In the south of Berlin, there is a massive pillar; one of the few remnants of the Nazis’ attempts to make Berlin the capital of the Thousand-Year Reich, equaled only by Egypt, Babylon, and Rome, it now sits amongst shabby, peach-colored residential blocks.
The monstrous concrete structure has a 21-meter radius and weighs the same as 22 Airbus A380s. It rises above the ground over four stories tall and extends a further 18 meters into the ground.
The Schwerbelastungskörper, or “heavy load test structure,” was built to simulate the weight of one of the four pillars of the planned 120-meter-tall Triumphal Arch. The Arch would have stood on the north-south axis of Germania, and this pillar would have been on its northeastern side.
“Berlin’s swampy ground was seen as a potential hindrance for such a massive structure, so the engineers of the German Society for Soil Mechanics were commissioned to check the extent to which it would have to be reinforced,” says Micha Richter, a Berlin architect and leading member of Berlin Underworlds, an association that holds tours of historic sites across – and mainly underneath – the city. “Its 12,650 tons of concrete were poured over seven months in 1941,” he says. French POWs were among those deployed in its construction.
Berlin historian Gerlot Schaulinski, who curated the Mythos Germania exhibition, says that the cylinder exposes the flaw in peoples’ view that Germania’s architectural plans were somehow detached from the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Instead, a close look at the methods used to construct the cylinder shows precisely the inhumane methods the Nazis used.
There is a close relationship between the buildings in Germania and the concentration camps. Many camps were built near quarries and the prisoners used to get the stone for the many buildings. Sachsenhausen was built near a planned brickworks plant. Tens of thousands died extracting stone or baking bricks for Germania. In Berlin, 130,000 POWs were put to work on construction sites for Germania.
The demand for labor was so great that the police were tasked with rounding up male beggars and tramps and other “undesirables” to put to work.
Ordinary Berliners also felt the effects of Germania. Many were forcibly moved to make room for the new city. Often they were given homes left empty when their Jewish owners were moved to ghettoes or concentration camps. Germania was used as a reason to drive Jews from their homes even before the pogroms in 1938.
Had they been able to fulfill their vision, Hitler and his general building inspector, Albert Speer, would have altered the city beyond recognition. Large sections of Berlin would have been wiped out, including between 50,000 and 100,000 houses. Old structures like the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, large structures by current standards, would have been dwarfed by the proposed buildings.
Welthauptstadt Germania, World Capital Germany, is often believed to be the official name given by the Nazis. That might not entirely be true.
“The name only emerged after the publication of Speer’s 1969 memoirs, Inside the Third Reich, and is based on casual remarks made, we believe, just twice by Hitler in conversation with a close circle of acquaintances,” says Schaulinski. “It combines the image of a visionary city of the future with that of a megalomaniac dictator. Now, ‘Germania’ stands for the hubris of the Nazi system and the failure of those big plans, because it only exists in drawings and model images.”
Schauinski points out Speer’s use of the name served him well in his postwar portrayal of his role in the project. “It supported his attempts to prove the strength of Hitler’s allure and why Speer – the architect, the artist – was so taken in by his egotism. It serves to divert our attention from architectural castles in the air and therefore manages to purposely blank out the criminal consequences of the project.”
Recent years have shed light on new details about Germania. Speer drove Jews from their homes and actively supported deporting Jews and others to concentration camps. He cooperated with the SS to ensure the slave laborers produced the building materials he needed. His own father called him crazy for his extraordinarily ambitious plan.
“Amid the aspirations to tear down and rebuild large parts of the capital, visions and crimes were inextricably linked,” says Schaulinski.
Evidence exists to suggest that Hitler started mapping out his plans as early as 1926, creating two postcard-sized sketches of the Great Arch. He envisioned it as a reinterpretation of Germany’s defeat in World War I. It would have been engraved with the names of the 1.8 million German dead from that war.
On the fourth anniversary of his rise to power, Hitler created the Inspector General of Buildings (GBI) and made Speer the head. The GBI’s mission was to plan and organize the redevelopment of Berlin.
The plans were centered on a seven-kilometer north-south avenue linking two railway stations. The crown jewel of the city would be the Great Hall, whose dome would have been 16 times taller than that of St. Peter’s in Rome. It was to be the largest covered space in the world. The planners even worried about how the breath of the 180,000 it would hold would affect the atmosphere inside.
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