“Learning from the Third Reich ?” – On the State of Current Research on the History of Architecture in Germany

Pathmini Ukwattage

It ought to be presumed that a high level of critical awareness in dealing with the National Socialist past has already existed for a long time in Germany. A recent visit to a conference raised my doubts about this.[1] The following considerations elaborate the problem in more detail and disapprove of the assumption that the growing distance in time to the Nazi past releases one from taking a critical view.
  In terms of architecture history, the question as to the relationship between aesthetic modernity and totalitarian political regimes points to Guiseppe Terragni (Casa del Fascio, Como) and leads to the insight that moral-ethical, liberal values and modernity do not genuinely go hand in hand. A broad examination of the programmatic strategies and inconsistencies that formed the ideological superstructure of National Socialism will show that within the Nazi ideology fascism, anti-Semitism, eugenics, and raciology could be married to a “green” environmental program that with catchphrases such as “biologically sustainable agriculture,” “vegetarianism,” or “animal and environmental protection” reminds one all too clearly of current debates.
  The environmental and agricultural policies during the Third Reich ensued from the ecological visions of the Minister of Agriculture and Reichsbauernführer [Peasent Leader] (1933-42), Richard Walther Darré, whose radically racist theory of the superiority of the Nordic race and eco- and sociopolitical ambitions of a de-urbanization of German society, of fighting against industrialization and strengthening small farmers can be found in his book Das Bauerntum als Lebensquell der nordischen Rassen [Peasantry as the Source of Life of the Nordic Races] from 1929. His visions of race, a German form of life, and the distribution of land fuelled the plans to Germanize the East and found expression in the rapidly spreading slogan “Blut und Boden [Blood and Soil],” which in two words manifested the “legitimate seizure” of Eastern Europe by the Germans.
  The instability of the relationship between values, ideals and their medium disallows assessing something simply as “good.” Moreover, it demands a precise examination of the argumentative structures and their inherent logics. When comparing the U.S.-American propagation of the International Style and its flagships with the sophisticated, modern vocabulary of the fascist architecture of Italy’s rationalists, one can sense the thin line that the symbolic charging of built structures always walks. 
  Another example is provided when juxtaposing Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Prairie Houses”  with the theories and practices of the Stuttgart School. The turn to the residential house, the formulation of its formal language and its ideological charging are significant in both cases, but while the American architect at the end of the 19th century speaks of the single house as the nucleus and embodiment of a new democracy, a prominent proponent of the Stuttgart School, Paul Schmitthenner, made it to Adolf Hitler’s so-called “list of the divinely gifted” in 1944 with his concept of the “settlement” as the only true instrument to create a homeland and community for the German people. Alongside Paul Schmitthenner, from 1918 a tenured professor of building construction and design, the teaching and practicing architects at the architecture department of the TU Stuttgart, whose building style and teachings until 1945 are named the “first” Stuttgart School[2], included, among others, Paul Bonatz, Heinz Wetzel, Wilhelm Tiedje, and Martin Elsaesser. They served the National Socialist regime and worked on an anti-urban, anti-monumental, traditionalist “town architecture” naturally evolving from the location, which knew how to sell itself as specific to the German character and as simultaneously preserving it.

schmitthennerFig. 1

  The architectural program in Germany immediately before and after the National Socialist seizure of power was a bit different than in fascist Italy. On the one hand, modern architecture as such was deemed absolutely degenerate and attributed to a cosmopolitan ethos that had to be fought; on the other hand, a style able to comprehensively represent National Socialism with its conflicting ideologies could not be found so quickly. Publicly, the Nazi regime sought the heroic, presentist gesture providing evidence of the superiority of the German ethnic community, while at the same time employing the Heimatstil [Homeland Style] as an attempt to take into account the threats—industrialization in production and warfare, urbanization etc.—posed to traditional society and its widespread need for security, stability and a down-to-earth mentality. Next to cases of stylistic syncretism, for example, Herbert Rimpl’s neo-classicist Heinkel Fabrik (Oranienburg, 1936) that combined Heimatstil and functionalism, what dominated the ideological camps at the beginning was the polarity of neo-classicist and Heimatstil architecture: “This initial stylistic dichotomy reflected, in a perverse form, the ideological division that had permeated the history of the Modern Movement – the split identified […] as the  opposition between the utilitarian, universal standards of industrial production (reified in Neo-Classical form) and a basic Christian desire to return to the rooted values of an agrarian craft economy,”[3] is how Kenneth Frampton succinctly describes the double-sidedness of modernity.
  The latter approach was taken by the protagonists of the first Stuttgart School that advocated the theory and practice of arts and crafts, rootedness, measure, the site-specific selection of material, and above all the continuation of regional architectural traditions, as well as an organic understanding of the relationship between nature and architecture or the city. The polemics and agitation against the proponents of Neues Bauen and the cultivation of a völkisch, nationalistic, xenophobic mindset, as expedited by Schmitthenner—the “ideologue of the school” and from 1933 member of the NSDAP and the Reich’s first master builder preceding Albert Speer—in his publications from 1932 onward, ideologically drew near the Stuttgart School to Richard Walther Darré’s “Blut und Boden” culture and anti-urbanist and environmental efforts in that they formed the supporting theoretical framework of the alternative to Speer’s subsequent, sterilized neo-classicism.

  "Neue Tradition" is the title of a research project initiated by the TU Dresden (chair of architecture history) that by retracing an anti-modern modernity examines traditional concepts of housing and urban planning—including Heimatschutz architecture and the Stuttgart School—in the first half of the 20th century, and sets off with the proposition that its modernity is to be found in the “standardized concepts and systems” qualifying it as “architecture for a mobile, accelerated society.”[4]
  The essays in Neue Traditionen. Konzepte einer antimodernen Moderne in Deutschland von 1920 bis 1960, published in 2009, in which six of the thirteen contributions explicitly deal with the Stuttgart School, partially appear as apologias of some of the actors, including Paul Schmitthenner and Heinz Wetzel, who despite their National Socialist convictions ought to be acknowledged for their architectural merits. For example, the editor Kai Krauskopf describes them pityingly as “losers” of a 20th-century German history of architecture, who “before the First World War made a successful start, disputed with Neues Bauen in the 1920s, hoped for sole validity during the Nazi period, to then lay down their arms in face of a second modernity merely ten years later.”[5] Along these lines, the third essay of the volume by Wolfgang Voigt is titled “Im Kern modern? Eine Verteidigung Paul Schmitthenners” [Essentially Modern? In Defense of Paul Schmitthenner], in which the author seeks to prove Schmitthenner’s modernity by describing several of his designs for residential houses that, alluding to Goethe’s garden house—described by the author as the “ur-cottage of the German bourgeoisie”—fall back on an “archetypical ‘house as such’,” a “‘last best form’ for the same recurring needs,” which Schmitthenner called a “type.”[6] In regard to a building of the Stuttgart Kochenhofsiedlung dedicated to Adolf Hitler, which was realized in 1933 with the aid of the Nazi mayor under the direction of Schmitthenner, Wolfgang Voigt expresses his consternation at the “leap [in the career of his “client”] from the houses of Goethe and Stifter to a house dedicated to Hitler.”[7]

kochenhofsiedlungFig. 2

He downplays the involvement of “the citizen Schmitthenner” with the Nazis, calling it a “liaison,” an opportunistic phase lasting only until 1934 (even though Schmitthenner remained a party member until 1945). The reason for the temporal limitation is given by the author himself: “[...] in 1934 it was clear that he had failed—Albert Speer became the new first man in architecture, not Paul Schmitthenner.”[8] The author’s attempt to exonerate Schmitthenner on account of his discreet withdrawal, his critique of Albert Speer’s monumentalism and the state architecture that had meanwhile asserted itself, is not really convincing, for Schmitthenner’s original ambitions had been to “infuse the entire building culture in an authoritarian way and in this sense make it healthy.”[9] The author also does not fail to mention the swastikas in his designs for the Technische Hochschule Linz which, however, were removed “noticeably early between 1939 and 1941.”[10] The contributions of the publication funded by the Thyssen Foundation are strikingly coherent in several respects: All authors lack a critical distance to their subject matter, which is embraced without reflection and presented in “the proper light”; the architects’ involvement with the Nazis is mostly circumvented euphemistically or justified with abstruse explanatory models; and there seems to be an erroneous belief shared by all, namely, that the degree of modernity that can be established in the designs determines how they are to be ethically and morally judged, according to the motto: He who is modern cannot be fascist at the same time.
  Beyond a critique of the conciliatory tone and the rhetoric in defense of the architects to be found in the essays, a fundamental omission in this research project must be articulated: It seems as if it were enough to mention the Nazi past of the Stuttgart School and at best give an account of its stages and manifestations. Yet in the context of the historiography of National Socialism, it is imperative not to separate the programs and designs from their political context in such a radical way, but to set form and Nazi ideology explicitly in relation to each other. In other words: The question must be raised whether there are aspects and elements of the Heimatschutz architecture and the designs of the Stuttgart School that reveal themselves as a “symbolic form of the National Socialist system of violence”; whether one can discern “violence as a structure” of the works—an investigation that could be modelled on Max Imdahl’s analysis of Arno Breker’s sculptures.[11] Although Kai Krauskopf, in the introduction, refers to the function of the settlement system “in regard to the Germanization of the East,”[12] in which the Stuttgart School was involved, the results of the Dresdner research project lack an examination of the connections to the “Blut und Boden” doctrine, no matter how subtle or tacit they might have been.
  But precisely this problematization is decidedly rejected by the research project, when it vehemently negates a link between the ideological content of the concepts affirmed by the architects and the “concrete urban construction.” Consequently, Elke Sohn’s proposition in “Städtebau der Stuttgarter Schule: Heinz Wetzel” that the Stuttgart School cannot be called fascist is not sustainable, because within the publication this question is never pursued.
  Unfortunately, the considerations are limited to analyzing the concepts of the Stuttgart architects isolated from the background from which they emerged, in order to attribute to them their rightful position in the history of architecture and even to claim their relevance to the present, as Elke Sohn does in her essay for Heinz Wetzel’s urban architecture. She seeks “interesting architectural approaches and arguments” and in the end maintains that until this day inspiration for urban architecture can be found in Wetzel’s theory. [13] In the light of this uncritical and at times relativizing discussion of the concepts and designs of the Stuttgart School during the Third Reich, however, the call for making its ideas and theories productive for our times appears absolutely wayward. When the author furthermore states that “[...] within an architectural discourse, architectural issues in the narrower sense are of interest and architecture [should] be appreciated as a discipline of its own,”[14] she not only takes the easy way out, but also ignores the fact that architecture always only emerges in the interplay with its context. By excluding this dimension, she necessarily remains oblivious to important aspects of her subject matter.
  Although she correctly observes at the end that the same architectural languages have been instrumentalized both in democratic and in fascist and dictatorial programs, she draws the wrong conclusions: This is precisely what does not legitimize entirely neglecting the (political) context, or, conversely, explaining the subject matter based solely on these entanglements. Instead, the insight must be heeded that playing off the work against the context and vice versa necessarily makes one blind.

[1] The visited conference was the symposium Ort und Ortsbezug in der Architektur. Geschichte und Theorie des kontextuellen Bauens seit der Renaissance, organized by the architecture department of the Hochschule München in cooperation with the gta of the ETH Zurich from November 20-22, 2014. The alarmingly uncritical lecture by Kai Krauskopf on Heinz Wetzel’s urban and settlement planning delivered there prompted a further examination of the current state of research in this area.
[2] After 1945 it is commonly referred to the “second” Stuttgart School which considerably experienced a change in the personnel situation.
[3] Kenneth Frampton: Modern Architecture. A Critical History, London 42007, p. 216.
[4] Cf. http://tu-dresden.de/die_tu_dresden/fakultaeten/fakultaet_architektur/ibad/neue_tradition/ (last accessed on 02/09/2015).
[5] Neue Traditionen. Konzepte einer antimodernen Moderne in Deutschland von 1920 bis 1960, ed. by Kai Krauskopf/Hans-Georg Lippert/Kerstin Zaschke, Dresden 2009, p. 7.
[6] Wolfgang Voigt: "Im Kern modern? Eine Verteidigung Paul Schmitthenners", in: Neue Traditionen 2009, p. 69–95, here p.76.
[7] Voigt 2009, p. 89.
[8] Ibid., p. 90.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., p. 92.
[11] Max Imdahl: "Pose und Indoktrination. Zu Werken der Plastik und Malerei im Dritten Reich", in: Reflexion, Theorie Methode. Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 3, ed. by Gottfried Boehm, p. 575–590, p. 579.
[12] Neue Tradition 2009, p. 11.
[13] See Elke Sohn: "Städtebau der Stuttgarter Schule: Heinz Wetzel", in: Neue Tradition 2009, p. 97–120, here p. 118.
[14] Ibid.

Fig. 1
Paul Schmitthenner, Haus Am Fischtal, Berlin, 1928.

Fig. 2
Paul Schmitthenner, Heinz Wetzel, Kochenhofsiedlung, from Southeast, opening and view in the public street space of the Hermann-Pleuer-Straße, Stuttgart, 1933.

Pathmini Ukwattage is an art historian, chief editor of terpentin.org and current doctoral candidate at the University of Basel.

Translation: Karl Hoffmann