Nuremberg: Germany's dilemma over the Nazis' field of dreams

Some want the Nuremburg complex where Hitler spoke to be left to crumble, others want it preserved as a warning from history, says Tony Paterson

Just a few feet behind the infamous “Führer’s Rostrum”, from which Adolf Hitler delivered virulently anti-Semitic sermons to vast crowds of hypnotised, adoring Germans, the Nazi leader’s once pristine propaganda tribune is covered with steel netting. Signs warn “Danger of collapse!” and “Enter At Your Own Risk”.

Opposite, the concrete terraces of the so-called “Zeppelinfeld” arena once provided seating for 200,000 Nazi faithful. Huge swastika banners fluttered from its surrounding towers. Today the arena is cracked and carpeted with acres of brown grass, litter and filth. It is crumbling so fast that it is entirely fenced off from the public.

“We will only be able to prevent permanent decay if we start carrying out the necessary repair work soon,” said Daniel Ulrich, of Nuremberg’s building maintenance department. “Otherwise we will end up with nothing more here than a heap of rubble.”

Nuremberg, the second largest city in Bavaria, is known for its Meistersinger and an idyllic Christmas market dating from the Middle Ages, but it is most famous for the gigantic and disturbingly overbearing rally grounds which helped to fuel the Nazi movement. The rally site included a parade ground the size of 12 football pitches, a two-mile-long “Great Way” paved with 6,000 granite blocks for mass stormtrooper marches, a congress hall the size of London’s Royal Albert Hall, and the remains of a gigantic tribune with ceilings decorated with golden stars and Nazi swastikas.

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The now crumbling Nuremburg grandstand image

The monstrous complex, complete with a “light dome” featuring 150 searchlights pointing skyward, was immortalised in the German director Leni Riefenstahl’s epic propaganda film Triumph of the Will which depicts Hitler as a superhuman Messiah figure, descending into Nuremberg from the air. The film is still banned in Germany. 

Albert Speer, Hitler’s favourite architect and the creator of Nuremberg’s rally site, claimed that he had used special building materials to ensure that the complex would be like the remains of the Roman Empire and “last for a thousand years”. He could hardly have been more wrong.

Just 80 years later, Speer’s creation has left Nuremberg with a monstrous architectural problem which is worsening each year, despite the city’s efforts to  put distance and time between itself and the nightmare that began with Nazi rule in 1933. Nuremberg’s rally site is one of Germany’s largest listed building complexes. By law it cannot be destroyed – but nature is doing just that. 

The city now faces the difficult question of what to do with the rally grounds. Each year its authorities are obliged to spend upwards of €100,000 (£74,000) to shore up masonry to stop it collapsing on the estimated 250,000 German and foreign tourists who visit the site each year. If the decay continues, the whole site will eventually have to be sealed off from the public.

In an attempt to solve the problem, Nuremberg has unveiled ambitious plans to spend the equivalent of £60m in taxpayers’ money on a major refurbishment project. The expense is so great that if the scheme is given the go-ahead, some costs will have to be funded by German central government

“Our aim is to retain the site as an authentic place of learning,” says Nuremberg’s Mayor Ulrich Maly, “we intend to refurbish the complex. It will not be a complete renovation, but we want to preserve the grounds so that visitors can understand how the Nazis chose to sell themselves to the German people.”

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The Zeppelin grandstand at the former German Nazi party rally grounds

To that end, small construction teams have been busy since late last year, carefully restoring small sections of the rally grounds. The pilot project’s aim is to enable an estimate of the final cost of the planned refurbishment. A figure is expected early this year.

Yet the attempts to come up with a lasting solution for the city’s Nazi legacy have met with heated opposition from academics and historians. Norbert Frei, professor of history at Germany’s Jena University, argued passionately in the country’s Die Zeit newspaper against refurbishing a site which was still admired by neo-Nazis.

“Are there sensible, political, social or aesthetic grounds for restoring banal architectural monstrosities which still manage to delight those who seek the aura of the Führer?” he asked. 

Professor Frei argues for the “controlled decay” of the rally grounds – an option backed by some architects including Willy Egli, a member of Nuremberg’s architectural council. He says the rally ground is the political equivalent of Chernobyl. “It is a piece of contaminated ground which should be left to nature,” he wrote in the Neue Züricher Zeitung.

But Nuremberg’s city council argues that to allow the site to crumble would make it so dangerous that all of it would have to be permanently fenced off from the public. Such an outcome, the council maintains, would give the rally grounds additional and unwanted “mystical status”.

In an effort to give a voice to all sides in the debate, Nuremberg recently hosted a symposium attended by historians, academics and architects from across Europe.

But the gathering reached agreement on only two points: that no attempt should be made to replace or restore parts of the rally grounds that were destroyed or lost after the Second World War. But they also insisted that the rally grounds, including Hitler’s Zeppelin tribune, should remain accessible to the public.

A decision by the City council on the shape the refurbishment will take is expected early in 2016. The future shape of Nuremberg’s Nazi rally arena still remains open, but visitors to a permanent exhibition on the rally grounds, housed in the vast former Nazi congress hall, were unanimous in their view that at all costs, the site should be retained for posterity.

“The world must not be allowed to forget,” said Sabine Bürger a teacher from Kassel who was visiting the site for the first time with a friend. Allowing the rally grounds to decay “would deprive future generations of evidence of evil”, she told The Independent.

Joerg Heigl, a 17-year-old school student from Bavaria was one of the thousands of German pupils who visit the site each year on class trips. “Germany already has its Pegida movement and racists who attack refugee hostels,” he said. “This place is a horrible reminder of what all that can lead to. It has to be kept for all to see.”

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