Dan Borden on the occult fantasies that inspired Third Reich architecture.
That trio of office towers on Potsdamer Platz symbolises post-Wall Berlin’s rebirth. Most people assume the wasteland from which they sprang resulted from Allied bombing. In truth, that conveniently clean slate was a gift from the Nazis. They’d levelled the area in 1938 to construct architect Albert Speer’s grandiose scheme for World Capital Germania. The city’s busiest commercial hub was demolished because Berlin really needed to be turned into a giant-scaled Hollywood vision of Imperial Rome. Why? Because full-blooded Germans were the descendants of the ancient Greeks and Romans – literally. Those founders of Western civilisation, the Nazis insisted, were blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans. As was Jesus Christ.
Looking back, it’s stunning how much of Hitler’s power was founded on pseudo-religious myths and fantasy. Whether the Nazi party’s leaders were committed believers or cynical propagandists, those alternate truths formed the basis for their very real policies of mass murder and war. Those myths also shaped the Berlin that surrounds us today.
Reunited Berlin’s other key landmark is the Reichstag, home to Germany’s parliament. Its 21st-century dome capped decades of misery for the 1894 monument, beginning with the arson attack on February 27, 1933 that newly-elected Chancellor Adolf Hitler famously used as an excuse to crush political opposition and seize absolute power. An eerie footnote to the event shines a light on Hitler’s relationship with the occult. Days before the Reichstag fire, famed psychic Erik Jan Hanussen predicted a “great blaze” in the area. An Austrian Jew who found success as an entertainer in Weimar Berlin, Hanussen was revered for his supernatural talents. He published a scientific journal on the occult and hosted séances for VIPs at his Charlottenburg villa.
When Hitler, an ardent fan, asked for Hanussen’s guidance before the 1932 election, the performer trained the politician to punctuate his speeches with arm gestures and dramatic pauses. Was Hanussen’s Reichstag prediction a result of clairvoyance or insider knowledge? We’ll never know – he was mysteriously gunned down days later. More importantly: was Hitler, like so many Berliners, convinced of Hanussen’s powers? Or did the psychic’s success strategically spotlight the German public’s hunger to embrace the supernatural?
The Nazi gospel preached that pure-blooded Germans were descendants of the Aryans, a race of semi-divine, prehistoric giants. Architecturally, this translated into Germania’s monumental Classicism in cities and a purified version of medieval Germany exemplified by the völkisch (“folksy”) country villages. A subdivision for SS officers in Berlin’s Krumme Lanke district features gabled roofs and decorative window shutters, a rebuke to “decadent” Bauhaus-style modernists. As these elite Nazis returned from work, the main street, (still) named Im Kinderland – “In Children’s Land” – drove home their sacred duty to produce genetically pure offspring.
Chilly breeding grounds
Himmler claimed that babies conceived on the graves of Aryan martyrs would absorb and resurrect their souls.
To convince young Germans to make the ultimate sacrifice, SS boss Heinrich Himmler invented a neo-pagan sun god cult promising cycles of death and rebirth. He claimed that babies conceived on the graves of Aryan martyrs would absorb and resurrect their souls. He even printed a list of appropriate graveyards. Berlin’s Invalidenfriedhof was fertile ground, the resting place for military heroes from the Red Baron to the “Blond Beast”, assassinated SS chief Reinhard Heydrich. Today that graveyard lies sandwiched between the massive new headquarters for the Bundesnachrichtendienst, a sprawling spy-agency monstrosity only Albert Speer could love, and Europa City, a development which effectively completes a piece of Speer’s Germania scheme, running north from Hauptbahnhof, the location of his domed Great Hall.
Albert Speer pitched his plans for Germania to Hitler saying that great empires leave great ruins, and Germania’s classical monuments would look great half-destroyed. Ironically, the Nazis’ most influential buildings may be their most utilitarian and indestructible: concrete bunkers and bomb shelters. Crudely detailed and roughly sculptural, they inspired the designers who invented Brutalism, that 1970s architectural style with a legion of devoted fans. The designers of Pallasstraße’s Hochbunker or Humboldthain’s flak tower unintentionally created something truly eternal and worthy of cult worship: pure architecture.