Germania: Hitler’s Dream Capital
Albert Speer’s plan to transform Berlin into the capital of a 1,000-year Reich would have created a vast monument to misanthropy, as Roger Moorhouse explains.
In 1937 Hitler’s architect Albert Speer was given the task of transforming Berlin from the sprawling metropolis that it was into Germania, the gleaming new capital of a Greater German ‘World Empire’, the centrepiece of the civilised world.
It was a vast undertaking. Plans, swiftly drawn up by Speer’s office, were presented to the public on January 28th, 1938. The reaction within Germany was predictably enthusiastic, with newspapers carrying detailed explanations and commentaries. Der Angriff stated that the designs were ‘truly monumental … far exceeding all expectations’, while the Völkischer Beobachter proclaimed grandly that ‘from this desert of stone, shall emerge the capital of a thousand-year Reich’. The foreign press, though less effusive, nonetheless concurred. The New York Times, for instance, described the project as ‘perhaps the most ambitious planning scheme’ of the modern era.
The plans certainly did not want for ambition. In accordance with Hitler’s original sketches they centred on a grand boulevard, which was to run from north to south for around seven kilometres through the heart of the city, linking two proposed new rail termini. Given carte blanche in redesigning this vast swathe of the city centre, Speer and his minions had had a field day and their plans read like a catalogue of comparatives and superlatives. The vast Grand Hall, for instance, close to the Reichstag, would have been the largest enclosed space in the world, with a dome 16 times larger than that of St Peter’s in Rome. Designed to host 180,000 people, there were concerns among the planners that the exhaled breath of the audience might even produce ‘weather’ beneath the cavernous coffered ceiling. The 117-metre tall Arch of Triumph, meanwhile, was designed – on Hitler’s express instruction – to carry the names of Germany’s 1.8 million fallen of the First World War engraved upon its walls. Similarly massive, it would have comfortably accommodated its Parisian namesake beneath its arch. Linking these monuments along the new axis would be a plethora of new buildings, civic and commercial, flanking broad avenues, ornamental obelisks, an artificial lake and a vast ‘circus’ peppered with Nazi statuary.
Speer’s plans for Berlin are fascinating. In an architectural sense, they are – if nothing else – a potent display of the astonishing extremes that can be reached by sycophantic architects. Yet any assessment of the Germania plans must reach beyond the narrow sphere of architecture, even if only a fraction of those designs ever graduated from the drawing board. Speer’s plans cannot simply be viewed from the architectural perspective alone: in examining them one is morally bound to consider not only the designs themselves but also the brutal methods by which they were brought into being.
Germania, though largely unrealised, nonetheless projected its malign influence into many other spheres of life – and death – in the Third Reich. Its contempt for mankind was demonstrated not only in the treatment meted out to those doomed to cut its stone in the concentration camps or those who found themselves living in its path; it also extended to those who might one day have walked those granite-clad boulevards. It is notable, for example, that in all the plans a human dimension is almost completely lacking. Hitler, it appears, had absolutely no interest in the social aspects of the planning that he oversaw; his passion was for the buildings themselves rather than for the human beings who might one day inhabit them. Indeed it has been plausibly suggested by Frederic Spotts that the plans for Berlin’s reconstruction were themselves simply a manifestation of Hitler’s desire to reduce cities and even individuals to the status of mere playthings. When one recalls the images of the Führer stooped like some malevolent deity over his architectural models in the Reich Chancellery this is an interpretation that becomes instantly and chillingly persuasive.