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More background info:
The Congress Hall, part of the Nazi party
rallying grounds complex in Nuremberg
, is a huge relic and the most important example of Nazi
architecture anywhere. It was supposed to be a kind of indoor-stadium for 50,000 spectators under a single self-supporting roof.
Building started in 1935, and the horseshoe-shaped main outer structures were nearly finished (except for the top level), including the granite outer cladding and colonnades – giving the appearance of a Germanized Colosseum. Construction was halted at the outbreak of WWII
, so what was supposed to become the auditorium remains an open space hemmed in by massive brick walls. But from the outside it's still an almost shockingly grandiose edifice.
In post-war Germany
the future of the building remained somewhat uncertain for decades – but demolition wasn't really an option, given its sheer size. Parts of the interior were and still are used simply as storage space. Exhibitions were held here too. Plans to convert the whole structure into some kind of shopping or entertainment centre were rejected, and in 1973 it was given the status of a listed heritage building.
In the 1990s plans were developed for adding an adequate documentation centre, which eventually were fruitful and the current centre was opened in 2001. It incorporates in an expanded and modernized form an exhibition (previously housed in the main hall of the Zeppelin Field Nazi party rallying grounds
grandstand) entitled "Fascination and Terror".
It's a rare example of a Nazi
-related exhibition which manages the difficult balancing act of chronicling the logistics and the then popular attraction of the mass events that were the party rallies in an objective manner without either glamorizing or simply demonizing the whole affair downright. Instead it makes an effort to help visitors of today understand how the system of allurement and delusion worked and why. The modernity and scope of the documentation centre is truly impressive. Nowhere else is the psychology of the Nazi system of populism better covered than here.
This, make no mistake, also means that it is a very difficult place to get to grips with. Memorial museums commemorating the victims of the Nazi reign of terror actually have it "easier" in that respect, where the roles of evil-doer and innocent sufferer are clear-cut. This, however, is a site built by the perpetrators and it is about the perpetrators … and their (deluded) supporters.
Not only do you get the familiar Hitler
poses and goose-stepping and all that despicable pomp, there's also footage of genuinely proud and happy ordinary people enjoying the sheer entertainment side of the rallies. After all, it wasn't all just para-military camaraderie but also a booze-fuelled funfair atmosphere. The Nazis understood the importance of games (and bread) just as well as the Romans did … It's at times hard to stomach what you have to take in at this documentation centre, but it's so very important.
What there is to see:
The Congress Hall is something that cannot be overlooked even if you tried. Its size is truly massive, larger than Rome's colosseum, in fact. You can walk around it, even along the colonnades. These days you can also amble into the massive courtyard (which was to be the auditorium, had the roof ever been put on). A couple of information panels shed light on the background and on the planned finished appearance of the building. Most of the indoor parts of the complex, however, remains inaccessible to the public (as it is mostly used for storage by various companies).
The great exception, of course, is the Documentation Centre. This sits in one corner of the complex and is dramatically marked by a hyper-modern glass-and-steel front at the entrance. The Centre's main feature is the permanent indoor exhibition entitled "Fascination and Terror" ... or 'Faszination und Gewalt' in German (where "Gewalt" more literally also includes 'violence', 'brutality').
The exhibition is ordered more or less chronologically, starting with the beginning of Nazism
in the 1920s, and ending with the Nuremberg
Trials and the use of the Nazi party
rallying grounds after WWII
The use of forced labour, and building materials thus provided by concentration camps
' quarries, is covered as well as the role Nuremberg played in the path to WWII and the atrocities committed during it. Inner-German resistance (cf. Munich
) gets a mention too.
But the most disturbing parts of the exhibition are actually those that are pretty unique to it: the detailed descriptions of the inner workings and the psychology of the rallies, esp. when told from the perspective not of the propaganda's key players but that of the "ordinary" foot folk who made up the "masses" needed for the backdrop of the rallies.
Part of the exhibition is also a film, which includes exceptional interviews with then participants at the rallies – in addition to the expected snippets of Leni Riefenstahl's (in)famous films that covered the 1934 party rally in a style that was as ideologically glamorizing as it was innovative in terms of cinematography …(cf. Olympic Stadium
In addition to photos, text panels and the film, further audio-visual multi-media installations along the concourse are also employed. Information is provided in English too – including subtitles in the film and language choices on the audio-guides. Apart from English and German, the latter are also available in French, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Polish.
Then there's the very building itself. The exhibition is housed in the bare brick vaults of the interior of the Congress Hall. But a particular architectural feature of the centre is its stylistic modernity that deliberately contrasts, even "breaks" the stern, pompous grandeur of the sort-of neo-classical Nazi architectural style. The tilted glass-and-concrete annexe on the roof (which houses the study centre) is one aspect.
Even more striking, though, is the spike that pokes out of the front of the facade and is internally continued as a walkway, diagonally piercing through the entire wing of the building. The inner-most part of it eventually forms a kind of balcony that hovers over the inner courtyard of the Congress Hall – i.e. right inside of what would have been the auditorium had the hall been finished. Unfinished as it is, you can only view the semi-circular bulk of the raw red-brick inner walls and the bare grounds of the "floor" (well, bare except for some bits and pieces scattered abut that belong to the storage facilities that much of the interior is rented out as). But the dimensions of it all are still impressive. The fact that this glass walkway pierces right through the older structure is of course of highly charged symbolic value …
Overall it's not an easy place to take in as a visitor, even as a die-hard dark tourist, but it's one of the most important exhibitions about the Nazi
era anywhere. No wonder it was award-winningly recognized by UNESCO …
about 2 miles (3 km) south-east of the Old Town centre of Nuremberg
. Address: Bayernstraße 110, 90478 Nuremberg, Germany
The outside of the Congress Hall and its colonnades are freely accessible at all times, and so is the inner courtyard, these days: To get to the latter you have to walk round the northern side of the building and take the access road branching off in front of a part of the building that is now used as an auditorium for Nuremberg's symphony orchestra. Inside the vast semi-circular area of the courtyard you can now also see the viewing platform of the documentation centre from below.