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Albert Speer : Ruins Without Value

Soon it will be fifty years since the Zeppelinfeld outside Nuremberg played host to its first full-scale Nazi rally with decor and choreography by Albert Speer. There is enough left of the tribunes and stands around the parade area to give you some idea of its original proportions, even though the great stone swastikas, eagles and colonnades and their marble veneers were all blown up in 1945. The place looks a bit like Stonehenge, except the circle has been squared, and, thankfully, flattened.

If you take the No. 6 tram out of Nuremberg, change at the Meistersingerhalle to a No. 55 bus and get off at the next stop after a very large totalitarian-looking horseshoe-shaped building which nobody will say was once the Kongresshalle, you can walk back 100 yards, make a dog-leg to the left and be standing alone where 90,000 Nazis used to stand in line yelling while another 10,000 Nazis in the grandstands yelled back at them, and Hitler himself, on the podium which is still intact, yelled louder than anybody. It was an amplified uproar in a blaze of light. But nothing happens now except a few lonely madmen scrawling graffiti by night, the inevitable Japanese tourists taking photographs of one another, American service personnel playing football, and the quiet, the blessedly quiet, passing of time.

The place used to attain its full evil glory after dark, Nazism being essentially a thing of night-time and the forest. Walled in by giant swastika banners, the square was open at the top to the night sky. Then the searchlights would be switched on. Spaced closely and evenly right around the outside of the ramparts and pointing vertically, they sent their beams straight up to form a Lichtdom, a cathedral of light five miles high. In his memoirs Speer says he got the idea just before the 1934 Parteitag, but typically he is rearranging the facts. He pioneered the notion at the Hamelin rally the year before. At Hamelin, however, he had only ordinary theatrical floodlights to play with: it was the searchlights which gave a Nuremberg rally its dubious title to being the apotheosis of Versammlungsarchitektur — Speer’s term for the architecture that brought people together.

When the Nazis got together on the Zeppelinfeld, Hitler appeared on the podium so that they could all aim their right armpits at him. I appeared on the same podium and tried to imagine how it must have felt. Like most television performers I am accustomed to being told by confident pundits that I am engaged in a form of demagoguery, with a mass audience as the more or less willing victim. But in fact the mass audience is confined to the studio and usually consists of four cameramen plus two floor-managers and a group of scene-shifters reading Penthouse.

The television audience sits at home and consists of a lot of individuals. A mass is the last thing it is. At Nuremberg, Hitler’s audience was all there together in one lump — a mass was the first thing it was. I did not feel inclined to address its phantom. There was nothing out there on the wet grass except crows feeding on the scraps left after a football game.

Beyond the back entrance at the other end of the arena, the pine forest still stretches away, the dark green trees out of which the brown poison seeped and into which it was eventually driven back. The thought of all those brick-red yelling faces is chilling even when you consider that a rally was the only time when the Nazis weren’t actually engaged in hurting anybody. Besides, the consideration would be not quite true. Nuremberg was Streicher’s personal city and even while he was playing host to the Führer his standover men were active all over town, kicking, whipping, torturing and always shouting, shouting, shouting.

In his monograph about his own architecture, published in Frankfurt in 1978, Speer makes great play with the idea that the buildings he designed for Hitler arose out of practical politics rather than ideology. The Nazis spent a lot of time getting together, so a Nazi building had to be a gathering place. Paraphrasing Goethe’s remarks about the lay-out of a Roman amphitheatre, Speer said that an assembly building must be so constructed that a whole people could become ‘impressed with itself’. When it came to ideology, Speer after the war was always ready — although never, cannily, eager — to pass Hitler the buck, or in this case the Reichsmark. The sheer size of the Nazi building schemes, according to Speer, came out of Hitler’s imagination.

In January 1934, Hitler’s favourite architect Paul Ludwig Troost — author of the extremely ugly Haus der Kunst and several other limestone horrors still standing in Munich — cashed in his chips. Speer took over top spot at the age of thirty-one. Between him and Hitler there instantly blossomed such a friendship as is possible only between two closed men who have a passion in common. In their case it was architecture. Hitler, by his own estimation, was a great artist who had been deflected by political necessity from what would have been a brilliant career. In Speer he saw the personification of his young life’s dream. He not only loved Speer, he said so — the only man he ever said that about in public. Through Speer he would become an immortal Maecenas. Immortality was a word that received much stress. The buildings would be there for thousands of years. The first big job would be the Zeppelinfeld, which Speer had only a few months to transform.

At first sight it was an uninspiring brief. The rally was not for the army or the well-drilled squads of the paramilitary elite formations, but for party functionaries with large bottoms who would not look too impressive all lined up, although the darkness would help. Yet Speer, intuitively responding to the (and here I translate) Assembly-style of the Movement, thought big. For the Haupttribune, the main tribune, he sketched out a design twice the length of the baths of Caracalla. ‘I was worried,’ he says in his memoirs, ‘because the design went far beyond the scope of my assignment.’ To the end of his life, Speer was pleased that Hitler accepted these grandiloquent ideas without demur. But Speer’s pretence that he was merely fulfilling Hitler’s dreams is, like so many other points in the memoirs, clearly contradicted on his own evidence. As often as Speer refers to ‘Hitler’s demand for huge dimensions’, he reveals that he, Speer, was thinking on a scale to which not even Hitler could aspire, at night in bed after a lobster dinner. If Hitler’s was the megalomania, Speer’s was the gigantism. Speer made Hitler’s vague ideas concrete. Better than that, he made them masonry with marble facings, a Neo-Classical power station for the searchlights, and toilets in every second bastion for the party functionaries caught short after a hard afternoon in the beer cellar.

Budget was no object. Speer was given the contract for the whole of the Reichsparteitaggelände, or Party Day Grounds, a 6½-square-mile complex of which the Zeppelinfeld would be only a part, and which would have no other use except for the Nazis to rally in for one week every September until Hell froze over. The Kongresshalle had already been built, to the suitably glowering but otherwise pedestrian designs of Ludwig Ruff. (Today it has a music school at the front and a plastic bag factory at the back, but if you can get inside you will find the walls of the old refectory still decorated with the kind of fake peasant murals that the Nazis, many of them farm boys, thought were great art.) Everything else was to be the work of Speer.

Along an axis lined up with the old city in the distance, he designed an enormous Paradestrasse, or parade street, which would run from the SA and SS stamping-ground in front of the Luitpoldhall, across the lake called the Dutzendteich, and past the Zeppelinfeld to culminate in the Märzfeld, an unprecedentedly gargantuan assembly area in which the Wehrmacht, under a statue of a woman forty-six feet higher than the Statue of Liberty, would manoeuvre on a scale that would leave the Zeppelinfeld looking like a sand-tray. On the other side of the Paradestrasse from the Zeppelinfeld would be the Stadion, a giant stadium three times the size of the Circus Maximus, with three times the volume of the pyramid of Cheops. (The rules of the Olympic Games would be rewritten to fit — no problem, because after the war the Olympics would always take place in Germany.) The whole deal would be all set to go for the Party Rally in 1945.

Not much of it got built, but there is enough of it still lying around to make you think. The Paradestrasse is there, with its specially roughened flagstones so that men might goose-step in ranks 150 feet wide without risk of injury. At the SS end of the axis, the Kulturhalle, from which Hitler was to have addressed the world on cultural subjects, luckily didn’t get built. The stadium, which was to have had a pink granite exterior, for a mercy didn’t get built either: it would have been a bathroom suite the size of a mountain. But a start was made on the Märzfeld, and the work in progress, suspended in 1939, was lovingly photographed for Nazi publications throughout the war, with assurances that after the inevitable victory the aggregation of colossal edifices would be completed, thenceforth to stay open for ever.

But it wasn’t just the war that slowed things down. Speer’s attention had been diverted towards what was for Hitler a more important object — Berlin. Speer got quite a lot done in Berlin and if hostilities had not started early he would have transformed it utterly, with consequences far more hideous than anything achieved by the RAF. The city would have acquired, grouped around a new axis, a complex of buildings exceeding — and these are Speer’s own terms of measurement — the Tower of Babel, the Pyramids, the cathedrals of Ulm and Beauvais, Karnak, the Colosseum and all seven Wonders of the World. Topped off by the Kuppelhalle, a green copper-clad dome 300 feet high with room for 180,000 screaming Nazis to assemble underneath, this architectural extravaganza would also have been, Speer forgot to mention, the single most horrible group of buildings ever conceived by man. Merely to look at the drawings and models is enough to give you a white migraine. Beside them, Stalin’s skyscrapers are as relaxed as a tool shed on an allotment.

And that’s really the first thing to say about Speer’s architecture. It was just awful. A genius without talent, he was essentially a theatrical personality, with enough gumption to be quiet about it. When he says in his memoirs how it shocked him that the Nazi hierarchs acted so well in the retakes for Leni Riefenstahl’s movie, Triumph of the Will, he is concealing, with typical self-deception, the fact that he himself was histrionic through and through. In this, he and Hitler were as one. When Speer advanced his Theory of Ruin Value, he knew that Hitler would not be shocked. Part of the Zeppelinfeld area was an old tram depot before the Nazis moved in. Speer was not impressed by how the tram depot’s ruins looked after its demolition. He told Hitler that when the time came, Nazi remains should look more impressive, and that the buildings they designed together should be so constructed that when they were in ruins thousands of years from now, they would still transmit a sense of grandeur, like the great shards of the far past. The other leaders were horrified at the very idea of suggesting to Hitler that the Nazi era might ever be over, but Hitler saw the point immediately and told Speer not to stint with the marble. Hitler knew that a theatrical event must have a last act. What neither he nor Speer could guess was that it would come not in a thousand years or even a hundred, but a mere twelve.

Nor did the Theory of Ruin Value quite work out. The Zeppelinfeld is not very impressive. It is just sad. Don’t imagine that you will hear the ghostly roar of a mass Sieg heil! from the past. That happens only in movies. Nor will you hear, unless you are a saint, that much more lastingly characteristic sound of the Nazi epoch, the despairing cries of the tormented. All you will hear is the grass growing under your feet, where the flagstones used to be. The graffiti on the back walls of the tribunes feature ill-drawn stars of David and not very bold assurances that Hitler lives. In the dirt-filled bastions there are buckled Fanta cans and the discarded plastic webbing for six-packs. Ballspielen verboten. US ARMY: KEEP OUT. The football scoreboard tells you to have a Coke and smile. But the glory has not departed. It was never really there. Mostly it was made of cheap white light, and the free people came to turn off the power.

(Observer Magazine, 2 October, 1983)