Monumental Abuse

After the Second World War a ruined Nuremberg was left with an unwanted child: A partly completed Nazi Party rally grounds, designed by Albert Speer. Didier Hoffman provides insight into a city that has to had to walk a fine line between glorifying and denying the past.

April 8, 2012

After the Second World War a ruined Nuremberg was left with an unwanted child: A partly completed Nazi Party rally grounds, designed by Albert Speer. From 1927 till 1939 the Nazis held their annual festivities here. During the war the festivities stopped but construction of the grounds continued. After the war the landscape and buildings had transformed the area and could not be easily removed. Another and entirely new strategy was needed.

The giant compound south of the city centre included a ceremonial roadway, Große Straße, the Zeppelin Field parade ground, a Congress hall, the unbuilt German Stadium with 400,000 seats,  a stadium for the Hitler Jugend (Youth) and more. Nuremberg started by returning the area to its original program. As recreational park landscape, it functioned beautifully for many years before the Nazi Party started using the area for their annual meetings. The subsequent use of the area and the (unfinished) buildings turned out to be quite different.

The Zeppelin Field

The Nazi’s used the Zeppelin field as parade ground. It is largely square and has grandstands along three sides. The fourth side featured a much larger grandstand for Nazi Party officials, including Hitler.

The field is famous for the stage set that Speer designed for one of the Nazi Rallies, with light beams projecting vertically into the sky.

After the war, the Swastika was blown off the main grandstand but the rest of the structure remained intact. It was used as location for the annual American victory parade. From the sixties onwards the Zeppelin Field was also in use as a concert and festival location. Many concerts and (hippie) festivities were held here (quite opposite from the original Nazi Party use and ideals). Currently the Zeppelin Field is divided in two parts: One half is used as a soccer practice field. The other part is in use as truck parking. A couple of times a year this part is also in use as the pit box during the Norisring auto races. The finish line of the track is right in front of Hitler’s old balcony on the main grandstand.

 The Congress Hall

The planned Congress Hall was supposed to seat about 50,000 people. During the war a substantial part of the building was completed. The main U-shape in the design is built to a height of 40 metres (of the proposed 70 metres). At the ends of the U there are box shaped extensions. Since 2000, the two box extensions contain a small museum (also extending into the U) and the Nurnberger Symphoniker orchestra. The lower floors of the U are in use as storage areas for various city services. When I visited last year, traffic signs and roadwork equipment were among the things in storage. A contemporary art exhibition (one of the other things Nazis hated) took place on the top floors, but these floors seemed to remain empty most of the time.

The ceremonial axis (Große Straße)

The axis visually connects the castle in the city centre (once a place of kings) to the Nazi party grounds. It features low seating areas all the way along it. It is so wide the Americans used it as a temporary airfield after the war. But what did the city do? On west side, they built a convention centre. The centre has its back towards the axis. Walking along the street here is an unpleasant experience, especially since the axis itself is used as temporary parking during big conventions. The street is also part of the Norisring race track (just as the Zeppelin Field). A couple of times a year, the axis is filled with a loud and noisy spectacle instead of an orderly choreographed parade.

Unfinished or destroyed structures were demolished and remaining construction sites filled in. Some became lakes or woodlands and some were transformed in parking lots. Maintenance of the remaining structures built by the Nazis is almost zero. Unsafe areas are simply fenced off or demolished.

The city has to walk a fine line between glorifying and denying the past. To prevent Nazi empathy there seems to be a deliberate mismatch between space and program. The biggest building contains a small museum and an orchestra, and still has left over space; the ceremonial roadway is used as parking and racetrack; the parade ground is used for hippie festivals, soccer practice and truck parking. It appears to be a divide and conquer tactic to rid the structures of being seen as a whole. There is no doubt the official explanation for these decisions and turn of events will be different. But some people got – and still get – real pleasure from seeing these structures, that were intended to support a megalomaniacal regime, suffer from incoherent, unsuitable uses, dilapidation and graffiti. They like to see these structures getting more and more depressing over time. And I am one of them.

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