Past Present Future — 3rd Reich Documentation Center Nuremberg
National history is important
I happen to be German, so for us this is especially true. In fact, I remember that I read Anne Frank’s Diary two years before the book was to be discussed at school according to the regular curriculum. I couldn’t wait, so I made our German teacher bring it up a year earlier. Needless to say, my class mates hated me, because what followed were 7 long years of chewing on every aspect of the 3rd Reich.
18 years later, I happen to go out with an English man who’s working in advertising. Apart from common ‘lost in translation’ situations, a particular museum visit during the holidays with my family in Bavaria deeply moved both of us: The Nazi Rally Grounds Documentation Center in Nuremberg, Bavaria.
I am not up-to-date with school curricula in Europe, I can only assume that both, the English and the German school system has changed since. We found it interesting to compare what we knew from school. Here is what we both learned throughout the exhibition and beyond, and how we believe being aware of the past relates to an optimistic future.
Intertwining Layers of Size
Architecture was just one of the means Hitler used. Architecture is powerful and impressive. Hitler’s fascination was grounded on a glorious past, thus influenced immensely by classical Roman history and the remains of medieval fortresses all across Germany.
Hitler and a dedicated team of his favourite architects planned and built from 1933 the National Socialist (Nazi) Party Rally Grounds as a monumental ensemble of buildings and two grand stands for military demonstrations. The intention was to show off the Nazi Party’s dominance, impressing rally visitors and the world outside with enormous dimensions and overwhelmingly solid, classicist architecture.
One of these buildings, the Congress Hall was meant to hold events for up to 50 000 people (Wembley Stadium: 90 000 people, Olympic Indoor Hall Athens: 19 000 people). It was built inspired by the Colosseum in Rome, but bigger. It was never completed and is hence missing an unsupported roof construction over its arena of 160 x 180m.
Another factor to impress was the choice of location, which linked the Nazi party rallies symbolically with a traditional German cultural stronghold, the city of Nuremberg. Hitler intended the reminiscence of the Old Days — the Imperial Diets (the general assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, so called “Reichstage”) were held between 1323 and 1543 several times in Nuremberg’s Kaiserburg, an impressive castle in the center of the city.
The events, military performances and marches during the Nazi Party Rallies were bound to create ‘An Unforgettable Experience’ for those able to attend. In fact, the Party Rally Grounds were part of the Nazi project ‘Strength Through Joy’ (Kraft durch Freude). This was intended to make middle-class leisure activities, such as holidays at the seaside or party events in the city, available for everyone — and therefore promoted the Nazi party and the community around it to all parts of society.
The exhibition in Nuremberg profoundly presents the other means used to create “The Fuhrer Myth”. In other words, it explains Hitler’s propaganda machine overwhelming the general public with extremely well composed messages throughout available media: film and photographic manifestations of a ‘great’ man. At this part of the tour, both, me and my boyfriend concluded — this seems to be one of the largest advertising and marketing operations of all times. Given that news channels were biased, freedom of expression was suppressed and information technology a la worldwide web non-existing, the effects of this brainwash were unlikely to wash off.
The images displayed in the exhibition of endless masses focusing on that one person, are only comparable to what we see in totalitarian state events such as Kim Jong-il’s state funeral in North Korea 2011.
Effective Ways of Dealing with History
A question that automatically crosses one’s mind is how to deal with these last remains of history.
The museum only recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. The municipality of Nuremberg had considered it their duty to maintain the building complex and tell the story using the same means: Architecture and well composed (not hi-tech!) media installations.
An architecture tender in 1998 selected the proposal of Günther Domenig from Graz, AT. “With his contemporary steel and glass construction, the winner of the competition, Austrian architect, Günther Domenig, presents a convincing architectural counterpoint. The existing building is pierced diagonally by a 130-metre glass walkway, permanently dissecting this solid-stone National Socialist demonstration of power. The walkway cuts through the rectangular geometry of the North wing, exposing the hitherto hidden interior and presenting us, so to speak, with an archaeological cross-section.” (Website of the Documentation Center)
The walkway forms the entrance from the street. Several new films give even on a grey December day an impression of the current state of the buildings and mix these with historic recordings. The large scale images on the else bare brick walls showing the cult around ‘Hitler’ transform towards the end of the exhibition into large scale manifestations of the consequences and horrors of Hitler’s rule for the rest of the world.
The story ends with films, photos and original documents of the Nuremberg Trials. The juxtaposition of interviews with witnesses and photos of executed Nazi executives leaves one shocked, disgusted and humble, floating deep in thought past the last film screening into the light.
While the whole exhibition leads one through the dark rough unfinished brickwork annex of the Congress Hall, here at the end, we hit the steel and glass walkway again. At this point, it forms a cantilever that reaches out into the unfinished business of the ‘open air’ Congress Hall. On a sunny day, visitors can step out to take photos. I bet the group photos of the school classes that pour out of countless coaches every morning into the center are spectacular, given the circumstances. The walkway leads the visitor back to the entrance, back to Present, past several empty atria, giving us time to digest.
Issues Dealing with Hitler’s Remains
Researching for this article, I found some interesting background information:
Apparently is the condition of Nazi Rally Ground complex critical, as the often uncompleted remaining walls lack protecting final layers such as the roof or coping. The municipality of Nuremberg has decided to refurbish the remains although the project appeals all sorts of opinions due to the huge financial effort involved.
While the Documentation Center itself, is with 20 000 visitors / year a huge success, the preservation of the Nazi Rally Ground complex does not number along. Another Nazi property has not yet succeeded to attract a new purpose that justifies for the volume of its refurbishment: Prora, a ‘beach ressort’ on one of Germany’s islands was part of the project ‘Strength Through Joy’. This singular building with a total length of 4.5 kilometres takes the meaning of the word ‘hotel chain’ to a new level. It was intended to be the largest hotel in the world and won the ‘Grand Prix’ during the world exhibition 1937 in Paris. It has “has a formal heritage listing as a particularly striking example of Third Reich architecture” (Wikipedia). Parts of the Prora complex are used as a youth hostel and further re-development plans are being discussed.
People sometimes seem to forget that knowing and learning about the 3rd Reich applies to all nationalities. It is frightening to see in detail how well this machinery worked despite the limited means available at that time.
Linking back to the beginning, and the question of how school curricula should be designed, I believe the full strength of this example lies in the breadth of the approach. I hope that current or future curricula prepare kids what is out there, on many levels: international history, cultural mediation, political agency and seduction techniques in advertising and marketing.
One might even wonder what a megalomaniac like Hitler would do today, using our everyday media. My hope is that as appealing the advances might be — available network technology would create a different dynamic, fostering diversity of opinion and collaboration between individuals globally. What do you think? What and how can we sternly learn from such historic events?