Visiting the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg

Ever since reading Sharon MacDonald’s work on the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg I have wanted to visit the site myself [1]. The grounds are of course the ultimate example of, as MacDonald calls it, ‘difficult heritage’. In her 2009 book of the same title, MacDonald gives a very interesting account of the City of Nuremberg’s approach to the site’s management over the years. I was particularly interested in MacDonald’s visitor research there and her observations of guided tours. It was Sharon MacDonald who coined the term ‘preferred reading’ which had a lasting impact on my own thinking and work.

Despite having read all this reseach about the site, I still wasn’t quite prepared for experiencing it when I went there last month. A lot has been written about the buildings’ monumentality, but to physically be there gives that word a different meaning. I first saw the façade of the Kongresshalle (congress hall) across the waters of the Dutzendteich (a lake), and it still seemed enormous. It also looked seductively handsome from this angle.

This caught me by surprise: I know that the stone for the building was quaried by people imprisoned in concentration camps, and MacDonald makes many comments about tour guides trying to dissuade visitors from appreciating the buildings’ aesthetic. Yet here I was, not quite admiring the Kongresshalle, but certainly being aware that its architectural language – albeit on a ludicrously enlarged scale – is not at all unlike that of other buildings I enjoy, starting with Rome’s Colosseum.

This prompted an intriguing internal conflict. At which point should the knowledge of the context of a building’s genesis – and its ideological underpinnings – take precedence over everything else, and indeed itself become its meaning? In allowing that conflict to play out I realised that it was in fact through that flicker of appreciation that a sensation of being unsettled emerged within me. As I continued along the lakeside path with the Kongresshalle persistently within my view, I had a deeper confrontation with the entirety of the horror for which that building stands than any words could have initiated.

In contrast, standing within the circular inner yard of the Kongresshalle had a different effect. The building is of course unfinished, it never had a roof and has been pretty much left to decay as a ruin. Spaces seem to be let out for storage and workshops, and there is a general atmosphere of neglect. I know that this ‘profanation’ was and apparently still is one conscious approach to dealing with the building. I purposely write ‘dealing with the building’ because it really did nothing in my eyes for dealing with its history. On the contrary, this backyard shabbiness made it so profane, so ordinary and ugly that I just wanted it gone. That may well have been the sentiment that prompted this approach in the first place, but personally, I felt quite strongly that this was a cheap way of dodging responsibility, including the responsibility to confront this history and our own feelings about it.

I did then wonder what the effect might have been if the Kongresshalle had actually been completed according to Albert Speer’s original plans. What if they had then decided to actually put the building to use, for example as a cultural venue. Would that have amplified the unsettlement that I had felt looking at the façade from far away? Could that have deepened my confrontation with the past? And would the enjoyment of liberal, democratic, diverse art have been able to quash the horrendous ideology of those who had conceived of this building until the Kongresshalle actually became a symbol of the ultimate power of good over evil? [2] I don’t know.

What I realised yet again visiting the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg was just how powerful ‘the place where history happened’ is, even if it is such terrible history as happened here. There truly is something about bodily experiencing a place and its memory that is more transformative than any documentary can ever be. No matter how many images we may see of that man standing on the Zeppelin Tribüne (grandstand), preaching his hateful ideology to the masses, nothing will impact you quite like standing by that very same platform yourself. I couldn’t and wouldn’t step onto it.

There are and always will be many differing opinions on how the buildings the Nazis left behind should be dealt with. I’m sure there is not one right approach. It also changes as time passes and new generations are born. Personally, I am glad that there are at least those remains left that are there today. They can and should unsettle us.  

Notes

[1] MacDonald, S., 2009. Difficult Heritage.  Negotiating the Nazi Past in Nuremberg and beyond. London and New York: Routledge

[2] No point telling me that this would have cost a ton of money and that there might have been a danger of some people turning it into a site of Nazi pilgrimage. I know that.

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2 thoughts on “Visiting the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg

  1. I wonder, Nicole, if the reason you feel resistance to appreciating the aesthetic of the building is the fear that its admission (to yourself or to others) that in some odd way you show support for the Nazis. Is that a realistic position, even at a subsconscious level? Are you at moral risk for appreciating something created by the Nazis? I am not sure that is a true moral risk, that that may be in fact a false choice. I do not see impossibility in both holding deep disdain for Nazi history as well as appreciating its architecture. Especially if after all it was built by Jews.

    1. Hi Jon, that position – to appreciate the architecture means to endorse the Nazis – is certainly behind what MacDonald observed in the tour guides’ approach and in what she then called the ‘preferred reading’ (i.e. we must not appreciate the architecture because it means we support Nazi ideology). In other words, she felt she was observing a moral attitude that expected visitors to share in it or be judged as Nazi sympathizers. She also notes somewhere else that the German visitors she spoke to appeared to distrust themselves, that they might indeed have a subconscious appreciation not just of the architecture but of the ideology behind it. I’ve found something similar in my own research in Germany at a site that has nothing to do with the Nazis. Except there I got the impression that it was less about them distrusting themselves but rather being afraid that others would accuse them of Nazi sympathies. Either way, it undoubtedly goes back to Germany’s way of dealing with its Nazi history. And although after nearly twenty years away from Germany, I agree with your assessment that one can abhor the history and still appreciate the architecture, at the end of the day I was socialised as a German and while I know that I hold no sympathies for the Nazis that equivalence – to appreciate anything from that time might mean to share their values – is still deeply ingrained in me also. And it makes me uncomfortable.

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