A visit to a good museum tends to leave its mark. A German architect and an English art director review their visit to the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg - what can we take out of this particular piece of history for the future?


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Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg Germany (Image by author)

Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg Germany (Image by author)

I was never a big fan of history class in school, but facing national history is important.

I happen to be German. I remember reading Anne Frank’s Diary long before the book was to be discussed at school following the regular curriculum. I found the subject so immensely important for all to know that I made the teacher bring it up a year earlier. Needless to say, my class mates were not amused, because what followed were seven long years of chewing on every aspect of the 3rd Reich according to the academic high school curriculum.

18 years later, I find myself going out with an English man who works in advertising. Apart from the usual ‘lost in translation’ situations, a particular museum visit during the holidays in Bavaria deeply moved both of us: the Nazi Rally Grounds Documentation Center in Nuremberg, Bavaria. It was interesting to decypher our varying levels of basic knowledge on the subject from school mixed with professional preconceptions.

I am not up-to-date with school curricula in Europe, so I can only assume that the curriculum in both England and Germany has changed since. Here is what we both learned throughout the exhibition and beyond, and how we believe being aware of the past relates to an optimistic future (Quotes by the English art director).

Intertwining Scale and Meaning

“The cold, dreary sky and bleak walk created an eerie atmosphere on my Documentation Center visit. Our approach was overshadowed by the cold, menacing almost fortress like building. It creeps up on you with bold authority. I was impressed by the clever combination of old and new building now that it is converted into a museum.”

Architecture was just one of the means Hitler used to influence people. Architecture represents power and subconsciously moves the spectator. Hitler’s fascination was grounded on a glorious past, thus influenced immensely by classical Roman history and the remains of medieval fortresses all across Germany.

Hitler and a dedicated team of his favourite architects planned and built the National Socialist (Nazi) Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg from 1933 as a monumental ensemble of buildings and two grandstands for military demonstrations. The intention was to show off the Nazi Party’s dominance, impressing rally visitors and the world outside with the buildings’ enormous dimensions and overwhelmingly solid, classical architecture. One of these buildings, the Congress Hall, was meant to hold events for up to 50 000 people (by contrast, Wembley Stadium holds 90 000 people, the Olympic Indoor Hall Athens 19 000). It was inspired by the Colosseum in Rome, but bigger. It was never completed and is hence missing an unsupported roof construction over its arena of 160 x 180m.

The Congress Hall, with the Documentation Center top left (by Nicohofmann / via Wikimedia Commons)

“I was surprised to learn more of the National Socialists’ grand architectural plans and how they would also enhance the myth by creating these vast, dominate buildings that would symbolise total power. Even using light installation displays to demonstrate awe inspiring presence and mystification.”

Another factor to impress was the choice of location, which linked the Nazi party rallies symbolically with a traditional German cultural stronghold, the city of Nuremberg. Hitler intended the reminiscence of the Old Days – the Imperial Diets (the general assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, so called “Reichstage”) were held between 1323 and 1543 several times in Nuremberg’s Kaiserburg, an impressive castle in the center of the city.

“The PR film ‘Triumph of the Will‘ that had been produced to make Hitler appear almost god-like was shown and dissected so we know the reasons why music was chosen, the clever camera angles that assisted the myth building around Hitler. As an art director myself, I was impressed by the level of art direction present at the time.”

The Masses at the Zeppelinfeld, one of the Grand Stands of the Nuremberg Building Ensemble (by David Holt / via Wikimedia Commons)

The events, military performances and marches during the Nazi Party Rallies were bound to create an ‘unforgettable experience’ for those able to attend. In fact, the Party Rally Grounds were part of the Nazi project ‘Strength Through Joy‘ (Kraft durch Freude). This was intended to make middle-class leisure activities, such as holidays at the seaside or party events in the city, available to everyone – and therefore promoted the Nazi party and the community around it to all parts of society.

“I was impressed by how the information is presented, not biased in any way but with facts which fire your own emotional responses to the events that took place. There are lots old footage, historical documents and artefacts presented throughout the chronological tour.”

The exhibition in Nuremberg profoundly presents the other means used to create “The Führer Myth”. In other words, it explains Hitler’s propaganda machine overwhelming the general public with extremely well composed messages throughout available media: film and photographic manifestations of a ‘great’ man. At this part of the tour, both, me and my boyfriend concluded that this was one of the largest advertising and marketing operations of all times. Given that news channels were biased, freedom of expression was suppressed and information technology à la worldwide web non-existant, the effects of this brainwashing were unlikely to wash off.

The images displayed in the exhibition of endless masses focusing on that one person, are only comparable to what we see in totalitarian state events such as Kim Jong-il’s funeral in North Korea 2011 or fans in the front row of a rock/pop concert.

Like fans on a rock concert: Nazi party rallies in Nuremberg (image: author)

Like Fans at a Pop Concert: Hitler’s Female Entourage (image: author)

Responding with the Same Means

A question that automatically crosses one’s mind is how we should deal with these last remains of history.

The museum only recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. The municipality of Nuremberg had considered it their duty to maintain the building complex and tell the story using the same means: architecture and well composed (not hi-tech!) media installations featuring film, black and white imagery and few original artefacts.

An architecture tender in 1998 was to select one proposal. “With his contemporary steel and glass construction, the winner of the competition, Austrian architect, Günther Domenig, presents a convincing architectural counterpoint. The existing building is pierced diagonally by a 130-metre glass walkway, permanently dissecting this solid-stone National Socialist demonstration of power. The walkway cuts through the rectangular geometry of the North wing, exposing the hitherto hidden interior and presenting us, so to speak, with an archaeological cross-section.” (Website of the Documentation Center)

The Steel Walkway breaking through the Walls of the Congress Hall (by Martina Nolte / via Wikimedia Commons)

The walkway cutting through the annex of the Congress Hall (image: author)

The Walkway Cutting through the Annex of the Congress Hall (image: author)

The walkway forms the entrance from the street. Several new films give an impression of the current state of the buildings and mix these with historic recordings. The large black and white images on the otherwise bare brick walls showing the cult around Hitler transform towards the end of the exhibition into large scale manifestations of the consequences and horrors that Hitler’s rule had for the rest of the world.

The story ends with films, photos and original documents of the Nuremberg Trials. The juxtaposition of interviews with witnesses and photos of executed Nazi officers leaves one shocked, feeling disgusted and humble, floating deep in thought past the last film screen into the light.

While the whole exhibition leads one through the dark, rough, unfinished brickwork annex of the Congress Hall, here at the end, we hit the steel and glass walkway again. At this point, it forms a cantilever that reaches out into the unfinished business of the ‘open air’ Congress Hall. On a sunny day, visitors can step out to take photos. I bet the group photos of the school classes that pour out of countless coaches every morning into the center are spectacular, given the circumstances. The walkway leads the visitor back to the entrance, back to the present, past several empty atria, giving us time to digest.

Purposeful Redevelopment

Researching for this article, I found out that the condition of the Nazi Rally Ground complex is apparently very critical, as the often uncompleted remaining walls lack the protection of final layers such as the roof or coping. The municipality of Nuremberg decided to refurbish the remains, although the project has provoked mixed opinions due to the huge financial efforts required.

While with 20 000 visitors per year the Documentation Center is  a huge success, the successful preservation of the Nazi Rally Ground complex has not been transferred to similar projects. Besides Nuremberg, another notable Nazi property has not yet succeeded in serving a new purpose that justifies the expense its refurbishment.

Prora, a ‘beach resort’ on one of Germany’s islands was part of the project ‘Strength Through Joy‘. This peculiar building with a total length of 4.5 kilometres takes the meaning of the word ‘hotel chain’ to a new level. It was intended to be the largest hotel in the world and won the ‘Grand Prix’ during the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris. Parts of the Prora complex are currently used as a youth hostel, and further re-development plans are being discussed. You can dive into its vast emptiness in this video shot in 2010.

Beach Ressort Prora, also known as the ‘Colossus of Prora’ (by Steffen Löwe / via Wikimedia Commons)

Never again

It is frightening to see in detail how well this machinery worked despite the limited means available at that time, and how close it comes to what we take for granted now.

Clearly, the full strength of this propaganda lies in its dissemination strategy. This is an issue that has nothing to do with nationality and it is surely not unique to the 1940s. What I am hinting at is that cross-disciplinary education seems to be more important than ever. Current or at least future curricula should prepare those in school on many levels for what is out there: international history, cultural mediation and political agency are too obvious, but what about seductive techniques in psychology or visual tactics in advertising and marketing?

One might wonder what a megalomaniac like Hitler would do today, with our everyday media technologies at hand. My hope is that although his propaganda might be able to spread more quickly nowadays, available network technology would create a different dynamic, fostering diversity of opinion, best practice sharing and collaboration between individuals globally.

What do you think? What and how can we sternly learn from such historic events for an optimistic future?