This book recently arrived on my desk to review and, as I am heading to Berlin for a short break this summer, I opened it eagerly. As I read the following passage from the introduction I was immediately engaged:
“Studying this physical legacy makes for a fascinating journey, not out of some morbid curiosity for a dark period of history, but because a sense of place, wanting to be there, and wanting to tread where history was made are undeniable parts of the human psyche. Focussing on the places where the deadly Nazi story unfolded serves to remind us of the depths to which humanity sank. It can also act as a commemoration of mankind’s deliverance from a dark decade and serve as a renewal of our commitment to ensure history does not repeat itself.”
This was clearly a book written by someone who takes the same view as I do of what history is really all about – that interplay of events, people and places.
The overarching narrative is about the use of construction, structures and buildings as essential elements for creating and sustaining the Nazi Party and its vision for the Third Reich. Organised into eight themed chapters the book looks at a whole range of different examples. Broadly chronological, it starts by looking at those buildings that helped to ‘Establish the Faith’, that is those that were created or adopted as symbols of the Third Reich. These were places that helped to create and strengthen the Nazi Party’s relationship with the German people. It includes some examples with which, I suspect, many readers will be familiar such as the Nuremberg Rally Grounds (shown on the cover of the book – see above) and the Munich Hofbräuhaus. Others are likely to be less well-known. One of the latter that immediately attracted me was the Wewelsburg Castle, near Paderborn in northern Germany, a place I have visited a few times and know well. As the author outlines, Himmler had identified this seventeenth century castle to become a centre for SS education and had lavish plans for it to be the ‘centre of the world’. Work did start on this project but was put in abeyance by the War. Today it is open as a museum which, somewhat unusually for modern Germany, does not shy away from its Nazi history.
The next chapter examines the idea of ‘Strength through Joy’ and considers the buildings constructed to facilitate the Third Reich’s programme of providing organised sporting and leisure facilities for its people. These include the massive Prora-Rügen holiday complex on Germany’s Baltic Sea coastline (a complex that was then used by the East German Army post World War Two) and the Haus der Kunst in Munich, as well as the facilities built for the pleasure and recreation of Nazi leaders such as Goering’s Carinhall and Hitler’s Berchtesgaden.
Subsequent chapters move through structures built to show off the Third Reich to the wider world, in particular the massive investment made to stage the 1936 Olympic Games. A large section is devoted to the Olympic Stadium (again featuring on the cover of the book – see above) and the Olympic village in Berlin, but coverage is also given to the, again probably less well-known story, of the Winter Olympic Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen where extensive constructions were also made to host that event. There is a chapter that considers what are referred to as ‘Future Fantasies’ and looks at some of the great plans that never came to fruition. The greatest of these was probably Germania, the so called Welthauptstadt (World Capital), which would have seen the redesign of Berlin to become a city to exceed London, Paris and Rome, and serve as the capital city of a world dominating Third Reich. Of course Germania and other such fantasies never happened, but it is fascinating to read and explore the plans.
Further chapters cover some of the darker aspects of Nazi Germany. The infrastructure put in place to control the Reich, those necessary to fight a world war, and the chilling and clinical constructions that enabled the Holocaust. The final chapter considers the ‘Downfall of the Third Reich’ and examines amongst others, the structures to house and build the V (Vengeance) weapons, the Reich Chancellery and the Führerbunker. Also in this chapter is a look at Dresden, not because of any structures built by the Nazis but rather to reflect on the destruction of this city and its role as a motif for the futility and pain that the Nazi regime brought on Germany.
This is undoubtedly a fascinating book. The range of buildings it covers is wide and varied. It looks at those that existed and were largely destroyed, those that were envisaged and never happened, and those that survived and still exist today. There are some notable exceptions, for example there is only a passing mention of the Atlantic Wall defences that were built both in France and the Channel Islands, but it is recognised that a book of this length has to be selective. The conclusion, entitled ‘Coming to Terms with the Past’, pulls together the various strands and their legacy. It considers how some buildings, or parts of them, have been destroyed to eliminate the memory of the Nazis, but how other places, especially military structures, were re-purposed through the Cold War and beyond by the German Military. And of course other structures, such as the Olympic Stadium, have continued to play a role much as they were planned and built.
To conclude, this is a very well-produced hardback book, copiously illustrated with both modern and contemporary illustrations. It is well-written, engaging and accessible. It serves equally well as a thesis on the buildings of Nazi Germany, as a practical guide to them. It doesn’t shy away from the dark, brutal and horrific aspects of the Third Reich, but equally it is pragmatic about how these structures played a variety of roles within it. This will of course appeal to any students of the Nazi regime and its building, but I am sure that it will also attract a wider readership and anyone interested in the Second World War will find this a fascinating read. In short I thoroughly recommend this book and it will most definitely be in my luggage when I travel to Berlin later this year, and undoubtedly be well-thumbed as I explore that city’s Second World War history.
Pen & Sword Military
Published: 11 April 2016