Are you ready for a "power vacation"?
The "Sea Resort of the 20,000":
Model of the Prora holiday complex with Great Hall at the top
THE GERMANS HAVE AN expression for it: “ripe for the island.” And around this time last year, stressed from weeks of exhausting, non-stop freelance work, I couldn’t wait to hop a train back to my favorite Baltic island, Rügen, for a couple of days of relaxation. This crab-shaped chunk of western Pomerania is famous not only for its pristine beaches and celebrated chalk cliffs, but also for some of Germany’s most memorable cultural attractions. But this time I was determined to stay far away from what is certaily its biggest, if hardly its most beautiful, highlight: the Nazi-era “Seaside Resort of the 20,000” in Prora. Because if I visited it, I knew I would think of nothing else for the remainder of my visit.
Back when I used to teach the history of the Third Reich to students at the summer school of a large American university, I always lingered a few minutes when we got to the Prora story. I suggested to my twenty-something, media-manipulated audience that if they wanted to experience the inner spirit of the Nazi regime, they shouldn’t only visit Dachau, Auschwitz, or some other scene of horror on their grand tour of Europe. (I figure going to those places for enlightenment is like traveling to Wounded Knee or Abu Ghraib prison in an effort to understand the United States. Sure, you’ll gain some valuable insights all right, but you'll never understand what made the society seem like a good idea in the first place.) Yes, the secret death camps are how the regime ended up, all right, that is to say with the deliberate and negligent killing of more than ten million Europeans in its custody, and with a world war that ended up killing tens of millions more. But years before anyone in the country had heard the name "Treblinka," Nazism had also been about the quest to create what millions of people in that generation regarded as a better world. Better, at least, than what they had grown up to expect. And when you're making an omlet, you're entitled to break some eggs, aren't you? Particularly when there's no one around to tell you when to stop breaking them. This was the lure of the National Socialist vision, a utopian fantasy that was both both exhilarating and chilling at the same time. You can see the remains of this vision in Prora - the ecstatic, smiling public face of Nazism.
Strength Through Joy
The Nazi regime operated according to an ingenious carrot-and-stick principle: take away what the people already have and at the same time give them something else, either something real or a dream of what could be. Mostly, it was the latter.
On May 1, 1933, the new government celebrated its brand-new official Labor Day holiday with joyful events across Germany, most notably with a giant party on the grounds of Tempelhof airport in Berlin. The next day, it abruptly banned the trade unions, as police and Gestapo units raided union offices and confiscated their property. So what now? Almost as an afterthought, Hitler confidante Robert Ley founded the so-called German Labor Front on May 10. This new mass organization was to replace the largely socialist and communist-dominated trade unions and “coordinate” the notoriously unruly German workers in the spirit of Nazism. In typically arbitrary fashion, Ley subsequently created a new leisure organization, based on the Italian fascist “Dopolavoro” movement, which he dubbed “Kraft durch Freude,” or “Strength Through Joy,” which he financed with confiscated union funds.
German Labor Front leader Robert Ley (right)
KdF was a classic carrot, and it proved to be a sweet one for German workers, who for years had been content just to have work, forget about the leisure. Among other things, KdF-inspired policies doubled vacation time, granting even common laborers up to twelve or fifteen days off a year. It coordinated holiday and recreational activities for millions of working men, women, and their children, sponsoring concerts, lectures, hostels, hikes, weekend getaways, and eventually also cruises on its own specially-built single-class cruise ships, such as the Robert Ley and the Wilhelm Gustloff.
A new kind of low-cost automobile, originally called the KdF-Wagen, designed by Adolf Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche and intended for use on a new nationwide network of freeways, promised personal mobility on a previously inconceivable scale. It was soon rolling off the assembly lines in a brand new factory town called “KdF City” - today’s Wolfsburg, home of the Volkswagen Corporation.
KdF and the KdF-Wagen marked the birth of a new European
lifestyle that only came into its own after 1945
KdF became the clearest and certainly most popular expression of the regime’s ideology of Volksgemeinschaft or “national community.” According to this notion, which first took shape just prior to and during the First World War, all citizens would be "equal" based on their ethnic background and the work they dedicated to the common cause. The new organization filled this unrealistic vision with life. KdF operatives naturally also suppressed dissent and spied on vacationers, but for most Germans in those austere days, a little surveillance was easy enough to stomach. In any case, as people used to say back then, if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
In 1938 alone, some 54 million Germans took part in KdF-sponsored activities, and in 1939 – the last year before the organization was retooled for the war effort – it booked 43 million excursions, most of them day-trips. In many ways, KdF marked the birth of modern mass tourism and transformed workers' expectations forever.
The KdF cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff, pride of the fleet.
Filled with German refugees, it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine
in the icy Baltic on January 30, 1945, killing over 9,000 civilians.
It was the single greatest maritime disaster in history.
Even today, many elderly Germans look back fondly on KdF – they view it as one of those things that “weren’t all bad” in the Hitler years. For millions of otherwise skeptical citizens, it represented the “social” aspect of National Socialism. But the organization faced many barriers, particularly the competition and downright hatred from other leaders and the constant jockeying for scarce funds and attention from Hitler that were the hallmark of the chaotic and grossly mismanaged Nazi regime. Ley was thus constantly on the defensive, arguing that KdF was not a handout but was instead essential to productivity, since it offered “relaxation for the gathering of more strength for more work” and thus made a vital contribution to the nation's battle readiness.
The Colossus of Prora
So how could KdF maximize its impact and get more mojo for the mark? In 1936, Ley announced the construction of a vast new seaside vacation complex on the Baltic island of Rügen. It was to be the first of five or possibly even ten such facilities. (After the invasion of the Soviet Union, KdF planners eyed future projects on the Black Sea coast and elsewhere in the conquered territories.) The winning design by architect Erich Putlitz won a Grand Prix at the Paris Exhibition of 1937. The resort, to be located along a curved stretch of beach on Prora Bay, was to be 4.5 kilometers (nearly 3 miles) long and contain 10,000 rooms, accommodating up to 20,000 KdF holiday-makers at once on heavily subsidized one-week vacations. Aside from the vast six-story residence hall, the complex was to include cafés and restaurants, shops, fitness studios, swimming pools, cinemas, a stone pier for the docking of cruise ships, a power generating plant, a radio station, and a giant assembly hall with 20,000 seats. Its enormous reception lobbies were designed to process thousands of arriving and departing vacationers each day. Additional buildings would house the hotel’s staff and security personnel, amounting to an additional 2,000 persons. Accommodations would be basic, utterly uniform, and easy to monitor.
Above all, the “Seaside Resort of the 20,000,” as the Prora “Colossus” was called, was designed to maximize resources. Thus Ley asked his scientific staff to develop a “power vacation” or “intensive vacation,” which, by precisely adjusting each vacationer’s sleep, diet, entertainment, and beach activities would essentially pack a three to four week holiday into just seven days. By sending up to half a million workers to Prora during an eight-month season every year, Ley hoped to extend the typical worker's limit of peak performance from age forty (as it was calculated in the 1930s) to age seventy and beyond.
It wasn't exactly Club Med, but the facility was revolutionary
for its time, and the guests all shared the same sea view:
A hotel room at the Prora resort
Hitler’s other top leaders, particularly the middle class ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, despised Prora, both for the appalling vision of “mass society” it conjured up and for the obscene waste of resources it represented. After all, 13,000 trees had to be cut and their stumps blasted out of the earth. A vast new fresh water system had to be created, and the state had no choice but to build a causeway (today’s Rügendamm) and a new railway link to the mainland.
Ley, allegedly drunk most of the time and constantly harried by his rivals, initially limited the project’s budget to 50 million reichsmarks. According to recently discovered documents, however, it quickly mushroomed to an inconceivable 237.5 million reichsmarks, which corresponds to around 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in today’s money. This, other leaders complained, was a breathtakingly irresponsible sum to be demanding in an era of forced austerity.
The Prora complex (with the Great Hall at the center):
The purest expression of the Volksgemeinschaft ideal,
the resort was naturally reserved for "Aryans" only
A graveyard of dreams – and nightmares
Despite the cost overruns, Ley had his way. The complex (minus the swimming pools and the vast assembly hall) was completed more or less on time in 1939. Alas, no one ever spent a night there, at least not voluntarily. All construction stopped upon the outbreak of war in September of that year. The construction workers were either drafted or else transferred across the water to construct the giant Peenemünde weapons research facility on the nearby island of Usedom.
Like virtually every structure in Nazi Germany, the resort was designed for dual civilian-military use - Hitler had insisted on this before approving the project. The Wehrmacht used the Colossus as a hospital and military training school during the war, and bombed out residents of Hamburg were evacuated there in 1943. After the war, the Red Army used it as a prison and as a refuge for displaced persons from Germany’s lost eastern provinces. They dynamited some of the northern sectors of the complex and set up a tank barracks in others. They ultimately declared the site useless, however, since its island location, and the narrow causeway that connected it to the mainland, left it vulnerable to NATO attacks.
The Prora complex today
East Germany’s National People’s Army then inherited the site. They used it as an army base, a training camp, and a children’s holiday facility. After reunification, the Bundeswehr took it over for a couple of years before abandoning it in 1992. Since then, the previously off-limits site has been home to a museum, an art gallery, a popular local disco in one of the Nazi-era cafés, a variety of businesses, and a youth hostel. A new youth hostel will accommodate 406 young people in ninety-six rooms – a mere echo of the complex’s original vision.
Despite this active use, the decaying structure is almost entirely empty, awaiting a new concept that has remained elusive so far. It is simply too dreary for modern-day tourists, and besides, Germany's largest island is hardly lacking for hotels. In the meantime, a thick forest has grown up between the endless beach and the building’s monotonous façade, lending the area a mysterious Sleeping Beauty atmosphere.
Prora and the perils of a “no-brakes society”
The Colossus of Prora, like so many Nazi undertakings, was an example of a twisted idealism run wild. After many years of living in Germany, and also studying and teaching its history, I’ve realized that one of the best ways to understand the National Socialist phenomenon is not to regard it as the work of "evil men" (which it may well have been, although this term explains nothing), but rather as a hyper-modern society without any political and economic - let alone moral - brakes.
Hitler always “thought big,” and he invited his followers to do so as well, as long as they pursued projects that were even remotely consistent with his own vision of a brave new totalitarian world. In fact, that is why they loved him - in a few short years, he transformed a society where seemingly nothing was possible into one where everything was not only possible, but also inevitable as long as you truly believed in it. With no checks and balances on his underlings’ doings, aside from the laws of physics and pure Soviet and Anglo-American military might, the most preposterous scheme could be pushed to its absolute logical conclusion until it was crushed by a greater outside force. Thus, once “Jewish policy” was placed into the hands of a conniving sociopath like Reinhard Heydrich and an army of ambitious bureaucrats, a mean-spirited intention to “remove the Jews from public life” could only lead to mass extermination in specially designed killing centers. And so also Robert Ley’s not entirely cynical vision of a content albeit “coordinated” working class led to the creation of the Colossus of Prora, the mother of all holiday horrors and a hint of what was still to come.
Would a “no-brakes society” with a benevolent leader at the top - one who would only "bend the rules" for "the greater good" - yield better political solutions to the problems that face us today? Perhaps it would. But I don’t want to try it. After visiting Prora a few times too often, checks and balances sound like a pretty good idea to me.
A utopia cast in stone
Reposted from Open Salon, May 13, 2011