PRINT December 1970

Architecture as a Weapon: Hitler’s Speer

IN HIS VIEW OF THE past Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, seems to miss the point somewhat. He talks about proportions in describing a door, whereas the point is that the door has been built to enslave everyone entering through it. The unpolitical architect.

The small exhibition of original drawings by Adolf Hitler at the New York Cultural Center—“the first public viewing”—might be another example of the insatiable desire for sensations among the art world in this city. But, together with Speer’s book, it is a very instructive contribution to the topic of architecture and politics, especially in a city where the “great architecture” of a Lincoln Center or the new entrance to the Metropolitan Museum are considered to be works of art rather than political manifestations. In this context it might also be of some interest that, purely architecturally speaking, the situation was ripe for Hitler when he came to power. Quite a few architects had developed a style with formal and esthetic qualities fitting Hitler’s own architectural ideas. Merely through adding nationalistic and symbolic values Hitler was able to adapt it to his goals. The political architect.

The architect Paul Ludwig Troost was a leading advocate of the reactionary movement—reactionary compared with the ideas of Gropius’s Bauhaus, for example. Hitler gave Troost his first commissions in 1931, in Munich: two temples of honor for the victims of Hitler’s 1923 riot, the Führerbau (his headquarters) and a museum, “Das Haus der Deutschen Kunst.” The progressive-modern architects in Europe before Hitler were, at least to a certain degree, naive. They had an almost blind belief in the total victory of their architecture. They overestimated the possibilities of changing the world through architectural means, and they underestimated the danger of a political manipulation of architecture. Hitler’s manipulation is still exemplary.

Architects need money and power in order to realize themselves and carry out their profession. It is therefore not wrong to call it a basically conservative profession. Hitler, an architectural mind himself, knew that only the powerful can use architecture as an instrument of power. Once he confessed before his own war: “If Germany hadn’t lost the War, I would have become a great architect—something like Michelangelo, instead of a politician.” On the other hand he was not a practicing architect because he felt that only as the head of government could he be in a position to order and realize the kind of projects suitable to his own talents. All he needed was another architect to execute them. But Speer—this architect—was not a mechanical, lifeless instrument. He was highly active; he used all his professional skills and invested all his professional pride to please Hitler, to even surpass Hitler’s ideas, and to justify them artistically. The conceited, adaptable architect.

“Not yet thirty I saw before me the most exciting prospects an architect can dream of,” writes Speer at the beginning of the 1950s, twenty years later. It is still the same image of an architect: exciting dreams. The bigness of a job (in cubic yards) is still the most important, most fascinating thing. Others think, plan social changes, make political decisions . . . the physical frame is delivered by the architect. The fact-minded, technical architect. Even if he had recognized the true Hitler, Speer would have been his architect. The passion and zeal for his work repressed the problems. The innocent architect. Hitler clearly defined the role of architecture: “We build in order to fortify our authority.” He wanted the new monuments to demonstrate the determination, oneness, strength and power of his Reich. Heroic architecture, symbolizing the power of the people according to his will. Hitler, 1938: “Great artists and architects have the right to be removed from the critical view of simple contemporaries.” A paradise-like, ideal condition for truly great architects.

It is wrong to believe that only those who have attended a school of architecture are architects. It is also wrong to believe that everyone who has attended a school of architecture is an architect. Hitler was an architect. He not only liked the flair of his profession but was fully aware of its possibilities: imposing one’s ideas of form, material, scale, etc. in order to control others. But he never had an academic education. After his unsuccessful entrance examination to the school of painting at the Academy in Vienna he tried an enrollment at the school of architecture in September, 1907, again without success. The years in Vienna between 1907 and 1913 were certainly very important for him. He must have experienced the gloomy districts as well as the grandiose monuments of the declining monarchy along the famous Ringstrasse: city hall, parliament, museums, opera and theaters. He was interested only in the monuments. He was especially impressed by the theaters and the opera. He thought they were the cultural focus of a city. The true symbols of culture. At least in this respect, Hitler is not outdated. Since this attitude is still prevailing—especially among wealthy widows—one cultural center after another is donated to America. Examples of over-scaled, false monumentality with an authoritarian character, they are still meant to symbolize what culture is and to distribute it. The architects of these cultural centers obtained their master’s degrees at the Albert Speer School. This is no accident.

Hitler’s architectural drawings are testimony of his common taste. Even his sketching style is average, neither original nor amateurish. In the twenties it was still common for students of architecture to use the most celebrated elements of history like temples, columns and arches for formal exercises. Hitler was also interested, almost exclusively, in those “eternal” elements. But for him they were not ingredients for cultivating an architect’s taste; for him they were old and new possibilities with which to express monumentality. It is peculiar that these drawings could be seen—without knowing the context—as any student’s sketches, studies of formal compositions. The difference is not in the drawing line. The difference is in the meaning behind the line. Hitler didn’t separate form from content. His triumphal arch was meant to be the glorification of his victorious soldiers, the domed hall was to dominate Germania, the world’s capital. And columns are dedicated by him only to his favorites: one column for “Die Bewegung,” one for Mussolini; another sketch shows a column for Anton Bruckner.

Albert Speer was a pupil of Heinrich Tessenow. Tessenow was considered a progressive architect, famous for the modest, pure simplicity of his buildings, mostly apartment-row houses. In his teaching he stood up for the intrinsic values of the native land and the peasant virtues. Speer had and still has the greatest personal admiration for him. But he managed to deduce from Tessenow’s simplicity the simplicity of his own (early) architecture for Hitler. What a lesson in manipulating architectural theory!

Speer knew that Hitler had great respect for Troost’s architectural style. When Troost died in 1934 and Speer was to become number one he was already influenced by Troost’s “abundant, but, in the restriction to simple elements of form, yet discreet-restrained architecture.” Speer’s language is revealing. He constantly uses the words “simple,” “discreet,” “restrained.” Empty words, phrases of an architect who understands architecture only as a formal event. Simple architectural forms and elements are not a priori discreet-restrained. This is the difference between classical and fascistic architecture. Speer calls Troost a representative of a “lean approach, almost bare of ornaments.” He does not show, even thirty years later, that reducing the ornaments of an elevation means intensifying the message of the only important ornament: the eagle with swastika, the emblem of Hitler’s Reich. Speer is a master of architectural phraseology. “Bare of ornaments” is without doubt a virtue in Adolf Loos’s or Tessenow’s interpretation but it is never a virtue in itself. The restriction to only a few architectural components and the simplicity of the individual parts are finally nothing but the framework for the vernacular of fascistic symbols.

Speer was non-political but not only as an architect. He applied this common architect’s mentality also to his duties as the Minister of Armament. In 1944 he writes to Hitler: “The task I have to fulfill is an unpolitical one. I have felt at ease in my work only so long as my person and my work were evaluated solely by the standard of professional-technical accomplishments.” Speer the performer. In July, 1933, he was summoned to Nuremberg in order to make a design for the first Nazi rally as the government party. The local architect had been unable—as Speer recalls—to come up with a satisfactory design to the theme: “The victorious spirit of the party has to be expressed even in the architectural stage set.” Speer was able to master the theme. He was the better architect. Did he really lack any relationship to the theme as he keeps telling us in his book? Any stage decorator knows the show for which he has to make the backdrop. In his book he emphasizes how fast he had to be and how inventive he was in keeping deadlines and how he succeeded in impressing Hitler. He never talks about the concepts he must have had for his gigantic decorations to influence, to manipulate, to persuade, to induce the masses. It is very difficult to believe that his alleys of flags, his axis which didn’t allow any ideological escape, his distribution of symbols in space (eagle, swastika, torchieres, banners) were nothing but problems of design. “At that time I dearly loved flags and used them wherever I could. They were a way of introducing a play of color into somber architecture. I found it a boon that the swastika flag Hitler had designed proved more amenable for these uses than a flag divided into three stripes of color . . . I saw it with the eyes of an architect.” The over and over cited eyes of an architect: Speer too had them. It would be desirable that architects work sometimes less with their eyes and more with their minds.The impartial and technical description of his architecture is terrifying. Speer has the same sobriety describing his enormous success as Minister of Armaments and War Production. An orgy of numbers and statistical data in a book which tries to point out the dangers of modern technology for humanity. But the postmortem condemnation of his architectural megalomania does not include a discussion of the moral position and function of an architect. He, too, avoids this delicate subject.

1938/39: Speer built the new Chancellory for Hitler. He did it in nine months and impressed Hitler (and the world) again by surpassing famous historic examples—in terms of scale. His Märzfeld for Nuremberg was 3400 by 2300 feet, the palace of Kings Darius I and Xerxes in Persepolis only 1500 by 900 feet; his Stadium enclosed 11,000,000 cubic yards, the Cheops pyramid contained only 3,277,300 cubic yards. (This strange power-minded mentality—to feel more important by comparing the scale of apples with the scale of grapes—is still practiced today.) “My gallery in the New Chancellory was twice as long as the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.” Faster and bigger. The successful architect.

The entrance shows what he had learned from Troost and Hitler and not from Tessenow: power politics and simplicity. Four columns form the entrance symbolically, accentuating the single entrance door. Final. Majestic. No windows. No view in either direction. Rejecting. “Simple” and “discreet”—to let the emblem of Hitler’s Reich work: silent symbol of dominating brutality. But the composition would not be balanced without the two soldiers dressed in black uniforms. The “simplicity” of this architecture emphasizes the importance of those soldiers. On the other hand, the passionless, cold, inhuman character of the entrance is emphasized by two frozen human bodies. A refined, artful, diabolic feedback in scale. An architectural masterpiece for Hitler. With Speer’s unpolitical, purely architectural talents.

One would think Hitler could be described in architectural terms. But Speer, his architect, knows better: “It would be a mistake to try to look for some ideologically based architectural style. That would not have been in keeping with his pragmatic way of thinking.” One wonders what an architect is willing to accept or to admit as an ideology of building. Maybe Hitler did not have a catalog of design details, but there are not too many ideologies of buildings in the 20th century which had stronger consequences. The German art historian, Badenhausen, wrote in 1937: “We can say Hitler’s buildings are the most evident examples to the public of his will.” Speer designed those buildings—and he didn’t see the ideology behind them? He seems to make a distinction between a “missing” ideologically-based architectural style and an architecture-as-a-well-defined-instrument-of-authority-oriented ideology. Semantics.

In 1933 he decorated the Goebbels house with a few watercolors by Nolde. Speer, the cultivated architect. But after Hitler’s severe disapproval Goebbels had them removed. “Goebbels had simply groveled before Hitler. There was something ghostly about the absolute authority Hitler could assert even in matters of taste. I, too, though altogether at home in modern art, tacitly accepted Hitler’s pronouncement.” At home in modern art? Speer certainly was familiar with the names and—not atypical for an architect—knew also what was progressive and who was avant-garde. But for him this was a question of taste—not an ethical one, nor a way of thinking. Taste is easy to alter—easily adaptable to social aspirations, to political smoothness, as long as taste itself is not derived from ethical convictions.

1933. The Chancellor’s residence in Berlin had to be redone and refurnished. Speer: “There were innumerable examples of bad taste: doors painted to imitate natural wood.” This was a favorite illusion of a decadent bourgeois society. It was much more than purely a manifestation of bad taste; it was a manifestation of a style of life, a way of thinking. This, not the bad taste, should be criticized. For Speer it is a professional credo to separate taste from ideology. For Hitler, architecture was never a question of taste. The architectural sketches he made in the twenties were mixed in the same book, even on the same page, with sketches of arms, weapons and battleships. For him, architecture was a weapon. His ultimate goal was to conquer and dominate the whole world. He needed weapons. Architecture—defined as art—was just another one, the more dangerous because art is usually supposed to be in the best interests of the people.

Speer, the social-minded city planner. In 1937 he was commissioned to carry out Hitler’s “greatest architectural task.” Rebuilding Berlin, transforming it to the proper capital of Greater Germany, of the world. Hitler himself had but one planning idea: a magnificent avenue lined with impressive buildings, three miles long. Speer: “Hitler’s city planning idea had one major fault: it had not been thought through to the end.” Speer naturally accepted Hitler’s idea but gave it “meaning and function as the core of a general reorganization of the city.” He justified it with a thought-through-to-the-end concept, including residential development for 400,000 people, open spaces, and an elaborate traffic network. Speer: “In the course of the work a new urban concept emerged from Hitler’s initially pointless plan for a grand avenue. In the light of all this, his original idea seemed relatively insignificant . . . Hitler was interested only in the Grand Avenue. I considered these official buildings as subsidiary to the total plan; Hitler did not. His passion for building for eternity left him without a spark of interest in traffic arrangements, residential areas, and parks. He was not interested in the social dimension.”

One could as well say, Hitler was only interested in the social dimension . . . the splendor of his Avenue of Grandeur, the glorification of Nazi Germany. His Grand Avenue would enslave the people socially, making them blind and submissive, with its sharp, aggressive, heavy architecture, with its dictatorship of a despotic scale. The “social” ambitions of the “humanitarian” Speer once again miss the point.

Speer’s architecture was meant to be “tausendjährig.” He even had determined what his buildings had to look like as ruins for the second thousand years. Thirty-five years after construction his architecture has vanished. Not even ruins are left. “But the Speers will long be with us.” (The Observer, April 9, 1944.)

Bernhard Leitner