Between 1933 and 1938, Hitler supporters flocked to a huge complex in Nuremberg for a series of mass Nazi party rallies. The once-imposing grounds, where parades and processions were held in celebration of the Führer, are now crumbling. Nuremberg officials are about to undertake a controversial plan to conserve this epicenter of the city’s tortured past.
The Nazi party rally grounds, or Reichsparteitagsgelände, stretch for more than four square miles across southeastern Nuremberg, which Hitler declared the “City of Nazi Party Rallies” in 1933. Designed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, the complex boasted sprawling tent encampments and barracks where visitors could stay during the week-long rallies, a grand parade street that spanned more than one mile, a Congress Hall that could seat 50,000 people, a stadium where tens of thousands of German youths displayed their vigor before the Führer, and the so-called “Zeppelinfeld,” a fortification-like arena where Hitler surveyed his adoring supporters from a large grandstand.
Problems, however, lurked beneath the site’s grandiose veneer. Few of the grounds’ planned components were finished completely before construction came to a halt with the advent of WWII. And the structures that did exist were hastily built, which in turn means that the complex has not held up well over time.
“The damp is the biggest problem,” Daniel Ulrich, head of Nuremberg’s construction department, tells Catherine Hickley for the Art Newspaper. “The original construction was quick and shoddy. It was little more than a stage-set designed purely for effect. The limestone covering the bricks is not frost-proof and water has seeped in.”
The project to preserve the site is expected to cost €85 million (around $95 million), half of which is being contributed by Germany’s federal government. Earlier this month, the state of Bavaria promised to pay one-quarter of the remaining sum, as Deutsche Welle reported at the time.
Officials have long grappled over what should be done with this dilapidated monument to Nazi supremacy. In 2015, experts and citizens convened at a forum to discuss the issue, where some argued that the site should be maintained so that visitors will long be able to envision the pomp and circumstance that once fueled deadly ideologies on its grounds. Others favored bulldozing the site, or letting it dwindle through “controlled decay.”
“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?” Norbert Frei, professor of history at Germany’s Jena University, asked in the German Die Zeit newspaper, per a translation by the Independent’s Tony Paterson. Such fears are not unfounded; earlier this year, torch-wielding members of a neo-Nazi group marched onto the rally grounds and posed on the Zeppelinfeld grandstand.
Ultimately, however, officials decided that the grounds should be preserved; in part, according to Hickley, because they did not want to erase this difficult chapter of the city’s history, and in part, because they did not want to be forced to close off large portions of the site. The conservation project will involve, among other measures, installing ventilation systems to remove humidity from the interior of the structures and replacing stones in stairs and facades. The plans also call for expanding an educational Documentation Center that opened in 2001 and setting up information stations around the site.
Speaking to Hickley, Julia Lehner, Nuremberg’s chief culture official, stresses that returning the rally grounds to their former glory is not the goal of the conservation project.
“We won’t rebuild, we won’t restore, but we will conserve,” Lehner says. “We want people to be able to move around freely on the site. It is an important witness to an era—it allows us to see how dictatorial regimes stage-manage themselves. That has educational value today.”