PRORA, Germany – Three years before the outbreak of the World War II, Adolf Hitler’s lieutenants ordered the construction of what was portrayed as a remarkable perquisite for the toiling masses of the Third Reich – a vacation complex along the Baltic coast with 10,000 sea-view rooms in eight identical six-story blocks of steel-reinforced concrete, each one the length of five football fields.
Even by the standards of Nazi monumentalism and social engineering, the plan was ambitious. Every block would have its own restaurant, catering to 2,500 people per meal, divided into two sittings. Every week, 20,000 workers from the industrial powerhouses of Nazi Germany would be brought here under a program called Strength Through Joy to prepare themselves mentally and physically to fulfil Hitler’s dreams.
With some justification, people still call the five surviving blocks – strung along a pristine, sandy beach – the Colossus of Prora.
But unlike in Hitler’s day, when the ostensible purpose of the edifice was clear enough, the question for a new Germany is: What do you do with a Nazi relic that is too big and too laden with symbolism to destroy, but too enormous to be easily put to use?
The answer, as a visit to this place on the island of Rugen in the former Communist East Germany seemed to show, is that such projects, of memory and conscience, may proceed only at a halting pace, reflecting the cautious way in which Germans are slowly loosening the bonds of guilt mooring them to a past that is remote in time yet stamped indelibly on the national DNA.
“Of course we cannot forget it,” said Peter Spiekermann, 48, a vacationer cycling among the apartment blocks, referring to Germany’s history. “But we can’t go around atoning forever.”
The links to the past are complicated here by the postwar history of division, when new rulers took over the complex, which is nearly 5 kilometres long, to house soldiers – first from the Soviet Red Army, then the East German National People’s Army.
That, too, produced its share of pain, particularly among a small group of East Germans who used a little-known law permitting them to object to military service and were sent here as “construction soldiers” – in essence, conscientious objectors carrying shovels instead of Kalashnikov rifles.
The debate about the complex, “is not only about the memory of repression” in East Germany “but also about the history of the peace movement, the creativity in the niches of East Germany, the people who said no,” Stefan Wolter, a former construction soldier, said in a newspaper article last year.
“But it seems that, in the debate about Prora, people want to keep alive the taboos of East Germany. History is already being concealed.”
Indeed, said Horst Schaumann, the mayor of the nearby resort of Binz – which traces its own history as a seaside spa to the late 19th century – “the past plays a somewhat lesser role” in the way restaurateurs and hoteliers contemplate their colossal neighbour after years of inconclusive efforts to define its place in modern Germany.
“Life must return to Prora,” Schaumann said. “We have to have people living there.”
Thus, perhaps incongruously, a 400-bed youth hostel – “Europe’s biggest,” the mayor said – is to open here in July, occupying a part of Block 5, where Wolter and thousands of other construction soldiers were once billeted.
Farther south, German investors have won zoning permission to build 3,000 accommodations and vacation apartments in Blocks 1 and 3, although, in straitened financial times, the source of financing is not yet clear, Schaumann said.
If major renovations do start, Prora could find itself seized by a somewhat less dramatic version of the mass tourism Hitler sought to create. That, too, stirs some unease among those who seek to tend memory’s flame – sometimes with differing emphasis on what precisely is to be remembered.
“We should not be following in the footsteps of Strength Through Joy,” said Jurgen Rostock, the director of an exhibit in Block 4 called “Macht Urlaub” – a play on words that, in German, can mean either an order (“Go on vacation!”) or a concept (“power vacation”).
“We think this is a very important monument to the social history of the Third Reich,” Rostock said in an interview. “It explains why the Germans were seduced by the Third Reich. This was an offer to them.”
And, he said, it was something more sinister. “It was a very self-serving project to condition the people for war,” Rostock said. Hitler was obsessed with war and domination, he said, “and he wanted his people to be strong. He said he needed his people to have strong nerves if he was to make what he called good policies.”
In its dimensions, Prora ranks with the Nazi Party rallying ground in Nuremberg as an awkward leftover.
Hitler himself was photographed alongside Clemens Klotz, the architect who designed Prora, inspecting the designs, although, according to Susanna Misgajski, who runs a visitors’ center in Block 5, Hitler never visited the site.
In fact, the project never measured up to the grandiose Nazi dream. As war broke out in 1939, Prora remained unfinished, rising like a gray phalanx along the coast, roofed but without windows or other fittings. And so the complex stayed until the postwar division of Germany, when the new Communist landlords completed its construction and put it to use. Strength Through Joy had sunk under the weight of war.
That chronology, in fact, underpins the contest between those, like Rostock, who regard Prora primarily as a narrative of the Third Reich and those, like Wolter, the former construction soldier, who argued that since the Nazis never made use of it, “above all, Prora is a story of East Germany.”