Written by Morris M.
It was the dream of a madman. An attempt to build a towering city in the marshlands of central Europe that could rival Rome, Mecca, or Kyiv at their heights. A grand city, forged in marble, that could house up to 15 million members of the so-called Master Race. A city known to history as Germania.
The brainchild of Adolf Hitler, Germania was the pinnacle of megalomania. Overseen by the Nazi architect Adolf Speer, it would have dwarfed any place known to man. From its sweeping, 7km Avenue of Splendor; to the gigantic Volkshalle; to the triumphal arch designed to carry the names of Germany’s war dead, it was simply the largest building project of the Third Reich.
It was also doomed to failure.
Intended to be built atop recently-demolished central Berlin, Germania never made it off the drawing board. As the war ate into Speer’s budget, the Fuhrer’s MegaCity receded from reality, until it was nothing more than a fever dream. A fantasy project that could never be brought to life.
Today, MegaProjects is examining that fantasy… and taking a look at the traces that still remain.
The City and the Sick Man
As the first decade of the 20th Century steamed toward its conclusion, the capital of the German Empire was experiencing a problem.
No, not one connected to the massive war that was now just years away from devastating Europe; but a problem much more mundane. Much less anxiety-shredding to think about.
Berlin, you see, was running out of space.
At the moment the Prussian city became the nerve center of the new empire in 1871, it had been home to over half-a-million people – a number that was slowly growing.
The city authorities had tried to prepare for this slow growth by building a whole lot of densely packed housing. But it turned out their assumption that growth would remain “slow” was wildly misplaced.
By 1905, those 500,000 or so inhabitants had ballooned to over 2 million. And while that was great in the sense that it displayed the city’s importance, it was less great in terms of infrastructure.
To put it mildly, Berlin’s infrastructure sucked. There was no railway or road running north-south, which meant a whole network of alternative rail lines sprawled across the city center, slicing through roads and creating brutal traffic problems.
So dysfunctional was the result that it made a mockery of German claims to efficiency. In 1909, the city tried to remedy it by throwing an international competition to redesign Berlin.
Over the next few years, proposals were submitted and accepted, even as the world around Berlin changed. Even as the First World War began to cripple the state’s ability to do anything.
As late as 1917, the architect Martin Mächler was able to unveil a plan that didn’t just improve transit, but also covered the remodeled capital in bombastic monuments. Monuments extolling an imperial power that was at that exact moment being bled dry in Europe’s trenches.
Naturally, Mächler’s plan didn’t survive the transition from the German Empire to the Weimar Republic – although he kept working on it until 1919.
But while the plan itself didn’t survive, parts of it would. A few details here and there. The crumbled fragments of its monumental vision, resurfacing in the dreams of another man.
A young, Austrian artist who went by the name of Adolf Hitler.
Although it’s debated, it seems Hitler was at least vaguely aware of Mächler’s vision for Berlin, and that he seems to have approved.
The mid-1920s saw the former painter-turned-beer-hall-revolutionary turning his mind towards a reconstruction of Berlin. One that would take Mächler’s imperial bombast and turn it up to 11.
As early as 1925, Hitler was producing sketches of monuments that would later form the core of the Germania project – the grandest being his vision of a triumphal arch to rival the one in Paris.
But while the Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate one of his greatest victories, Hitler’s arch would instead commemorate a catastrophe. Inscribed with the names of all 1.8 million Germans who died in WWI, it would stand as a deliberate rebuke to the city around it.
And rebuking Berlin was what Hitler was all about.
As the seat of power of the Weimar Republic, 1920s Berlin was everything Hitler hated: the nerve center of a liberal system where men cavorted in smoky gay clubs, where Marxist factions held a powerbase, and where galleries were filled with degenerate art.
Perhaps more importantly, it was also home to a quarter of Germany’s Jewish population.
While Hitler may have dreamed of creating a capital to rival Constantinople, his monuments weren’t just intended to project German power. They were also to be a visual assault on the people living in Berlin that Nazism detested so much.
Tragically, many of those people would soon find themselves swept up in this petty tyrant’s dream.
The Tyrant and the Architect
It’s a testament to just how fixated on Germania Hitler was that planning began as early as 1933.
At a time when most new dictators would be consolidating power, killing rivals, and generally being ruthless d*cks, Hitler was doing all that plus plotting Berlin’s transformation.
The first meetings on what would become Germania were held that very year – just eight months after the Nazis came to power.
They weren’t very detailed – just discussions on building that new north-south axis the city so badly needed – but the fact they happened at all is revealing. As are Hitler’s contemporary musings on constructing a great hall of some kind.
Yet it would take the rise of a second man to make the Germania plans a reality.
Best-remembered today for his role overseeing armaments and munitions for the Nazi war machine, Albert Speer in the mid-1930s was a rising star of the party. An architect not quite 30, but already destined for great things.
It was Speer who’d transformed a patch of Nuremberg into a huge Nazi rally ground. Who’d dreamed up the Cathedral of Light – the intimidating custom of framing party displays with hundreds of searchlights pointed straight up into the air.
While Hitler was cautiously judging designs for a new Imperial Bank in central Berlin, Speer was cooking up plans for the enormous Deutsches Stadion – intended to become a permanent home for the Olympic Games.
So perhaps it was only natural that, in 1936, the Fuhrer would call the architect in for a private meeting.
There, he gave Speer the project of a lifetime. He wanted him to completely rebuild Berlin.
By now, the vision that had been percolating in Hitler’s head for over a decade had become grander than ever.
No longer would the dictator be happy with just a new north-south axis and some great big monuments, oh no. He wanted Speer to do for Berlin what Haussmann had done for Napoleon III’s Paris: knock it all down and build it afresh.
But while Haussmann had created a Paris of boulevards, courtyards, and light streaming in; Speer was to turn Berlin into fascism’s marble mirror.
The center would be torn down. All those housing blocks constructed at the dawn of the German Empire would vanish beneath the wheels of bulldozers.
In their place, Speer was to follow Hitler’s sketches. Build not just giant arches and great halls, but everything needed to connect them. A vast world of grandeur, all of it extolling Germany’s newfound might so even the most-casual observer would be overawed.
Of course, not everyone would be thrilled with these plans. Many of the demolitions had to be kept secret, and the mayor of Berlin – himself a Nazi – protested the damage that would be done to his city.
Come 1937, though, that mayor had been swept aside. Speer had been promoted to General Building Inspector of the Reich Capital, with new, unchecked powers.
That November, work began in the forests west of Berlin on a new Military Academy. One that would be paired with a hospital, and what would soon be named Adolf Hitler University.
Elsewhere, Tempelhof Airport was under reconstruction. In the city itself, an new east-west road extension was being added to meet up with the planned north-south axis.
But it’s not what actually got built that’s the intriguing part of Germania.
Rather, it’s the mad, gigantic structures that never got off the page. The monuments that were at the very heart of Hitler’s vision.
So, let’s take a look at them, shall we?
The World Capital
Perhaps the clearest sign that Germania was nothing more than a gigantic exercise in showing off comes from the work of historian Martin Kitchen. As he wrote of the plans:
“(They) bore no relation whatsoever to Berlin’s immediate needs or future requirements.”
Unlike the competition back in 1909, the point wasn’t to make the capital more-liveable or functional, but to stroke the egos of high-ranking Nazis.
And that meant making everything as big and as overwhelming as 1930s engineering would allow.
The heart of this all would be the north-south road, now transformed into a boulevard running 38km – or what you Yanks charmingly insist on calling 23 miles. But the most spectacular section would cover the 7km from the South Station.
Known as the Street of Splendors, it would be a 120m – or nearly 400ft – wide sweep lined with imposing government buildings.
Beginning immediately outside the South Station – itself a shining monster some 400m wide – it was intended to open with a plaza 1km in length, watched over by decorative artillery pieces.
Supposedly, this would bring to mind the Avenue of Sphinxes at Luxor. But it’s likely most visitors would’ve been too busy staring in awe to think of Ancient Egypt.
That’s because dominating the view of everyone exiting the station – intended as the main link from the airport – would be the arch Hitler first sketched way back in 1925.
Standing three times taller than the Arc de Triomphe – so 150m or “really bloody tall” in imperial – it would’ve made any of modern Berlin’s biggest buildings look like a child’s lego set. Remarkably, it wouldn’t even have been the biggest object.
Beyond the arch – towering over it – the Volkshalle, or People’s Hall was intended to provide a fittingly bombastic ending to the boulevard.
If you watched Man in the High Castle, this is that massive domed building that cropped up loads from season 2 onwards. If you haven’t watched it, just picture a really, really big dome: like St Paul’s Cathedral in London, or St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Got that image? Good. Now imagine a far-bigger, far-more fascist version. One that would be to your domed building what a swastika-wearing King Kong is your average macaque.
At nearly 300m tall, the Volkshalle would’ve only been a hair shorter than New York’s Chrysler Building.
But the Chrysler Building is a simple tower. Rather than rising straight up, the Volkshalle was to be a dome; which meant one with a colossal radius of 250 m.
If you’re struggling with the metric there, just imagine how big a dome would be needed to nearly rise to the height of the Chrysler Building. In metric or imperial, it would’ve been insane.
That insanity would’ve continued on the inside.
During mass speeches, 180,000 people would’ve crammed into this giant vanity project – so many that their combined breathing would’ve given the enormous hall its own weather system.
In such a vast space, Hitler himself would’ve appeared just a dot. Yet, oddly for a guy so otherwise vain, this doesn’t seem to have bothered him much.
Instead, Speer claimed the Fuhrer focused on his future greatness. On how civilizations centuries from now would look on the Volkshalle with the same wonder we reserve for the Pantheon in Rome.
Of course, the city’s designs weren’t just a series of buildings ever-increasing in height.
They were also intended to cater towards a city with an exploding population.
Sources differ, but the consensus seems to be that Hitler intended anywhere between 8 million and 15 million Germans to come and live in his fascist utopia.
That meant a significant part of construction had to be new apartments to house the influx of loyal subjects. Speer included some 160,000 new units in his plans, arranged beyond the Volkshalle’s plaza.
More-importantly, he also included room for extra growth.
With an east-west and north-south road now dividing the city, Berlin was split into four. As more and more of the master race flocked there, the intention was to grow the city outwards along roads connecting these axes – an ever-increasing spiral radiating out into the countryside.
Eventually, three new airports would ensure every part of the city was connected to the world. A world Hitler was sure would soon be under Nazi domination.
Fittingly for such a grandiose project, the cost was astronomical. 6 billion Reichsmarks – something in the order of 150 billion US dollars today.
Oh, and because Germany was run by a lunatic, it all had to be finished by 1950.
At least, that was the plan. In the end, though, almost nothing would actually get built.
But what did would leave scars on Berlin that still haven’t healed.
What Traces Remain
If you go to Berlin today, the most distinctive remnant of Germania isn’t some crumbling hall, or even the overgrown foundations of one of the great monuments.
No, it’s a massive concrete cylinder in Tempelhof. A solid chunk of mass that’s the height of a four-storey building, and so dense it’s effectively impossible to demolish.
Known as Schwerbelastungskörper – or, in English, the Heavy Load-Bearing Body – it’s the closest Speer ever got to starting work on Hitler’s dreams for a triumphal arch.
From the earliest days of the Germania project, it was clear there were going to be serious engineering challenges.
Berlin, you see, is built on marshland. And extremely-heavy buildings built on marshland tend to have issues with subsidence.
Hence the need for the Heavy Load-Bearing Body.
Designed to match the weight of a single pillar on the gigantic arch, the huge concrete plug was installed over seven months in 1941, using French POWs as slave labor.
With a diameter of 11 meters – or 36ft – the cylinder clocked in at a staggering 12,650 tonnes. That’s equivalent to 22 Airbus A380 aircraft; 1,000 Routemaster double decker buses; or over 86,000 Shaquille O’Neals all stacked atop one another in a bizarre human pyramid.
The point is, it was massive. And, remember, this was just meant to simulate one of the arch’s four pillars.
Speer’s calculation was that the Heavy Load-Bearing Body would definitely sink into the soft soil, he just didn’t know by how much. If it was 6cm or less, the arch would be good to build.
In the end, it sank over 19cm.
Now, some people like to claim this means Germania could never have been built. That it was doomed from the start and people pretended it wasn’t just to keep Hitler happy.
But that’s not the case. Highly qualified engineers worked on the project, and it’s thought nothing in the plans was beyond the capabilities of mid-20th Century tech.
What the sinking cylinder did mean was that Speer would have to spend even more money on a massive ground stabilization project before work began. Not that the Nazis cared.
The plan was always to pay for Germania using loot plundered from newly conquered territories. That 6 billion Reichsmarks figure we quoted earlier? Hitler never intended that to fall on German taxpayers, but on the Poles and Czechs and French, and all Europe’s other unfortunates.
In the end, though, the money for the city was never needed.
Aside from the Heavy Load-Bearing Body, the only significant building to be finished was the New Reich Chancellery.
Far-less grand in its design than the arch or Volkshalle, the New Chancellery was still a monster.
Constructed on Hitler’s orders in a single year – although planning was begun in 1935 – it required 4,000 men working around the clock to complete on time; and included ridiculous features like an office for Hitler so vast, even Putin and his absurd table would look pathetic and tiny inside it.
Of course, nothing actually remains of it. The site of the Fuhrerbunker, it was badly damaged in 1945, with the ruins then destroyed in the aftermath so it couldn’t become a neo-Nazi shrine.
No. If you want to see additional evidence of Germania today, there are only two survivors: a street, and the tunnels.
The street in question is the east-west road extension running to the Brandenburg Gate, still lined with streetlamps designed by Speer.
The tunnels, meanwhile, are three unfinished road links under what is now Tiergarten Park. Intended to divert north-south traffic under the east-west road, they were instead never used.
Of course, it isn’t just what was actually built that remains of Germania…
…but also what was destroyed to make way for it.
In the years he worked on Hitler’s dream, Speer oversaw the demolition of 150,000 homes.
Since only 2,000 new apartments were ever built, those who were evicted needed new places to stay. This being the Third Reich, they were handed the apartments of Jewish families, who were themselves removed to ghettoes or concentration camps.
In this grim way, the building of Germania helped to contribute to the Holocaust. But it wasn’t the only suffering associated with it.
Much of the building work was done by slave labor. At the start, this meant the city police rounding up gypsies, beggars, and homosexual men to be worked to death making bricks for Speer.
Later, prisoners of war would make up the bulk of those toiling – and dying – for a city that would never be built.
Germania itself may have remained a pipe dream. But the pain and misery it inflicted were all too horribly real.
The End of the Dream
Although Speer wouldn’t start on the Heavy Load-Bearing Body until 1941, the Germania dream was by then already dead. Killed by the outbreak of war that diverted so many funds and so much manpower elsewhere.
Of course, no-one realized at the time that invading Poland had sounded the city’s death knell.
Come fall, 1941, Hitler was still confident his Volkshalle and triumphal arch would be built. As German tanks rolled eastward, killing millions in Ukraine and Belarus in their march towards Moscow, Hitler was waxing lyrical about how Germania would look in 2,000 years’ time.
According to Speer, the Fuhrer liked to muse how tourists would stand before the ruins and feel awe. Like a German version of the broken statue in Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.
But Ozymandias is really about the impermanence of greatness. How time will erase even the biggest achievements and most-terrible tyrants.
And Germania’s erasure would be complete before another 2 years had passed.
The collapse of the German effort on the eastern front was the end of Hitler’s dreams for Berlin.
As the USSR began to turn the tide, the idea that money and materials could be expended on a grandiose construction project became unsustainable.
While it’s likely Hitler hoped to revive his plans right up to the moment he did the decent thing and shot Hitler, any chance of it becoming reality had vanished long ago.
And that was doubtless a very good thing.
Today, Berlin is modern city spotted with green spaces, with very little of its historical housing stock remaining.
Mostly, that’s thanks to Allied bombs reducing much of it to rubble. But it’s also due to Speer’s sweeping demolition program.
Despite this, Berlin as we know it is a liveable city. One that may not be beautiful, but is certainly a pleasant place to spend time.
Yet, in some parallel universe not too distant from our own, that is not the case.
Recent studies of the Germania plans have shown that – had it been built – Hitler’s megacity would’ve been as soul-crushing to live in as a world in which the Nazi regime survived.
A nightmare for pedestrians, it would’ve forced people to walk long stretches underground to get anywhere at all. A nightmare for cars, it would’ve been devoid of traffic control methods, leading to constant jams.
While the monuments may have been impressive, this would not have been a city for living in – but a monument to power and folly. To the ego of a man who cared about nothing more than making himself seem important.
In that way, if no other, Germania may at least have been useful. As a fitting epitaph to the sick mind that created it. A mind that – like Germania itself – has thankfully been left on the trash heap of history.
Guardian story of cities: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/14/story-of-cities-hitler-germania-berlin-nazis
Berlin Guides Association: https://berlinguidesassociation.com/berlin-long-reads-third-reich-berlin-visions-of-germania/
The Reader (MIT Press): https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/hitlers-noxious-plan-to-restructure-berlin/ The Eccentric Engineer, was it stable? https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2019/04/the-eccentric-engineer-germania-and-hitler-s-impossible-city/