Unabhängige Historikerkommission (Hrsg.): Planen und Bauen im Nationalsozialismus

Planen und Bauen im Nationalsozialismus. Voraussetzungen, Institutionen, Wirkungen

Die Unabhängige Historikerkommission „Planen und Bauen im Nationalsozialismus“
München 2023: Hirmer Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
1.275 S., 4 Bde.
€ 270,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Paul Jaskot, Professor of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Duke University

As the commander of Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C, Paul Blobel led the September 1941 massacre of over 33,000 Jews in Babi Yar (Ukraine). Like many ambitious men of his generation, he found himself attracted to the Nazi Party during his years of unemployment at the height of the Depression. From that point in 1931, he made a career especially in the SS where he distinguished himself not only in antisemitic atrocities but in such grotesque roles as the organizer of the “Aktion 1005” (1942), the attempt to dig up all mass graves in the occupied East, burn the bodies, and dispose of the ashes. He was tried as part of the postwar Nuremberg Einsatzgruppen process and sentenced to death; he was hanged in 1951. Blobel was thus both an exceptional perpetrator in his brutality but also merely one extreme of the broad phenomenon of Germans and German-aligned sympathizers who planned, instigated, and perpetrated World War II and the crimes of the Holocaust. Blobel was also a trained and practicing architect.

The presumed gap between those two attributes – perpetrator and architect – is what this extraordinary four-volume work attempts to fill both definitively and permanently. In a monumental work of 1,275 pages, the authors cover seemingly every aspect of architecture and urban planning in National Socialist Germany from 1933 to extensive work on occupied Europe during the war and into the postwar reconstruction in both the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. Its ambition is unparalleled in modern architectural history and the results in the 16 essays and accompanying appendices are uniformly outstanding. The volumes will be the foundation upon which subsequent work will build.

As Blobel’s history indicates – drawn from Angelika Königseder’s excellent chapter on building related to forced labor and violence – the book is not meant solely for a specialized audience of architectural historians. Rather, this volume puts front and center the interrelated importance of ideology, politics, and culture when understanding the Nazi period. The authors insist on this interrelationship as key to understanding not just Albert Speer and Hitler’s well-documented interest in architecture but rather also the Reichsarbeitsministerium, the Deutsche Arbeitsfront, the organization of the Generalgouvernement, Nazi housing policies, and the appearance of building administrations as cabinet-level positions in both postwar German governments, to name but a few areas of attention. That is to say, if you don’t understand architecture and urbanism, you don’t understand the development of Nazi Germany, the implementation of its policies, and their postwar impact.

In this regard, its explicit model is “Das Amt und die Vergangenheit” (2010), Eckart Conze, Norbert Frei, Peter Hayes, and Moshe Zimmermann’s co-authored analysis of the Foreign Office and German diplomats both during the Nazi period and also in their postwar careers.1 Like this previous book, these art historians and historians were called together as an “independent historical commission” by the Federal government (in this case, the Bundesministerium für Wohnen, Stadtentwicklung und Bauwesen). And yet, the institutional coherence of studying one ministerial administration like the Foreign Office simply does not exist for building and urban planning during the Nazi period, a problem that the editors themselves acknowledge and take up in their introduction (p. 6). The book challenges the reader (in the good sense) with a wealth of archival and synthesized political information, and yet, at the same time, it is challenging (in the critical sense) due to its chosen points of focus as well as exclusions.

The editors have organized the book in four roughly thematic volumes. The first covers general information as well as chapters that introduce architectural and political history as well as the ideological context for construction. The second volume focuses in on housing, urban planning, and the connection of building to forced labor and genocide. The third volume centers on postwar governmental responses to the Nazi past and memorialization. The final volume supplements the previous essays with a rich list of short biographies of key architects and planning figures, from Blobel to Speer. Across the volumes, six themes come to the fore, as summarized in the introduction by all the editors (with Wolfram Pyta as the lead author of this chapter): 1) planning as an instrument of power; 2) housing and settlements as well as new city construction as central to the regime; 3) the importance of state and Party architecture; 4) building as part of the National Socialist oppressive policies, from infrastructure to concentration camps; 5) the role of key individual actors in linking architecture, politics, and ideology; and 6) the question of how the built environment of the Nazi past is managed in the postwar Germanys. The themes and the individual contributions reflect the outstanding expertise of the editors and the authors who come from architecture and urban planning, Nazi history, landscape architecture, and cultural history, among other areas of specialization. While it might be surprising to see an historian like Wolfgang Benz as one of the editorial leads on an architectural and urban history project, the stated core concept of an interest in planning and building as central political fields of action for the Nazi state make the interdisciplinary background of editors and authors explicable and necessary.

The results of such a core focus are very satisfying. Authors uniformly have effectively summarized key architectural policies and practices, achieving the goal of a broad approach to cultural political history. Adding to this, though, each chapter also leans on substantial new archival research from the Bundesarchiv and a wealth of regional archives. For example, the opening chapter by Paul Sigel on the national and international reception of buildings provides an excellent overview of the major building campaigns, from the early Munich contributions of Paul Ludwig Troost to Speer’s pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition (1937), or wartime events such as the “Planung und Aufbau im Osten” architectural exhibition (1941). In its scope, this chapter functions as a general introduction, while its focus on reception in particular relies on new archival sources. Such “high design” is complemented in other chapters with attention to vernacular and everyday architectural projects, such as Christopher Kopper’s overview of infrastructural and military building featuring archival findings from the Organisation Todt. Racism as an ideological motivation for building and planning is broadly covered in Rainer Schmitz and Johanna Söhnigen’s chapter. Complementarily, building as a means of enacting genocide is well handled in Agelika Königseder’s contribution but also in Mario Wenzel’s strong chapter on ghettos and Jewish forced labor camps during the war. Well known topics like the urban planning of the “Hitler Städte” are summarized thoroughly by André Deschan with new material from the Bundesarchiv and elsewhere, while Claudia Büttner covers the critical analysis of dealing with this built heritage of the Nazi past and postwar memorialization. Further, the coverage of housing and settlement planning introduces a generally overlooked area of Nazi building ambition and is handled expertly in the chapters by Sylvia Necker on housing policy, Michael Haben on the building economy for housing, and in the postwar initiatives with Georg Wagner-Kyora and Clemens Zimmermann covering the BRD and Frank Betker and Harald Engler (with Christoph Bernhardt and Tanja Scheffler) on the DDR. Throughout the volume, the articles are well illustrated, sometimes extraordinarily so, such as the outstanding maps and images in Alexa Stiller and Karl R. Kegler’s chapter on planning in the occupied east and former Soviet territories. Complementing these contributions are refreshing new areas of research, such as the preservation of historical city cores during the Nazi period in the chapter by Christoph Bernhardt and Harald Bodenschatz (with Christine Beese, Christiane Post, Andreas Putz, Kerstin Thieler, Malte Thießen, and Phillip Wagner) as well as postwar preservation covered by Emanuel Hübner.

As with any book, even one of this scale, there are aspects that have been left out. Oddly, Auschwitz, one of the key building sites that scholars actually have analyzed in relation to the intersection of architecture and politics, is almost entirely absent from this volume, as is any systematic analysis of construction as a key to Speer’s role as Minister of Armaments and Munitions. I would have also expected a chapter on the construction industry, starting with the larger firms such as Philipp Holzmann, Hochtief, or Dyckerhoff & Widmann, to name a few.

More critically, the editors’ approach can be limiting. For example, this is not an historiographic account in any real sense. That is to say, the contributions do not emphasize scholarly debates. So, for example, no mention is made of the crucial initial developments of the field and its themes, such as the early important contributions by women – Anna Teut, Hildegard Brenner, and Barbara Miller Lane. Even more surprising is the lack of reference to the importance of leftwing scholars as crucial for early antifascist debates in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including key figures like Berthold Hinz and Hans-Ernst Mittig. And the lack of reference generally to the vast English-language literature on Nazi architecture and urbanism is generally surprising. Certainly, there is the occasional note to some of these scholars – Lane, for example, appears in two footnotes, if I count correctly. But the list of names not mentioned is lengthy. Similarly, little use is made of scholarship from other languages. Thus, any sense of debates or the broader significance of the analysis of culture and Fascism to different (international) audiences is mission. The lack of historiographic reach is a limitation.

More to the point, such a limitation indicates the genesis of the project in the specific politics of the BRD, starting with the ministerial patronage. Yet the attempt to have a clear focus is muddled by the problem at the core of the volumes, i.e. the goal of a political history that lacks an institutional or political focus. Benedikt Goebel and Jörg Rudolph’s outstanding chapter on the Reichsbauverwaltung (part of the Reichsfinanzministerium) is the exception that proves the rule, as it is a tight chapter focused on the administrative organization and policies of one governmental agency. Other opportunities for such political coherence are missed, though, beginning with the absence of a chapter that focuses exclusively on building of the Deutsche Arbeitsfront, an organization sprinkled throughout many chapters (especially housing) but one that would make a more natural contribution in its own chapter for a volume interested in the political history of the built environment. While, as I have stated, the editors acknowledge and embrace the lack of a political institutional core to building during the Nazi period, they could have equally privileged a thorough and systematic analysis of major Party and state institutions that had major architectural and planning initiatives. Such a volume would have been much more administratively organized rather than the typological approach taken here: infrastructure, housing, elite urban plans, building of concentration camps, etc. The result is that the project as a whole articulates the many-headed directions of building but lacks the coherence of an argument extending out from political (rather than architectural) priorities.

My goal here is not just to suggest a different volume, but rather to take the political patronage and stated goal of a political history seriously. Of course, this question means something different in the distinct institutional contexts of the United States and Germany. However much we know that genocide and culture are international concerns, our debates about their political significance remain somewhat siloed in our national interests. This, too, is a problem that we need to surface and address if we are going to work towards a more critical practice that draws from knowledge of the architecture, ideology, and politics of the Nazi period. The volumes under review take us very much in that direction, and the editors and authors should be commended for this impressive work. There is, though, still work to do.

1 Eckart Conze / Norbert Frei / Peter Hayes / Moshe Zimmermann, Das Amt und die Vergangenheit. Deutsche Diplomaten im Dritten Reich und in der Bundesrepublik, Munich 2010.

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