Berlin in spring: fresh green grows from around every corner and the sun adds a warm touch to the skin. So it might seem odd that today I’m heading into what is probably the darkest, most unusual exhibition space in all of Berlin: an underground mezzanine in the Gesundbrunnen U-Bahn station, the deepest station in all of Berlin. I am greeted with the damp coolness of the old walls, which strikes me somehow the right ambience for an exhibition devoted to a dark chapter in the history of Berlin: Hitler’s plans to rebuild the capital into a gigantic model city called Germania on a scale that went beyond anything ever before imagined and which would literally chisel Hitler’s claim to world domination in stone.
The underground exhibition hall features ceilings that rise up to seven metres into the air. Bullet holes hint at the scenes that took place here during the closing days of the war. Every so often, a low rumble breaks the silence as the S-Bahn and U-Bahn trails rattle their way through the tunnels adjacent to and under this chamber. In the centre of the space is a large model of Hitler’s planned capital. It features a main axis twice as wide as Unter den Linden, lined with gigantic stone cubes, massive domes, and colonnades. Hitler was clearly taking inspiration here from classical antiquity in his effort to create space and orientation for his mass movement of the German Volk. The Pantheon in Rome inspired Hitler’s plans for a Great Hall, an unrestrained celebration of architectural megalomania anchoring the northern end of the axis.
The 38,000 m2 building topped with a dome unlike any ever seen was supposed to become the centre of power in the future empire, where the Volk and Führer were to laud their alleged position at the pinnacle of the Volksgemeinschaft.Up to 180,000 people would have been able to fit under the dome to swear their allegiance to the Führer. Just to give some sense of the scale of this planned edifice: the Reichstag would have fit in the space at least 10 times! My eyes fall on a heavy lamp lighting up a niche, one of Albert Speer’s original prototypes for his streetlight design. Was Hitler’s architect Albert Speer truly the apolitical artist he claimed to be and who only did as commissioned when he put the architectural visions of a megalomaniac dictator on paper? The exhibition has a clear answer to this question, which might perhaps surprise other visitors:
Albert Speer was not the draughtsman of these utopian visions; he was merely the one responsible for a specific construction project for which he undertook all the necessary measures. Measures that are to be equated with serious crimes and which seem all too familiar: the expulsion, deportation, and forced labour of Berlin’s Jewish population. Pictures and original documents on display bear witness to a monstrous plan: for the new wide boulevards that were to be carved through the city and for all the monumental structures planned, thousands of Berliners had to lose their homes and property. As compensation, Speer had all of the apartments forcibly vacated by the city’s Jews listed and offered to those who had lost their homes as part of his plans. The Gestapo then worked on clearing out the selected apartments. This had results that earned Speer the acknowledgement of the Nazi leadership in three ways: First, it was a way to create new, “Jew-free” residential areas, as shown on original maps on display. Secondly, many of the Jews just deprived of their homes were required to report to concentration camps where they were did slave work in adjacent quarries excavating the building materials for the new capital. Other Jewish citizens fled from the Gestapo to relatives or friends in Berlin, which led to the further ghettoization of the city’s Jewish population. I climb the stairs back to the bright springtime sun, with the extended model of the massive capital and the close-ups of the quarries still in my head. An important exhibition in unusual surroundings that sheds new light on the machinery of Nazi criminality.