In the second installment of our Berlin Guides Association Long Reads series, member and professional archaeologist Nick Jackson takes a closer look at the myth surrounding Adolf Hitler’s vision of transforming Berlin into the centrepiece of the Greater Germanic world empire – the Welthauptstadt Germania.
In the spring of 1936, Adolf Hitler told his court-architect Albert Speer that he had a surprise for him: an architectural assignment. The “greatest of all”.
Speer had been working as de-facto Nazi architectural director since 1934. This new assignment would crown the ambitious young man’s rise to greatness, leading to his appointment in 1937 as ‘General Building Inspector of the Reich Capital’ (GBI).
The assignment itself was to rebuild Berlin, making Hitler’s still crystallizing vision of a world capital in stone, transforming a city he considered an ‘unregulated accumulation of buildings’ into a capital rivalling Paris or Vienna, two cities the urban plans of which a younger Hitler had absorbed deeply.
Interestingly, Hitler wasn’t comparing the new future Berlin to say, Washington, though the plans have a similarity in their general style and expressions of power. New, purpose built cities lack life he thought……giving Karlsruhe as an example. One of the twelve cities consulted by Thomas Jefferson when planning Washington DC.
By 1937, four years after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, significant new building programs had already been completed or were in planning for nine cities all over Nazi Germany. Speer’s Nuremburg Zeppelin Field stood and had filled the silver screens in ‘Triumph of the Will’, and his revamp of the Olympic stadium furnished the 1936 Berlin Nazi Olympic spectacular. A year later, and following Speer’s new appointment as General Building Inspector, plans were afoot to build a technical-school complex to the west of Berlin in the Grunewald forest.
But it was tricky. Contrary to most people’s understanding of the machinery of Nazi power, the yay or nay for the rebuilding of Berlin still lay within the remit of the mayor, Julius Lippert. Until January 1937, Lippert’s municipal administration had been resistant to Hitler’s plans.
Lippert was no ‘suit’. Lippert’s job as mayor had been a Nazi appointment. He was a Nazi. He had been involved in the murder of Weimar foreign minister Rathenau in 1922. Such was the confusing sophistry of the National Socialist approach that, much later, Speer himself would praise Rathenau’s post-WWI national economic revival program whilst in prison, and even based his own organisational structure on Rathenau’s when he was Armaments Minister from 1943.
Lippert would ultimately be side-lined as Speer grabbed new powers for the Germania project in 1937 and was eventually fired in 1940, thereafter returning to the army. To be fair, Hitler’s plans for Berlin were so grotesque perhaps Lippert can be forgiven for resisting.
But how radical were these ideas really? Was this the first time such a rebuilding project of Berlin had been considered? The answer is no. Previous plans had been put forward, perhaps the most significant (a model that had certainly influenced Hitler himself) having been submitted by architect Martin Mächler in 1917.
The Mächler Plan – The Forum vs The Block
Mächler’s offering was part of a decades-long set of proposals attempting to solve the central Berlin urban planning problem: the lack of a viable north-south rail and road network traversing a rapidly expanding metropolitan area. The political centre around the Reichstag and beyond the urban sprawl of tightly packed ca. 1880’s tenements had been split by a web of slow, traffic stopping railway lines that hamstrung Berlin as a functioning metropolis.
By 1929, the population of Berlin had swelled to 4.9 million, exacerbating these problems. This situation was at odds with a city centre designed for a population of 500,000 that stylistically still belonged to the late 19th century.
There was also deliberate political foot-dragging in the Reichstag amongst the parties of the right, aimed at stopping a new ‘Greater Berlin’ bloc of Social Democrat voters creating majorities. A move to unify, with new infrastructre developments, the ca. 200 communities spread throughout what were really eight small cities that made up Berlin as a whole, would have a substantial impact on the political landscape.
Overhaul plans were, however, eventually submitted in an international architectural competition in 1909. None were considered that plausible, but most had basic similarities. The judges had to consider not just the practical planning solutions on offer, but to assess the impact of Imperial reaction to the still somewhat new German capital’s potential ‘new face’ as a reflection of the times, for all time…..or so they thought.
This was a deep stylistic and symbolic clash between those who vision tied with the bombastic imperialist ambitions of pre-WWI Berlin (Mächler’s plan reflects this) and the more progressive, modern urban designers eager to reflect the city’s growing power as a modern, global, industrial, democracy. Perhaps this clash can best be summed up in two labels. The former group spoke of the ‘Forum’, the latter of the ‘uniform residential Block’.
The basic take away of the 1909 competition was this:
- Berlin needed new north-south rail networks, connecting between two new stations at each cardinal point, replacing the downtown terminus stations of Potsdamer Platz and Anhalter Train Station
- A new road system, complimenting these rail networks and embracing the suburbs, was also needed
- In addition, more residential blocks should be built, along with some sort of monumental centre reflecting the power of the then, young and ambitious German Empire.
This is precisely what Hitler would plan, falling into the Forum rather than Block camp. It would have a Roman style and a Roman name – Germania. Concocted to hint at the roots of an ‘ancient’ master race destined to rule Europe and the world.
Hitler’s inherited design approach to a Berlin of new architectural scale had major implications for the future, projecting in building size not just a new relationship with the capital but expressions of power. The new capital would possess a “magical power like Mecca or Rome” he thought, symbolizing a “new faith” for the people of Germania to see through their task of fate – to dominate the world.
Hitler had been formulating his plan for Germania since the mid 1920s. Mentions of a future rebuild of German cities appear in ‘Mein Kampf’, and by 1925, the year it was published, Hitler had already made sketches of monuments. Perhaps the aspiring artist had returned to dreaming of architecture once more the previous year, as a nationwide ban on the NSDAP and his publically announced withdrawal from politics had forced him to his fall-back dream. Adolf Hitler: the great architect?
Or maybe the sketches were a result of the upsurge of energy he felt at the final lifting of the ban and the reformation of his political machine and newfound destiny? Either way, pencil was put to paper, and these same sketches dusted down to show Speer in 1936. (Speer kept all of Hitler’s sketches and scribbles. By 1945, it was a collection totalling 125 pieces.)
Within eight months of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933, official meetings had been called to discuss the first phase of the Germania project: the construction of the new north-south axis and a new southern station.
At this early stage, his plans were vague – but he was pondering a ‘Great Hall’, and already the dominating theme in any future design was the calculated expression of military power.
The second phase took shape from 1937. By then, the first isolated projects had been completed:
- The western stretch of the east-west axis road, including Speer’s revamped Olympic stadium, had been completed in time for the 1936 Olympics; the eastern stretch reaching to the Brandenburg Gate would be opened for Hitler’s 50th birthday celebration in April 1939.
- The pavilions on either side of the Brandenburg Gate today were scheduled to be moved to flank the new, wider road width in this phase of construction, to allow increased traffic flow onto Unter den Linden. But this was never implemented (late 1939 turned out to be a rather busy period).
- Tempelhof Airport had been under re-construction for 3 years (already with a view to incorporating new access to a revamped rail system) and was absorbed by the official Germania planning office in 1937, and finished in 1941.
- The Air Ministry was already open.
- The old Chancellery had been extended, as had the new wing of the Propaganda Ministry, both on Wilhelmstraße.
- A Germans Workers Front Headquarters and two insurance companies’ management buildings had been constructed in western Berlin on Fehrbelliner Platz by 1935, where they still stand.
- Similarly, the Exhibition Hall, part of the International Convention Centre (ICC) today, was finished by 1936.
In November of 1937, Hitler laid the foundation stone for the Military Academy complex in the Grunewald forest; the future plans in this area included a Hitler University and hospital district north of this complex, too. This got as far as 1:1 façade construction mock ups, and to an initial construction phase before eventually being buried by 70 million cubic meters of western rubble after WWII.
Visions of Germania
By the end of 1933, demolition had started to create space for a new Imperial Bank headquarters (part of today’s Foreign Office) along the Spree river, by Museum Island. Hitler himself judged the competition for this one (entrants of which, in this very early phase of Hitler’s dictatorship, included Mies van de Rohe – the last director of the Bauhaus school that was closed by the Nazis a month after the competition) and awarded the project to Heinrich Wolff. It was finally opened in 1940. Interestingly, this building still reflected the functional modern style ridiculed soon after Hitler came to power and forcing modern architects like Mies to emigrate.
The main thrust of Speer and Hitler’s Germania plan was the new north-south axis road, planned eventually as 38km of boulevard, 7km of which would become a monumental ‘Street of Splendours’ ploughing through the city centre – starting just west of Tempelhof Airport from the new South Station, its façade 400m metres wide, to be clad in copper.
This and the east-west boulevard would have divided central Berlin into four quadrants, with a view that, as the future population rose to a projected 15 million, radial streets could connect these four axis limits with the addition of three more airports, in what was then still well outside the city centre.
All the most important visitors were to arrive by train. Tempelhof Airport, considered too close to the city centre for future plans was eventually destined to become an amusement park.
Greeting arrivals at the southern station would have been a plaza 1km in length, decorated with war booty, an arrangement that Speer thought similar to the avenues leading to the great Karnak Temple in Luxor (although there were rows of Ram Sphinxes not artillery pieces). Surrounding buildings would have included cinemas, hotels, and other entertainment venues.
Dominating the view to the north would have been Hitler’s triumphal arch, bearing the names of Germany’s 1,800,000 WWI war dead. This is the monument he had made a sketch of in 1925 and subsequently kept. The arch was to be three times the size of the famous Parisian arch. A start was made to test the marshy Berlin ground to see whether this was viable, and this construction still stands today.
This arch was one of the most symbolic of the Germania plan constructions. It has an instantly identifiable Parisian aesthetic – but also subtlety incorporates the main populist promises of the Nazi political platform. Its completion would erase the shame of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, atone for the betrayal of the Weimar Government, and – bearing the names of 1,800,000 war dead – would finally transform November 1918 into some sort of victory.
Visitor neck ache would continue after clearing the arch, as the central monumental wonder the ‘Great Hall of the People’ hove into view beyond, 290m high, with a planned dome of 250m diameter. In contrast, the dome of St Peters in Rome is 42m metres in diameter.
The design of the dome hints at the Pantheon in Rome. Hitler visited Rome in 1938 but his inspiration for the Great Hall pre-dates that visit, since in 1925 it appears in the background of Hitler’s arch sketch.
On the way to the entrance to the court that the Hall dominated, visitors would pass the headquarters of industrial concerns, opera houses, a new home for the Philharmonic, the Soldiers Hall and be confronted by Nazi Party organisation buildings flanking the 120m wide roadway via a large circular plaza, located roughly where todays Potsdamer Platz is to be found. Hermann Goering’s new office complex was to be here. One corner would have housed a new British Embassy.
Almost none of these plans ever got off the ground, with the execption of the ‘Tourist House’, as well as the New Reich Chancellery. The Tourist House was torn down after the war, although its pedestal base is still visible, incorporated into van de Rohe’s (and he’s back) New National Gallery from the early 1960s. The New Reich Chancellery (the first version at least) was finished in record time in January 1939 and then demolished in 1947. This was huge, though the central corridor through the building to Hitler’s office was originally conceived as being more than twice as long as its final 220m. The later, final Chancellery building would have flanked the Great Hall square to the south of Hitler’s palace.
Beyond all of this would be the new centre of what Hitler would dub a ‘world capital’ in 1942. A new town hall, the Army, Navy and Police would all get new government offices around the Great Hall, as well as a ‘Palace’ for Hitler. Palaces really didn’t suit Hitler’s public persona as a simple ‘man of the people’, but the Nazi leader felt his successor would need a building imbued with his spirit after his death (he felt he might die young), so he was prepared to move in.
To realise these specific plans, the buildings around today’s Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz were purchased from 1937 and demolished. Other adjacent domestic areas were also erased. It was during this project that the Victory Column and statues of Bismarck et al made their forced migration to the Tiergarten Park where they stand today.
This demolition didn’t go unnoticed by the Berlin population. In fact, in what is now the Schaubühne theatre on the famous Kurfürstendamm, a Cabaret trio performed a sketch mocking the blasé approach of Speer’s GBI office demolitions, only to be banned in 1938 as lacking in ‘humour’ and faith in National Socialism. Even architects working close to Speer let off emotional steam. Hans Stephan, an architectural draughtsman, used his artistry to produce private cartoons, showing artillery blasting away residential streets, scenes reminiscent of the far less benign blasting of the Red Army in April ‘45.
All of these proposals (not just a first phase but a second phase, too) were to be finished by 1950. To accomplish this the process of decision making had to be streamlined, hence Speer’s increase in powers, the gift of new offices at the Academy of Arts by the Hotel Adlon, and the final removal of mayor Lippert in 1940.
The budget was an estimated 4-6 Billion Reich Marks, some ca. 50 Billion US Dollars by today’s money.
Interestingly, the plan did actually involve the construction of housing, too. An additional 160,000 new apartments were intended to be constructed as part of the Germania project. Although the demolitions to make way for the main Germania buildings destroyed many more than the 2,000 new apartments that would be eventually completed on Grazer Damm in Schöneberg, and in Charlottenburg near Westhafen.
The Human Cost of Germania
In 1942, as Hitler was still pondering the name ‘Germania’ for this new city, defeats on all fronts in WWII meant the dream was over before it really managed to gather momentum. Germania was never officially scrapped as a project, not much had progressed after 1940 anyhow. When, in 1942, the bank account of the Building Inspectors Office was finally and quietly dissolved, this freed up 321 Million Reich Marks for military purposes. Speer himself would move to a new ministry one year later – organising the war production industry.
In another fundraising twist related to the Germania project, commemorative medals were distributed on receipt of donations for the 1943 ‘winter relief fund’, the year of the Stalingrad disaster. Embossed on these medallions were Germania buildings (often the proposed ‘Soldiers Hall’ – half way up the eastern side of the north-south axis road), implying that the future still included their completion.
In between, though, there was the grimmer side, in which Speer himself was directly involved.
A swathe of desirable residential area running from Zoo station in west Berlin to Olivaer Platz on Kurfürstendamm, and two blocks north and south along this axis, were to be cleared of their Jewish inhabitants and used for rehousing non-Jewish Berliners evicted as a result of Speer’s clearances. Later, as the first bombs fell on Berlin, re-housing bombing victims became urgent, so in 1941 the eviction and deportation of Jewish Berliners began, freeing up their apartments for others.
These building plans also played a role in the extension of Himmler’s murderous SS empire: the founding of the German Earth and Stonework Company, exploiting labour from KZ Sachsenhausen north of Berlin. After a brick factory at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp was closed in 1937, just north of Berlin the construction of a huge brick works on the canal at nearby Sachsenhausen was completed, with work there costing hundreds of lives. Penal Company leader, Ficke, said of his time at the Brick Factory: “During the 3 months I worked at the brick factory, 100 of my prisoners died, many were simply shot, others from exhaustion.”
Although Albert Speer would emerge from WWII eager to downplay his knowledge of the extent of Nazi atrocities, the barrack compound at the eastern end of the Brick factory at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp would bear his name: ‘Commando Speer’.
Several other concentration camps produced granite blocks for Germania and other projects. In what can only be described as tragically ironic, the materials produced – despite the immeasurable suffering of the prisoners – were often sub-standard and considered unusable, largely due to the incompetence of the SS. The bricks were made with the wrong clay and the granite cracked easily, so the materials would eventually mostly be used for road curbs and cobbling.
The End of Hitler’s World Capital
In October 1941, at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia, Hitler’s dinner conversations, at a time when Operation Barbarossa was going strong in Russia, are an odd but interesting read, recorded for posterity by stenographers in a project that was originally called the ‘Bormann Notes’.
It was at this time (October 1941 when things first started to go wrong on the Eastern Front. Yet Hitler’s conversation’s varied greatly and didn’t also seem urgen or even pertinent. For instance, just after the first snows of the Russian winter fell, Hitler waxed lyrical on the need to reform the meteorological service. Weeks later, as the first deportation trains filled with Jews left Berlin for the concentration and death camps, his monologues would deal with the eradication of the Jewry (as the Rumanian army was fighting alongside German forces in Russia – Rumania’s Jewish population is specified). The next night, the theme was how Jesus wasn’t Jewish.
Hitler also spoke often of his Germania project at this time. Perhaps, because in early autumn 1941, when the war still seemed to be going to plan, Hitler started pondering the long-term ravages of Millennia on his newly built cities, that in his mind’s eye were already complete. He thought how one day, in about 2000 years, some of these buildings would still stand, like ruins in Rome, but bigger.
But the ruination was complete just four years later.
Berlin, as Hitler’s capital, was bombed over 350 times between 1940 and 1945. By early May 1945, as the Red Army assault on Berlin came to an end, the city had been reduced to approximately 27% rubble, what hadn’t been completely destroyed was badly damaged. ‘Total war’ had devastated the country whose leaders had cheered its application. Millions lay dead.
The designs of all the major Germania buildings had been completed: many emerged from the planning table as models, a few buildings had even been realised, although many of those were now heavily damaged. The cuts in Berlin’s urban landscape in preparation for buildings that were never remained empty.
A post-war survey (1945) amongst the German population records that about a quarter of German adults, and half of German youth, thought the best mechanism for a swift national relaunch of a shattered Germany would be the guiding hand of a ‘new, strong Führer’.
This attitude presented the victorious Allies with a multi layered dilemma. How should Germany be treated? How could a peaceful future be constructed in Europe with Germany at its core, given the tensions between it occupiers and the apparent lingering Nazi creed amongst the population?
On a basic, practical level, occupied Germany was simply stripped of its technological and industrial capacity, basically a war booty scheme. But additionally, a policy beginning in 1946/7 demanding that physical reminders of the Nazi regime be systematically removed obviously had a profound effect of the surviving Nazi-era buildings.
This complied with the ‘4 Ds’ policy agreed at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. One ’D’ was the major goal of ‘Denazification’ of the population (10% of which had been NSDAP members). Physical removal of buildings representative of Nazi regime would aid this process of consigning the period to the past – before this new, post conflict ‘Zero Hour’.
But soon after, new global developments gave these programs a new hue. The victors desperate scramble for Nazi period technology had been primarily directed at military applications, most famously the V rocket program developed from 1936. The horrorific details of the conditions at the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp and its underground rocket plant were pushed aside after liberation as the rush for weapons that touched the edge of space took priority.
Why? Because the ‘war’ continued immediately after May 1945, but the ‘enemy’ had changed, and the stakes were just as high.
These new tensions and priorities in a world now divided between East and West had a profound bearing on the physical rebuilding policy of Berlin. Shifting the treatment of Berlin’s ruins from ‘Denazification’ to ‘Bi-glorification’.
Ironically, many of the architects involved in rebuilding many west German cities had been on Albert Speer’s GBI board from 1937.
Each side of Berlin now set about clearing and rebuilding to show its positive future and dominance in concrete. This policy shift produced the showcase East and West Berlin of the 1950s that makes up a substantial part of the city today. As the ruins became less frequent in number, sentimentality attached to them grew amongst the population. The image that portrays this best today is the old and new church designs of the Gedächtniskirche in the heart of West Berlin, the ultimate ‘yesterday and tomorrow’ duo of bullet scarred stones of the past, and the steel and glass of the city of future and new dreams.
This new policy shifted focus away from destruction of Nazi period buildings that might otherwise have been demolished. The Olympic stadium, Tempelhof airport, the former Air Ministry amongst others benefitted from this, something that created the catalogue of Nazi period remains for us to discover today.
Although it remains a small catalogue….
What Remains To See Of Germania?
There are some remnants of defensive architecture of interest above ground, for instance the destroyed anti-aircraft towers in Friedrichshain and Humboldthain parks, for example, would have been integrated into Hitler’s general plan. But as for remnants of core Germania proper, very little remains. For some time, the most obvious examples of Germania in Berlin existed as absence; the voids where Germania should have been. Until recently, these voids were still noticeable.
The open spaces established by the Nazis remained after the post-war frenzy of clearance and rebuilding reached a stasis several decades later. Partly this pause was driven by economic realities and, of course, the erection of the symbol of division, the Berlin Wall, in 1961. But the lack of action in some areas was a product also of a strange conundrum of architectural planning faith on both sides. How far should post-war planners develop West Berlin, for example, as a fully independent ‘island’ city? How could the future possibility, however small, of a unified city – and the subsequent need for integration – be factored into immediate architectural decisions?
Though the political importance of creating showcase ‘capitals’ in both Berlins still produced two new 1960s city centres – most visibly the TV tower and new Alexander Platz complex, and to a certain extent the Bikini House and the Europa Centre at Zoo in the West – post-war planners, both East and West, without consultation, still seem to have given a tacit nod to the previous long term urban design issues that had been under discussion half a century before.
This meant the great 1930s demolition areas around the Reichstag for example remained open until very recently (late 1990s).
This connects also to the other Berlin difficulty resulting from its past: does building a new (now post ‘Fall of the Wall’) German capital in a hole created by Speer today mean you’re in some way completing his task? Perhaps this is why the new ‘Ribbon of Government’ buildings are designed to run at 90 to the Nazi orientation and directly through the site of the proposed Hall of the People (most of which is left as green space)?
Today’s new road and rail tunnels under the Tiergarten park are a final realisation of the urban design plans of Mächler, Speer, and Hitler a century ago. They are essential, but conveniently invisible.
Below ground, where many Nazi period constructions lay, only ca. 5 % was touched. This, and the fact that they are invisible, difficult and expensive to approach means there is still a Nazi underground world beneath Berlin, it’s just that few of us get to see it. Beneath the Tiergarten Park, roughly below the road opposite today’s Soviet memorial, are three tunnels that would have taken traffic on the new north-south axis underneath the existing east-west axis road widened by Speer in 1938-9.
Of the few visible remnants of Germania worth mentioning (beyond the mid 30s buildings mentioned above) one is the remains of the ground test device (Schwerbelastungskörper) for the Triumphal Arch, the other a marker for the clearances.
Still standing at General Pape Straße 100, built by French POWs in 1941 is the massive 12,000 tonnes, 32m x 25m concrete ‘drawing pin’ load tester built to assess the subsidence potential of what would have been the eastern footprint of the arch itself. Six centimetres of subsidence would have been the limit, in-fact it sank over eighteen centimetres, making the construction inviable without enormous amounts of foundational packing material, actively considered at the time.
Just north of this, the modern road bridge straddles the wide expanse of both old and new railway tracks running north-south through the heart of Berlin. It is here that one can visualise Germania’s proposed great road looking north, and the huge station to the south. This is where core Germania would have stood.
Less well known is a commemorative marker in the Alter St Matthäus cemetery on Großgörschenstraße near Yorckstraße S-bahn. Here, on the northern wall, is a commemoration to the houses demolished by Albert Speer in the late 1930s. Also in the cemetery lies a grave marker for Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg and his confederates, who were buried here for one night, then exhumed and dumped in a place unknown following their execution – having failed to kill Hitler in July 1944.
Some brave folk realised at the time the madness had to be stopped….. It took others much longer to realize. Albert Speer, who would survive the war to see his project unrealised, was among the latter.
In his fascinating, but questionable, post-war account of his role at the heart of the Nazi dictatorship and head of the Germania project, Speer recounts a story of a dinner in Paris. He tells of a theory he had developed that in post-Revolutionary France, the new architecture and design style reached the peak of beauty only to be corrupted by the increasingly lavish and overly ornamental Empire style. Could the corruption of this beauty be a result of hubris and decadence, and be seen now as a indicator that contributed to the collapse of the Empire? Speer regretted that during the planning stage of the Germania plan, in the scale, the ornamentation and sheer ‘eagle grasping the globe in its talons’ ness of the new Nazi Berlin, he didn’t see these ideas as hinting at a decadence that would usher in that downfall either.
This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Nick Jackson. A professional archaelogist with experience in the Near East, Nick divides his time between book research, Berlin touring, Nazi bunkers, travel journalism, lecturing on WWII Europe and the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and some TV documentaries. For more information on Berlin’s Third Reich history, visit Nick’s profile to book him as a guide or his website: www.jacksonberlintours.com.
Read Nick’s latest Berlin Long Read: Cancelling Hitler: The Importance of Myths and Symbols in Historical Change.