One of Adolf Hitler’s most cherished ambitions was to construct the world’s greatest monument. With the help of Albert Speer, called “the Reich’s Chief Architect,” Hitler intended to rebuild Berlin around what he viewed as the future heart of the Germanic empire: the People’s Hall (Volkshalle), a 290-meter-high dome that could hold 180,000 people.
Speer said that Hitler was so “obsessed” with the massive dome that he was “extremely irritated” when he learnt that the Soviet Union had begun construction on an even greater structure in Moscow: The Palace of the Soviets. This palace was planned to be 495 metres (1,624 feet) tall, with a massive statue of Lenin above it. Hitler was enraged, believing he had been “robbed of the grandeur of erecting the world’s tallest colossal structure.” Speer concluded that “Moscow‘s rival building” had preyed on Hitler’s mind more than he had been willing to confess when Hitler launched the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. As the German soldiers approached Moscow, Hitler declared, “Now this will be the end of their building once and for all”. Hitler saw monumental architecture as a means of instilling a disarming sense of awe in the human body. He believed that enormous buildings were effective weapons and that political domination hinged on developing structures that dazzled and intimidated crowds, restricting their physiological disposition to act critically and assertively, as his intention to crush the Palace of the Soviets demonstrates. For millennia, people have tried to foster reverence through gigantic structures. However, Speer’s narrative highlights the political complexities of monumentality’s emotional dimensions, as well as the reality that these exist in one of capitalism’s most unique effective weapons: skyscrapers.
Hitler’s one True Passion
Speer demonstrates how important architecture was to the Nazi project. He also shows that architecture was Hitler’s one true passion, the single subject that made him happy, cheerful, and exuberant. “How much I would have loved to be an architect!” Hitler would say on a daily basis. Hitler’s architectural plans date back to the 1920s when he prepared designs of the Berlin he planned to reconstruct as the capital of a Germanic kingdom with monuments that would dwarf those of Rome in grandeur and majesty. In Mein Kampf, he lamented the absence of monumentality and grandeur in German city architecture. When Hitler first met Speer, he was blown away by how the latter offered to materialise his spatial megalomania. Speer, the son of a distinguished architect, rose through Hitler’s inner circle to become not just the Reich’s “chief architect,” but also one of the most trusted members of his inner circle, finally becoming the Reich’s Minister of Armaments until the fall of Berlin. Hitler professed a near-religious devotion to Speer, whom he regarded as the greatest architect of all time.
Architecture, for Hitler and Speer, was more than just the art of giving shape to space; it was also the art of generating power through colossal spatial forms. Eyal Weizman and Léopold Lambert, for example, have demonstrated how manipulating spatial forms has substantial political ramifications in the control of mobility and visibility, as well as the deployment of violence. The Wall of Separation and Israel’s numerous checkpoints (brilliantly explored by Weizman and Lambert) are prime examples of this militarization of architecture. This is why Lambert claims that they are weaponized architectural forms. Nonetheless, walls and other architectural striations are weaponized in a unique way as kinetic capture apparatuses: that is, as material assemblages that regulate and channel the movement of people in space. As the confinement of European Jews within walled ghettos and death camps demonstrates, the control of mobility via architectural capture of mobility was certainly crucial to the spatiality of Nazi Germany. Hitler and Speer, on the other hand, were intellectually disinterested in weaponized architecture, which they delegated to lower-level officials. They were more interested in an architecture weaponized as an affective capture apparatus, designed to create affective atmospheres, which are spatial contexts that exert pre-discursive, non-fully aware forces on the body, as described by geographer Ben Anderson. In addition to organising movement, all architectural forms create affective atmospheres, and my difference between kinetic and affective capture apparatuses is merely heuristic, not meant to create a dichotomy or typology. The major goal of Hitler’s colossal architecture, according to Speer’s book Inside the Third Reich, was to instil emotive intensities in the bodies viewing it, catching their focus and attention.
Theory of Ruins
Even if the buildings were in ruins, Hitler and Speer’s attempts to achieve transcendence through monumentality reached such extremes that they aimed to numb the body. The ruins of the Roman Empire formed the basis for what Speer called his “theory of ruins,” which Hitler adored as “imperishable symbols of power.” His “thought” was that the new Berlin’s buildings should be made of stone and brick (rather than steel and concrete) so that their ruins would seem imposing, like those of Rome, “after a thousand years.” Because of their fetish potential to continue being an instrument of affective capture, Hitler, in particular, felt that Nazi power would remain amid those ruins. The People’s Hall, the boulevard, and the Arch of Triumph dominated this architectural fantasy’s spatial core: a thirty-meter long, three-dimensional model of the new, monumentalized Berlin that was represented in extreme detail and dominated by The People’s Hall, the boulevard, and the Arch of Triumph. Hitler’s “favourite project” was this small “model metropolis.” Hitler would spend hours studying the model’s intricacies from various angles, kneeling “to measure the varying impression.” He sought to imagine how those structures would affect “a traveller emerging from the south station,” for example.
Hitler’s desire for Monumental Architecture
For Hitler, erecting towering structures was the primary means of securing the military victory of 1939-1940. For him, monumental architecture was the most potent and decisive of all weapons, crucial to military victory. This is also why Hitler tried to demolish his adversaries’ magnificent architecture, including not only the Soviet Palace in Moscow but also New York City’s skyscrapers. As Speer relates in his second biography, Spandau: The Secret Diaries (1976), Hitler ordered the creation of long-range bombers capable of reaching New York and destroying the city’s iconic towers, which he considered as critical to the United States’ global influence and prestige. The bomber programme was subsequently shelved, although Speer recalled that Hitler dreamt about turning New York’s towers “into a giant, burning fires.”
Nazi monumentality, according to Speer, was a “Nouveau rich architecture of prestige” focused on “pure spectacle” and “the need to demonstrate one’s strength”. He could just as well be talking about the skyscrapers that now dominate the skylines of New York, Shanghai, and Dubai. Hitler’s fixation with building empires that were “greater” than past empires is easy to dismiss as the illusions of a “madman.” However, the desire to construct “bigger” has spread across the globe.
- Nazi Architecture as affective weapon. Available at https://worldarchitecture.org/architecture-news/pvncp/nazi-architecture-as-affective-weapon.html