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SWASTIKAS BY THE SEASIDE.
first published in History Today,
May, 2000, by Peter Monteath
Peter Monteath discusses the origins and fate of a huge Nazi holiday camp planned to invigorate the German workforce by means of `Strength through Joy'.
In their efforts to tame the working class -- potentially the largest source of opposition to the regime -- the Nazis resorted to tactics of violence and intimidation even from early on. It is sometimes forgotten that alongside the frequently wielded stick, the carrot was more sparingly deployed. It was dangled before the eyes of the German workers in the hope that they would find fitting reward for their political acquiescence, and their toil in the service of the Fatherland.
One such carrot, which characteristically remained beyond the grasp of the German worker, was the so-called Colossus of Prora. In its conception at least, this was a huge holiday resort on the Baltic island of Rugen off Stralsund. One of five such complexes planned for the benefit of the German working classes under the auspices of the `Strength through Joy' (Kraft durch Freude or KdF) movement, only Prora was ever started (in 1936), but it was never finished. Nevertheless, by the outbreak of war in 1939, enough of the complex had emerged to warrant the epithet `colossus', since it stretched over some 4.5 kilometres of coastline. Size, however, could not protect the buildings from obscurity during the years of the German Democratic Republic; only now, nearly a decade after reunification, is attention shifting back to this awkward architectural legacy of the Nazi past.
The idea for Prora can be traced to Hitler himself. Robert Ley, the leader of the German Labour Front and responsible for the resort project, told how
One day [the Fuhrer] said to me that in his opinion one should construct an enormous seaside resort, the grandest and most impressive ever.
Hitler's motivation was hardly philanthropic. Well-rested workers could be expected to make a more energetic contribution and to evince a higher level of commitment to the state that had granted these favours. Such commitment would be especially useful in time of war. As Ley himself expressed it:
The best statesman cannot make politics with a people whose nerves are shot to pieces. The loss of the First World War should have hammered this lesson into us for evermore. [...] That is why the Fuhrer wants the National Socialist state to bear this knowledge in mind always and thus ensure that the people's nerves remain healthy and strong.
Ley, a devoted Nazi and Party member since its early days, had been rewarded for his loyalty with the leadership of the. German Labour Front (DAF) on its foundation in May 1933. The organisation, set up soon after the so-called `coordination' of the existing trade unions, presided over some 20 million workers, so that through the DAF the Nazis could keep organised German labour under strict control, Consistently praised by the Propaganda Ministry as a worthy substitute for the defunct union movement, the DAF was an organisation to be reckoned with.
In Ley's view this triumph over trade unionism signalled the end of class struggle in Germany and the creation of a Volksgemeinschaft, a community of the Volk. The workers and their erstwhile representatives, on the other hand, wary of the claims of Nazi propagandists and still reeling from the effects of the Depression, saw matters differently. For them the DAF was little more than a blunt instrument of class oppression which blatantly favoured the interests of business and employers over those of the working class. German working-class voters, at least for as long as Weimar democracy allowed them to cast their votes freely, had remained largely loyal to those parties that openly supported their cause, namely the Social Democrats and Communists. When the DAF was imposed on them in 1933, they voiced their objections loudly and clearly.
Working-class cynicism about the role of the DAF was never allayed, with good reason. However, its recreational branch, the KdF, with its brief to improve worker morale, seems to have achieved genuine popularity. Formed in November 1933, it was based on the Italian organisation `Il Dopolavora' (meaning, literally, `after work') founded by Mussolini in 1925, and employed around 150,000 functionaries. Activities and events offered by the KdF ranged from concerts, theatre, exhibitions, sports and hiking, to folk dancing and adult education. But by far the most popular activity on the KdF programme was tourism, which it managed to offer on a hitherto unmatched scale. It was Hitler's wish
... that the German worker will receive an adequate holiday and that everything will be done to ensure that this holiday and the rest of his free time offer a genuine recovery.
And by 1938 a special KdF office was organising holidays and travel for around 10.3 million Germans. The age of mass tourism had arrived.
Workers seized the opportunity to travel -- until now considered a bourgeois privilege. They might have recognised the rhetoric of classlessness for what it was, but the illusion of upward mobility was seductive. To those Nazis like Ley who actively promoted it, mass tourism promised two great benefits. Firstly, the beneficiaries of organised tourism were more likely, it was thought, to be reconciled to the aims of the new regime. Secondly, tourism presented new opportunities to promote national integration. Excursions within Germany enabled participants to acquaint themselves with the features and customs of unfamiliar regions. Meanwhile, journeys into other parts of the world, for example on the famed KdF cruise ships, gave travellers from different parts of the country an opportunity to get to know each other better. At an international congress on `work and joy' hosted by Italy in 1938, one of the German delegates was able to boast:
Today a little more than four years after the inception of `Strength through Joy' trips, the East Prussians know that the Bavarians are people just like they are, and that they are engaged in a struggle for existence to the same extent. The Silesians know how things are for Rhinelanders, and vice versa. I believe that with our `Strength through Joy' trips we are making a valuable contribution to the volkisch unification of the German tribes, and that ultimately our trips have brought about the strong sense of belonging among all Germans.
There is little doubt that the KdF and its holidays were well received. This is apparent from reports filed by Nazi informers, but also from those presented to the Social Democrats in exile. Robert Ley was convinced of the success of his organisation, proclaiming with palpable self-satisfaction as early as 1935:
The worker sees that we are serious about raising his social position. He sees that it is not the so-called `educated' whom we send out into the world as representatives of the new Germany, but himself, the German worker, whom we show to the world.
Popular though these holidays might have been, the ulterior motive was evident in the very title, `Strength through Joy'. A spokesperson for the DAF made it clear that they were on no account an end in themselves:
We did not send our workers on holidays on their own ships or build them huge seaside resorts because it was fun for us or for the individual who can make use of these facilities. We did it only in order to preserve the working capacity of the individual and to have him return to his workplace strengthened and focused.
As for hopes of upward mobility, an anecdote concerning a restaurant in Bavaria tells how its customers were offered two kinds of coffee -- `good' and `KdF', putting paid to the notion that the latter was a cut above.
Like the concept, the architecture of mass tourism was still in its infancy. Although a competition was held to find an appropriate design, Ley instinctively turned to his own favoured architect, a certain Clemens Klotz from Cologne. Klotz envisaged a kind of self-contained holiday city, the centrepiece of which would be eight accommodation blocks, each of six storeys and of about 500 metres in length. In total they would contain 9,847 rooms, each one precisely 2.5 by 5 metres, and each with a view of the sea just 90 metres away. Furnishings, too, were to be identical: two beds, a sofa, a table and chairs. There was to be a built-in basin with hot and cold running water, as well as built-in wardrobes -- quite modest by today's standards, but revolutionary in the context of their time. Bathrooms and toilets were located in the staircases buttressing the buildings on their inland side. Dividing the accommodation blocks were `community halls', three storeys high and jutting out toward the sea. They were to contain restaurants and kitchens as well as covered terraces with a direct view of the beach. Connecting all of these structures was a promenade running the full 4.5 kilometre length of the development, which like the buildings, followed the gentle curve of the bay on which it was located. The maximum capacity at the height of the summer season would be about 20,000 guests.
The jewel in Prora's crown was to be the huge `festive hall', the one building on the site that was not the work of Klotz, but of his rival Erich zu Putlitz. The latter's involvement, albeit only at the planning stage, was due to the direct intervention of Hitler, who presumably found Klotz's plans for a central hall inappropriately modest. The von Putlitz design, had it been realised, would have provided easily the most pompous of Prora's buildings, large enough to accommodate all 20,000 guests at once for special occasions. In front of it two jetties were to jut into the ocean, offering berthing facilities for boats and Strength through Joy cruise ships. Plans for the inland side of the complex included a huge garage, a railway station (a bridge from the mainland to Rugen was completed in October 1936), cinema, school, indoor swimming pool, gymnasium, hospital, and living quarters for the permanent staff.
By the time the model for the site went on display at the World Fair in Paris in 1937, construction work on Rugen was well under way. Using some personal contacts, Ley had been able to acquire an appropriate, substantial piece of land in July 1935. Work began on May 2nd, 1936, three years to the day after the suppression of German trade unions. To expedite proceedings no fewer than forty-eight construction companies employed at some stages more than 2,000 workers. With the project progressing apace, and competition among the participating firms encouraged, the first buildings took shape as early as April 1938. The plan was to complete the entire site by 1941.
The war changed all that. By September 1939 most of the accommodation buildings were structurally complete, but devoid of any internal fittings. Progress slowed dramatically as much of the workforce was deployed to more pressing tasks, such as working on the military testing station at Peenemunde and the Siegfried Line. One witness recalled a wartime visit by an official from the Organisation Todt -- a special unit set up in 1938 to construct military installations -- who told the workers, `So, gentlemen, that's it for now. Victory will be achieved quickly and then we can continue.' Polish and Russian PoWs were able to complete the task of sealing the roofs, but, by the beginning of 1943, work had ceased entirely.
Consequently, Prora never served the purpose for which it was intended. With the exception of the eight accommodation blocks and a few smaller structures, the site was never completed, and much of it, like von Putlitz's huge festive hall, was never even begun. During the war, parts of the accommodation blocks were used to provide temporary shelter for those made homeless by bombing raids on Hamburg. After 1945 Soviet forces, and later the East German army, occupied the site. Three of the huge accommodation blocks were demolished because they were surplus to army requirements, though that still left plenty of room for an officer-training school, a restaurant-theatre complex and even an army holiday centre, known as the Walter Ulbricht home.
Because of its military use, the entire site was off-limits to the civilian population in GDR times. As a result legends abounded, possibly encouraged by authorities eager to ward off prying outsiders. One such rumour, entirely unfounded, alleged that Prora housed an underground submarine harbour. But that cloak of secrecy was cast aside in 1990. Prora was at first simply transferred to the armed forces of the united Federal Republic, but they found no use for it. Over time a variety of businesses have settled there, including a hotel, a youth hostel, an aerobics centre, a theatre and two museums. Both of these, curiously, are as much interested in the GDR's military use of the site as in its Nazi origins.
The next chapter in Prora's story remains to be written. Awkward to knock down (and, in any case, heritage-listed), the 3 million square metre site is much too large to serve any single purpose. Its guest rooms are unlikely to meet the demands of the discerning twenty-first century tourist.
Prora's future is the subject of ongoing discussions among the local community, the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the federal government, and a special foundation formed to preserve it. One idea has emerged that is both praiseworthy and fraught with difficulties. It is for part of the site to accommodate a museum of Nazi social history, with a particular emphasis on the manner in which the Nazis dealt with the working class. This is an interesting idea, above all, because it would make use of an authentic site, albeit one never used for its original purpose. The problem is that it is a site which, at first glance at least, appears to emphasise a superficially benign aspect of the Nazi regime.
If the new museum does come into being, it must be hoped that it will go to some lengths to highlight the deep ambivalence of Nazi social policy. The key point about Prora is precisely that it was never completed, because a war unleashed by the Nazis intervened and cost many millions of lives, including those of German workers. In this respect Prora is not unlike the Volkswagen, also promoted with great fanfare by Strength through Joy as a boon to the average German, but not actually produced for mass consumption during the Third Reich.
Perhaps the most effective symbol of the emptiness of Nazi promises to create Hitler's version of utopia, was the Strength through Joy cruise ship, Wilhelm Gustloff. Its story might be featured in a future Prora museum as a salutary lesson in the realities of Nazi social policy. Though touted as a kind of floating icon of the classless society, in fact its passengers were overwhelmingly from the middle classes, the people from whom the Nazis had drawn the bulk of their support. Shortly after the outbreak of war the Wilhelm Gustloff was converted into a hospital ship. Loaded with refugees from the war, it was sunk by a torpedo at the beginning of 1945, taking the idea of the `community of the Volk' with it to the bottom of the ocean.
FOR FURTHER READING
Richard Grunberger, A Social History of the Third Reich (Penguin, 1974);
Tim Mason, Nazism, Fascism and the Working Class (CUP, 1995);
Tim Mason, Social Policy in the Third Reich: The Working Class and the National Community (Berg, 1993);
Detlev Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition and Racism in Everyday Life (Penguin, 1987).
Peter Monteath is Senior Lecturer in European Studies at the University of Adelaide, Australia. He is the co-editor with Reinhard Alter of Rewriting the German Past: History and Identity in the New Germany (Humanities Press, 1997).
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