Albert Speer – The Architect of the Third Reich

As promised, a blogpost about Albert Speer!

Who was he again? He was the architect of the Third Reich. Born in 1905, died in 1981. Speer was a friend of Hitler and furthermore his chief architect. He was also the Minister of Armaments and War Production, but that’s less interesting for our story about ruins.

Last time I wrote about how people can be impressed by the greatness of ruins. Albert Speer also knew this and introduced “The Theory of Ruin Value” (Die Ruinenwerttheorie in German). The University of Toronto Research Repository website suggests the following explanation of ruin value:

“Although it is probably impossible to build so as entirely to avoid the ultimate effects of pleasing decay (Piper 1948: 94), the ‘theory of ruin-value’ requires that the aura and aesthetic appeal of the ruined building in the future would already be present in the mind of its architect. The prospective memory implied in such reasoning takes into account natural decay and cultural ignorance over very long time periods” (Holtorf 1).

In short, the architect is supposed to keep in mind the aesthetic aspect and the aura of a building in its future ruined state while designing a completely new building. When a building that is built according to the rules of ruin value suffers from decay, it will still be aesthetically pleasing and impressive.

Speer wanted to make a statement against modern architecture and for classical buildings because he felt as if they were built with craftsmanship and expertise. Modern constructions, with their skeletons of steel, were not a good translation of the traditions Hitler wanted to represent. Albert Speer formulated his objections as follows:

“It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate these heroic inspirations which Hitler admired in the monuments of the past. My ‘theory’ was intended to deal with this dilemma. By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics, we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models”
state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models”

He made a romantic a drawing of what the stadium of the zeppelinfield would look like after years of neglect and deterioration: ivy-grown, the pillars fallen to the earth, the walls crumbling down, but its contours still clearly visible. Hitler’s entourage called it blasphemy, but Hitler himself understood Speer’s logic and thought of it as refreshing and clarifying. He wanted all of the constructions in his “Reich” to be built in this “law of ruins” from now on.

When we look at the drawing Speer made of the Zeppelinfield, it becomes clear that classical ruins represent his idea of the ideal ruin. This kind of ruin has known a long cycle of growth and decline alongside the cycle of nature. As I mentioned before, it were the frightfully protruding rods of steel in a declining modern building which bothered Speer. Modern steel constructions see to it that this kind of ruin is easily placed in history. They counteract with the effect of timelessness and seniority. An effect the classical ruins can bring about. Speer thought of the modern ruins as depressingly ugly and totally lacking impact because they uncovered the new aesthetic of technological innovations too clearly. This was exactly what Walter Benjamin (remember him? The German philosopher also fascinated by ruins. See my blogpost “The Allegorical and Auratic Ruin” for more information) found interesting about the modern ruin. The difference in the fascist and communist ideologies, of which Speer and Benjamin where adherents, is reflected in their different preferences in types of ruins. Their vision on history also becomes clear here, but I will write about this later on. The big example and inspiration for the theory on ruin value was the way Mussolini assigned an ideological value to the remnants of the Roman empire. Hitler also wanted to utilize architecture in order to convey his political convictions upon the nation. Bernhard Leitner, who interviewed Speer many times about this subject, formulated it like this:

“Architecture is politics in Stone: that was Hitler’s concept for his buildings”.

Speer used the aesthetic value of a ruin as a political vehicle. Although the ruin seems to have lost its totality and lives a fragmented existence, it hasn’t lost its force nor fierceness. The political program it is supposed to carry out stays intact, and that is what counts for Speer. He doesn’t care for the ruin’s historic truth, but cares, by contrast, for its mythological history. With this mythological history, supported by the romantic and thus picturesque aesthetic of the ruin, Speer hoped to spread the ideology of the NSDAP. Walter Benjamin warned for this “aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism” (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). Hitler and his political associates wanted to ascribe mythical proportions to the German nation and these buildings, built with ruin value as principle, were supposed to deliver proof of this idea of the German nation as mythical übermenschen. It’s striking that Hitler preferred architecture and art up until the Baroque. This means that the classical, minimalistic buildings Speer designed initially did not fit his palette of taste. Furthermore, as becomes clear when reading the following quote, Speer was an advocate for originality in art and architecture:

“We had this one fatal flaw to contend with in this business of designing buildings at that time. The men were, the architects were all very unsure, and, of course, they wanted to please. So when you built something, it was widely copied, which made the original lose its value, as it were. Perhaps it still had some value by virtue of its larger dimensions, its better proportions, but it had lost its originality. Consequently, you were impelled somehow, in those days, to come up with new things – you understand – something new again” .

When Leitner asked him if he didn’t see that this uniformity was part of the Nazi ideology, he gave the curt answer “no”. speer was worried about the aura of his designs. He was afraid that because of all the empty copies, the original works would also lose their value. It’s remarkable how much this fear of losing aura because of copies resembles Benjamin’s ideas about the loss of aura in times of technological reproduction.

In my next blogpost I will further examine the parallels and differences between Benjamin’s and Speer’s opinions on ruins. Where Speer saw the ruin as an auratic device, Bejamin experienced it as an allegorical and critical vehicle. But more on that next time!

Stay tuned for more ruin talk!

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One thought on “Albert Speer – The Architect of the Third Reich

  1. Pingback: Britain favoured execution over Nuremberg trials for Nazi leaders Declassified account shows Britain would have preferred to see Nazi leaders executed or imprisoned at end of second world war | ikners.com

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