin by Soviet troops in 1945, a memorial was constructed with two thousand of the Soviet dead buried there in line with this proposed ‘Triumphal Arch’. It had been intended that inside this generously proportioned structure the names of the 1,800,000 German dead of the First World War should be carved, that which presumably was known to amongst others the Soviet leaders.

A cautionary tale.