What do you do with a 75 year old building that’s unsafe and of little practical use? What do you do if that building is a decay remnant of National Socialism, one of the darkest periods of human history?
The city of Nuremberg (Nürnberg auf Deutsch) currently finds itself debating the question of what they should do with the Reichsparteitagsgelände to the south of city. According to a recent article in Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, an estimated 70 million Euro would be needed to partially restore the Rednertribüne and designate it as an educational monument about the Third Reich.
Albert Speer, “First Architect of the Reich”, drew up the plans for large parts of the Gelände in the 1930s. Speer worked under the idea that Nuremberg would become the new capital for the Reich (Reichshauptstadt Germania), and the Gelände were to serve as the crowning glory of the triumphant Reich. Construction stalled however during the war, and today the empty structures remain as an unfinished yet colossal reminder of a different time.
The area has seen a variety of uses since the war’s end, and visitors can easily access the site via tramlines from Nuremberg Hauptbahnhof (remember to get off at the Doku Zentrum). A well-marked path snakes around the Coliseum-inspired Kongresshalle, which had it been completed would have been twice the size of its predecessor in Rome. The path then takes you out across the massive concrete causeway – the Große Straße – flanked on either side by two artificial lakes, before ending in the Zeppelinfeld, the site of the Nazi Party Rallies so chillingly preserved in history textbooks the world over.
Nuremberg itself is a fascinating city. During our trip across southern Germany last spring I described it to friend Patrick by referring to at a creepy, dark place – which sold him on the city pretty quick! Nuremberg is known for a few things: its seat as a capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the rallies, the post-war trials, and not to mention a really beautiful Christmas Market (one of these things might not be like the others). I wouldn’t say the city itself is sentient, but if it were, I’d have the impression that it’s aware of its chequered past. This awareness gives Nuremberg a dark, downward-looking disposition, as if the city feels uncomfortable in the light, laying all its secrets bare. Add to this the mixture of medieval and modern architecture, and you get a sort of German Gotham, or at the very least something out of one of the darker, creepier German fairytales.
I’ve visited the Reichsparteitagsgelände twice, three years apart. Both times I’ve left with an impression of something unfinished rather than abandoned. There are signs of recent human use – for carnevals, for races, for children’s soccer games – all over the place, hindering any chance of seeing the place as a relic of a forgotten past. Instead you can almost see the Gelände as the toppled ruins of a distant empire, though I doubt that’s the express intention of the city.
But what can you do with such monumental reminders of the past? It’s a question Germany still struggles with today. For many people the idea of spending 70 million Euro on the renovation of Nazi structures seems not only insensitive but baffling in a time of school closures and cuts to social programs; others meanwhile fear that restoration will only serve to give Neo-Nazis a new rallying point. Few options remain: you can tear it all down and reclaim the space, or cordon it off behind a fence while letting it decay, perhaps the most fitting end for the story.