Architectural Studies

Resorting to Violence on the Baltic Coast

Built on the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea between 1936 and 1939, the Prora beach resort was never finished. Construction stopped with the outbreak of World War II, when its approximately 9,000 construction workers were transferred to work in a munitions factory.

The original plans, awarded a Grand Prix for architectural design at the 1937 Paris World Exposition, included additional features such as a large festival hall, cinema, theatre, vast seawater swimming pools, and two long piers for visiting ocean liners. Today only eight enormous and dilapidated concrete structures survive, each one measuring six stories high and 550 yards long. Most have stood entirely derelict for over a quarter of a century, though part of one has been serving as a youth hostel for about a decade. Designed to accommodate 20,000 visitors in total, these lodgings cover almost three miles of beachfront property, making the Prora project one of the largest resort developments in the world.

Prora also happens to be the largest surviving architectural complex built by the Nazi Third Reich. And it is now being redeveloped as an upscale tourist getaway.

A KdF poster from 1939 featuring the planned Prora resort behind a happy couple on holiday.

A KdF poster from 1939 featuring the planned Prora resort behind a happy couple on holiday.

The massive seaside resort complex in Prora was a centerpiece of the Nazi state-run organization called the “KdF” (short for “Kraft durch Freude,” which translates as “Strength through Joy”), which aimed to consolidate support for the Nazi Party by sponsoring leisure activities, ranging from concerts and plays to cruises and holiday getaways, for working-class Germans. The KdF was one wing of the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (“German Work Front”), which was formed through the nationalization of independent trade unions in 1933. Since KdF programming very deliberately touted Nazi ideology, the Prora resort has often been described as an industrial-scale indoctrination center for the Third Reich.

The building complex never served its intended function as a vacation getaway for masses of German workers. During World War II some areas were utilized as dormitories for police officers and navy radio-operators in training. Additional construction was also carried out at the site by prisoners of war and also by political dissidents sentenced to hard labor. Later in the war the buildings became improvised military hospitals as well as havens for German refugees from the heavy Allied bombing of northern German industrial centers.

Seized by the Red Army of the Soviet Union, the complex then served as a Soviet military base for a decade following the war. Subsequently it transitioned to an East German military barracks and detention center for political dissidents conscripted into military service. After the reunification of Germany in 1990 the complex was abandoned but soon received historical landmark designation, helping to forestall its demolition, which had been suggested.

Opinions on the current redevelopment project—which has been in the planning stages for quite some time and which may be seen in the architectural renderings below—are highly polarized. In 2008 one historian of the Third Reich told the BBC, “I don’t think that it is right to build a new resort here, because of what Prora stands for. This is where the Nazis wanted to feed and entertain people, as well as indoctrinate them. It’s not really a holiday destination. I can’t imagine coming here on holiday, and I don’t think people should enjoy themselves at this place.” A local business owner agreed, declaring that “Prora should be left as a reminder of the past and it shouldn’t become a package holiday resort.” But others profoundly disagree. “It isn’t nice to have such a large, empty property on the beach, so we have to bring life back to this area,” stated a city councilor who supported establishing a 500-bed youth hostel in one of the buildings. In a 2015 interview with The Wall Street Journal one Berlin-based author praised the redevelopment efforts, saying, “I am happy to see that this building is being made into nice vacation apartments. It was always ruins. The buildings were built in a dark, bad time. Now they are being transformed.” The developers insisted upon fairly significant changes to the exterior appearance of the structures in order to make them more palatable to contemporary consumers. Though controversial, the local heritage commission voted to approve these alterations.

Plan of the original resort complex.

Two acquaintances of yours have asked you to sign two very different public petitions. The first petition denounces the current Prora redevelopment project as an insidious effort to whitewash the history of twentieth-century totalitarianism in the interests of luxury accommodations that cater exclusively to the highest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. This petition also asks you to pledge never to patronize the new resort development under any circumstances, to boycott all other establishments associated with the Prora developers, and to do your utmost to discourage others from visiting the resort. The second petition fully endorses the redevelopment efforts at Prora as a boon to the local economy, as an intelligent and appropriate repurposing of neglected infrastructure, as an outstanding example of creative and adaptive reuse of a long-neglected architectural complex, and as an outstanding example of intelligent sustainability practices. The second petition also asks you to voice your support, to the preservation hearing board, of the position that the greatest possible flexibility ought be extended to the developers with regard to possible alterations to the interior and exterior fabrics of the buildings in order to help the project become a financially successful reality.

Which petition, if either of them, will you sign? And what is your reasoning for doing so? Please write a note explaining your stance that you feel could be shared with both of your acquaintances. Feel free to touch upon (or not) any of the following questions, or any others that strike you as pertinent: Do the developers of this site, or other sites associated with regrettable historical events or epochs, have any ethical obligations to keep the focus there on such events or, to the contrary, does it serve a public good to “move on” from such issues even if it means removing, altering or obscuring physical evidence of a troubling past? Would demolishing the site have been an appropriate action? Or would razing the site have inappropriately squandered a vast construction resource? When placed in opposition to one another, which ethical obligation outweighs the other: the sustainable commitment to finding a productive reuse for the immense embodied energy of the sprawling building complex or the responsibility to acknowledge and decry the odious past uses and original intentions for these buildings?

Further, should the heritage commission have refused to allow significant changes to the exterior of the structure even if that meant potentially scuttling the entire redevelopment plan? To what extent must these structures always remain linked to their Nazi origin? Are the buildings themselves somehow corrupted by this legacy? If the buildings are to be reused, does the specific reuse of the structures matter? For instance, would the project be more acceptable if it were subsidized public housing rather than luxury condos? If it is acceptable to use some but not all of the complex for historic interpretation of the troubled history of the site, what might be the minimum acceptable percentage of usable space needed to dedicate to this purpose in your estimation?

Redevelopment under way at Prora.

Finally, best practices in both the planning and preservation fields generally place great emphasis upon local opinion. If most of the local community wishes to remove a historic site with negative historical associations, should the opinion of regional, national or international governing bodies or organizations be permitted to overrule such a local opinion?

If you would like more background, you might listen to the short National Public Radio segment, “Along Germany’s Coast, A Nazi Resort Becomes An Upscale Destination” (5 October 2016) by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. Or see online articles, from different stages in the redevelopment project, such as “Gambling on Prora: Luxory Flats Planned for Derelict Nazi Resort” in Der Spiegel (24 May 2013) by Andreas Wasserman; “Germany Debates New Life for a Behemoth of the Nazi Era” in The New York Times (20 June 2011) by Alan Cowell; or “Holiday camp with Nazi past” on the BBC News website (13 December 2008) by Tristana Moore. You might also look at the brief English-language brochure from the 2003 exhibition “MACHTUrlaub: The ‘KdF-seaside resort’ Rügen” organized by the Prora Documentation Center.

If you find additional information that seems pertinent, please post it to the discussion thread below, making sure to supply not just the information itself but your source. Also, if you have questions for which answers would be helpful in order to arrive at a clearer opinion, please feel free to post them here as well.

Photos of the complex in its dilapidated condition:

 

Architectural renderings of the future complex:

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