Monday, March 2, 2009

Hitler and Berlin

Remnant of Nazi design - a Speer street-lamp

Before coming to power Hitler had mixed feelings about Germany’s capital. On leave there in 1916 he had been shocked by the gloomy “unpatriotic” atmosphere, and as an adopted Münchener he shared some of the traditional Bavarian resentment toward Berlin. After 1918 the nationalist Right attacked “Red Berlin” as the cradle of the November Revolution and the Spartacus uprising, the source of the supposed moral and cultural “decadence” of the Weimar Republic, and the home of one-third of Germany’s Jews. However, postwar claims that Hitler always disliked Berlin are unconvincing. “I have always been fond of Berlin,” he claimed. “If I’m vexed by the fact that some of the things in it are not beautiful, it’s precisely because I’m so attached to the city” (Richie 1998, p. 962).

It was Josef Goebbels who was responsible for creating Hitler’s new affection for the “truly Germanic” city of Frederick the Great and Bismarck. As Gauleiter of Berlin Goebbels created and built up the Nazi organization, which had less than 200 members when he took over, into a dominant force in the city, confronting the Communists and Socialists on the streets and in the meeting halls, penetrating the huge working-class districts as well as middle-class areas. He brought Hitler to speak in Berlin for the first time on 16 November 1928, before 16,000 people in the Sportspalast, the first of many such rallies in years to come. Nevertheless, the Nazi vote in free elections was always lower in Berlin than in Germany as a whole. At the height of their electoral success in 1933, when the Nazis gained 43.9 percent of the national vote, the figure for Berlin was 34.6 percent.

In the early years of the Third Reich Berlin continued its decadent ways as “an island of modernity in a world of Nazi provincialism” (Richie 1998, p. 442). Its opulent hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs provided a suitable setting for the hypocritical corruption of the Nazi elite, in stark contrast to the peasant fantasies they were peddling to the people. Here the elite and rich could dance to “decadent Negro” jazz music, theoretically banned in the Reich, and consume the finest food and wines. But the vibrant avant-garde culture of the Weimar period was destroyed and hundreds of artists imprisoned or driven into exile, while the persecution of the Jews destroyed a community that had lived, prospered, and made an enormous contribution to the life of Berlin for centuries. Hitler had his own plans for the capital of the Reich.

Hitler reportedly told Albert Speer in 1936: “Berlin is a big city, but not a real metropolis. Look at Paris, the most beautiful city in the world. Or even Vienna. Those are cities with grand style. Berlin is nothing but an unregulated accumulation of buildings. We must surpass Paris and Vienna” (Speer 1971, p. 122). Hence his megalomaniac plans for rebuilding the city. Berlin would become “Germania,” the leading city of Europe, filled with monstrous neoclassical buildings and monuments. “His motivating idea,” Alexandra Richie writes, “was that everything had to be longer, bigger, wider, taller and more massive than the buildings in any other capital” (Richie 1998, p. 471). The centerpiece, a 3-mile north-south avenue, would stretch from the new central railway station, under a gigantic Triumphal Arch bearing the names of all the Germans who died in World War I, and culminate in the domed Volkshalle, the largest building in the world, seven times greater than the dome of St Peter’s in Rome.

Comparatively little was actually built, and few of Hitler’s buildings survive today. Berliners, Germans, and the world were meant to be overawed and intimidated by Hitler’s new Reich Chancellery, 150 times the size of Bismarck’s residence, Hermann Goering’s gargantuan Air Ministry, and Goebbels’s suitably overpowering Propaganda Ministry. Hitler delighted in scrutinizing the models built by Speer, even down to the last days in the bunker. His real legacy to Berlin, however, was the almost complete destruction of the city by Allied bombing and the final horrendous battle against the Red Army. The broad and grand “East-West Axis,” along which the Wehrmacht had marched proudly on Hitler’s fiftieth birthday in 1939, became a guiding path for bombers bent on the destruction of Berlin. The capital of the new Reich ended as a divided city, the beleaguered center of Cold War conflict. The Wall separating East and West Berlin, the symbol of Hitler’s legacy of Cold War division, was finally demolished by crowds from both sides on 12 November 1989.

Suggestions for further reading:

Richie, Alexandra. 1998. Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin. London: HarperCollins.

Schäche, Wolfgang. 1995. “From Berlin to ‘Germania,’” in Art and Power: Europe under the Dictators 1930–45. London: Hayward Gallery, pp. 326–329.

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