Nuremberg was one of the earliest big German cities to try to confront its Nazi past.
The city is spending millions to make the Nazi party rally grounds in the Southeast safe, especially the congress hall, grandstand and Great Road.
The stated goal is not to restore the Nazi relics but to play host safely so visitors get an effective lesson about the Hitler era.
Visiting the huge structures at the Reichsparteigelände (Nazi Party Rally Grounds) can be problematic.
The Nazis’ outsized neo-Classical architecture in Nuremberg, Munich and elsewhere (especially Berlin) was designed to glorify principles that cost millions their lives. Why spend time there?
The desire to stand where it all happened seems to be built into many of us, maybe to help convince ourselves of the gruesome reality of it all.
A German noted visitors to Nuremberg’s big Nazi grandstand want to stand on the pulpit from which Hitler reviewed troops or harangued nighttime crowds of thousands by torchlight. “Understanding that it was all madness only works if you stand there yourself,” he said.
My own country has its victims of national force and violence — native Americans, Japanese during WWII, blacks from the beginning of the nation.
But the Nuremberg buildings enable you to imagine the industrial might of a modern nation employed to dominate other nations, while snuffing out the lives of men, women and children born different within its own borders.
The buildings present an opportunity to renew our understanding of how a modern, democratic nation slid into dictatorship — and where nationalist extremism, institutionalized racism, policies of exclusion and identity politics can lead.
The rally grounds
The Nazi party rally grounds covered about four square miles in the southeast of Nürnberg. Week-long Nazi party rallies were held there six times from 1933 to 1938.
Nazi chief architect Albert Speer created a masterplan for this site, including a stadium to hold 400,000, a March Field for military exercises, a Congress Hall for 50,000 and a 180-foot-wide Great Road.
Structures still standing include the unfinished Congress Hall, the main grandstand at the Zeppelinfeld (Zeppelin field) and the Grosse Strasse (Great Road), planned as a 1.2-mile-long parade ground.
Parts of the rally grounds were damaged in the war and demolished. Other parts were destroyed as part of post-WWII denazification.
The Haupttribune (grandstand) on the Zeppelin field, a deployment area wider than the length of a football field, must be the most recognizable of the massive neo-classical structures at the Nazi Party rally grounds.
Hitler reviewed troops and other marchers here and harangued thousands of Germans in the 1930s. Architect Speer based the Haupttribune on the Pergamon Altar (c. 150 BCE) from Asia Minor, but it’s nearly 10 times bigger.
Stone steps climbed both sides of the arena “walls,” facilitating fast mass entry and exit of the seating areas. Train tracks ran behind the grandstand to ferry spectators to and from the arena.
At the end of the war, American troops blasted off the golden swastika that crowned the grandstand. In 1967, city authorities blasted away the grandstand’s familiar tall pillars, severely damaging the building. Erosion and dampness added severe damage to the poor quality of the initial construction.
One official likened the construction to a “stage set designed purely for effect.”
Crumbling areas have been fenced off, and visitors are barred from visiting much of the grandstand for safety reasons. The remainder of the stand is considered “intact” enough for tourists and others.
During the last three years, state and federal authorities pledged three-quarters of the nearly $100 million set aside to secure — not reconstruct — the main elements.
A ventilation system will be installed to remove much of the dampness that has caused major damage. About one in four of the stone steps is to be replaced by concrete blocks. The top layer of compacted soil stairs will be replaced. Target completion date is 2025.
When I was here, the American high school used the field for football practice. The “Zeppelin” in the location name stems from Count Zeppelin’s landing one of his airships here in 1909.
The Congress Hall
The Kongresshalle (Congress Hall) is being called the largest Nazi propaganda building that still exists. I asked an exhibition aide whether there was any point from which I could get a photo of the whole building. She said only by plane or drone.
Intended to serve as a vast Nazi meeting hall, the Congress Hall would have accommodated 50,000. Wikipedia says only one arena on the globe (in the Philippines) is larger.
Inside, only open on special occasions, is a golden hall with gilded ceiling mosaics and swastika reliefs.
The building is 128 feet high and more than 800 feet wide. If it had been finished, it would have stood more than 200 feet high. The building is open above. A roof was planned, but war stopped construction.
The building is constructed mostly of clinker brick with a facade of granite panels. The design (especially the outer facade) was inspired by the Colosseum in Rome.
The building forms a “U,” so there are “head” buildings at each end.
Since 2001, the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände (Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds), a diagonal glass and steel passageway, has sat atop the northern wing. The center cuts like an arrow through the structure so it can’t be missed.
The Documentation Center was designed to accommodate 100,000 visitors a year, but three times that many have come. The center was closed for renovation, but a temporary exhibition enabled visitors to step inside the walls of the enormous brick structure.
The permanent exhibit, “Faszination und Gewalt” (Fascination and Power), studies the causes and consequences of National Socialism, including what led to the Nazis’ crimes while they were in power, the racist “Nürnberg laws” of 1935 and the postwar trials of National Socialist leaders.
The exhibition includes an examination of how Germans should deal with the legacy Nazi structures at the rally grounds.
The renovation and building at the Nazi site represent the city’s largest investment since WWII. A big issue has been what to do with more than 60 Kongresshalle tenants, more than 20 municipal.
The tenants use about 160,000 square feet on the first floor, mainly for storage. Three floors above are unusable because they lack fire protection.
Nuremberg’s illustrious opera house on Richard-Wagner-Platz must close for renovation, maybe for 10 years and $500 million in fixes. A large majority of city council has voted to house the opera and ballet in the huge former Nazi congress hall across town until the work is done.
Should the strains of “Ride of the Valkyries” or the “Prelude to the Meistersinger” — music of Nazi favorite Wagner — ring out from a huge Nazi amphitheater in modern Nuremberg? The opposition came from those who believe placing the opera within the Kongresshalle could lead people to forget how terrible the Nazi atrocities were.
On the other hand, one comment in the morning paper asked: “What is the point of declaring a Nazi ruin untouchable for eternity …?”
Besides, the city owns the former Nazi site and won’t have to pay rent until the opera house is renovated around 2035 (renovation is to start in 2025).
The new building in the Kongresshalle is to stay even after the opera returns to its renovated home on Richard-Wagner-Platz. Demolishing the opera house and starting over never was an option, as the hall is on the list of protected historical sites.