Paul Troost was commissioned by Hitler to build this Temple of Honor (“Ehrentempel’’) to commemorate those who died in the abortive Munich putsch of 1923. The annual reenactment of this event became part of the Nazi calendar.
No art form has been more consistently associated with fascism than architecture. Yet architecture under fascism was more diverse than is popularly thought and cannot be reduced to a specific “fascist style.” Fascist architecture is more correctly defined by how it was used to support or carry out specific ideological aims or political goals, rather than as a coherent set of symbolic forms. As evidenced in particular by the sponsorship of large-scale public works in Italy as well as the personal involvement of Hitler in architectural projects in Germany and Austria, monumental building became a key element upon which a political ideology could be projected and, in some cases, through which specific policy goals could be enacted. While most interwar states favored some variation of classicism for their major public buildings, for several fascistic regimes, architectural production was more central to their cultural and social concerns. This was particularly true in Germany and Italy. By the end of World War II, a series of high profile architects and major public commissions had become firmly associated with their respective governments and leaders. Because of the massive scale of the projects, the involvement of political leaders, including the dictators themselves in specific instances, and the use of building and construction for the enactment of political and ideological goals, architecture continues to be crucial for our understanding of the relationship of art and politics under fascism.
Italy was not only the first state in which a fascist party came to power but also the first to use public commissions to establish an ideological connection between architecture and fascist politics. In the capital, many of these projects related to Mussolini’s interest in connecting his regime to the political symbols of Augustan Rome, a period of consolidation of political authority that was also well represented in such famous works as the Ara Pacis in the forum. Not only were Augustan sites like this forum excavated and studied but, in addition, imperial building types like the triumphal arch and the classical temple front were reintroduced in commissions for memorials and party buildings in Bolzano, Genoa, and Florence, among other cities. In addition, the interest in the urban form of the ancient forum, marked by an open space at the intersection of a major east/west and north/south axis, was also revived, particularly in plans for new cities such as the provincial city of Littoria (1932; now named Latina) and the famous Rome Universal Exposition (EUR) grounds begun in 1937. The latter was to be the site of a proposed 1942 World’s Fair, but the buildings were subsequently turned over to government administrative work. The prominent architect Marcello Piacentini led the team that developed EUR’s marble-clad buildings with stripped-down neoclassical details. Piacentini had already shown early on in the regime his ability to adapt classical prototypes to contemporary state and party ideological needs. Such ideological claims became active policy in 1935, with the very real expansion of imperial interests through the invasion of Ethiopia, after which Addis Ababa was remodeled and some sections of the city based on classical Roman urban prototypes.
Yet while a modified neoclassicism was used in particular projects, it is important to emphasize that no single official style can be claimed for Fascist Italy. The streamlined and modernist-inspired work of the group of architects known as the Italian Rationalists, as well as regional variations by lesser-known designers that invoked vernacular medievalist traditions, could also be adapted to an often contradictory Fascist ideology. The range of building styles and types reflected the interest of particular patrons, regional administrations, and immediate propagandistic needs that could encompass claims of Italy’s modernity and technological sophistication alongside arguments for a premodern return to the land. For example, the abstract forms and structural emphasis of the Rationalists were not rejected as too removed from the classicism favored in other commissions but rather celebrated in cases such as the famous Casa del Fascio in Como (1932–1936) by Giuseppe Terragni. Still, Terragni’s modern structural expression nevertheless was complemented by the use of traditional materials like marble that could be interpreted with a specifically nationalist rhetoric, as well as interior decorations that included not only abstract sculpture but also images of Mussolini.
The range of stylistic options that allowed for a variety of patrons and propagandistic interpretations of architecture existed as well in National Socialist Germany. However, given the key role of Hitler and his greater influence on major commissions, the plurality of formal variations was more limited for major commissions and the political instrumentality of the building process more intense than in other authoritarian regimes. Architecture in Germany was not only a matter of promoting the physical presence of the Nazi Party—for example, through such commissions as Paul Ludwig Troost’s party buildings for the Königsplatz in Munich (1933–1937). It was also a matter of enabling and promoting the governing principles of the regime in terms of a polycratic system of patronage for which Hitler was the final arbiter. Reflecting his interest as a young adult in becoming an artist and his experience in trying to live off of his sketches of buildings and tourist locations prior to World War I, Hitler had strong opinions about what he considered suitable state and party architecture. He was more decisive in his intervention in architectural production than were other fascist and authoritarian leaders.
Architecture had been crucial to National Socialist politicians and propagandists even in the struggle for power at the end of the Weimar Republic. Hitler signaled the importance of architecture to the Nazi Party by proclaiming in his autobiography, Mein Kampf, that powerful architecture was an expression of a strong Volk, praising dynastic cultures like ancient Egypt and Rome while decrying Berlin and its Jewish department stores. But further, Nazi denunciations concerning the supposedly internationalist and Bolshevik tendencies of the flat-roofed architecture of the Bauhaus and other modernist architects became one part of the antidemocratic propaganda.
Yet once in power after 1933, neither party leaders nor Hitler came out with an officially decreed style. Rather, different kinds of architecture tended to be favored by specific patrons, while politically or ideologically suspect architects were purged from public commissions. In this sense, architecture followed the general Gleichschaltung, or coordination, of other cultural administrations. So, for example, the SS often favored medievalist architecture for its buildings, and certain industrial and military complexes like those of the Luftwaffe might use the steel and glass of modernism. Still, for large-scale public and party commissions involving Hitler, architects tended to stick to a stripped down neoclassicism massive in scale and solid in its masonry. Such buildings could be variably interpreted as either examples of an ideology of racial purity, in which contemporary Germany was linked to the supposedly Aryan peoples of classical Greece, or as manifestations of a new and powerful imperial state rivaling that of ancient Rome. Different patrons in the Nazi Party proposed these varying meanings for the built environment. Beginning in 1937 and the architect Albert Speer’s announcement of plans to rebuild Berlin as the first of five “Hitler Cities” (including Munich, Nuremberg, Hamburg, and Linz), it had become clear to all who wanted to gain Hitler’s attention that architecture and urban planning would be key to his peacetime initiatives.
But architecture served not only practical and ideological goals within the Nazi state. Architectural production was also integrated into specific policy initiatives and hence functionally related to the radicalization of racism and militarism. Speer’s architectural office in Berlin, for instance, began to promote as early as 1938 a new policy for the concentration of the Berlin Jewish community and the deprivation of its property rights. For the architects, this was a way of gaining control over the property of displaced German Jews that could then in turn be used for non-Jewish citizens who needed to be compensated should the government appropriate their property for the massive site clearing necessary for the rebuilding plans. Furthermore, architects and urban planners also took part in streamlining specific aspects of the most extreme anti-Semitic policies. For example, the ghettoization of Jews in Eastern Europe depended on the manipulation of space and structures by professionals; most grotesquely, the SS architectural staff at Auschwitz helped make it possible through efficient planning of space to kill even more of European Jewry. In these instances, as in others, the Nazi state was the extreme example of how far architecture could be instrumentalized to promote a fascist project.
While fascist patrons made use of architecture in Italy and Germany to the greatest extent, architecture could also play a significant role at particular moments for other fascistic or right-wing authoritarian states. Most famously, at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, not only was the face-off of the Soviet and Nazi pavilions much discussed, but, in addition, the steel and glass structure for the Spanish Pavilion by Josep Lluis Sert and Luis Lacasa was seen with its art (including Picasso’s Guernica) as a modernist rejection of the massive masonry structures of both the fascist and Soviet states. As a Republican building, it signaled the Popular Front policy of the government, which extended from the liberal to the left in their struggles against Franco. Yet while the pavilion might appear ideologically neutral because of its simple materials, the context of the other monuments of the fair, the content of the Spanish exhibition, and the use of the facade as a support for statements promoting the Republican government meant that the architecture naturally paralleled the antifascist message. After defeating the Republicans, Franco did not devote his regime to architecture anywhere as much as Hitler did, but he did patronize several large-scale ideological projects, such as the massive complex in the Valley of the Fallen (1959) to memorialize supposedly both the fascist and antifascist soldiers who had died in the Civil War, although the antifascist message remains unclear at best.
With the defeat of the Axis powers at the end of World War II, the scale of the interwar projects and, particularly, those that focused on neoclassical masonry construction became associated not only with the extreme fascist Right but also the bombast of the Stalinist Eastern Block. Such associations further played a postwar role as polarized definitions of fascist or communist architecture were juxtaposed to the apparently democratic architecture of modernism, even though such easy transparencies between architecture and ideology would not have been recognized before the Cold War. Civic and corporate patrons in democratic capitalist cities increasingly favored modernist architects and steel and glass structures as a way of distinguishing themselves from the interwar politicization of masonry construction. Public interest continued to be drawn most intensely to Hitler’s biography (including his early years as a failed artist) and the revelations brought forward by Speer, who completed several autobiographical accounts after his release in 1966 from Spandau Prison. In the postwar period, while modernists like Terragni had been relatively easily accepted as a focus of aesthetic study, Speer and other more traditional architects were not systematically treated in relation to their contribution to cultural policy. That situation began to change, particularly with the publication of several foundational texts from the late 1960s and early 1970s that confronted the role of architecture in fascist states.
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