Architectural Space in Hitler’s Berlin

Seventy years after the end of WWII, we tend to associate Hitler and the German Reich with destruction. Yet, as Hitler rose to power in the 1920s and 1930s, construction was a key part of his political agenda, a fact that Thomas Friedrich makes clear in Hitler’s Berlin: Abused City, translated by Stewart Spencer. In this compelling study, to be published this summer by Yale University Press, Friedrich, a longtime resident of Berlin and a distinguished museum curator, draws on new and little-known German sources to give a comprehensive account of Hitler’s attitudes towards the city he visited first as a young man in 1916.

Hitler’s relationship with the city was above all instrumental, changing as he came into power to reflect the way in which the city could be used to forward to drive the Nazi agenda forward.  From fairly early on, it is clear he saw the potential in urban planning:  Hitler’s secretary Rudolf Heß recalled that, “he often walked with us through Berlin, which he knew like the back of his hand, and with a wave of his hand demolished old and unattractive blocks of houses so that existing buildings or others yet to be constructed should have more space to create a better impression.”

Later, at a meeting with municipal authorities in 1933, Hitler made the aims of such redevelopment schemes clear, announcing that, “Berlinmust be raised to such a height in respect of its urban planning and culture that it can compete with all the cities of the world.” Also in 1933, leading up to the opening of the Berlin Olympics, Hitler arranged for the Reich—rather than the city— to oversee the construction of new athletic facilities. His logic, expressed in a meeting at which the famous Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels was also present, was that if the world had been invited toBerlin, the Olympic site needed to show “exactly what the new Germanywas capable of achieving culturally.” The readiness with which Hitler devoted the Reich’s funds to the project is indicative of its importance to his political schemes: in 1934, he promised 1.2 billion marks to redevelopBerlinduring the following two decades.

While Hitler’s architectural rhetoric tended to focus on nationalism and the project of creating a “real and genuine capital of the German Reich,” his architectural ambitions also formed a part of his autocratic politic scheme.  Friedrich identifies among “the standards that he applied to buildings designed for the exercise of state power” the ability to impress visitors, along with the power “to inspire in them a sense of fear.” In this way, then, the new face of Berlin was inexorably tied to the Fuhrer’s anticipated domination of all Europe, meaning that, with the commencement of WWII and Hitler’s eventual suicide, the world capital Hitler wanted to name “Germania” would remain forever Berlin, truly a city “abused” by the political ambitions that attempted to shape it.

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