The Great German Art exhibition was housed in a purpose-built museum, designed in the style of an antique temple by the architect Paul Ludwig Troost. Its heavy, squared-off columns marching in front of a solid rectangular block of a building were a long way away from the delicate and subtle neo-Classical architecture that Troost sought to imitate. Like other Nazi buildings, it was first and foremost a statement of power. The House of German Art was only one of a large number of prestigious projects Hitler had begun as soon as he took power in 1933. Indeed, he had been thinking about them since the early 1920s. Hitler imagined himself an architect even more than he thought of himself as a painter, and paid more attention to architecture than to any other of the arts. ‘Every great era finds the concluding expression of its values in its buildings,’ he declared in 1938: ‘When peoples inwardly experience great times, they also give these times external expression. Their word is then more convincing than when it is spoken: it is the word in stone!’
The new public buildings of the Third Reich were all conceived in this massive, pseudo-Classical, monumental style. Like the public buildings Hitler had observed and drawn on Vienna’s Ringstrasse in his younger days, they were intended to project permanence and durability. All of them were influenced by Hitler’s own personal architectural and design plans. Hitler spent hours working with architects on refining their ideas, poring over models and discussing the finer points of style and decoration. Already in 1931-2 he had collaborated with Troost on redesigning the Königsplatz in Munich, and when he came to power, these plans were put into effect. The old Party headquarters at the Brown House were replaced by a gigantic Leader Building and a huge Administration Building, housing vast reception halls and decorated with swastikas and eagles on the façade. There was a balcony on each one from which Hitler could speak to the crowds who were expected to gather below. Despite their appearance, the new buildings incorporated advanced technology in their construction and equipment, including air-conditioning. Adjoining were two characteristic expressions of the Nazi cult of the dead: temples of honour dedicated to the Nazis who had been killed in the 1923 beer-hall putsch. In each of them, an atmosphere of reverent sacrality prevailed, with the bodies of the recently exhumed martyrs displayed in sarcophagi mounted on a dais, open to the elements, and flanked by twenty limestone pillars lit by flaming braziers. The huge grass arena of the Königsplatz itself was paved over with 24,000 square feet of granite slabs. ‘Something new has been created here,’ remarked a commentator, ‘the deepest meaning of which is a political one.’ Here the organized and disciplined masses would gather to swear allegiance to the new order. The whole ensemble was, he concluded, ‘ideology become stone’.
As in other fields, Nazi cultural managers took some time to impose their views. The Reich Chamber of Architects soon expelled Jewish practitioners from the profession, but despite Nazi hostility to ultramodern architecture, it was slower to move against the modernists, some of whom, such as Mies van der Rohe, remained in Germany for a while, though finding it increasingly difficult to practise. By 1935, however, the more experimental types of modernism had been effectively routed; Mies soon emigrated to New York. By the mid-1930s, constructions of the Weimar era such as modernist apartment blocks were no longer in fashion. Instead, the Nazi ideal of domestic architecture favoured a vernacular, pseudo-peasant style such as that practised by the leading proponent of racial theories of modern art, Paul Schultze-Naumburg. These were only showcases for the suburbs; necessity meant that blocks of flats still had to be constructed in the inner cities, where pitched roofs, however, were now preferred over flat roofs because they were believed to be more German. But it was into public buildings that Hitler put his real passion. In Munich, the foundations were laid for a gigantic new central railway station that was designed to be the largest steel-frame structure in the world, with a dome higher than the twin towers of Munich’s signature landmark, the Frauenkirche. Not only Munich, but other cities too were to be transformed into massive stone statements of the power and permanence of the Third Reich. Hamburg was to be graced with a new skyscraper for the Nazi Party’s regional headquarters higher than the Empire State Building in New York, crowned by an enormous neon swastika to act as a beacon for incoming ships. Down-river, the suburb of Othmarschen was to be demolished to make way for the ramps and piles of a gargantuan suspension bridge across the Elbe. The bridge was to be the largest in the world, larger by far than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, on which it was modelled.
In Berlin, a huge new airport terminal was built at Tempelhof, with over 2,000 rooms. A grandiose new Ministry of Aviation incorporated lavish, marble-floored halls, swastikas and memorials to famous German aviators. A vast Olympic Stadium, costing 77 million Reichsmarks, held 100,000 spectators, attending not only sporting events, but also major Nazi rallies. Here too, in adjoining towers, there were memorials for the fallen, in this case German soldiers of the First World War. By 1938 Hitler had also commissioned a new Reich Chancellery, since he now found the existing one too modest. It was even bigger and more imposing than the Munich buildings. The main gallery was nearly 500 feet long; twice as long, as Hitler noted, as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Inaugurated in 1939, the new Reich Chancellery, one commentator recorded, advertised ‘the eminence and richness of a Reich which has become a super-power’. In fact, the gigantism of all these projects, planned for completion by the early 1950s - a remarkably short space of time - was intended to signify Germany’s arrival by that date not just as a super-power but as the dominant power in the world.
The new Reich Chancellery was designed not by Hitler’s favourite architect, Paul Troost, who had died in January 1934, but by a newcomer who was to play a central role in the Third Reich’s later years, Troost’s young collaborator Albert Speer. Born in Mannheim in 1905, Speer belonged to a generation of professionals whose ambitions were framed by the bitter and chaotic experiences of the First World War, the Revolution and the hyperinflation. The son of an architect, and thus a member of Germany’s educated upper middle class, Speer trained with the architect Heinrich Tessenow in Berlin, and formed close friendships with a number of Tessenow’s other pupils. Their teacher imbued them with an open approach to architecture, espousing neither modernism nor its antithesis, but emphasizing simplicity of form and the importance of rooting their style in the experience of the German people. As in every university in the mid-to-late 1920s, the atmosphere among the students was strongly right-wing, and despite his liberal background, Speer succumbed. In 1931, Hitler addressed Berlin’s students at a beer-hall meeting. Speer, in the audience, was, he later confessed, ‘carried away on the wave of the enthusiasm which, one could almost feel this physically, bore the speaker along from sentence to sentence. It swept away any scepticism, any reservations.’
Overwhelmed, Speer joined the Nazi Party and threw himself into its work, volunteering for the National Socialist Drivers’ Corps and exploring, though not taking up, the possibility of joining the SS. By 1932 he was practising architecture independently, and began to use his Party contacts to get commissions. Goebbels asked him to help with the conversion and refurbishment of the Propaganda Ministry, a building by the great nineteenth-century architect Friedrich von Schinkel which Goebbels had vandalized with the help of a gang of brownshirts on moving in. Not surprisingly, Goebbels scorned Speer’s attempt to preserve what was left of Schinkel’s Classical interiors, and had the work redone in a more grandiose style a few months after Speer had completed his task. The young architect’s next project was more successful, however. Seeing the plans developed in the Propaganda Ministry for the celebration of the Day of National Labour on the Tempelhof Field in Berlin on 1 May 1933, Speer complained about their unimaginative quality and was commissioned to improve them. His successful innovations, including massive banners, swastikas and searchlights, led Goebbels to commission him to design the surround for the Nuremberg Rally later that year. It was Speer who, in 1934, created the ‘cathedral of light’ effect produced by upward-beamed searchlights that so impressed foreign visitors. Soon he was refurbishing Nazi Party offices and remodelling the interior of Goebbels’s new house on the Wannsee, just outside Berlin. Speer felt himself energized by the purposeful atmosphere surrounding the Nazi leaders. He worked extremely hard and got things done quickly. In no time at all, still only in his late twenties, he had made a name for himself amongst the Nazi leadership.
The death of Troost, whom Hitler had revered, catapulted Speer into the Leader’s personal entourage, as Hitler co-opted the young man as his personal architectural adviser, someone to whom he could talk about his favourite hobby without the deference he had felt was owed to Troost. Speer was overwhelmed by this attention, and moved his family and home to be near to Hitler’s Bavarian retreat above Berchtesgaden. A frequent guest at Hitler’s mountain lodge, Speer was carried along by the Leader’s desire to construct huge, monumental buildings in a style ultimately derived from Classical antiquity. Soon he was being entrusted with schemes of rapidly increasing ambition, many of them based on sketches Hitler had himself made in the early-to-mid 1920s. Speer was commissioned to rebuild and extend the Nuremberg Party Rally grounds in a series of imposing new buildings constructed at vast expense from the late 1930s, including a stadium that would hold 405,000 people, a Congress Hall seating 60,000 and two huge parade-grounds, the Zeppelin Field and the Mars Field, flanked by rows of columns and providing standing room for 250,000 and 500,000 people respectively. Meanwhile he designed and built the German Pavilion at the 1937 World Exposition in Paris, another huge, bombastic structure, the largest in the entire exhibition. It was dominated by a massive pseudo-Classical tower of ten fluted piers joined by a cornice at the top, towering over all the nearby structures, including the Soviet pavilion, and outdone only by the Eiffel Tower, which stood at the end of the avenue on which the pavilions were located. Red swastikas glowed at night from the spaces between the piers. Next to the tower, the long, rectangular, windowless main hall projected a monolithic sense of unity to the outside world. Its interior was compared by an exiled German art critic, Paul Westheim, in a macabre, prophetic image, to a crematorium, with the tower taking the place of the chimney.
Speer’s success as the architect of propaganda constructions such as these led to his appointment by Hitler on 30 January 1938 as the General Building Inspector for the National Capital, charged with putting into effect the Leader’s megalomaniac plans for the transformation of Berlin into a world capital, Germania, by 1950. A huge axis of wide boulevards designed for military parades was to be cut through Berlin. In the middle would stand a triumphal arch 400 feet high, more than twice as big as its counterpart in Paris, the Arc de Triomphe. The main avenue would lead up to a Great Hall, whose dome was to be 825 feet in diameter, the largest in the world. At the end of each of the four boulevards there would be an airport. Hitler himself had drawn up the plans many years before and discussed them with Speer many times since they had first met. Now, he decided, was the time to begin to put them into effect. They would last for all eternity, a monument to the Third Reich when Hitler had long since departed the scene. Evictions and the bulldozing of houses and apartment blocks levelled the ground for the new boulevards, and part of the scheme was eventually opened to traffic. Meanwhile, fresh buildings were added, including the new Reich Chancellery, and soon Speer had built a scale model which Hitler spent many hours in the following years poring over in his company, making adjustments, and bemoaning the fact that he himself had never become an architect.
By the mid-1930s, Speer was heading a large firm of architects and gaining managerial experience that would stand him in good stead when he was suddenly catapulted into a much larger and more important role during the war. Many of his most striking designs were not purely his own but were worked out in a team whose members, notably Hans Peter Klinke, a fellow student of Tessenow’s, played a role at least as creative as his own. Moreover, the firm’s designs were far from original or even particularly Nazi in style: the civic architecture of the era drew on Classical models in other countries too, and the idea of remodelling cities along geometrical lines, with broad boulevards and great public buildings, was hardly new either; in many ways, for instance, Speer’s plans for Berlin bore a striking resemblance to the centre of the Federal capital of the United States in Washington, D.C., with its wide central mall surrounded by large colonnaded neo-Classical structures all in gleaming white stone. What distinguished Nazi civic architecture and city planning was not the Classical derivation of its style but the maniacal gigantism of its scale. Everything might not be very different from civic structures elsewhere, but it certainly was going to be vastly bigger than anything the world had so far seen. This was already apparent in the models of Berlin that Speer spent so much time inspecting with his master. On one occasion, he showed them in a private session to his 75-year-old father, himself a retired architect. ‘You’ve all gone completely crazy,’ the old man said.