According to Albert Speer, Hitler’s ambitious architect and all-too-capable Minister of Armaments and War Production, the final performance by the Berlin Philharmonic before this distinguished orchestra abandoned Berlin in May 1945 opened with Brünnhilde’s last aria—the vengeful valkyrie sings of setting fire to Valhalla—and the finale from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.
As the Russians neared Berlin that spring, Adolf Hitler continued to toy with plans, and a vast model, of Germania, the new German capital that was to be built over Berlin after the ultimate victory of the Third Reich. At the heart of this bombastic new city stood the colossal domed Volkshalle, a gigantic play on the ancient Roman Pantheon.
Speer had based his design on a sketch of the Roman temple made by Hitler himself in 1925, while in 1938 Hitler had made a point of visiting the Pantheon on an official trip to Rome. The Pantheon had been created for an empire that survived four centuries. The Volkshalle would go one better: it was to symbolize an empire planned to endure a thousand years. In the event, the Third Reich missed its target by 998 years, and neither the Volkshalle nor Germania were built.
With clever use of steel and lightweight concrete behind stone cladding, the Volkshalle would have been 290 metres (950 feet) high. The oculus, or roof light, in the centre of the dome would, at 46 metres (150 feet) in diameter, have been so big that Michelangelo’s dome of St Peter’s could have been lowered through it. In fact, 80 years on from the Fall of Berlin, it is still quite hard to understand just how enormous the Volkshalle would have been. So big inside, that when it was packed with triumphant, chanting Nazis, their breath would have caused condensation to form on the underside of the dome. This would have created clouds, and rain might well have fallen on the fervid crowds below – a suitably Wagnerian spectacle.
Curiously, when you stand back and study Speer’s model of Germania, what it resembles least of all is a city of the future. It is not surprising that a leader who wished to be a new, if decidedly unholy, Roman Emperor should have been obsessed with Neoclassical design, nor is it odd that Hitler should have wanted to outdo his predecessors in terms of height, scale and ceremony.
And yet, what the imperious Volkshalle resembles most is an enormous funerary monument. Above its mighty portico, Speer should have had this esoteric legend inscribed: Et in Arcadia Ego (I [Death] am in Arcadia, too). Arcadia means utopia, and utopia means nowhere. The Third Reich was headed nowhere. As Hitler and his pet architect played with the design of the Volkshalle, Berlin and the Third Reich were about to be engulfed in flames, just as Valhalla—home of all the Nordic gods—was in Wagner’s Götterdämmmerung. The Volkshalle proved to be less than a pantheon to a master race of black-clad German demigods, and more a tomb in the cemetery of Hitler and Speer’s over-excited imaginations.
This extract is from Jonathan Glancey’s new book, What’s so great about the Eiffel Tower?, published by Laurence King Publishing. ArchDaily readers can receive 35% off the book by using the code "ARCHDAILY" at laurenceking.com.