The Nazi Party Rallies, held annually from 1933 to 1938 at a specially designed site in Nuremberg, were carefully planned propaganda events. Marching contingents, parades, memorial events for the dead, and displays by the armed forces were intended to demonstrate strength and communal spirit. These were not democratic party gatherings that would have made any room for working on issues, holding debates, or exchanging ideas.
The Nazi Party Rallies pursued two primary propaganda objectives. First, they presented the orderly, ideologically aligned "community of the People." At the same time, they staged Adolf Hitler as the "Führer," the leader to whom this "community" unanimously and obediently submitted. The National Socialists applied discoveries from studies of mass psychology in designing the architecture and the events themselves.
A Recreation Zone Destroyed – Building the Nazi Party Rally Grounds
According to Albert Speer's designs, an area measuring 11 square kilometers would be built up with imposing, monumental structures, all of them designed for mass events. Each area of the grounds would be used by a different organization on a different day. But most of the structures were never finished, because construction was suspended when war was declared in 1939. The workers were needed more urgently at the front and in the armaments industry.
Before the National Socialists began their construction work, the grounds around the Dutzendteich Lake were a popular recreational area. People could linger at restaurants, swim in the lake, visit the zoo, and from 1928 onward, attend events at the stadium and other sports facilities on the other side of the lake. Following the Bavarian State Exhibition of 1906, the remaining structures and areas became a site for a wide variety of political demonstrations and festivals.
From 1933 onward, the National Socialists' construction work increasingly destroyed the idyllic atmosphere around the Dutzendteich Lake. A beacon tower was blown up, part of the lake was filled in and graded, and the zoo was torn down. Besides the construction on the grounds themselves, there was also heavy investment in the city's infrastructure. Up to a million attendees at each year's Party Rally also benefited the food service industry, hotels, and retailers.
A Propaganda Spectacle – The Nazi Party Rallies
There were many reasons why the National Socialists chose Nuremberg as the site for their annual rallies from 1933 onward. The "German Day" of 1923 and the Party Rallies of 1927 and 1929 had already given the National Socialist movement a certain tradition of events in the city. Support also came from a broad base of party members in the region. Organizationally, the city's central location, its good rail connections, and a largely flat, open terrain added to the site's appeal.
Picture credit: Stadtarchiv Nürnberg
Photographers like Heinrich Hoffmann and the film maker Leni Riefenstahl, who shot the "Triumph of the Will" propaganda film in Nuremberg in 1934, put themselves at the service of the Nazi regime. They staged pictures so as to perfectly achieve the regime's propaganda objectives. Even today, these photographs of the events shape the way we see these rallies. They are portrayals of an ideal rally, imbued with nothing but enthusiasm, discipline and perfect execution. But the reality was rather different.
Children were supposed to be raised in the service of Nazi ideology from a very young age. In Hitler Youth, they learned the importance of camaraderie, duty and physical fitness – as they also demonstrated at the "Hitler Youth Day" in Nuremberg. They held marches, swore loyalty oaths, sang songs and enthusiastically cheered Hitler's speech.
In addition to the panoply of uniforms, marching in step and orderly mass gatherings, the war games of the party's paramilitary force, the Sturmabteilung(SA), made the Nazi Party Rallies into a show of power. Demonstrations of running hurdles with a weapon in hand, swimming in uniform, and throwing hand grenades were intended to show off the Reich's military strength. The propaganda pictures almost never show that the Rally Grounds were actually nothing but one big construction site the whole time.
Something that never shows up in the official pictures of the Nazi Party Rallies is the trash and lack of discipline. That was why private photography was discouraged, especially during the formal marches. Yet trash-strewn accommodations, drunken Party leaders, and unabashed public urination at the edges of the event areas are recorded in many police records and internal documents. But as a rule, published reports and pictures conveyed only positive impressions.
Anyone who addressed abuses in public, expressed criticism or spread rumors about the Nazi Party Rallies could expect severe punishment. Calling the rallies a waste of money or a "declaration of war" could put a person in prison for months. So it was better to write from abroad when mocking the alleged sexual excesses of the SA men at the rallies.
Forced Labor, Imprisonment and Mass Murder
The Nazi Party Rally Grounds, with their structures and events, impressively displayed the Reich's aspirations to power. The plans assumed that the costs would ultimately be paid by the peoples to be subjugated by war in the east. Even before the war, the paramilitary Schutzstaffel security staff (SS) set up concentration camps next to quarries, where inmates soon had to quarry construction materials under inhuman conditions. Deliveries of materials for the Rally Grounds were documented from Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Maut¬hausen and Natzweiler-Struthof – but the stone never found its way into any construction in Nuremberg.
Picture credit: NIOD Instituut voor Oorlogs-, Holocaust-en Genocidestudies, Bildnummer 67104
As of 1937, a special rail station was set up between Märzfeld and the rally camp to handle the many thousands of Party Rally participants. During the war this station became the point of departure for the two largest deportations of Jews from Northern Bavaria. In 1941 and 1942, more than 2,000 people were sent from here to their deaths. Few escaped their fate.
Picture credit: Stadtarchiv Nürnberg
More than 150,000 prisoners of war, civilians and forced laborers were confined at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds during World War II. The infrastructure already in place was ready-made for the purpose. From here, prisoners of war were dispatched to various work crews (often agricultural) throughout Northern Bavaria. Later tens of thousands of civilian forced laborers were also housed at the Langwasser camp, most of them compelled to work at armaments factories in Nuremberg. The Americans dismantled the camp in 1945. More than 5,000 people would lose their lives here before the war ended.
Choose to Forget, or Find a Use? – The Grounds' Changeable Career after 1945
From 1945 to 1949, the U.S. Army interned German prisoners of war at the former camp, while the American Military Government housed homeless foreigners and refugees there. These came first of all from Latvia and Estonia, so that the facility soon came to be called the "Valka Camp," after the city of Valka on the Latvian-Estonian border. Under the administration of the German refugee authorities, additional refugees from Eastern Europe began arriving in 1949. Construction on the Langwasser district of town began here in the late 1950s.
Picture credit: Geschichte Für Alle e.V. – Institut für Regionalgeschichte
For decades, the City of Nuremberg took a rather pragmatic approach in dealing with the National Socialists' legacy there. In the late 1950s, for example, a sober cost-benefit analysis considered how the Congress Hall might best be finished, in view of the 82 million Reich marks that had already been spent on the project "until now" (up to 1945). Other ideas advanced up until the 1980s included installing mass housing, completing the interior courtyard as a soccer/football stadium, or converting the gigantic torso into a shopping and leisure center. The location's history was shunted aside, suppressed and forgotten. Even today, the city uses part of the uncompleted semicircular building for storage. Another part houses the Documentation Center at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds.
It was a very deliberately planned gesture when the U.S. Army held a victory parade on the Zeppelin Field on April 22, 1945, and then blew up the gilt swastika above the center of the main grandstand. The takeover was also reflected in the big blue "Soldiers' Field" sign that could soon be read left and right of the podium from which Hitler had once delivered his speeches. Annual military parades and displays of armaments by the Americans continued to recall their victory over National Socialist Germany into the 1960s.
In addition to the American Army and the German Trade Union Confederation, religious groups also attempted to convert the site to constructive use. At their International Conventions at the Zeppelin Field in 1953 and 1955, Jehovah's Witnesses proclaimed the victory of faith over unbelief. Evangelical preacher Billy Graham also used the field for a mass evangelization in 1955.
Finding a practical use for the Zeppelin Field provoked little controversy for twenty years, but blowing up the colonnades on the Zeppelin Grandstand in 1967 sparked vehement debate. The official reason for removing the colonnades was that they had fallen into disrepair. But some members of the public viewed it as an attempt to sweep a painful piece of history under the carpet. Opposition came from very diverse directions. The Nuremberg Motor Sports Club was worried about its seats in the grandstand; the National Democratic Party of Germany, which had members in the City Council at the time, wanted the site preserved as testimony to what it considered a "great era."
Picture credit: Stadtarchiv Nürnberg
It was only motorcycles at first, but soon race cars were added. In any case, the Norisring race around the Zeppelin Grandstand has been held every year since 1947. Although certain permanent obstacles for the German Touring Car Masters' race now interfere with the historic sightlines, this first major event gets credit for the fact that the Zeppelin Field is no longer associated only with National Socialist history. It is a popular meeting place for sports enthusiasts, who come to jog, inline skate, play soccer or learn to ride a bike.
Picture credit: Stadt Nürnberg
A Critical Awareness – The Grounds as a Historic Site
On July 1, 1978, Bob Dylan contributed to a deliberate appropriation of the space for a completely different attitude. His first concert in Germany changed perceptions of the site, and ultimately paved the way for a number of other artists. Since that time, a positive, boisterous mood has less and less come to be seen as conflicting with a conscious effort to deal analytically with history. The tradition of rock and pop concerts continues down to today, with the "Rock in the Park" festival.
Picture credit: Stadtarchiv Nürnberg
The Fascination and Terror exhibition that opened at the Zeppelin Grandstand in 1985 was a milestone in the critical confrontation with the Nazi Party Rally Grounds as a historic location. Nevertheless, the first efforts to address the site's history left a somewhat under-prepared impression. The exhibit's hours were far too short, and the only source of information outside was a sausage vendor. Even though the exhibition was intended only to be provisional, it was steadily expanded and revised over the subsequent years. It continued to interest visitors from all over the world until 2001.
In 2001, the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds opened in the Congress Hall, now protected as a historic monument. Architect Günther Domenig's modern structure offered a deliberate architectural challenge to the National Socialists' monumental designs. The Documentation Center has now become an indispensable part of the itinerary for most visitors to Nuremberg. Tourists from other countries are as frequent visitors as classroom groups. The attendance of 100,000 visitors a year that had originally been expected was exceeded long ago, with annual figures now reaching more than 300,000. For that reason, the building has been undergoing renovation since January 2021. The former permanent exhibition is closed. An interim exhibition on the history of the Nazi Party Rallies is currently open in a separate hall. The Documentation Center is scheduled to reopen with a new permanent exhibition in late 2023.
Repossessed by Democracy – A Place for Leisure and Recreation
As they already were in the 1930s and even before, the Nazi Party Rally Grounds are again a heavily frequented destination for excursions – and a popular photo opportunity. Besides the desire to document one's own presence at the site, there is often an intent to use the Nazi structures as an extraordinary setting, whether for fashion or wedding photos, or for video clips. Another aspect of dealing with this area, besides understanding its history, is taking back possession of the site for a democratic society. Many Nuremberg residents have come to view the Rally Grounds merely as an important recreational area. Leisure use has helped demystify the site and repossess it in a democratic spirit.
Director: Florian Dierl M.A.
Project management: Dr. Martina Christmeier
Text and choice of images: Dagmar Seck
Implementation: Brigitte List
More about the history of the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds can be found in this book
Alexander Schmidt: Das Reichsparteitagsgelände in Nürnberg
5. vollständig überarbeitete Auflage
Sandberg Verlag, Nürnberg 2017