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Thoughtful construction - architecture of the Third Reich in Poland

Kuba Głaz
31 of August '21

Demolition - yes, but not construction. The occupation is not likely to be associated with investment. And if it does - we have camp barracks, warehouses or barracks before our eyes. However, settlements, offices and urban assumptions that have survived to this day were built, because from the first months of the war the Germans arranged the conquered lands for themselves. How? A good deal of knowledge is provided by two important new books.

We are unlikely to see official trails following the footsteps of these buildings. Nor will there be plaques on them with information about the authors and circumstances of construction. "In the footsteps of Nazi architecture " - this will never sound good. "Nazi trail" - even worse. Hence the phrase "troublesome heritage" that appears in the title of a work devoted to the architecture of the Third Reich present in today's Polish lands. This important collection of studies was released to bookstores this year by the International Cultural Center of Krakow. But this is not the only publication on the subject. In 2019, a similar study, partly from under the pen of the same researchers and historians, was published by the Poznan publishing house Nauka i Innowacje. Both volumes are the result of two scientific conferences.

new everyday life

Walking trails are non-existent, but with the new publications in hand, we can see for ourselves what and how things were built during the Third Reich. Contrary to appearances, it's not monumental edifices and marching avenues, because their construction was postponed until after the victory. It's mostly background architecture: modest housing estates, single-family houses and started urban assumptions, which - without delving into their genesis - we still use today. These are largely unconscious realizations, tamed only in a utilitarian way. Indeed, it took at least half a century after the war for researchers to address the building legacy of the Third Reich. Both in the lands acquired by Poland in 1945 and those conquered by Germany six years earlier, divided into the General Government and the territories incorporated into the Reich. The latter: Greater Poland, Lodz, or the northern areas of the Warsaw province almost immediately became a construction site. Here there was no war, a new everyday life was being created, interrupted only by the collapse on the eastern front.

architektura iii rzeszy

In the new lands of the Reich, architects were able to strike out in urban competitions for the expansion and reconstruction of cities. They competed with each other and even came into conflict, because - the approach to the new territories was not at all clear-cut and predetermined, just like the evolving plans for the General Government during the occupation. Architects also created plans from scratch for urban organisms on the outskirts of existing centers, whose urban planning and forms they assessed very critically.

The assumptions were subordinated to ideology and party structure, steeped in tradition, but also rational. Admittedly, modernist forms were cursed, but it is not so difficult to find parallels between the Nazi "settlement cell" and the "neighborhood unit" of postwar settlements. Typification and prefabrication, which encroached heavily on German construction, may also seem familiar to us. So do the norms defining the number of square meters optimal for the development of a large German family. Meanwhile, the traditional forms of apartment blocks rhyme with the ZOR construction of the Socialist Realist era, which was several years later.

turrets away!

Architektura III Rzeszy

Finally, what we realize even less, the Germans also reworked "their own" architecture from before the First War, the most famous example of which - the extensive reconstruction of the imperial castle in Poznan. They also stripped townhouses and public edifices of details, turrets and balconies, giving them a crude expression in accordance with ideological doctrine. More than that, they realized - albeit rather ineptly - the dreams of pre-war Polish historians and restorers: they cleaned from 19th-century alterations the several-hundred-year-old houses of old town complexes. Before the outbreak of war - in Gdansk, and during the occupation - in Poznan. With the funds of the owners, they also restored the monuments of Cracow. The capital of the GG, "the old German city of Krakau," destined for expansion and "restoration" of its German character stood in stark contrast to the doomed Warsaw or Mazovia. However, construction was taking place there as well, although knowledge on the subject is sparse, as Jaroslaw Trybus admits in the chapter of "Troubled Legacy" devoted to the Polish capital.

Investments in conquered lands are only three years after 1939. The case is different with pre-war Reich lands. Here, using the examples of Breslau, Szczecin, German Silesia and East Prussia, we can take a closer look at the retreat from the (not so popular again) modernism started in 1933 in favor of houses with steep roofs, immersion in the past, striving for the "coziness" of residential developments. It was also here (as well as in "model" Poznań after 1939) that unrealized concepts of large representative districts of a more or less total character were created.

gloomy thoughts

Architektura III Rzeszy - Pomorze

Both books offer a great, though still incomplete, dose of knowledge and illustrations. Many more discoveries and explorations lie ahead for researchers. They now take us through well-known cities and regions, but also to places that are completely unknown, such as the training center in the West Pomeranian town of Zlocieniec. They also provoke consideration of the architect's responsibility, since German designers willingly participated in the "colonization" and rugging of Poles from occupied lands. They knew that in Poznan the new lake (now Rusalka) was being dug with the hands of Jewish prisoners.

Nevertheless, it's a fascinating journey through existing settlements, cities, but also through unrealized concepts and plans, which - if they don't echo with monumental scale and monotony - arouse somewhat mixed feelings. Because, if you detach the realizations of the Third Reich from the grim context, you have to appreciate their meaning and quality. Of course, they were intended to serve only Germans. Poles thrown out of their homes, a labor force that was still tolerated for a while, were put up in Poznań with residential barracks advertised as a standard more solid than the pre-war hovels inhabited by the unemployed. It gets gloomy when one realizes that Poles still live in some of these barracks to this day, and the crushing opinions of Germans quoted in both books about Poland's inability to shape space sometimes sound quite current.

Jakub GŁAZ

"A Troublesome Legacy? Architecture of the Third Reich in Poland," edited by Jacek Purchla and Żanna Komar, International Cultural Center, Kraków 2020

"Urbanism and Architecture of the Third Reich Period in Poland," edited by Karolina Jara and Aleksandra Paradowska, Nauka i Innowacje Publishing House, Poznań 2019

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