The centuries-old slumber of an enchanting city can lead to nightmarish awakenings. Linz was so haunted, for having sparked the dreams of a still unremarkable young man who became later a vile despot. If often the capitals concentrate the symbols of power, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime intended to reshape several German cities, so that each materialized its delirium of racial and cultural superiority.
Immediately after taking power, Hitler began by projecting his megalomaniacal fantasies on Nuremberg. The venerable medieval city remained untouched, a convenient backdrop to an idealized Germanic past like an open-air Wagnerian opera. Nonetheless, the Party’s bombastic parades demanded the creation of huge facilities. This required a builder intuitive enough to grasp the expectations of a Führer fond of architecture, but little acquainted with its practical realities.
The death of his first favorite architect, Paul Ludwig Troost (1878-1934) – author in Munich of the Nazi Party headquarters, the Ehrentempel and the Haus der Kunst, completed post-mortem – forced Hitler to find another builder to make his architectural dreams come true. Noticed by the cunning propaganda minister, Goebbels, Albert Speer (1905-1981) succeeded in obtaining a key order for the Reichsparteitagsgelände. The ambitious Speer readily assimilated Troost's style, realizing how much Hitler expected a certain malleability. His Zeppelinfeld Tribune retains Troost's Spartan Neoclassicism but made it more demonstrative by copy-paste of a well-known ancient source. Here Speer shamelessly adopted the Pergamon Altar spatial scheme. This famed discovery of German archaeology, gave rise to an epic reassembly in Berlin, in the Pergamonmuseum designed at the beginning of the 20th century by Alfred Messel (1853-1909). The hieratic spans of his work foreshadow the retrograde architectural tendencies of Nazism. The skilful Speer magnified his Nuremberg tribune with the vertical swing of flag poles giving the impression of a more monumental place. Above all, its nocturnal use of projectors aimed at the sky increased its martial majesty, transformed it into a cathedral of light. Innovative idea? Not really. From the 1925 Paris Exhibition, the Eiffel Tower had been used for giant nocturnal illuminations. The French refined the process at the 1931 Colonial Exhibition, creating beams of light around a large wooden and plaster replica of the Angkor Wat Cambodian temple. Speer, therefore, put at the service of the Third Reich a recent taste for mass lighting – between electric modernity and traditional scenography.
After the Tribune, Speer continued to expand the Nuremberg so ideological site. Professionals active in the region, Ludwig Ruff (1878-1934) and his son Franz Ruff (1906-1979) contributed at his urging to this hyperbole. Their colossal Kongresshalle, which remained unfinished, would have literally miniaturized the Roman Colosseum. All of this is still inspired by antiquity, remodeled in a deadly, funereal way in its cold grandeur. The propaganda films shot by Leni Riefenstahl broadcast these places with arrogant pomp, exalting fanatic militarism.
A different and more captivating strategy for Linz. Once the Anschluss was enacted in 1938 – annexation of Austria which accelerated the disastrous road to World War II – Hitler immediately prepared the metamorphosis of the picturesque Austrian city into a cultural capital of the Reich. The choice of the project manager was again a process where political and even personal arguments encroached on constructive reason. Because, as he pitted his political minions into rivalry, Hitler sadistically played the favor arbitrarily granted or withdrawn from his architects.
Firstly, he addressed the pinnacle of Roderich Fick (1886-1955), who until now practiced temperate regionalism. His very Heimatschutz approach, protecting the traditional Germanic landscape, apparently corresponded to the Nazis' obsession with blood and soil. This vision enabled him to work for the grey eminence of the dictator, Bormann, including in 1935 his villa in Obersalzberg. Fick then contributed to the projects Nazifying this sublime site in the Bavarian Alps, erecting barracks and a modest tea pavilion for Hitler. In 1937, the architect perched a severe "Eagle's Nest chalet" on top of the Kehlstein – gifted to Hitler by the cautious Bormann for the fiftieth birthday of his beloved leader. Hitler’s frequent visits to Obersalzberg also led Speer to build a villa-studio there, in order to maintain his enviable proximity to the heart of the Third Reich.
These orders installed Fick as an architectural partner for Hitler, who in 1938 entrusted him with the remodeling of Linz. The politically timely operation, to which the dictator paid personal attention, modifying himself the drawings. The architect-designed a series of sober buildings along the Danube. This urban facade created an artificial unity near the river, requiring the Hauptplatz to be redesigned. It thus received a monumental articulation, with the severe buildings forming a triumphal entry around the bridge, symbolically named Nibelungen. This efficient metal deck was designed by Friedrich Tamms (1904-1980) – soon to be the author of the martial air defense towers of a militarily hard-pressed Third Reich. The colossal statues on the piles should have paid their tribute to Hitler’s passion for Germanic legends revisited through Wagner’s music. Additions announcing the city's overall development.
However, an aesthete lost in butchers company, Fick was resistant to Hitler's megalomania. So Speer was intrigued to undermine his colleague's image. The desire for absolute control? Delusion of grandeur, considering that Speer then rearranged Berlin into immortal and unreal Germania, before surprisingly becoming Minister of Armaments during the war. Consequently, the dictator sharply dismissed Fick, entrusting brutally the direction of Linz projects to Hermann Giesler (1898-1987) – a staunch Nazi. He had just completed one of the NSDAP schools in Sonthofen, Bavaria, between Alpine regionalism and medieval allusions. A place supposed to train a supposed Aryan knighthood. Giesler also used his connections to other Nazi hierarchs to reshape Weimar. His gradual rapprochement with Hitler came to Speer’s chagrin, fearing for his position as the dictator's favorite builder.
The appropriation of Linz's works by the servile Giesler resulted in heavy hypertrophy of the projects. His version of the planned facilities – Opera, train station, Party buildings, etc. – sank into a pump that was both icy and unimaginative. Some were begun during the war. Everything was supposed to be finished after the final victory of the Nazi regime! Nevertheless, the defeat of Stalingrad and the retaliation of the Red Army now made the realization of Hitler's architectural fantasies unlikely. For a similar overhaul of Hamburg, Konstanty Gutschow (1902-1978) encountered an identical problem: the obsessed reference to the neoclassicism of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) succumbed to Hitler rigidity, barely tempered by the architects wish to invent the Nazi equivalent of American skyscrapers. In short, the proximity to the stiff Führer literally functioned as a dark star, stifling all creativity.
Curiously, the disgraced Fick still kept a few projects. His Führermuseum would have become the temple housing the result of the Nazi plunder on a European scale of works of art previously belonging to Jewish collectors. This collection acquired by robbery showed how Hitler's accomplices sent Jews to death camps while parading in pseudo cultural patrons. For this stale edifice, conventional classicism, a blind box somewhat animated by the play of very vertical pilasters and the alternation of curved and triangular pediments. But Fick had to drink the chalice of bitterness to the dregs: Giesler also seized on this iconic program, sticking to it a more mannered colonnade! Realizing that nothing would have spared him, Fick conceived the Hotel Donauhof as a sort of frigid parody of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. In this hostage of despotism, the obvious citation of this Renaissance masterpiece by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546) and Michelangelo (1475-1564) was more of a desperate attempt to put back some aesthetic finesse in an urban ensemble increasingly contaminated by growing megalomania.
The habitat prepared by the initial teams also reveals the backstage of an entire city plunged into dementia. The traditional intimate charm of these mansions provides a strange setting for the fanatical enlistment of society by the Nazis. This type of home was supposed to promote sexuality in the service of eugenic reproduction, claiming to perpetuate the self-proclaimed superior Aryan race.
Even in his Berlin bunker surrounded by the Russians, Hitler dreamed in front of the model of Giesler’s Linz, including his future mausoleum. He and his architect were still clinging to a definitively cursed fantasy... The Third Reich fall finally buried these demented projects.
Among the leading defendants in the Nuremberg trial, Speer chose a skilful defense, between calculated contrition and instrumentalization of his refusal to destroy German infrastructure. Despite his direct involvement in Nazi crimes, this enabled him to save his head for twenty years in detention. His memoirs played the card of repentance. A major editorial success, much to the angriness of bitter Giesler, who had been tried by a US military court for war crimes, sentenced to life imprisonment, but released in 1952. His later career remained uneven and his memoirs, published by a far-right publisher, show an oozing nostalgia for the Nazi period. Fick also passed before the denazification authorities. His more decent attitude – he did not contribute to crimes against humanity – and the insults provoked by his rivals slanders earned him a lenient verdict: a fine. His status as a former regime companion ultimately blocked his reinstatement as a teacher, but he did take part in the reconstruction.
Carrying an evil aura, the symbols of the Nuremberg monuments were dynamited in April 1945. In his “theory of ruins”, Speer imagined the majestic image of the Hitler Reich remains a thousand years later. His vain prophecy was less true a decade later! The massive remnants serve as silent witnesses to a dire empire. Likewise, Giesler's few works constitute a cumbersome reminder of memory. As for Linz, the work done by Fick is still in place, with pomp and melancholy.
The confrontation between Fick and Giesler designs reveals an existential gulf. The former tried to continue a certain conceptual elegance; the second obediently bowed to the diktats of a dictator calling for a grandiloquent setting. While serving the tyrant, their creative sense was linked irremediably to the turpitudes of power based on the elimination or enslavement of entire peoples. Linz façades on the Danube: disturbing architectural mask of a fictitious golden age, based on the delirium of racial supremacy. Behind this perverse dream, a sinister backstage where each site was part of an inhuman deviation of each social mechanism.