Nuremberg is the quintessential German city with crooked renaissance architecture perched along crooked streets and river banks. This pretty, walled city, now a stop of the expensive trend of European river cruises was once the centre of the Nazi rise to power hosting the annual Party Rallies where the power and glory of the Nazi Party was on display from 1927 until 1939.
Following the demise of WW2 most signs of Nazism were eradicated almost immediately in Germany and most remaining pieces of Nazi architecture were destroyed or forgotten. I went to the Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally Grounds in search of the remains of the almighty Reich that began with such glory and fell in such disgrace right here in this small city.
The former Rally grounds are situated across 11sq km around Luitpold Park on the outskirts of Nuremberg. Several projects were planned to occupy the space; stadiums and halls to house hundreds of thousands of people during the large scale rallies which by 1938 had almost 500,000 participants. Many buildings never went passed their foundation stages and others were destroyed either during the Allied bombing or after the war. The site’s remaining features; the Zeppelinfeld, the Grand Road and the never completed Kongresshalle (Congress Hall) have been under monument protection since 1973 as significant examples of NS architecture. It took 30 years but the site has now been developed and preserved with the Documentation Centre opening in 2001.
Once housing grand Nazi structures and playing a pivotal role in the rituals of the rallies, Luitpoldarena has been restored to its original state as a city park. Photographs from the 1934 rally show SS-leader Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler and SA-leader Viktor Lutze on the stone terrace in front of the Ehrenhalle with the Ehrentribüne (Tribune of Honour) in the background. Standing in the harsh February elements in the exact spot today, nothing remains of the Tribune of Honour, once a large stone structure with Swastika flags flapping in the wind. The only evidence of the past is the gentle slope in the foundations around the edge of the park remnant of tiered seating for thousands of spectators. The Ehrenhalle was originally built as a memorial to the fallen in WWI and was used during the rallies for the "Totenehrung", a staple ritual honouring the martyrs of the NS movement. It now sits in a lovely, peaceful green park where families ride their bicycles and lay on the grass in the summer. It remains completely intact though suffering from the same neglect of war memorials the world over, the tiled floor cracked in places with grass peeking through and the fire bowls lining the edges rusted having sat dormant since the last rally in 1938.
Standing nearby was the 16,000 seat Luitpold Hall, it was here during the 1935 rally the Nuremberg Laws were devised and passed seeing German Jews began to lose all aspect of citizenship. The Hall was destroyed after being heavily bombed by the Allies.
Across the road from the park is the newly built Documentation Centre, a state of the art museum built into the most complete section of the Congress Hall, Germany’s biggest preserved National Socialist building. After many years of hesitation the site was finally landmarked and a museum and documentation centre created for this sinister, albeit historically significant site.
Sitting on the shore of the Dutzendteich Lake – now nothing more than a large, sludgy pond having been excavated and drained for construction in the area – the jewel in the crown, the massive Congress Hall is only just over half its intended size after construction ceased as the war effort become more pressing. An architectural feat with a modern self-supporting roof, it like many NS pieces was modelled aesthetically on classical architecture. The coliseum inspired structure stands at almost 40m high and was intended to seat 50,000 people. Walking in its shadows around the deathly quiet surrounds the sheer scale effectively, even to this day makes the hair on the back of your neck stand out, an indisputable show of power and following the socialist ideology of making people feel insignificant as individuals. It was about creating a feeling of being part of the masses cementing Hitler’s Socialist notion of one nation, one people and one Führer.
The Great Road, a 2km stretch leading to the Congress Hall was to be the grand entrance for the Rally Grounds. Paved with granite painstakingly mined by slave labour from nearby concentration camps it had the noble role of leading the marching masses. The 40m wide dead-end road is now a parking lot. Remnants of stone steps are still evident along the road’s edges, where people once crowded along to watch the festivities; the stones are now broken, overgrown with vegetation and disappear under tree roots and green moss in different sections. As you walk towards the Congress Hall following their intended march, on a clear day Nuremberg Castle is visible on the horizon, a symbolic throwback to the first Reich, the Holy Roman Empire and its imperial emperors. The Congress Hall appears on the right symbolising the new Reich.
Beside the new Nuremberg Football stadium lays a haunting reminder of the past, the Zeppelin Field. Much of the area has been left to rot, the rectangle arena is overgrown with the stands fenced off and covered by meter-high grass and broken concrete. The Zeppelin Field’s centre piece was its grandstant which once stood at a length of 360 metres. It was one of architect Albert Speer's first works for the Nazi party and was based on the Pergamon Alter. It was here Speer formed the famous cathedral of light in which 152 searchlights lining the edges of the field cast vertical beams into the sky to form a barrier of light surrounding the audience. The majority of the grandstand has been destroyed. The large Swastika that once stood above was famously and ceremoniously blown up by the Americans when they liberated the area. The large Greek pillars were either destroyed during the war or used as explosion targets by the Americans. Safety concerns in the 70s saw the last remaining sections of the alter design demolished leaving only the centre grandstand, the podium and the seating. The edges of the Zeppelin Field are lined with rusted brackets which held torch bowls seen burning in Leni Riefenstahl’s propagandist epic “Triumph of the Will”. It was surreal to stand on such a significant piece of Nazi history. To see two modern doors marking male and female toilets in the front of the historic facade and a truck parked into the base which has evidently been turned into a storage space for the local sports teams who use its grassy centre. Standing now on the centre alter looking out over the sad, eerily silent place watching the storm clouds rapidly encroach I thought what had once been here. I was standing where the world most infamous dictator had stood. Below thousands of people would have cheered at the showcase of military strength and men marching passed in straight lines. It is enough to make one shudder.
Several other sites were planned for the area including Speer’s German Stadium which would have seated 140,000 spectators. The foundation stone was laid in a pompous ceremony in 1937 but like much of the grounds, war brought all construction to a halt and the area dug out has since filled with water and is now Silbersee Lake.
The walk around the grounds is signposted and the Documentation Centre houses a worthy permanent collection entitled “Fascination and Terror” with relics and information about the area, the initial concepts and construction plans for Hitler’s vision of a utopian Germany, one which was so far removed to what Germans then were experiencing. It also houses an honest account of the rise of Nazism in Germany and particularly Nuremberg which was at the centre of this new fascination with Hitler and Nazism. It focuses primarily on pre-war rise to power, as the Rallies were a show of strength and power not only to the world but to the disenchanted German citizens.
While it is impossible to travel in Germany without being reminded of the Holocaust and the atrocities of war, it is rare and refreshing to see a place dedicated to how and why Nazism was able to flourish in post-war Germany and essentially how it was able to become so powerful.
While by no means a common travel experience and admittedly a rather grim expedition, Nuremberg provides a unique, historic experience. These are not monuments or dedications’ but simply remains of the Reich’s former glory, where overgrown, unfinished and dilapidated buildings speak for themselves about how the mighty fell. The area provides an insight into the megalomania of Hitler. It exemplifies the extremities of Nazism, the grandeur and extravagance of NS architecture where size and splendour came before cost, logistics and the environment, the latter of which is evident by the sad state of Dutzendteich, where the jetty finishes before the water begins.
Nuremberg is now a peaceful, idyllic town which bustles with visitors in summer and is renowned for having the best Christmas markets in Germany. Most would never imagine this picturesque renaissance town on the River Pegnitz played such a sinister role in one of history’s most horrific periods.