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"Obsession with Order" - even more about Nazi architecture in Poland

09 of February '23

There is still not enough new knowledge about German wartime architecture on Polish ground. Only recently has it dawned on us how many buildings and transformations are the legacy of the occupation times. This difficult and ambiguous subject has lived to see another book—Niels Gutschow's "Obsession with Order," finally published in Polish .

For several years now, the fully silent and difficult pedigree of many residential buildings, neighborhoods and transformed facilities that the Germans realized during the war has been revealed. Much of this legacy, unexplored for decades after the war, is only now being uncovered thanks to researchers who have spent three decades sifting through archives, attributing authorship to buildings, and describing extensive plans for only partially (but still large-scale) completed transformations. We have already learned a great deal through two important publications we described a year and a half ago ("A Troublesome Legacy? Architecture of the Third Reich in Poland", "Urbanism and Architecture of the Third Reich Period in Poland"). Now they are joined by "Obsession with Order. German Architects Planning in Occupied Poland 1939-1945" by Niels Gutschow—a German architectural historian focused for several decades on studying the material legacy of the Third Reich. Gutschow is actually a pioneer of research on the architectural legacy of the occupation era in Poland, having started it as early as the 1980s.

direct contact

How difficult it was until recently to realize the „troublesome legacy” of Nazi architecture can be seen, for example, from the date of the Polish publication of „Obsession." The book, published in Germany 22 years ago, only lived to see a translation in 2021! Later than the two Polish publications just mentioned. So, after reading these compendia, is there any point in reaching for a work older than them? By all means. For Gutschow began his research early enough to have the opportunity to talk to architects and planners who were still alive, to extract priceless (because absent from the archives) drawings and plans from them, and—most interesting in all this—to learn their assessment of their involvement in the "colonization” of the conquered lands of the East.

Thus, he met those who eagerly set off in 1939 for the conquered lands to give them a German expression „for all time.” To—as they repeatedly stressed—put the landscape and cities in order, give them a legible structure and free them from the clutter identified with the Polish and Jewish approach to space. This, Gutschow notes, typical of the first half of the 20th century, obsession with order and combating chaos was to bear fruit in a conquered East treated largely as a tabula rasa, a place where urban planners and architects could strike out and go for broke. Thus, it is full of descriptions in Germans of the time of lands and cities perceived as chaotic, neglected, lacking in logic. This was true not only of poor villages, towns or suburbs and a poorly developed landscape, but also of what constituted Polish pride. As one newcomer wrote:

If a demonstration of Polish thoughtlessness was needed, the best evidence of it would be this Gdynia

without much shame

Were the architects and planners involved in the conquest ashamed after 1945? Basically no. They even happened to talk about the „great tasks” of the war times with a gleam in their eye to Gutschow. And even if they recognized their entanglement with the system, they did, like Wolfgang Droesel, one of the planners responsible for the reconstruction concepts for Polish cities, who in 1988

had a clearly ambivalent explanation at hand . Namely, he maintained that he had never been able to suppress his sense of innocence and at the same time guilt [unshuldig-schuldig]. Hardly (...) planners such as Droesel came to these conclusions with reluctance and resistance.

Many planners therefore made careers after the war. They became involved in the rebuilding of Germany, wrote scientific papers in which they—sometimes—put the same things as in the specialized press of the Nazi era; only that after cutting out the ideological interjections. Gutschow recalls Maks Fischer planning the greenery and gardens of Auschwitz in 1944, and placing these plans in his postwar dissertation—after removing the name of the town from them.

The chapter on Auschwitz/Auschwitz, by the way, is an electrifying passage, although it would seem that we know essentially everything about the place. For we learn about the „normal” backstory of German transformations and intentions. We read how dispassionate and purely technical the circumstances of the camp's construction and operation were, while at the same time how extensive and detailed the plans to rebuild and enlarge the town were as part of its Germanization. We also discover the very specific deliberations of decision-makers of the time regarding the interrelationship of the two spaces.

disgraced houses

"Auschwitz,„ moreover, is already the cover story of "Obsession,” which introduces another, less total aspect of Nazi actions. After all, German architects (as well as Polish designers) had no respect for the forms of „degenerate” architecture of the turn of the 20th century. Wherever they could, therefore, they „cleaned up” entire frontages of eclectic facades of houses and representative buildings. "Disgraced" (from German Entschandenlung) them, therefore, by equalizing the heights and overpainting the details—as in Lodz or Poznan—or created only unrealised final projects, such as the one on the cover—for the frontage of the Oświęcim market.

The conceptual nature of German intentions is, moreover, mentioned in the extensive and valuable introduction by Christhardt Henschel, Aleksandra Paradowska and Annika Wienert. „Paper architecture” published in the newspapers of the time alongside triumphant reports from the front was intended to give the impression of stability and the certainty that there was no turning back from the germanization of the former Polish lands. Settlement in the East was therefore supposed to be secure and forward-looking. All the more so since the bombastic plans on paper were accompanied by progressive realizations by 1942: housing estates, neighborhoods, reconstruction and modernization.

Where to look for them? In addition to the Auschwitz/Auschwitz mentioned above, Gutschow depicts and describes activities in Lodz, Poznan, Warsaw, Krakow, Upper Silesia, Danzig and West Prussia (including the very interesting case of the Ciechanow Reich, which was incorporated into the Reich). It even hooks into Lviv, which—now in Ukraine—also demands a broader description of German actions and intentions in the field of architecture and urban planning. The need for research and publication about what the Nazis were planning in Ukraine and Belarus was, moreover, discussed by the participants of a recent meeting devoted to „Obsession with Order” at Poznan's CK Zamek. So there is a chance for another much-needed book.

Jakub Głaz

"Obsession of Order. German architects planning in occupied Poland 1939-1945," Niels Gutschow, Warsaw University Publishers, 2021

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