I very nearly didn’t go. There were a number of tours on offer that day and I was torn between culinary (and beer) highlights of Nuremberg, a walking tour of this historic city in Bavaria or the Train Museum. The idea of visiting the Nazi Party Rally Grounds was not so appealing, mainly because of the very negative connotations of the name, a part of history many of us want to forget. However, a number of people had already done the tour and said it was excellent. I am so glad I listened to them. Here’s why …
The Nazi Party Rally Grounds Tour
Lest we forget; that’s the resonant message from World War I, yet we do forget and we shouldn’t. The Nazi Party Rally Grounds Video Bus Tour is run by Geschichte Für Alle (History for Everyone) and outlines ‘the use of architecture as a theatrical backdrop to the various events, explains the function of the rallies themselves and the way in which Nuremberg has dealt with its National Socialist legacy.’ I was on a shortened version of the full day tour; we had three hours to get an idea of what Hitler envisaged and what remains today.
Our guide, Werner Fiederer, welcomed us aboard the coach and told us we’d be seeing some video footage from A Triumph of Will. This 1935 propaganda film of Hitler and the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, was was directed, produced, edited, and co-written by Leni Riefenstahl. Werner then gave some background history to the ‘success’ of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s megalomaniac plans for Germany and the world. He explained why they resonated with a populace exhausted from one world war and broken by the privations of the Weimar Republic.
Our first stop on the Nazi Party Rally Grounds tour was the Congress Hall (Kongresshalle). It was intended to seat 50,000 with a self-supporting roof. It was started in 1935 but was unfinished. Left derelict for many years, in 2001, the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände (Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds) was opened with the permanent exhibition Faszination und Gewalt (Fascination and Terror), located in the northern wing. In the southern building, the Serenadenhof, the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra have their home.
As we drove into the Congress Hall arena, the sheer size of the edifice took my breath away. It represents the audacity of Hitler’s terrifying vision. A few months’ before, I’d seen the Colosseum in Rome for the first time; this massive monument to Imperial Rome is genuinely awe-inspiring. The Congress Hall in Nuremberg, which was inspired by the Colosseum, is simply chilling. We got out of the coach and had time to wander around and get a feel for what it might have been like in Hitler’s day. Incongruously, the wooden stalls for the famous Nuremberg Christmas Market (Kristkindlesmarkt), are stored on the ground floor.
From here we drove past a tranquil park. Through the coach window, I glimpsed yachts drifting round the lake, rowing boats skimming across the water, runners jogging round the perimeter, children playing beside the shore and a colourful mural celebrating Nuremberg’s Volksfest. Behind this tranquil scene loomed the Congress Hall …
Next stop was the Zeppelin Field, so-named because in 1909 Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin landed with one of his airships in this location. Werner told us it was one of architect Albert Speer‘s first works for the Nazi Party and was based upon the Pergamon Altar, a monumental Greek structure built in 2nd century BC, now reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin. It was here that Hitler laid on his biggest shows, with seating for up to 200,000 to witness his messianic speeches from the ‘Führer’s Grandstand‘. There used to be a huge gilded swastika towering over the stadium. It was blown up by occupying American soldiers on April 25, 1945. This clip (uploaded onto YouTube by themadchopper) was edited from the original filmed by L.B. Fenberg.
Werner explained, “Speer designed the stadium to become a “cathedral of light”, created by 130 high-power anti-aircraft searchlights ringing the field at intervals of 40 feet (12m) casting brilliant beams of light high into the sky. For an audience with very little to entertain them, this would have been a stunning spectacle, equivalent to a huge firework display today.” The podiums for the searchlights can still be seen.
Today it all looks rather shabby. A car with L plates waited for us to cross over to the grandstand. The area is now used for learner drivers, various sports and races, concerts and festivals. The grandstand is gradually crumbling away, as the German authorities decide what to do with it. ‘Albert Speer … claimed that he had used special building materials to ensure that the complex would be like the remains of the Roman Empire and “last for a thousand years”. He could hardly have been more wrong.’ (The Independent article.)
Back on the bus, we watched more video clips of Nazi Rallies and Hitler’s speeches to the masses as well as a short clip from Charlie Chaplin‘s 1940 movie ‘The Great Dictator‘. In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin stated that he could not have made the film if he had known about the true extent of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps at the time.
Our final stop was the Great Road (Große Straße), almost 2km long and heading directly towards Nuremberg Castle, which we could see in the distance. It was originally intended as a parade road for the Wehrmacht, the united armed forces of Nazi Germany. We saw the original grey and black granite paving slabs, apparently made to be the exact length of a Nazi goose-step. As we drove back into the city, I glimpsed the remains of stone ‘seats’ where the crowds would sit to watch the troops march past. A chilling reminder of what might have been …
Returning to the centre of Nuremberg, I wondered what differences there would be in the world today if Hitler had won the war. Impossible to know, but as a couple of friendly locals directed me back to my hotel, I was grateful that he had not achieved his insane vision, and appreciative of a chance to see how modern day Germany is dealing with this sinister legacy.
For more details of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds Video Bus Tour, which includes a visit to the Palace of Justice where the Nuremberg Trials were held, go to Geschichte Für Alle. Many thanks to Werner Fiederer for his informative and balanced insight into this challenging era and to German National Tourist Board for inviting me to visit historic Nuremberg.
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There is much more to see in Nuremberg and surrounding areas but this was the tour that made the most impact. I was particularly impressed with the way Werner handled this sensitive aspect of Germany’s history and dealt with the questions asked by our group of journalists and travel writers.
Must have been quite a sight to see where the Nazi Party held those rallies. Remember that TV programme, ‘All our Yesterdays’? The bus videos reminded me of those black and white films of the war.
Yes, John, I remember them very well. This tour really brings it all ‘alive’ in a haunting but very real way. I’m glad I did it and impressed with the way the Nuremberg is handling this aspect of their past. Also how they rebuilt the city after the allies bombed it.
That looks like a really interesting tour. It’s important we don’t forget what happened in the past or we will repeat the same mistakes. Except that we seem to be doing that anyway …
You’re so right Jason. With the world in such a precarious state, we need to look at our history and try to learn lessons. Not sure we’re very good at that … All credit to the Germans for addressing this difficult period in a comprehensive and illuminating way.
Excellent article. I’d be intrigued to do this tour. History is full of interesting stories, but it’s also all about understanding how we got where we are; so we need to look at the nasty stuff too. I was chatting to a German not that long ago who was horrified at the thought of reading ‘Mein Kampf’; it seems to me you need to look at everything – censorship is anathema to the historian. Incidentally, I notice that a signed copy of Mein Kampf was up for auction in Clitheroe recently; I’m less certain about that! That said, having studied and read about the Third Reich, though we can understand the appeal of the Nazis to a limited extent and in the context of the 1920s/30s, and try to understand the fear that totalitarianism generates, will we ever fully comprehend the inhumanity? I don’t think so – and I hope I won’t.
Thank you so much for taking time to comment Mike. So agree regarding understanding history, even the awful parts. But as you say, almost impossible for most of us to ‘comprehend the inhumanity’, which applies today as much as in the past …