Friday, February 20, 2009


A model of the triumphal arch

Vienna captivated Hitler, and soon he was planning to redevelop this city, just as he had done Linz. He spent hours in the public library working on street patterns. His travails were haphazard. Dozens of plans were begun, but none ever finished. After drafting out ideas for one project, he would divert his attention to the next. Most of his time went on designs for monumental buildings (Smith, 1979, pp. 118–19). Despite all his shortcomings, he brought a strange kind of dedication to his task. On one occasion he decided to redevelop whole working class areas of the capital. He told Kubizek he would be away for three days, and was. It seems he left the city, just to walk back to its centre to gain an idea of the way its land was used. Then he planned out simple workers’ flats (including space for baths – an innovation at the time) and drew pictures of low-rise, light and airy homes which would be surrounded by trees and gardens, and hold between four and sixteen families. They would be served by an extensive railway network and replace the dingy tenements of the time (Kubizek, 1955, pp. 168–70).

Hitler regarded architecture as the highest form of art; through stone monuments he believed a nation could express its most essential values. Imposing buildings, triumphal arches, impressive housing projects – they all displayed the splendour and power of the state. In this quest for lasting glory, ‘Hitler the child’ was truly ‘father to the man’. What is more, there was distinct continuity between his conceptions and their achievement. The case of Linz has already been mentioned, but other ideas Hitler coined, especially during the 1920s, also became reality during the 1930s. Drawings completed in the mid-1920s, were handed to the chief architect of the Third Reich, Albert Speer, a decade later as the basis for monumental public buildings for Berlin, Linz and Nuremberg (Speer, 1971, pp. 120–4). In 1927 Hitler sketched out a plan for the complete redevelopment of central Munich (Strasser, 1969, p. 72). Ten years later this became atask of state. In 1929 he declared his same intent for Berlin (Thies, 1976, p. 38). In January 1937 he appointed Speer ‘General Building Inspector for the Transformation of the Capital of the Reich’. In 1929 Hitler declared Germany needed community focal points to last millennia and that his victories would require eternal memorials (Thies, 1976, p. 38). In the 1930s he initiated their planning and construction. This continuity of ideas needs to be integral to our understanding of Hitler’s life.

Hitler had dealings with architects like Paul Ludwig Troost (whom he commissioned to renovate the Brown House and design the ‘House of German Art’), Albert Speer and Hermann Giesler (Weissmann, 1997, p. 183). He showed himself constitutionally well-equipped for the task. He had the imagination necessary to grasp sketches quickly and could turn plans into three-dimensional conceptions (Speer, 1971, p. 128). In fact, he loved studying Speer’s architectural drawings and would do so until two or three o’clock in the morning. Once serious plans were begun for the reconstruction of Berlin and Linz, scale models had to be made. These included a thirteen-foot-high model of a victory arch for the capital which in reality was to be 400 ft. high (Speer, 1971, p. 218). As late as April 1945, with the Russians at the ‘city gates’, he still took visitors to inspect the models (Zoller, 1949, p. 57). They simply transfixed Hitler, as Albert Speer relates in memoirs written after the war.


An intimate relationship existed between Hitler’s architectural and political visions. Berlin was to be renamed ‘Germania’, expanded to accommodate 10 million people and become the capital of a German-dominated Europe stretching from Ireland to the Urals (Thies, 1976, p. 82; Taylor, 1974, p. 46). He said it was his ‘unalterable will and determination to provide Berlin with those streets, buildings and public squares which will make it appear for all time fit and worthy to be the capital of the German Reich’, a ‘millennial city’ (Taylor, 1974, p. 46). It was to become a Mecca, a centre of pilgrimage for the Aryan race (Teut, 1967, p. 7). It was to rival the capital of ancient empires; as Hitler put it, ‘without the city of Rome, there would never have been a Roman empire’ (Lane, 1985, p. 189; Domarus, 1992, pp. 984–5). With Speer appointed head of the redevelopment project, in 1938 ground began to be bought up, demolition programmes were begun and barracks were constructed to house the tens of thousands of workers required by the massive work on the capital (Thies, 1976, p. 96). The timescale foresaw work continuing until 1950 (Maser, 1974, p. 126). So determined was Hitler that his phenomenal plans should be realised that he banned Speer from costing any of the projects (Weissmann, 1997, p. 184). Money was no object.

How was the Reich capital expected to turn out? According to Speer writing in 1939, it was to be based on ideas which had existed in Hitler’s mind for ‘many years’. With Berlin the focus of 3,000 km of motorways spread around the empire, it was to be constructed around two axes able to accommodate traffic from ‘the four corners of the earth’. The axes were to run north–south and east–west, beginning and ending at a ring road, and would necessitate ‘a completely new layout in the heart of the city’. The north–south axis would be a totally new road measuring 38.5 km. Its central section would run between the two main railway stations and on it would be built ‘the largest and most representative buildings of the German Reich’. At the intersection of the axes would be ‘Berlin’s greatest construction’, namely ‘the Great Hall of the German People’ (Speer, 1939).

Speer’s post-war memoirs flesh out these impressions. In Summer 1936 Hitler handed him a set of architectural sketches with the words, ‘I made these drawings ten years ago. I’ve always saved them, because I never doubted that some day I would build these two edifices.’ At issue were a domed structure (the Great Hall) and a triumphal arch of massive proportions standing at opposite ends of an avenue which would be 70 ft wider than the Champs Elysées – i.e. some 400 ft in total width – and 3 miles long. More amazing still, the diameter of the dome in question was to be 825 ft, and it would be mounted on a hall able to hold 150,000 people. In all, the building would be 725 ft high (Maser, 1974, p. 120). The triumphal arch was to be 400 ft high, granite, and carved with the names of the 1,800,000 German casualties of the First World War. Quite rightly Speer remembered being staggered not just by the proportions of the projects, but also that Hitler had conceived them at a time when their completion was purely a ‘pipe dream’ (that is to say, the mid- 1920s). He had stuck to the fantasies obsessively (Speer, 1971, pp. 120–4).

The new buildings were to embody the principles of heavily omamented classical architecture. There would be plenty of domes, columns and colonnades decorated with porticoes, heavy cornices, stone window casings, enormous piers and recessed arches (Speer, 1976, p. 112).

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