Germania: Hitler’s ‘Welthaupstadt’

Kieran Drake traces Hitler’s megalomaniac plans for Berlin as capital of the Third Reich

In an otherwise unremarkable corner of Schöneberg, surrounded by allotments and ageing housing estates stands a vast concrete drum. Twenty one metres across and four storeys high, it looms above its surroundings, resembling a decaying post-industrial relic. Yet this strange structure is in fact the most visible legacy of the city that Berlin might have become had Hitler triumphed in World War Two.

The Schwerbelastungskörper, or “Heavy Load-Bearing Body,” was built in 1941 to test whether Berlin’s sandy and marshy soil would withstand the weight of a monumental Triumphal Arch, large enough to carry the names of all 1.8 million German soldiers killed in World War One. Based on sketches drawn by Hitler himself in the 1920s, it was to have been one of the centrepieces of Germania, the planned capital of the Third Reich.

In the end the Arch, like most of Germania, was never built due to the war and the Nazi’s ultimate defeat. Instead, the Schwerbelastungskörper is all that remains: disliked, but too large to destroy, it is now a memorial both to the monumental scale of their plans to recreate this city and to the inhumane and criminal methods they employed to realise them.

Schwerbelastungskörper by Kieran Drake

I sought out the Schwerbelastungskörper after becoming increasingly intrigued by Germania since moving to Berlin last summer. I had been looking forward to getting to know the city and its history and thought I knew the history I would find: the legacy of Prussia, the impact of the Second World War, and the scars of a city ripped apart during the Cold War and then made whole again, the creative heart of mainland Europe.

Yet, moving between my home in West End and my work in Mitte, I kept coming across traces of another, uncomfortable and unsettling history: of a city conceived of by Hitler and devised by his architect Albert Speer between 1935 and 1943 as a new Welthaupstadt (World Capital), about which I’d known nothing.

To learn more about Germania I headed to Berliner Unterwelten’s Myth of Germania exhibition in Gesundbrunnen Station (open Saturdays, 11am-5pm) which provides a fascinating overview of this enormous, dystopian planned city.

Speer’s plans were centred on two grand avenues running North-South and East-West, modelled on Haussmann’s Paris boulevards but at a greater scale: the North-South Axis was to have been 125 metres wide and would have run from the Süd Bahnhof—which at that point would have been the world’s biggest train station—through the Triumphal Arch to the Pantheon-inspired Volkshalle, which at over 300-metres high could have held a scarcely imaginable 180,000 people.

A model of Adolf Hitler’s plan for Berlin formulated under the direction of Albert Speer, looking north toward the Volkshalle at the top of the frame. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146III-373 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The completed East-West axis (today’s Straße des 17. Juni) is still Berlin’s widest street. This would have been a city for parades—for cars, not people: only automobiles were to have been allowed on the roads, with pedestrians only allowed to cross them through a series of underpasses.

The buildings to have flanked the boulevards were designed in a monumental but simplified neoclassical style, intended not only to impress and awe in the twentieth century, but ultimately to create ruins to rival those of the Greek or Roman empires. In the event of course, the Third Reich lasted just 13 years. Most of the plans for Germania were never realised and the majority of the buildings that were completed were either destroyed during the war or in its aftermath, and the closest thing the city has to a surviving ruin is the Schwerbelastungskörper.

It is hard to comprehend the scale of these buildings and the grand avenues from these numbers alone. In the exhibition, a model provides some perspective, while surviving Nazi-era buildings like Templehof airport and the current Finance Ministry, originally the Reich Aviation Ministry, give an idea of the architectural style that would have dominated the new city.

Siegessäule by Kieran Drake

Yet while the Schwerbelastungskörper is the most obvious remnant of Germania it is far from the only one: multiple traces of this city that never was  are strewn across the city, hidden in plain view, particularly along Straße des 17. Juni. Almost entirely hidden in the pavement opposite the Soviet War Memorial two kerbs seem to have been sunk into the pavement, disappearing into the park: these would have marked the North-South Axis.

Kerb and War Memorial on Strasse de 17 Juni by Kieran Drake

Much more prominently, in the centre of the Grosser Stern stands the Siegessäule, the old Prussian Victory Column, which Speer relocated to its current home in 1939 from its original location in Königsplatz, now Platz der Republik; he also added 6.5 metres to the height to give it a more imposing silhouette. Speer more than doubled the size of the Grosser Stern too, and when visiting the Siegessäule’s tower, you enter the tunnels that run under the road through Speer’s four symmetrical neo-classical, temple-like, entrances.

Speer’s lamps by Kieran Drake

Further west, beyond Tiergarten S Bahn Station, the road is flanked by Speer’s double headed and—though it feels strange acknowledging it—graceful lamps which originally ran the full length of the avenue. Meanwhile the Charlottenburg Gate was dismantled and moved further apart and Charlottenburg Bridge rebuilt as part of Speer’s widening of the road. Only the start of World War Two prevented the Brandenburg Gate suffering the same fate.

Charlottenburg Gate by Kieran Drake

Crossing the ring road you reach the unremarkable Heerstrasse S Bahn Station which was due to be redeveloped as the State Entry to the new city. In the end only Mussolini arrived here on a state visit in 1937 and it was after him that the remodelled station and square (then Adolf Hitler Platz, now Theodor Heuss Platz) would have been named. Passing through the square now there is no sign of the planned buildings. In fact the only surviving element, the grand columns that would have lined the square, now stand in Stuttgart.

Just south of Heerstrasse stands the Teufelsberg, not a natural feature of the landscape but created out of the rubble of World War Two. Although well known in general, not so many are aware that at the heart of this large hill lies the remains of the Institute of Military Technology, whose foundation stone was laid by Hitler himself in 1937. The Institute was to have been just part of a University City, a complex which would have required the destruction of much of this area of the Grünewald. Ultimately, only the Institute was constructed and after failed attempts by the Allies to destroy it after the war the decision was taken instead to bury it at the heart of the new mountain, above and around which the Grunewald endures.

The new Government Quarter, constructed after reunification in the 1990s, was deliberately built at an angle to Speer’s Avenues so as not to follow his blueprint, a move that its architects described as “historical decontamination”. Earlier, in 1945, the Soviets knowingly constructed their War Memorial in Tiergarten, which was built using stonework taken from the destroyed Reich Chancellery, on the planned site of the North-South Axis of the city, symbolically crushing Hitler’s plans of world domination.

In other parts of the city, the impact of Germania is felt by the absence it has created. Just south of Hauptbahnhof at the end of Spreebogen Park, the Swiss Embassy now stands alone after a dozen other embassies that previously stood here at the heart of Alsenviertel were relocated in 1938 to a new diplomatic quarter on the edge of the Tiergarten to create space for the Volkshalle that would have stood here (the Siegessäule was moved at the same time for the same reason).

Also missing from Berlin today are vast swathes of housing swept away in Alsenviertel and Tiergarten to create room for the grand avenues and their flanking buildings. The housing shortage created by their destruction was alleviated only by removing Jewish residents, first to the ghettos and then to the concentration camps, and giving their homes to those made homeless by preparations for construction

Meanwhile concentration camps were deliberately located close to quarries in order to supply the sand, clay and gravel required for the new buildings while an SS-owned brickworks established at Sachsenhausen concentration camp forced up to 4,000 prisoners a day to provide bricks and faced-stone for the new buildings.

It is that human sacrifice, though largely invisible today, that is Germania’s most appalling legacy and why it is impossible to separate the planned city from the oppression and crimes of the regime that planned it and why it is essential to remember it.