Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Monster Dome

Hitler hated Berlin. He hated its cosmopolitanism, its freewheeling bohemianism, its messy vitality, its insolence. It was the only major city that the Nazis failed to win in the 1932 elections. It was long a center of left-wing support. That's why all the big party rallies were in Nuremberg, and not in Berlin.
Hitler planned his revenge on Berlin as obsessively as he plotted his revenge on everything else in his long list of hatreds.

Hitler wanted to effectively destroy Berlin, or at least a very large part of it, and rebuild it as "Germania," the capital of his global empire after his war of conquest was complete.

Albert Speer's model for the rebuilding of Berlin as "Germania."

Hitler wanted to change the historic east-west axis of Berlin into a north-south axis of broad avenues, massive public buildings, huge triumphal arches, and public housing. His rebuilding would have destroyed half the historic city center and displaced over a quarter million people.

Albert Speer's model of the Volkshalle, photographed about 1936

The Volkshalle was to be the centerpiece of the new global capital. Volkshalle translates very badly into English as "People's Hall." However, the word volk in German carries associations of race and tribe that are untranslatable into English. This was to be a lasting monument to the Herrenvolk, the "lordly people," the master race.

The Volkshalle model showing the old Reichstag to the right front of the dome, and the Brandenburg Gate near the bottom.

The dimensions of this monument would have been huge. It would have been one of the largest buildings ever built, towering over the city and the surrounding countryside. It's dimensions would have made the grandest monuments of ancient Rome look insignificant. Kaiser Wilhem II's most grandiose monuments in his project to rebuild Berlin as the capital of a new German Empire look modest in comparison to this.

Section plan of the Volkshalle.

Photomontage from about 1936 showing the interior of Speer's Volkshalle model.

Albert Speer wrote about this monument that it would have been so huge that human breath would have condensed into clouds and rain around the top of the dome. He also wrote that the sheer scale of the place would have been self-defeating. Hitler, the very man for whom this was to be built, would have been lost in all the grandeur. Speer made a more revealing comment writing about the experience of the spectator in another proposed monument:
It was not my aim that [the spectator] should feel anything. I only wanted to impose the grandeur of the building on the people in it. I read in Goethe's Travels in Italy that, when he saw the Roman amphitheater in Verona, he said to himself,: if people with different minds were all pressed together in such a place, they will be unified in one mind. That was the aim of the Stadium; it has nothing to do with what the small man might think.

In other words, coercion through architecture. Indeed, the Romans thought of architecture as an instrument of state policy directing vast masses of people. But, the Romans left their subjects to their own private thoughts and feelings. For Hitler, that was not enough. He was out to conquer souls as well as bodies.

Lantern on top of Speer's Volkshalle model.

Detail of Speer's model showing Arno Brecker's proposed sculptures, including one of 2 colossi of Atlas holding up the Cosmos and Tellus holding up the Earth.

As far as I'm concerned, this building says a lot about Hitler's intentions. As I understand, there is an unresolved argument among historians over Hitler's ultimate ambitions, whether or not he really intended global conquest. The cosmocratic symbolism in this building, personally selected by Hitler, makes it clear, at least to me, that he did indeed have global conquest in mind. The dome was to be topped, not by the swastika, but by the globe of the world held firmly in the talons of a Roman eagle. Arno Brecker worked on models for sculptural colossi of Atlas and Tellus with sculptural groups of the chariots of the sun and moon ordered by Hitler. It is no accident that this building calls to mind temple architecture. Hitler had every intention of this dome serving as an enduring shrine to his cult.

Albert Speer and Hitler with the model for the German pavilion for the World's Fair in Paris in 1936.

Speer is often credited, or blamed, for the Volkshalle, but the design is really Hitler's. Speer was more an expert consultant. This was a project near and dear to Hitler's heart. He began making sketches for the project as early as 1922. He made a private visit to the Roman Pantheon for inspiration while on a state visit to Italy. He visited the Dome des Invalides and the Pantheon in newly conquered Paris in 1940 certainly with the Volkshalle in mind.

Mercifully, this dome was never built. The word that best describes its design is "monstrous" in the fullest sense. It is a grotesque parody of classical architecture. All of those fundamental principles of classical design from symmetria (number and proportion that satisfies us) to decorum (appropriateness, rightness) are ruthlessly discarded in the interest of an overwhelming effect intended to press us into a unanimity of thought. The massive pillars on the portico of the Volkshalle look like match-sticks in the midst of the inflated bulk of the building. Brecker's colossi are themselves dwarfed into insignificance. Overwhelming size and bulk, together with infinite repetition coerce us into accepting as inevitable this end of history.

Hitler and Stalin together killed off classical art. They did so by making it an accomplice to crime on a metaphysical scale. They used art and design as major parts of their efforts to criminalize entire nations. But for them, city halls and courthouses would still be using columns while modern form would remain confined to commercial and domestic architecture where it began. Both tyrants effectively poisoned the classical well, making it unavailable to us, at least in anything beyond the private uses of individual artists.

The recently completed Holocaust Memorial in the center of Berlin viewed from the air.

Another view of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

Of course, Hitler murdered whole populations as well as classical architecture. The new memorial to all those murdered people in the center of Berlin -- right next to the site of Hitler's Reichs Chancellery and within sight of the proposed location of the Volkshalle -- is a major example of the success of Minimalism in public monuments. I've discussed this before in another post on the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site. The ability to transform abstract ideas into narratives and dramas was once a major strength of classical form. In this age of no consensus on anything, that former strength is now a great liability, imposing narratives and meanings where there is no longer any agreement. The surprising strength of Minimalism for public monuments is that it provides for catharsis without imposing any kind of interpretation on events remembered. This memorial is a perfect example; a centerless, and seemingly endless, field of stone blocks whose rectangular shapes can suggest anything from sarcophagi to rows of anonymous corpses. As the size of the Volkshalle was intended to impress upon us the inevitability of the end of history as Hitler saw it, so the vast size of this monument suggests the magnitude of Nazi crime.


Leonard said...

The vastness of



Brian R said...

You might be interested in some of the comments on the holocaust memorial after I visited and photographed it in May last year

Anonymous said...

Have you ever heard of America's "total war doctrine"? Googling helps.

Counterlight said...

We did some pretty bad shit, slavery, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, slaughtering first nations to steal their land, decimating the South and impoverishing white Southerners, Jim Crow, lynchings, colonial wars in Central America and the Philippines (anyone remember the Huk wars?), labor wars in the Midwest and South, etc., but; we don't have anything on our consciences comparable in scale or savagery to Auschwitz, Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec, Babi Yar etc. We certainly have invaded our share of countries, but we've never started a world war that claimed the lives of hundreds of millions of people in a dozen years. As bad as the shit is that we've done, we've never done anything quite like the Rape of Nanking. For that matter, we never had anything quite like the reigns of terror under Stalin, or on the scale of the famine that followed the failure of the Great Leap Forward under Mao. And we're nowhere near the grand prize winner, Pol Pot who slaughtered a quarter of the population of his own country in less than 4 years.

I just don't buy the comparability America = Nazis argument.

Americans may not be innocent or absolved from history, but we're not savages either.

We've built some big and ugly architecture, but nothing like the Volkshalle, not even in our dreams.

Anonymous said...

Take a careful accounting of the current economy, Doug. Just sayin'...

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

The Triumph of the Will to Destruction.

Counterlight said...

"Take a careful accounting of the current economy, Doug. Just sayin'..."

Firing all the cops and letting the crooks run riot and plunder the economy is not equivalent to slaughtering whole populations.

Sorry, no.

susankay said...

On a homelier note: my bathroom with a skylight in Back Bay, Boston (when it was cheap) transformed steam from the shower into snow. Stupid, evil and grandiose goals have always been eclipsed by simple living events.

Counterlight said...

I had a bathroom skylight that rained mildew. yuck!

Anonymous said...

This rectory has never had an exhaust system. Mildew reigns.

Anonymous said...

I can't but help be struck by the Monster Dome's, um, mammarian aspect (don't know what it means, though. Calling all Psych majors!)


I think we're wise to be cautious, Doug, as to where the "USA! USA! USA!" "Essential Nation" "Only Superpower" ideology CAN take us (which is not to say that it has, yet).


I think that probably the greatest "Minimalist" memorial is still Maya Lin's for Vietnam Veterans. Pure genius. [Though I wish there was a space for the million dead Vietnamese, not just our own honored dead]

Counterlight said...

"I think we're wise to be cautious, Doug, as to where the "USA! USA! USA!" "Essential Nation" "Only Superpower" ideology CAN take us (which is not to say that it has, yet)."

I don't think it's xenophobic nationalism to insist on a measure of reasonable proportion. There must be a productive alternative to both flag-waving chauvinism and national self-loathing.
Setting this nation on a path toward something even vaguely resembling decency will require a measure of patriotism; some tiny flicker of conviction that the United States is supposed to be something more than just another empire built on conquest and fated to go the way of all other empires.

I always insist that my primary motivation in turning out for those demonstrations and peace rallies is patriotism. I show up in the rain and cold because I care about my country and my fellow citizens. If I didn't, if I thought that the USA was no different from ancient Assyria decorating the trees of its cities with the heads of defeated enemy soldiers, I'd stay home.
I'd say "to hell with it all," and gladly let the plutocrats and the imperialists steer the whole thing into a well-deserved perdition. I'd regard my fellow citizens as knaves and fools who deserve whatever happens to them. At best I'd say that I'll pray for them all, but with no hope for anything or anyone beyond salvation in the next life.

I would love to see the USA, not as THE essential superpower, but as a powerful and responsible nation acting in concert with other nations. I would love to see it make its mark on history by leading efforts to take advantage of new technology and finally end the ancient scourge of poverty on the earth (something that is now thinkable and possible for the first time in history). The large mass of humanity living in a measure of prosperity, security, and dignity should be our desired national legacy after the USA goes the way of all things. This country began out of the Enlightenment idea that the human condition is NOT immutable, that life for all people across the spectrum can change and improve. I would hope that this country would be remembered for accomplishing much to make that idea possible after it departs into history.

We will not get there by making unreasonable comparisons between the USA and Nazi Germany or the Soviets under Stalin.

It was NOT a flag-waving xenophobic "USA! USA! USA!" shouting right wing nationalist, but an angry and devastating satirist of this nation's decay and criminality who said, "Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government only when it deserves it."

Do I make myself clear, or should I dust off my father's old GOP pin and learn to love Sarah Palin?

I'm leaving for Florence in a few days, visiting the old town for the first time in 20 years. As much as I love Italia Bella, madre dell'arte i scienza, I will be glad to come home.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, Doug, I'm a post-nationalist, through and through. My ideals don't have any use for patriotism, much less nationalism...

...that said, I'm enough of a pragmatist (not to mention hypocrite---Lord have mercy!) to see the benefit of a economically/socio-politically strong USA for me, personally. Well, I HOPE it will, anyway! [Also recognizing that, for environmental and linguistic reasons (among others), the planet will always have to be organized along some regional lines]

I'm never for unreasonable comparisons (or unreasonable anything!).

I think we basically agree---I just urge caution, is all. Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia didn't emerge, full-grown, from the head of Zeus. They became the total dictatorships they were, in a series of steps: may the land of my birth (aka the United States of America) NEVER travel along that path (and backtrack from some of those steps we DID take, the past 8 years). Amen!

Travelin' mercies, Doug! :-)

Counterlight said...

"I'm a post-nationalist, through and through"

Not quite there yet myself, though I appreciate your position.

"I think we basically agree---I just urge caution, is all. Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia didn't emerge, full-grown, from the head of Zeus. They became the total dictatorships they were, in a series of steps: may the land of my birth (aka the United States of America) NEVER travel along that path (and backtrack from some of those steps we DID take, the past 8 years). Amen!"

Agreed. Let's hope January 21st will be as hopeful as January 20th.

Thanks for hearing me out on this.

Sirrocco said...

The main character from Syberberg's 1977 film "Hitler, A Film from Germany" insists that since WWII Nazism has become more powerful than ever. Racism, nationalism, militarism, religious hatred, democratic populism, suppression of dissent, contempt for expert or critical opinion, appeals to the irrational, using propaganda, resolving issues with violence, promoting fear of difference, attacking of organised labour, weakening the rule of law, using torture and execution have never been so widespread. (Barry Jones- A Thinking Reed)

Pls open your eyes or we are doomed to perpetuate the evil.

Sirrocco said...

My comment isn't directed at Counterlight. I admire and respect his blog. My comment is directed to everyone. Long live Counterlight.