Architecture is possibly one of the disciplines where the ringleaders of the Nazi dictatorship invested most, for it provided a direct mean to display and impose their ‘new aesthetics’ to the German people and to foreign visitors from abroad.
The victory of the Allies in WWII wiped out the Nazi apparatus, but nowhere as in Germany did the new post-war leadership take the deletion of all traces of the Third Reich so seriously. Even in museums of military history – there is an excellent example in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, perhaps one of the most beautiful museums on the topic in Europe – there are just a handful of Nazi insignia. Swastikas, Nazi uniforms, weapons and memorabilia can be found to an incredibly greater extent elsewhere in Europe, especially in Britain, or in museums in the US. They are really also abundant in the countless exhibitions about the Great Patriotic War – WWII for Russians – in the former USSR, and generally beyond the Iron Curtain.
Concerning architecture, especially in Berlin many buildings of all ages were totally demolished as a result of US/British air raids, and during the last battle for the city opposite the Red Army. Similarly, the town centers of many larger towns were severely damaged. In the reconstruction process, little care was taken in keeping trace of this dark page of the German history, and the reborn downtown districts assumed in many cases a new face, where 1950-styled buildings shared the stage with medieval cathedrals and public schools from Bismarck’s time – pretty much nothing from the 1930s.
Yet of course some creations of Hitler’s architects have come to these days. Despite the evil ideology behind them, some are remarkable works of art, displaying a clear relationship with functionalism, typically found through various interpretations also in many realizations of great architects of the Thirties, in the US as well as all around western Europe. Examples are those buildings connected with infrastructures, like airport terminals or railway stations – much needed in the post-WWII period, and preferably restored instead of being demolished. More items of this kind survive than possibly of any other from Hitler’s era in todays German cities. A majestic example is the terminal of the now closed Berlin-Tempelhof airport.
Most of the surviving buildings hold a public function – like departments of the government or sport arenas. In a very few cases, buildings strongly connected with the devious ideology of the Third Reich have been preserved – albeit not greatly publicized – as museums. A first notable example is the complex around the Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg, with the unfinished huge congress hall for the conventions of the Nazi Party. A second one is the disturbing ‘spiritual center’ of the infamous SS in Wewelsburg.
This chapter collects a few photographs from these three places. Of course, it is far from a complete review of the architectural heritage of the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. It just provides an insight on a relatively unknown group of relics from Hitler’s era in Germany.
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- Berlin-Tempelhof Airport Terminal
- Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg
- Spiritual Headquarter of the SS, Wewelsburg
Berlin-Tempelhof Airport Terminal
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Possibly the most complete and grandest example of Nazi architecture, the airport terminal of Berlin-Tempelhof is interesting both from an architecture standpoint and for its historical significance. The terminal was designed and built in the late 1930s and completed in 1941, greatly enlarging a preexistent construction.
At that time, nothing comparable existed in the world. The terminal is more than a mile long. It was built with a direct access from the land-side buildings directly to the long side of a narrow hangar on the air-side, which basically ran all along the terminal. Considering the small size of the aircraft of the day, this ‘hangar-terminal’ configuration could be exploited to simultaneously load and unload a high number of flights, with operations taking place directly in, or just outside, of a covered hangar. During WWII, parts of the hangar were used to manufacture military aircraft, exploiting forced laborers from a concentration camp prepared nearby for the purpose.
But the features of the terminal turned also extremely handy during the Berlin blockade of 1948-49, when Stalin tried to force his former western Allies to withdraw from Berlin by cutting off the western sector of the city. The western Allies set up the famous airlift, supplying the western sector with basically everything that was needed for a population in the order of a million, for 15 months! Tempelhof was the major airport in Berlin – the other being the British airbase in Gatow, near Potsdam – and laid in the American zone of the city. Thanks to its peculiar structure, it could manage the immense flow of goods flown in by more than 1’000 flights per day.
In the Cold War years, the airport was operated as a logistic base by the US forces. In the meanwhile, the construction of a larger airport – with a smaller terminal, but longer runways – was started at Tegel, and this was promoted to the main airport of West Berlin for civil air traffic. State flights still were operated in and out of Tempelhof, President Reagan’s Air Force One 27000 notably operating from Tempelhof on a famous state visit in 1982. After the German reunification the airport went on working as a civil airport, but the relatively short runways and noise issues led to its closure in 2008.
Sadly, today this glorious airport has been turned into another city park. It is rather difficult to use it for the scope though, as all the cement and asphalt of the apron, runways and taxiways are still there, there are no trees, and the terminal is an imposing presence on one side. Moreover, it is really a surplus for a city like Berlin, scattered with plenty of beautiful and immense green areas. The terminal building has not yet found a new occupation, and is basically a well-guarded ghost. Plans for reopening it as a convention center are apparently consolidated in 2022, but renovation works are going on still at very low pace.
Most recently, a small but well-designed, mainly pictorial exhibition has been located in the old terminal building, retracing with beautiful historical pictures, technical schemes and essential explanations the history of Tempelhof Airport.
Pictures from the year 2015 – but luckily not much had changed in 2022, the date of my latest visit – show the main building giving access to the terminal on the northwestern corner of the airfield still in a rather good shape. The empty parking ahead of the passenger entrance with nobody around gives a lunar aura to the place.
The neat lines of this part of the building deceive its actual size. From a former visit still in the days of operation – year 2006 – you can notice the roomy check-in hall, right beyond the main entrance.
Close by one of the glass entry doors you can spot a memorial to General Lucius Clay, the American mind behind the Berlin Airlift.
The grand perspective leading to the entrance is really an architectural masterpiece. Also noteworthy is a series of covered passages leading to lateral courtyards to the sides. These service passages are not visible when approaching the terminal from the distance, preserving the general sense of order without renouncing to the functionality of the construction.
There are two surviving marble eagles from Hitler’s time, on the front walls of the buildings to the sides of the main perspective.
The eagle head ahead of the parking is from the eagle sculpture originally standing on top of the main façade in Hitler’s times. That eagle was taken away after the capture of the city and the end of the war. The head went to the Army Academy in West Point, NY as a spoil of war, and was returned after the German reunification.
Moving along the wings of the building you can appreciate the size of the construction, really uncommon for Europe in the Thirties. The quality of all materials is also really striking. Their cost must have been really high.
To the extreme northeastern tip of the building you can spot some former radio installations, likely connected with air traffic control or military operations. From there you can get access to the former air side of the airport. At the time when the pictures were taken it was possible to walk around freely, but unfortunately not close to the hangar. Most recently, a branch of the Allied Museum in Berlin has taken responsibility for a preservation effort, and is keeping the place off-limits, opening it to the public on rare guided visits in German only – but I could not join in any of them.
There is also a historical propliner ahead of the iconic ‘Berlin Tempelhof’ sign on top of the hangar. Anyway, walking on the apron and runways produces a ‘history was made here’ feeling, and it is worth trying! Again, a few shots from the days of operation show the hangar from inside the terminal building. Historical pictures from local panels show the use of the hangar for the production of aircraft and technical parts.
As said, a recent exhibition of special interest for getting an accurate historical perspective, retraces the timeline of the airfield, since its pre-Third Reich era, through the colossal redesign in the shape we see today carried out in Hitler’s time, and down to the Cold War era, when Tempelhof had a crucial role in the Berlin Airlift, and was operated for long as a regular city airport.
Remarkably, in April 1945 the airfield fell in Soviet hands – since the Soviet Army conquered Berlin – and was later ceded to the US, following the Potsdam agreements in July 1945, which split the capital of the Third Reich in four sectors. It is likely Stalin regretted his own ‘fair-play’ concerning Tempelhof at the time of the Airlift, just a few years later…
A picture portraying general Keitel, in custody, arriving at Tempelhof to sign the instrument of surrender in the Soviet headquarters (see here) together with other top-ranking Nazi officers, shows a Lisunov Li-2 in the background. This was the licensed Soviet copy of the Douglas C-47. Also interesting the demolished German fighters found on sight by the conquerors.
The US, having taken control of the field, organized open-days for the general public once per year – reportedly, mostly appreciated by the local population.
Actually, the years corresponding to the sealing of the Inner Border (see here), from the Berlin crisis of 1961 (which saw the construction of the Berlin Wall) until specific accords partially reopening the land borders especially to Westerners in the early 1970s, were those of the most intense activity for Tempelhof – reaching West Berlin was more convenient by flight. But soon after, the better infrastructure of Tegel, with longer runways and less surrounded by high-rise buildings, took over most of the airline connections to Berlin. Tempelhof went on hosting state flights, general aviation flights, and commercial flights to a lower scale. There was also a permanent presence of US Army forces.
Evoking pictures include one with Willy Brandt greeting general Clay, and much later, President Reagan and the First Lady on a state visit in 1987. In another, you see one of the former Third Reich top-ranking staff Albert Speer – who also contributed to the design of Tempelhof – leaving for Western Germany by flight, following release after serving a long sentence in the prison of Spandau. He had been sentenced in Nürnberg.
The closure on grounds of noise issues, as noted, left the infrastructure unused for some years. Plans for re-opening as a convention/exhibition centers have been prepared as of 2022, and partial updating works are being carried out.
Getting there and moving around
The former airport is not far from downtown Berlin, around 3 miles south from the Brandenburg Gate in the former western sector of the city. Access to the terminal is from Tempelhofer Damm. Parking is possible along this major alley, or on the many roads around the airport – parking is rarely a problem in Berlin. Be ready to walk though, as usual when touring an airport.
Access possible also with public means of transportation. The front terminal can be easily reached from the U6 stops ‘Platz der Luftbrucke’ or ‘Bhf Paradestrasse’. Access from the east is easier from the U8 stops ‘Boddinstrasse’ or ‘Leinenstrasse’. There is finally an S-bahn station on the southwestern corner of the airfield – ‘Bahnhof Tempelhof’ – where U6 meets with several S-bahn lines.
My last visit to the place dates back to 2022, and as the area was undergoing renovation with a consolidated plan for changing its role and shape – and some works having started in the southernmost part of the terminal building.
Anyway, at the time of this visit the terminal was closed to the public, with limited chances to visit inside on guided tours. The only chance to access the terminal is for the small – yet totally recommended – photo exhibition. The latter can be reached to the left of the main facade of the terminal building. Website with contacts and timetables here.
Touring the exterior is possible on your own, and there are also a few descriptive panels along the perimeter. There are multiple entrances to the former air side, which is a public park with many people around.
Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg
Nuremberg is an ancient imperial city in the heart of Germany, taken over as the symbolic capital of the ‘new kingdom’ by the theorists of the Nazi doctrine, due to its historical significance in German history. This town became the focal point of Hitler-led Nazi Party (NSDAP is the acronym of the party name in German language) well before the fateful general elections of 1933, when Hitler was elected chancellor of the German Republic. Among the activities of the NSDAP since the Twenties was a yearly rally, where for a few days all sections of the party met in Nuremberg for a series of group activities, including political speeches, commemoration of the fallen soldiers of the German wars, sport, camping, dining, etc.
In the years preceding Hitler’s raise to power, these rallies took place in the Luitpoldhain Park, to the southeast of the town center. The park had at its center the Hall of Honor, a memorial to the soldiers of German Wars, erected at the end of the Twenties. Today, leaving behind some construction works carried out by the NSDAP in the 1930s – including a massive Luitpold Hall and a tribune, today completely demolished – the place has regained its commemorative function, and is still used as a nice and sober city park. Yet historical photographs of Hitler celebrating the fallen German comrades ahead of the very monument you can see today produce a strange feeling.
In the years of the dictatorship, the rallies turned into a megalomaniac ostentation of power, with hundreds of thousands participating in the reunions. Correspondingly, the area involved in these parades was greatly enlarged, and a plan was made to realize a group of dedicated buildings.
The most famous of them, thanks to the historical movies of the parades recorded at the time, is the Zeppelin Field. This was a parade ground designed from scratch by Nazi architects. The white tribune with the huge swastika on top, in the background of an immense, perfectly ordered and disciplined public, crowding the arena and listening to the voice of the Führer, is one of the permanent symbols of the Third Reich monstrous machine. Actually, the same tribune is the subject of another very famous movie, where the swastika is blown up with dynamite after the capture of the city of Nuremberg by US troops, marking the end of the Nazi rule in Germany.
The tribune and the constructions along the perimeter of the Zeppelin Field underwent major post-war deconstruction works, as the area came to host a car racing circuit and later a rather minimal sporting ground. What remains of the building is still rather massive, yet the top colonnade is gone, and as of 2016 the place looked little guarded and partly abandoned – eventually making it even grimmer! You can be on the exact podium where Hitler stood in his golden days admiring his evil creation.
The final and most prominent part of the plan is the congress hall of the NSDAP. Like most of the gigantic construction project for the area, this building was never completed, yet it reached a rather advanced state of completion. It is a U-shaped, three floors building, clearly inspired to the ancient Roman architecture. It should have been the building for the congresses of the NSDAP.
Today, this is the only preserved building of the complex, and hosts an extremely interesting museum and documentation center on the history of the Nazi Party and of the rallies. Really an interesting insight in the aesthetics of Hitler’s era and in the strange history of this strange political movement, which has been instrumental in shaping the face of todays Europe – and possibly of the world. Surely worth visiting.
A somewhat off-topic note, yet fitting in this chapter, concerns the hall of the Nuremberg Trials. These post-war trials were held in Nuremberg soon after the end of the war, mainly because of the significance this city had gained for the NSDAP. The courthouse, used as such also under the Nazi dictatorship, survived the war rather undamaged. Today, it is home to the Memorium, a very interesting museum documenting the trials from an anecdotal perspective, as well as from a more elevated viewpoint, describing its significance for international law – it was the first time an international conflict ended up in a trial.
Besides the museum, which is mainly centered on panels and photographs, you can see the famous Courtroom 600, where the trials took place. This was a bit altered since the years of the trials, yet some peculiar features, like the artistic doors, are exactly those you can see in the famous video recordings from the time.
Getting there and moving around
The area of the NSDAP rallies can be found about 2.5 miles southeast of the historical district of Nuremberg, Bavaria. It can be conveniently reached by car, or with public transport. Tramway line 8 departs the central railway station and has several stops in the area of interest. The S-bahn station ‘Nurnberg-Dutzenteich’ is 0.3 miles from the congress hall.
Today the area is mainly green, with much room for relaxing with a good walk. There are some explanatory panels with maps outlining the scheme of the Nazi master plan, including the buildings which were actually erected, those which were later demolished, and those which were just planned.
The centerpiece is the museum ‘Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände’, in the unfinished congress hall. Despite the distance from downtown Nuremberg, this is a major attraction for foreign visitors, hence the museum is prepared for large crowds. Visiting is possible with an audio-guide in many languages, and it is really worth the time and price. Website here.
The Memorium Nuremberg Trials, is hosted in a still active section of the Courthouse and is conveniently reachable by car of with the U-bahn U1, stop ‘Bärenschanze’, about 1 mile west of the historical town center. It can be visited on a self-guided basis, with audio-guides in many languages. This exhibition is really well designed and very interesting, and may take a couple of hours for a complete exploration. Yet due to the relative absence of tangible ‘hardware’ it may turn out unbearable for smaller children. Website here.
Spiritual Headquarter of the SS, Wewelsburg
The castle of Wewelsburg is connected to one of the most obscure aspects of the Nazi ideology – magic practices. The castle was founded centuries before the advent of the Nazis. Soon after the rise to power of the NSDAP, the head of the SS Heinrich Himmler got fascinated by the triangular perimeter of the castle, which appears to point towards the North. This is nothing special for a normal mind, but the SS were the treasurers of the German race culture, and they were trying all the time to establish a solid link between basically themselves and the ancient settlers of Greenland – the Thule people – described in some legends as the most ancient northern population. This was instrumental in sustaining that the world belonged to the SS, which had been there since before everyone else.
This apparently silly idea represented for this group of fanatics a sufficient motivation to trigger a world war, were they saw themselves as the leaders of a liberation movement, regaining a rightful control over Europe (just to start) to the German race, after centuries of undue occupation by other races.
Wewelsburg gained more and more importance as the Nazis started preparing for war. The northern tower of the castle was declared the center of the world, and the heart of the SS soul. The School of Wewelsburg represented the spiritual leadership of this military organization, which enjoyed a surprising independence – and an extensive budget – even in the suffocating bureaucratic apparatus of Hitler’s political dictatorship. As such, Wewelsburg came in the middle of a visionary master plan, where it had to be at the center of a circular construction with a radius of 1 kilometer. Construction works started on this project, satellite concentration camps for forced laborers being opened on site for the purpose. The work did not develop much though, due to the intervening war events and things evolving differently from the Nazi plans.
The castle underwent some modifications under the SS. It was generally refurbished to host regular reunions of the comrades of the School of Wewelsburg, with SS-themed furniture which can be seen in the local museum devoted to this incredible story.
Furthermore, the northern tower was largely modified inside, with two round rooms appearing one above the other on two levels. The top one was completed as the ‘Room of the Black Sun’. It is centered on a mosaic pavement with a swastika motif. A disk made of pure gold, disappeared after the war, represented the sun in the center of the pavement, and marked the very center of the world.
The bottom room is basically a crypt, receiving little light from the outside, and resembling a chapel. At the center of the room you can find a basin like in a baptistery. All around there are little stands, possibly provisions for thrones. On top of the vault, just beneath the sun in the top room, there is a rare stone sculpture of a swastika.
The real use of these rooms is rather mysterious. It seems likely that Himmler with the School of Wewelsburg wanted to create a kind of ‘elite of the elite’ in the SS. The crypt might have been a place for ritual initiation ceremonies, and the top hall a kind of meeting area for the group. Selected officials and intellectuals of the SS met regularly in Wewelsburg, but basically no documentation exists of the content of these meetings. Yet the well-known mental inclination and conviction of the components of the group, the symbolic significance of the Wewelsburg site for these people and the temple-like setup of the northern tower suggest some sort of esoteric ritual might have taken place here.
The area reportedly fell into disrepair soon after WWII, and even worse, conceived by some as the shrine of the still alive ‘spirit of the SS’, it rapidly became the stage of black masses, magic practices and satanic rites. To contain the drift, the top hall was turned into a Christian chapel and an altar was put in place. This was later removed when castle opened as a museum on local history, a youth hostel and more recently as part of a very interesting museum and documentation center about the SS.
Getting there and moving around
The castle of Wewelsburg is located on top of a cliff in the homonym village, about 8 miles southwest of the medieval town of Paderborn, immersed in a beautiful north-German landscape. It appears to be about 2 miles south of the Paderborn-Lippe local airport. The castle can be conveniently reached by car, parking available nearby the entrance.
There are several exhibitions, including a museum about the ancient history of the castle, a documentation center and museum on the SS, which provides access to the Northern Tower and its mystery rooms, and a space for temporary exhibitions – at the time of my visit, there was one on the racial aspects of Nazi ideology. All museum are very modern and extremely interesting. There is also a hostel right inside the castle.
The site is really interesting to visit and a good destination for a nice half-day trip for everyone. Yet despite the nice panorama and the pleasant 16th century architecture, the association of the castle with dark activities in the dark years of Himmler and the SS makes this castle mysterious and somewhat grim, adding to the experience.