Pragmatism and Critical Scrutiny – The Nazi Party Rally Grounds after 1945
In 1945 the Nazi Party Rally Grounds – the National Socialists' most significant propaganda setting from 1933 to 1938 – reverted to the City of Nuremberg, their original owner. The site was an assortment of completed areas for parades and demonstrations (Luitpold Arena, Great Avenue and Zeppelin Field), half-finished structures (Congress Hall, Märzfeld) and construction projects that had barely begun (German Stadium).
This structural legacy was increasingly felt to be a burden, and the way in which it was handled was long dominated by pragmatism, denial and erasure. The grandstands of the Luitpold Arena gave way to the construction of the Meistersingerhalle; the areas of the Märzfeld and the camp for Rally participants were cleared; the new Langwasser district of town was built.
Today, apart from their role as an informational site, the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds reflect the diverse and usually pragmatic handling they have undergone for the past 75 years.
The Documentation Center, a site for critical exploration of the history of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, is the product of a long process. The Americans had already made a purposeful statement against the most recent Nazi past on April 22, 1945, when they blew up the gilt swastika above the center of the Zeppelin Grandstand. In 1962, the German Confederation of Trade Unions welcomed its members at the Congress Hall with the slogan, "Their buildings are dead – rise above their spirit."
A first deeper analysis of the ideological content of Nazi architecture was attempted by the film "Brutality in Stone," shot at the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds in 1961. It spurred new reflection on how to deal with Nazi architecture in Nuremberg.
Picture credit: Schamoni Film & Medien München
With the 50th anniversary of the National Socialists' seizure of power impending in 1983, Nuremberg felt a particular need to address its history under National Socialism, because of its significance as the Nazis' "City of the Party Rallies," the "Nuremberg Laws," and Julius Streicher's antisemitic hate sheet, "Der Stürmer." The imposing structural evidence on the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, protected as a historic monument since 1973, increasingly came under attention. One milestone in the critical assessment of the historic site was the Fascination and Terror exhibition that opened at the Zeppelin Grandstand in 1984. It was the product of an evolving treatment of National Socialism in the Federal Republic, and was one of the first exhibitions produced by any city to reflect on its National Socialist past.
The first exhibition on the history of the Nazi Party Rallies proved to be difficult to fund. So on November 17, 1984, a reduced version of the concept that had been developed by the Pedagogical Institute opened – a "sound and picture show." Under the title Fascination and Terror, audiovisual media showed how the fascinating façade of the National Socialist self-portrait was inseparable from persecution, violence and terror in the Nazi state. Though the form of the presentation of this sound and picture show met with criticism, it was nevertheless also understood as a first important step toward a historically aware treatment of Nuremberg's Nazi-era legacy. Both the press and the public were impressed.
Picture credit: Erich Guttenberger/ Nürnberger Zeitung
Following criticism of the sound and picture show of 1984, the reconceived Fascination and Terror exhibition of June 1985 and beyond took on a highly documentary nature. In sober, reduced form, it used text and picture panels to cover issues in National Socialism, Nuremberg's role, and the history of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds.
The comprehensive accompanying program of topical readings, artistic performances, films, musical theater and concerts set a new focus. Although visiting hours were limited – the Zeppelin Grandstand cannot be heated, and was therefore only usable in the summer months – and in spite of the improvised nature of the exhibition, it remained a magnet for visitors until 2001, attracting up to 100,000 people a year. It blazed a trail for the future opening of the Documentation Center in the Congress Hall on the other side of the Dutzendteich Lake.
The Congress Hall is a prime example of the pragmatic way in which the architectural legacy of National Socialism was treated in Nuremberg. In the 1960s, the ruined building was used briefly as an "exhibition semicircle," even as people debated remodeling it into a soccer stadium or tearing it down.
All remodeling plans failed because of the cost, and the Congress Hall came to be used, quite practically, for storage.
In 1987 an initiative from a business group to convert the Congress Hall into a commercial "experience center" revived debate about how to deal with the Nazi architecture in Nuremberg in a way that showed an awareness of its history. The controversy about commercializing the building became a milestone in the critical argument. An end to the debate in Nuremberg for the time being, and a signal of an evolving culture of remembrance in the Federal Republic, was brought by the 2001 opening of the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds in the northern front wing of the Congress Hall.
Just three years after the Fascination and Terror exhibition opened, the 1988 symposium titled "The Legacy – Dealing with Nazi Architecture" provided further ideas for how to deal with this legacy in the future, and recommended treating the structural remains as "teaching materials."
During the 1995 commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, all political parties in the City Council, as well as citizens' initiatives, churches, religious communities and broad sectors of the city's society, urged developing the Nazi Party Rally Grounds into a museum. In 1996, a first architectural model from the city's Municipal Museums suggested what a landmark could be created by a future Documentation Center at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in the northern front wing of the Congress Hall.
Architecture with a Message – The Documentation Center
In 1998 the City of Nuremberg opened an architectural competition for the future Documentation Center at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds. It set major challenges for the architects: the structure had to work well as a museum fitted into the Congress Hall, but at the same time had to stand in confrontation with the architecture of the National Socialist era and the spirit that gave rise to that architecture.
The design by architect Johannes Hölzinger shows that some form of radical treatment of the Nazi structure was in the air in 1998. The jury praised his submission as an especially effective thematic face-off with the Congress Hall. But ultimately it was found to be too extensive, for it departed from the rules of the competition by involving the entire Congress Hall structure. So the design finished in second place. The winning design was by Graz architect Günther Domenig.
A virtual view of the construction project (2000)Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg Municipal Museums
The design by Austrian architect Günther Domenig (1934-2012) took the first prize in the 1998 architectural competition for the design of the Documentation Center. Domenig felt the "Documentation Center exhibition at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg is a warning memorial to a negative period of modern history."
His design impresses the viewer with its decisive opposition to the Congress Hall's monumental architecture and the National Socialist philosophy that stands behind it. Domenig uses diagonal lines to disrupt the building’s "axiality," which otherwise imposes itself from every angle. His formal vocabulary that evokes lightness, and his use of other materials (glass, aluminum, concrete), opposes the building's granite façade and brick torso. He creates an architectural landmark of the present, visible from afar, as a reply to the National Socialist past.
View from the lobby of the Documentation Center toward 130-meter glass and steel "spear" (2013)Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg Municipal Museums
The interior structures of the Documentation Center are a marked intrusion into the gloomy, rectangular building. All the new structures provide views into the original architecture from the National Socialist era, actually putting it on display. The original structure remains continuously on exhibit, offered up for study.
Domenig's deconstructionist intervention, clearly readable as a counter-position to the National Socialists' claim to domination, is a statement in opposition to the Congress Hall's monumentality, and enables viewers to arrive at their own opinions about the past era's aesthetics. Günther Domenig won numerous awards for his design. It reaches beyond Nuremberg's boundaries to express a new way of dealing with the architectural legacy of the National Socialist regime.
Work on the Documentation Center at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg began on January 28, 2000, not by laying a cornerstone, but by "pulling out the cornerstone" – a granite block weighing tons.
Since 1996, the idea of setting up a permanent information center had met with broad approval across all political divides, and now funding for the project had been assured by the federal government, the Free State of Bavaria, the District of Middle Franconia and the City of Nuremberg. So after not quite two years of construction, the Nuremberg Documentation Center opened to the interested public at a ceremony in November 2001. Today, it has become an integral part of the German and international culture of remembrance.
Günther Domenig's design posed some thoroughly unusual tasks for the architects and construction team on the Documentation Center project at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds. Not only were the original construction plans unreliable, so that the structure had to be completely resurveyed – but the required cuts and openings, especially for the 130-meter "spear" that thrust through the building, also demanded the highest precision.
Wire saws equipped with diamond wires cut through the meter-thick solid-brick walls. To bring light into the dark entry lobby and make room for the movie theater, part of the roof was opened up and new concrete beams were installed to create the theater's floating look.
The permanent exhibition at the Documentation Center: Room on the history of the Weimar Republic (2013)Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg Municipal Museums
"Fascination and Terror" – The Permanent Exhibition
The design concept for the permanent exhibition, "Fascination and Terror," which opened in 2001, was profoundly influenced not only by the demands of its content, but by the architectural language of Günther Domenig and of the historic site itself: the Congress Hall, with its unplastered red brick walls, was itself the most important exhibit. It is present in every room, thus highlighting the banality of this monumental style of construction.
The text and photo panels, made of backlit glass rising the full height of the room, are offset diagonally from the wall, distancing themselves from the historic site. Diagonal elements pick up on Domenig's intention to disrupt the Congress Hall's axial rigidity.
The permanent exhibition at the Documentation Center: The "Nazi Party Rallies" room (2013)Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg Municipal Museums
Between 2001 and 2020, the permanent Fascination and Terror exhibition provides information about the background, context and consequences of the National Socialists' tyranny. The chronologically organized exhibition areas center on topics that relate directly to Nuremberg: the history of the Nazi Party Rallies, the structures on the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, the "Nuremberg Laws" of 1935, and the difficulties of dealing with the architectural legacy of National Socialism after 1945.
The overall concept, however, is broader: the Documentation Center sees itself as a center for critical examination of the philosophy of the National Socialist system of rule. Special exhibitions and accompanying events address more specialized topics and complement the permanent exhibition.
A Place of Many Stories – Special Exhibitions at the Documentation Center
The first special exhibition by the Documentation Center at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds centered on what at first seemed a thoroughly nondescript box. It was discovered by accident in sorting through a legacy; its contents were moving. Just a few pieces of a uniform, a few other objects and a notebook told of the brief life of a Hitler Youth named Paul Bayer.
Detailed to Nuremberg as an anti-aircraft auxiliary, Paul died in 1943 at the age of 17. His story, told in the Seduced, Abused and Sacrificed – The Short Life of Nuremberg Hitler Youth Paul B. exhibition, stands as an example for an entire generation of children and young people whom the National Socialists ruthlessly attempted to coopt and then sacrificed to its purposes in the war. A traveling form of the exhibition centering on Paul Bayer has continued to circulate in France and the United States for years.
Heaps of hundreds of photographs in the Documentation Center's Large Exhibition Hall told the tale in 2008 of the National Socialist era in Franconia.
The photos were visual documentation of how extensively Nazi thinking had spread and penetrated through the region: marches, Hitler Youth excursions, book burnings, boycotts and antisemitic ostracism, pogroms, deportations, disappearances and extermination of people from hospitals and nursing homes, and the destruction caused by the war – all of these were captured in pictures everywhere.
The dense heritage of photos is almost suffocating. Burden of Images. Franconia during National Socialism is a title that reflects how the present – which knows the consequences of Nazi domination – responds to that past.
The exhibition named The Track. The Logistics of Racial Mania was created in 2010 as a cooperative effort among the Deutsche Bahn railway and the Auschwitz, Bełżek, Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibór and Treblinka memorials. It illuminated not only the responsibility of what was then the Reichsbahn railway for deporting millions of people, but also, with live connections, joined the Auschwitz memorial, along with other extermination sites in Poland that are often less well established in collective memory, to the place where the politics of racial mania and genocide first blazed a trail with the "Nuremberg Laws."
The terminal point of the exhibition was an installation that brought the network of terror and extermination home in vivid visual terms. It seemed as though all tracks led to the extermination camps in Poland. 60,000 small personalized cards stood for the 6 million victims of the Holocaust. They were embedded in the stylized rail tracks of Auschwitz, confronting the visitor with a thing of simply unbelievable enormity, and restoring identity to a small fraction of the victims.
The Robbed of Rights. Robbed of Dignity. Robbed. "Aryanization" in Nuremberg and Fürth exhibition of 2012 showed how in Nuremberg, too, the theft of all Jewish property, blessed and encouraged by the state, and the restriction of options for making a living, led to the complete economic exclusion of the Jews. People had almost no leeway for action, they were gradually deprived of any basis for a living, and emigration became impossible for many.
In Nuremberg, local party officials, with the collaboration of state and municipal authorities, were especially shameless in robbing Jewish property to enrich themselves. The exhibition, designed as a labyrinth, highlighted Jewish people's inability to get any overall picture of their situation, and the increasing hopelessness of their position. The exhibition ended with a narrow passageway lined with more than 2000 regulations and laws signifying the Jews' increasing loss of rights under the criminal Nazi state.
Albert Speer, the Nazi-era architect responsible for major projects like the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg and the redesign of Berlin, was appointed Minister of Armaments in 1942 and also organized the German wartime economy, drawing on millions of foreign laborers, forced laborers, and concentration camp inmates.
Speer was sentenced by the Allies to twenty years' imprisonment at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. After he left the war criminals' prison at Spandau in Berlin in 1966 – to extensive media coverage – he was able to downplay his responsibility for the National Socialists' crimes, and to create a "second career" for himself as a purportedly purified witness to the era.
The Albert Speer in the Federal Republic. Dealing with the German Past exhibition of 2018 demystified the "Speer Myth" and asked why his tales had been accepted so long, so willingly, and so uncritically by contemporary German society, historians and publicists.
The Nazi Party Rally for 1939 was suddenly canceled just one week before it was scheduled to begin. On September 1, the German attack on Poland launched World War II. The Wehrmacht quickly repurposed the infrastructure of the participants' camp at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds to build a prisoner of war camp in mid-September.
By 1945 a whole complex of various forced-labor and other concentration camps had arisen. Some 150,000 prisoners of war, along with civilian forced laborers – both men and women – were confined there. Most were dispatched from here to work at sites all over Northern Bavaria.
The living and working conditions caused several thousand deaths. More than 2,000 Jews from Northern Bavaria were deported to extermination camps in Poland from the Märzfeld rail station on the Nazi Party Rally Grounds. The Nazi Party Rally Grounds in World War II, with the latest research results, was devoted in 2019 to this second history of the site.
Meant for Visitors – The Rally Grounds as a Learning Journey
Encouraging tolerance and civil courage is the objective that guides the educational work of the Documentation Center and its cooperating partners. Historical knowledge is used as a platform for posing questions to the present. Here the historic location, unpacking its significance, and the contrast between the Documentation Center and Nazi architecture all play important roles.
A wide variety of teaching formats tailored to different target audiences make it possible for participants to address the history of National Socialism and the Nazi Party Rallies independently and interactively. They make room for questions and frank discussion.
Participants attend the "Zeppelin Grandstand and Zeppelin Field Information Day" (2019)Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg Municipal Museums
In recent years, the question of the future of the Zeppelin area has been dominated by a controversy about the site's dilapidation and repair that has ranged far beyond the City of Nuremberg. In the guidelines for dealing with National Socialist architecture that were developed in 2004, the city clearly advocated preserving the installations.
The Documentation Center and the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Nuremberg regularly invite the public to informational days, including free tours, to explain the planned measures. The Zeppelin area, a central location for the Nazi state's staging of its propaganda events from 1933 to 1938, is an important place for learning and experience – especially for young people who have no personal connection with the National Socialist era.
A view of part of the prisoner's dock at the exhibition in the Memorium Nuremberg Trials (2019)Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg Municipal Museums
A Landmark of International Law – The Memorium Nuremberg Trials
The Memorium Nuremberg Trials opened to visitors in November 2010. It continues the story from the Documentation Center at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds beyond the era of World War II.
Between 1945 and 1949, numerous leading representatives of the National Socialist state had to answer to an international and American court in Room 600 of the Nuremberg Courthouse for their tyranny, war crimes and violations of human rights. The exhibition at the Memorium, at the original site, provides information about the "Major War Criminals' Trial" and the twelve subsequent trials.
The proceedings were a milestone in the evolution of international law, and laid the foundations for today’s International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The interim exhibition offers a compact summary of the history of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds (2020)Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg Municipal Museums
A Look at the Future – The Documentation Center Renovates
After nearly twenty years of successful operation, today the Documentation Center at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds has new challenges ahead. The institution's great popularity with visitors – more than 300,000 a year – has made it clear that a spatial and conceptual expansion is needed. The contents of the permanent exhibition will also be reconceived during the remodel, and adapted to the facility's growing mission and the latest technical standards for educational museum institutions. The Documentation Center's permanent exhibition have been closed since January 2021.
During the current remodeling, which is expected to continue to late 2023, the interim exhibition "Nuremberg – Site of the Nazi Party Rallies" welcomes visitors in a separate hall. This exhibition expands on the previous view of the National Socialists' Party Rallies, and offers new focal points.
A virtual tour of the permanent exhibition "Fascination and Terror" on YouTube
Director: Florian Dierl M.A.
Project management: Dr. Martina Christmeier
Text and choice of images: Nina Lutz
Implementation: Brigitte List