Hitler always claimed that as a youth his overwhelming desire was to be an architect. However, his failure to get into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts to study painting may have had much to do with this. He later wrote that he first went to Munich with the aim of one day becoming a famous architect, but his conflicting accounts of the steps he took to get training and work seem to indicate that, in reality, he drifted as indolently and aimlessly as he had in Vienna. Only the coming of World War I was to reveal Hitler’s true vocation. Yet architecture was to remain an obsession with Hitler, and one that as Führer of the Third Reich he could indulge on a megalomaniac scale, in theory if less in practice. He would cut short important meetings to pore over architectural models and plans with Albert Speer and up to the end in his bunker would chatter enthusiastically about his plans for Berlin and Linz.
Hitler’s tastes in building were predictably conservative, confined mostly to the neobaroque and neoclassical. He admired the neoclassical facades and wide boulevards of Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse and the similarly monumental constructions of the Munich of the Wittelsbach kings and, according to Speer, also rhapsodized about Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera House. The avant-garde and all forms of modernism, as in every other branch of the arts, completely passed him by. Under the aegis of the young and ambitious Speer and in full accord with Hitler’s ideas, a crude and grandiose neoclassicism became the dominant style for the public buildings of the Third Reich. Above all it was scale that appealed to Hitler: the constructions of the Reich were to be monumental, conveying an impression of solidity, power, and permanence. The viewer or visitor was to be overwhelmed rather than merely impressed. Hitler’s and Speer’s plans for “Germania,” the new Berlin, were meant to put the Paris of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the shade.
Supporters of modernism in architecture had initially hoped that Hitler’s Reich, like Mussolini’s Italy, would seek to present a dynamic and progressive image and encourage innovation, at least up to a point. But they were rapidly disillusioned. Hitler personally ordered the removal of modernist elements from the stadium designed by Speer for the 1936 Olympics. Functionalist architecture in Hitler’s Germany was largely reserved for industrial buildings, such as power stations or the Heinkel aircraft factory at Oranienburg, whereas for popular housing, schools, Hitler Youth hostels, and other “vernacular” projects the regime adopted a “Blood and Soil” regionalism. But the “regional” elements were largely decorative, grafted on to a standardized design. The docile inhabitants of the fantasy world of Hitler, the failed architect, were meant to dwell happily in a world of kitsch, leaving their quaint and caricatured versions of Bavarian or Tyrolean farmhouses for work in their techno-functionalist factories and gaping in awe at the herculean constructions of the state, the party, and the Führer’s ego.
Suggestions for further reading:
Art and Power. 1995. Art and Power: Europe under the Dictators 1930–45. London: Hayward Gallery.
Scobie, Alex. 1990. Hitler’s State Architecture: The Impact of Classical Antiquity. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Speer, Albert. 1970. Inside the Third Reich. New York: Macmillan.