Ideology and agency in the architecture of the Third Reich Essay

Ideology and agency in the architecture of the Third Reich Essay

“Frodo passed his hand over his brow and wrenched his eyes away from the city on the hill. […] At last with an effort he turned back, and as he did so, he felt the Ring resisting him, dragging at the chain about his neck; and his eyes too, as he looked away, seemed for the moment to have been blinded” (Tolkien, 1966:390)

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Part 2

“’What you don’t know is what the knife does on its own. Your intentions may be good. The knife has intentions too.’” (Pullman, 2000:181)

– Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass

The attribution of intentionality to material objects is a frequently used narrative device within the fantasy genre of fiction. Tolkien’s One Ring and Pullman’s Subtle Knife are just two well-known examples of magical artefacts which appear to function as agents of their own free will, pursuing causes and reaching decisions of their own accord. In other words, they exhibit forms of behaviour which we would associate primarily with human beings, and certainly not with inanimate objects. Given the nature of their work, of course, the respective authors are under no obligation to remain within the confines of reality; indeed it is often said that the mind follows wherever the pen may lead.  This in itself hints at a notion of material agency, which might serve as an analogue to the quasi-animism described in the books mentioned above. As is often the case, then, the themes and motifs of fantasy novels are closely related to very real concerns and processes. Whilst it would be a fantasy on my part to claim Tolkien as an academic forebear of, say, Alfred Gell, it is nonetheless interesting to note that the trend towards examining material culture in terms of agency rather than meaning is in a sense already embedded within a long literary tradition. Sadly, the anthropological discipline has yet to display any significant interest in the agency of items of jewellery or cutlery whether magical or not.

“I am convinced that art, since it forms the most uncorrupted, the most immediate reflection of the people’s soul, exercises unconsciously by far the greatest direct influence upon the masses of people” (Hitler, 1942:574)

– Adolf Hitler

Objects which are imbued with some sort of spirit or a capacity for intentionality are, in the fantasy genre, usually associated with a dark or evil magical force. Although authors such as Tolkien and Rowling have rejected allegoric interpretations of their work, it requires very little effort to imagine the German dictator Adolf Hitler as the archetypal ‘dark wizard’ of the twentieth century. This connection might at first appear to be a feeble justification for prefacing an essay on Nazi architecture with an admittedly somewhat self-indulgent paragraph on magical rings. However, as I will go on to discuss, the buildings of the Nazi period might be considered in relation to Gell’s concept of a ‘technology of enchantment’ – arguably a form of ‘magic’. I will examine the ways in which Nazi architecture and landscapes not only reflect an ideology, but also play an active role in its proliferation. Using the Olympic Stadium in Berlin as my primary example, I will discuss the way in which the agency exerted by a building or landscape might be considered through time, and how it may be affected by its changing historical context. In addition to using the relevant literature, I will draw upon my own experiences of German architectural landscapes. This part element of the essay is enhanced by a selection of my own photographs.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Before discussing the idea of the Nazi building as an active producer of identity, it is first necessary to briefly situate the architecture of the Third Reich within its historical context. The Bauhaus influenced avant-garde style of the era was met with suspicion by the National Socialists on account of the leftist leanings of some of its leading architects, such as Walter Gropius or Ernst May (Taylor, 1974:7). Furthermore, the stark functionalism of the Bauhaus movement was perceived as communist and foreign, and contrasted with so-called German styles of building. Hitler’s own personal interest in architecture has been well documented, and the construction of a monumental architectural legacy was a fundamental part of his vision for the new Germany. We might therefore assume an affinity of sorts between political ideology and the built form. Having proposed a close link between the state and its architecture, I will now discuss how the built landscapes of the Third Reich contributed to the formation of a national identity.

National Socialist doctrines were frequently based on vague ideas about what it meant to be German, Nordic or Aryan. In his assertion that “to be German is to be clear” (Hitler, 1942:587), Hitler appears to propose lucidity as a national attribute; elsewhere, “some degree of guidance and control” (Taylor, 1974:80) is considered as being a specifically German aspect of life. This is reflected in the “general rectilinear appearance” (89) of many buildings as well as in the emphasis on spaciousness and symmetry in urban monumental architecture of the era. Neo-classical styles were employed to suggest that the Third Reich was the natural successor of the empires of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. In some cities and in rural areas, traditional architectural styles were favoured, using materials which were “native to Germany” (87) and incorporating medieval and folkloric motifs (Macdonald, 2006:108). It is fairly transparent that these notions of what it means to be German are largely rooted in nationalist myths. Although purporting to represent the historical values of the German Volk, National Socialist architecture was in fact actively involved in the creation of a legacy. The buildings of the Third Reich are effectively the petrification of an ideology – the ‘Word in stone’ (Taylor, 1974). It is inadequate, then, to consider Nazi architecture only in terms of its symbolism and meaning, as such an approach would necessitate the acceptance of Nazi mythology and propaganda. Instead, I would suggest that Nazi architecture should be considered primarily as an active producer of social and national identity – both as a tool of the state and as an agent in its own right.

In his seminal work House and House Life of the American Aborigines, Morgan draws conclusions about the social structure of indigenous North American tribes through an analysis of their dwellings. His suggestion that there is a “common principle running through all this architecture” (Morgan, 1881:104) is echoed, albeit distortedly, in Hitler’s belief that “one could learn from architecture whether a civilization was in decline or in ascendancy” (Taylor, 1974:30). The existing idea that the material environment  might offer insights into social and cultural life is thus appropriated by the National Socialists and expressed in qualitative terms. The Nazi view of architecture can be interpreted as a gross inversion of Marx and Engels’ influential theory of historical materialism – the notion that societal progress is propelled by the technological and material conditions of the time. The National Socialists on the other hand saw architecture as a useful tool for facilitating the implementation of a pre-conceived ideology. Architecture was to have “both a therapeutic and a propaganda function” (Taylor, 1974:31) in creating an environment which expressed supposed German values. The didactic nature of Nazi architecture thus mirrors the oppressive nature of the regime. Whilst architecture, according to Hitler, “could be used to improve the spiritual and psychological condition of the German people” (32), this can only occur within the narrow ideological framework provided by the state. One of the key concepts of Nazi architecture is the idea of Gemeinschaft, or community. This is ironic in the sense that Hitler himself was said to show “little sign of an interest in public housing or the dwellings of the workers” (25). This notion of ‘community’ is therefore far removed from Marxist concerns with the conditions of the working classes, instead finding expression in the construction of monumental public buildings designed to impose a set of nationalist ideals on the people – whether they liked it or not. The National Socialist notion of ‘community’ architecture might thus be seen as symptomatic of the reversal of the relationship between base and superstructure as conceived by Marx and Engels. In the hands of the Nazis, then, architecture becomes a weapon of state power – striving to achieve “political goals through physical design” (Helmer, 1985:37). I will now argue, using the example of the Berlin Olympic Stadium, that a ‘Nazi’ building can transcend its role as a weapon or a tool of political ideology and be understood as a social agent within the context of contemporary Germany.

Although there were plans to build sport facilities in West Berlin prior to Hitler’s rise to power, the Olympic Grounds were eventually constructed under Nazi supervision for the specific purpose of hosting the 1936 Olympic Games. The 100.000 capacity stadium and the surrounding sport complex were typical of the monumental architecture envisaged for the ‘new Germany’ by Hitler. The grounds were built around two axes in order to create an impression of order and discipline (Taylor, 1974:163). These axes also corresponded to those conceived by Albert Speer in his ultimately unrealised plans for the new German capital (see Helmer, 1985), reinforcing the Nazi ideals of spiritual unity and communal synthesis. The stadium itself was constructed out of German limestone, granite and marble (see fig. 3), with a dual emphasis on durability and on the use of local building materials (166). The neo-classicism of the main buildings and the local timbered styles used in the riding stables and the tennis stadium created a complex which was “quintessentially German” (166) – at least within the framework of Nazi ideology. The importance of sport and health to the Nazis is embodied in a series of statues representing muscular nudes (see fig. 5), alluding both to the supposed spiritual link to Ancient Greece and to the physical superiority of the Aryan race. Alongside the formal structural attributes of the grounds described in further detail by Taylor (1974) in his chapter on community architecture, there is an emphasis on the “non-cognitive, affective” (Macdonald:2006:109) impact of Nazi monumental building. Within the context of the Olympic Stadium, this is achieved partly through the sheer size of the construction. The huge proportions of Third Reich architecture are described by Speer as a “violation of human scale” (1981:204), which Macdonald sees as part of “a calculated Nazi ideology of dwarfing the individual, and subsuming individual identity to the collective project” (2006:111). The magnitude of the Olympic grounds allows it to function as a theatre of communal ritual. The use of the present tense is intentional, as the stadium continues to host both sporting and cultural events, most notably the FIFA World Cup final in 2006. Whilst it has been argued that “the Olympic complex’s fraught political history was lost” (Koshar, 2000:174) in the post-war period, Strom contends that “Berliners have a vivid awareness of the potency of physical symbols” (2001:67), and raises the question of whether “buildings and monuments can be so imbued with the ethos of their creators that they must be […] ‘purged’” (67). The Olympic Stadium was only marginally affected by processes of de-nazification through the removal of swastikas and other Nazi symbols, and the shortening of the Fűhrerloge (Hitler’s private viewing box) “to take away its historic effect”. However, up until the renovation works at the beginning of this century, the stadium was left largely unchanged, and even in its present form it still retains the essential characteristics of the original design.

Figure 3
Figure 3

As a former resident of Berlin and an avid supporter of the local football team Hertha BSC who play their home games at the Olympic Stadium, I have visited the grounds more than twenty times over the past eleven years. Although the majority of these visits occurred within a context of recreational pursuit, I would suggest that they might be considered a form of ‘retroactive participant observation’, furnishing me with an extensive knowledge of both the architecture and the present day usage of the facilities. As a football spectator, I have gained personal experience of the way in which the ritual processes surrounding the game are framed within the specific context of the stadium. Let us accept Giddens’ premise that “a setting is not just spatial parameter, and physical environment, in which interaction occurs: it is these elements mobilized as part of the interaction” (1979:206). It is thus impossible to consider the nature of social interaction and communal ritual taking place in the Olympic Stadium without also taking into account the architectural setting within which it is structured. I would suggest that the physical attributes of the stadium’s architecture, no longer functioning as weapons of state authority, enable the building to function as an autonomous social agent, shaping the social action within it. For example, the iteration of columns encircling the stadium (see fig. 4) can have a hypnotising effect, not dissimilar to the technology of enchantment which Gell sees in the “salient visual properties of repetition and symmetry” (1998:77) of decorative patterns. Freed from the political aim of creating “a sense of belonging to a greater German people” (Macdonald, 2006:110), the architecture evolves new meanings in helping to shape a sense of collective identity amongst the football supporters. This idea of unity is reflected in the match day uniform of replica shirts and team scarves, which bridges class, age and gender divides. Whilst some similar form of collective identity probably exists in all football stadiums, I would contend that the architectural characteristics of the Olympic Stadium acts in a specific way to create a fan identity uniquely linked to the team playing within it. In a similar fashion, the curving stands within the stadium serve to create a sense of closeness and togetherness which would not be possible in a rectangular shape. The oval form also helps to amplify the sound, thus actively influencing the sensory dimensions of the social action occurring within. Having given some examples of how the architecture of the Olympic Stadium can act as a social agent in shaping the social action of a football match, it would be inappropriate not to mention some of the more regrettable behaviours I have observed over the years. Despite the relative success of various campaigns and initiatives to curtail the neo-fascist element of the crowd, chants such as “Sieg Heil” and “Drei Punkte fűr die Reichshauptstadt”  (Three points for the Reich’s Capital) do still occur, as does the racial abuse of dark-skinned players. Perhaps this, too, is a form of material agency: the stadium acting as a political rallying site within the context of contemporary neo-Nazi culture.

I have discussed in some depth the way in which architecture can function both as a political tool and as an independent social actor. The way in which a building exerts agency can change over time, and is subject to the political and social processes within which it is situated. Vastly different though the National Socialist architecture I have examined here is from a Maori meeting house, it seems fitting to conclude by quoting Nicholas Thomas on the latter:

Houses […] were not ‘symbols’ […] but vehicles of a collectivity’s power.” (Thomas, cited in Gell, 1998:251)

Figure 4
Figure 4
Figure 5
Figure 5


Morgan, L.H. (1965)  House and House Life of the American Aborigines, Chicago:University of Chicago Press

Strom, E.A. (2001) Building the New Berlin: The Politics of Urban Development in Germany’s Capital City Lexington

Koshar, R. (2000) From Monuments to Traces: Artifacts of German Memory University of California Press

Giddens, A. (1979) Central problems in social theory : action, structure and contradiction in social analysis Macmillan

Gell, A. (1998) Art and Agency Clarendon Press

Speer, A. (1981) Inside the Third Reich : memoirs Collier Books

Engels, F. (1972) The origin of the family, private property, and the state Pathfinder Press

Taylor, R. (1974) The Word in Stone University of California Press

MacDonald, S. (2006) Words in Stone? Agency and Identity in a Nazi Landscape Journal of Material Culture 2006, 11 pp105-126

Helmer, S. (1985) Hitler’s Berlin: The Speer plans for reshaping the central city Ann Arbor

Hitler, A. (1942) The speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939 / an English translation of representative passages arranged under subjects and edited by Norman H. Baynes Oxford University Press

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1966) The Lord of The Rings Part 2: The Two Towers Allen & Unwin

Pullman, P. (2000) The Amber Spyglass Scholastic

All photographs by Mark Hann, 2008

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