“The ‘Ruin Value’ of Monumental Architecture”
(Part II of Dangerous Undercurrent: Death, Sacrifice and Ruin in Third Reich Germany)
by Meghan O’Donnell
“The ‘Ruin Value’ of Monumental Architecture” appears below.
Click here to read the complete paper.
Meghan O'Donnell is a lecturer of history at California State Monterey Bay. Her research revolves around nationalism and collective identity. She has written on religious nationalism, cultural assimilation, secularizing of politics, political aesthetics, social activism and violence.

ALEXANDER CHIRILA, Webster University

Director, Library of Social Science’s YOUNG SCHOLARS INITIATIVE

Assistant Professor at Webster University, Thailand, Alexander Chirila heads up Library of Social Science’s YOUNG SCHOLARS INITIATIVE. “We are seeing a surge in new ways of presenting and assessing information,” Chirila says. Professor Chirila will be working with us—and with scholars around the world—to develop methods for disseminating significant research and writings to a wider audience.

Vision is useless without a means of communicating it to the masses, and for Hitler the greatest source for communication came in the form of aesthetics and art. From architectural monumentality, Third Reich poetry, and Nazi rallies, the symbolism of death, blood, drama, and ruin found a new wave of energy never before seen in Germany.

Perhaps the most unusual of these aesthetic forays was the death cult’s influence on Albert Speer’s theory of “ruin value.” Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect, designed some of the Third Reich’s most colossal monuments, including the Reich Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg and the model for the Great Hall in Berlin. His monumental architecture was specifically built according to his theory of “ruin value.”

This theory argued that the architecture of the Third Reich should be constructed so the process of natural decay, even after hundreds or thousands of years later, would allow the monument to “communicate the heroic inspirations of the Third Reich” just as the ruins of antiquity do in Greece and Rome. Speer discussed in his memoirs the creation of a “romantic drawing” of how the Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg would look “after generations of neglect, overgrown with ivy, its columns fallen...but the outlines still clearly recognizable.”

The very idea of ruins and monumentality is essential to understanding Hitler’s Totenkult. Speer’s theory of “ruin value” may be directly connected to the imitation of the romantic ruins of Ancient Rome and Greece, but there is also a psychological element that goes beyond the desire to imitate antiquity.

Andreas Huyssen, a professor of German at Columbia University has argued that ruins in general represent more than a process of architectural decay. Ruins are in fact an expression of modernity’s “catastrophic imagination,” and are really the articulation of a nation’s “obsession with the passing of time.”

According to Speer, Hitler “liked to say that the purpose of his building was to transmit his time and its spirit to posterity. Ultimately, all that remained to remind men of the great epochs of history was their monumental architecture.” And, as the Roman ruins did for Mussolini, so too should the ruins of the Third Reich “speak to the conscience of future generations of Germans.”

Like the Parthenon or the Coliseum, Germany’s dominion over the world as visualized by Hitler, would be a testament to its enduring greatness long after his Third Reich had disappeared through the decayed monuments of his empire.

This is why monument building was such an obsession for Hitler. He truly believed that “no Volk lives longer than the evidence of its culture,” and for National Socialism, that culture would be remembered through its romanticized and monumental architecture and art long after he was dead and gone. This was made especially clear when Hitler spoke at the cornerstone laying ceremony of his new Congress Hall in September of 1935, and declared:

A hall shall rise that is to serve the purpose of annually housing within its walls a gathering of the elite of the National Socialist Reich for centuries to come. Should the Movement ever be silent, even after millennia, this witness shall speak. In the midst of a hallowed grove of ancient oak trees will the people then marvel in reverent awe at this first colossus among the buildings of the German Reich.

Hitler also declared in a speech later in July of 1937, that art in general “constitutes an immortal monument, itself abiding and permanent, and thus there is no such criterion as yesterday and today…there is but the single criterion of “worthless‟ or “valuable,” and hence “immortal‟ or “transient.” And for Hitler, immortality was “anchored in the life of the people as long as they themselves are immortal.”

These immortal monuments or temples of the German Reich were not just a means of “bequeathing to posterity the genius” of Hitler’s age. A far more obvious Totenkult aesthetic was also evident in Hitler’s monumental architectural plans. Specifically the construction of miles upon miles of mausoleums along the borders of Germany’s newly expanded empire.

Following the Nazis supposed victory against the Allied powers, colossal citadels for the dead, or Totenburgen, envisaged by Hitler “were to glorify war, honour its dead heroes” and at the same time, “symbolize the impregnable power of the German race” as the massive stone structures would stretch “from the Atlantic to the Urals.”

During these elaborate cult ceremonies, the language of Hitler’s speeches also became immersed in the blood of sacrifice. The words, “martyr”, “resurrection”, “sacrifice”, “holy place of pilgrimage”, ‟hero”, “death”...all added up to a simple message: sacrifice of oneself to the party and its Führer as a sacred duty, if necessary with the shedding of blood.”

In a speech given to the Nazi party congress in September of 1933, Hitler described the fanatical sacrifice that was needed to maintain the Volk movement of National Socialism. He declared: “Power and the brutal use of force can accomplish much, but in the long run no state of affairs is secure unless it appears logical in and of itself and intellectually irrefutable.”