Here is another passage from Fatherland, a novel whose plot unfolds almost two decades after Germany has won World War II in 1946. The Fatherland stretches east of Moscow; most of Western Europe that is not part of the new Germany is part of a German-led co-prosperity sphere. But a rebellion fed by U.S. dollars festers in Soviet Russia east of what is now Germany’s national territory. Hitler, who is about to celebrate his 75th birthday, is in the process of framing a détente with his chief rival, U.S. President Joseph P. Kennedy.
As reflected in the following passage, Albert Speer’s Berlin has been largely completed as planned before the war.
“Leaving the arch [continues the tour bus guide], we enter the central section of the Avenue of Victory. The avenue was designed by Reichsminister Albert Speer and was competed in 1957. It is one hundred and twenty three meters wide and five-point-six kilometers in length. It is both wider, and two and a half times longer, than the Champs Élysées in Paris.”
Higher, longer, bigger, wider, more expensive … even in victory, thought [protagonist Det. Xavier] March, Germany has a parvenu’s inferiority complex. Nothing stands on its own. Everything has to be compared with what the foreigners have.
“The view from this point northward along the Avenue of Victory is considered one of the wonders of the world.”
“One of the wonders of the world,” repeated [March’s son] Pili in a whisper.
And it was, even on a day like this. Dense with traffic, the avenue stretched before them, flanked on either side by the glass-and-granite walls of Speer’s new buildings: ministries, offices, big stores, cinemas, apartment blocks. At the far end of this river of light, rising as gray as a battleship through the spray, was the Great Hall of the Reich, its dome half hidden in the low clouds. …
“The Great Hall of the Reich is the largest building in the world. It rises to a height of more than a quarter of a kilometer, and on certain days – observe today – the top of its dome is lost from view. The dome itself is one hundred and forty meters in diameter, and St. Peter’s in Rome will fit into it sixteen times.”
They had reached the top of the Avenue of Victory and were entering Adolf-Hitler-Platz. To the left, the square was bounded by the headquarters of the Wehrmacht High Command, to the right be the new Reich Chancellery and Palace of the Führer. Ahead was the hall. Its grayness had dissolved as their distance from it had diminished. Now they could see what the guide was telling them: that the pillars supporting the frontage were of red granite, mined in Sweden, flanked at either end by golden statues of Atlas and Tellus, bearing on their shoulders spheres depicting the heavens and the earth.
The building was as crystal white as a wedding cake, its dome of beaten copper a dull green. Pili was still at the front of the coach.
“The Great Hall is used only for the most solemn ceremonies of the German Reich and has a capacity of one hundred and eighty thousand people. One interesting and unforeseen phenomenon: the breath from this number of humans rises into the cupola and forms clouds, which condense and fall as light rain. The Great Hall is the only building in the world that generates its own climate.”
March had heard it all before.
In this chapter, the 10-year-old boy accuses his father of being “an asocial.”
I would like to read Léon Krier’s book, Albert Speer: Architecture 1932-1942. “Can a war criminal be a great artist?” he asks. Debate over his talent as a designer, whether his buildings are “classical,” what his work in that metier means for the reputation of classicism – these are all fascinating discussions. To me, it is possible to admire Speer’s work while hating Speer and all he represents. I don’t know whether I admire his work, but reading Krier’s book might help me decide.
I do know for a fact that, however interesting the discussion may be, classicism is not tainted by Hitler’s admiration for it or Speer’s use of it (even in stripped form). Those reflect not that classicism is fit for a totalitarian society but that it had by their time been the default architecture of Western civilization for centuries if not millennia.