Hitler’s Vision Of Germania Still Casts Its Long Shadow Over Berlin

Planned Grand Hall / Hall of the Peoples Bundesarchiv / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Planned Grand Hall or Hall of the Peoples. Photo Credit

Connecting the Great Arch and the Great Hall along the avenue were to be new buildings for business and civic use. The avenues would be wide enough for parades of marching troops. Plans also included an artificial lake, a large number of ornamental Nazi statues, new roads, tunnels, and autobahns.

The scale is difficult to fathom, but it is clear that Berlin would have been transformed from an attractive place to live to a place designed for the state to show itself off. The scale would even have reduced Hitler to a spec when he addressed crowds from the Great Hall, a concern for some of his advisers.

Architects and urban planners have studied the plans and determined that it would have been a nightmare to live in. It was hostile to pedestrians, requiring them to regularly go underground to cross streets. It had a chaotic road system, since Speer did not believe in traffic lights or public transportation. Citizens would have been both impressed and inhibited by the towering buildings.

Schaulinski refers to a sculpture made by the Colombian artist Edgar Guzmanruiz in 2013 which is on display at Mythos Germania. It gives a good impression as to how the city would have looked. Guzmanruiz placed a transparent Plexiglas mold of Germania over a model of modern-day Berlin.

Schaulinski jokes that the current chancellery building, criticized for being oversized when built in 2001, looks like a garage next to the Führerpalast. The Reichstag building looks like an outhouse.

If you would like a hint of the scale, you can visit Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, Tempelhof airport or the former Reich Air Transport Ministry (now the Finance Ministry) for examples of Nazi architecture. The 17th of June Street, an avenue running east-west from the Brandenburg Gate, still has double-headed street lamps designed by Speer.

There is also the Siegesäule, or Victory Column, on the opposite end of the avenue at the Grosser Stern, which was moved from the square in front of the Reichstag to make way for a parade ground.

Originally unveiled in 1873 to mark Prussian victories, it was lengthened at Hitler’s request by adding another drum to the pillar. In the southern city of Stuttgart are further traces of Germania: 14 travertine columns made from “Stuttgart marble” for the planned Mussolini Platz in Berlin, but never delivered after the war blocked their transport. They now ring the border of a waste-incineration plant.

It’s the concrete test load pillar, however, that is possibly the clearest reminder of what Hitler and Speer had planned. Many would have liked it to have been destroyed after the war, but its size makes that impossible. It was used as an engineering test site until 1984.

Recent efforts have tried to turn it into everything from a climbing wall with a cafe at the top to a car showroom. Campaigners fight to preserve it as a reminder of what might have been. Thousands of visitors now visit it on guided tours every year. “It shows better than anything how it was a project where no compromises were to be made,” says Richter.

Next to the concrete cylinder, there is a 14-meter-tall viewing platform. From there you can see across the city. “This is the best impression you really get of just how crazy the Germania project was,” Richter explains. “On the plans, it all looks fairly flat, but here you see the extent to which they planned to completely change the topography of the city.”

The ground level of the Triumphal Arch site was to have been raised by 14 meters, “creating an optical illusion allowing a stage-managed view of the Great Hall, the prime object on the north-south axis, within the arch,” Richter says. The test structure would have been buried underneath the elevation and sealed by the arch, which would have stood three times as large as Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. It was just one small section of the plans to transform the city into an imposing metropolis.

It’s a mistake to see Germania as something that could only exist in theory, says Wolfgang Schäche, an architectural historian and expert on Germania.

“It was never a utopia, rather a very concrete, ideologically loaded projection of architecture and urban construction. All the ideas were checked by engineers and the best constructors of the time, and the Germania project had the support of an entire elite of German building experts who were actively involved in it, so that there is next to nothing – even the Great Hall – which would not have been technically feasible,” he says.

The Allied bombing attacks actually assisted by clearing large sections of the city. One of Speer’s senior staff members, Rudolf Waters, wrote in his diary: “Today once again the destruction by the allied bombers has assisted us greatly in our planning efforts!”

It was impossible to keep a scheme as grand as Germania a secret. Still, most details were kept from Berlin’s citizens. Even architects working on one structure would have no idea of the other buildings intended to be built near theirs. The press was tightly censored by the GBI.

There was a trio of political satirists called Die Drei Rulands who managed to make fun of the town planners from the stage of a leading cabaret venue. One of their musical numbers addressed plans to reroute the River Spree to accommodate the Great Hall. “Yes, through Berlin it still flows, the Spree / But from tomorrow it’ll go through the Charité,” a reference to the city’s largest hospital. Unsurprisingly, in January 1939, they were slapped down with a lifetime performing ban by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

The Schwerbelastungskörper was built in order to determine whether the unconsolidated Berlin ground could support the weight of the planned triumphal arch. By Dieter Brügmann / CC BY-SA 3.0

The Schwerbelastungskörper was built in order to determine whether the unconsolidated Berlin ground could support the weight of the planned triumphal arch. Photo Credit

Ironically, the war diverted resources and attention away from Germania, including Speer’s after his appointment to minister of armaments and war production. Planning would have been high priority after the war. Expenses were never discussed because it was expected that they would take resources from the nations they conquered.

Speer and his planning department once visited Horcher, a popular restaurant for the VIPs of the day. One of them was overheard to say, “Normally an authority has to shape its spending according to its income. We’re able to do precisely the opposite!”

While Germania seems like a distant memory today, it still has a hold on the city to some extent. The “new Berlin” government district was built on the precise opposite axis to where the Great Hall was to have stood. Architects described this as “historical decontamination.”

There is an area in Tempelhof-Schöneberg that has been the source of strife between renters and the government.

Starting in 1938, the authorities bought about 1,000 properties worth 200 million Reichsmarks at a price fixed by them in order to prepare for the building of Germania. “They were marked ‘for destruction’ to make way for the so-called Great Road between the Triumphal Arch and the Great Hall,” according to Richter. “The residents were given similar properties elsewhere in the city and Jewish residents were moved in temporarily before they were deported to concentration camps.”

With property prices in Berlin currently rising exponentially, the present government is sitting on a gold mine, as the properties were never destroyed. The government recently announced that they would sell the properties to the highest bidder. Residents are angry that they might be pushed out of their homes by increasing rent. It looks like the legacy of Germania’s grandiose plans still lives on.