A huge building complex in eastern Germany
that is the largest relic of Nazi
architecture anywhere. It was intended to be a colossal seaside resort for 20,000 holidaymakers, devised as part of the so-called KdF programme ("Kraft durch Freude" – literally 'Strength through Joy'), which formed part of the Nazi ideology of creating a "Volksgemeinschaft".
The vast complex was never quite finished due to the outbreak of WWII
. After the war the Soviet
military took over, then the GDR
's. Only since the 1990s has the site finally become (partially) accessible to the general public. Today, a number of exhibitions plot the history of the place and guided tours of parts of the complex are also offered.
UPDATE 2016: the southern part of the complex is now undergoing redevelopment (for a hotel and private apartments), which naturally alters the character of the place quite a bit, but the northern parts are currently still unaffected by this.
More background info: Prora is an absolutely unique place. There simply isn't anything like it anywhere else. This is so not just because of the mind-boggling vastness of the building complex, but more so because of the ideology it represents.
So what's the story behind this bizarre place? Let's first take a look at the ideological framework and then at the building of Prora itself.
It is sometimes forgotten, or simply not acknowledged, that Nazism wasn't just about warmongering and genocide … well it was, ultimately, but in order to get there, it was important for the plotters of these crimes to first win over the "masses". How do you do that? Carrot and stick. The stick is well known, blanket repression of any opposition through a powerful police state, etc., etc. … but what about the carrot? Well, 'panem et circenses' as the Romans said – bread and circuses. That is: give them jobs, social and economic security, plus leisure and entertainment, drizzle with plenty of propaganda, and bingo! I'm over-simplifying, of course, but in principle this mechanism has worked countless times during different periods of history to this very day, and Nazism was just one extreme example of how to put it into practice and of where it can lead.
Since the Nazis
aspired to replace the idea of socialism with their own form of *national*
socialism, winning over the "working masses" was crucial here. With the trade unions outlawed and gone, the "Deutsche Arbeitsfront" ('German Labour Front') was set up instead. It was at the time the largest mass organization in Germany. A core part of it was the so-called "Kraft durch Freude" movement, or KdF for short, which roughly translates as 'Strength through Joy'. This was supposed to be the carrot, the bread and circuses part of the equation.
The KdF organized all manner of mass leisure activities and events and that included holidays. The idea of going somewhere on a vacation simply for pleasure was still a relatively new phenomenon within the wider population. In other words, mass tourism was only just emerging. And the Nazis were set to milk it.
Of course, for the idea of holidays to be compatible with Nazism, it could not
be allowed to be individual
leisure. On the contrary, it had to be orchestrated and "for the masses
", more precisely: it had to serve the strengthening of the "Volksgemeinschaft
". The expression literally translates as something like 'people's community', but the main thing is its implications of uniformity, standing united in service of an overall greater goal, namely for Germany
, and of course its "Führer
". That all this ultimately paved the way for war may not have been clear to the KdF holidaymakers, but it had always been part of the plan of the Nazi ideologues. The point was not just appeasement of the masses but strengthening them, in body and soul, in preparation for war.
And so it came that a total of five gigantic resorts were planed along the German Baltic Sea coast (to complement cruise ships, holiday camps in the countryside, sports festivals, and so forth). The first, and as it turned out only one to be constructed was Prora on the already popular island of Rügen.
It was to take on truly colossal proportions: accommodation and facilities for 20,000 KdF holidaymakers were to be built. The winning design for this had the shape of a three-mile long string of six-storey apartment blocks, mostly containing hotel-style rooms, but also simple mass dorms. The "hotel rooms", by the way, were very spartan by today's standards: tiny twin rooms (good Nazis were apparently not supposed to sleep in double beds) with just a small sofa, a side table, simple chairs, a wardrobe … not somewhere you'd really want to spend a lot of time in other than for sleeping. And that was also part of the point. There wasn't supposed to be much space for individual retreat. Immersion in the masses was the name of the game.
To cater for that, the resort also had to feature entertainment facilities – beyond the usual beach life – and these came in the form of theatres, cinemas and a huge festival hall for mass events, presumably a la Nuremberg
, plus shops and restaurants and things like that. But it isn't really coincidental that the housing design of Prora so resembled an army barracks.
Building got under way in 1936, using thousands of workers. And so it progressed rapidly and by 1939 almost all of the accommodation blocks were more or less ready for furnishing. The other buildings were already under construction too. But in the end Prora was never finished and it never received any holidaymakers.
It does not bear thinking about what the holiday atmosphere at Prora would have been like had it ever been used to full capacity. For someone like me who hates both beaches and the presence of masses of people, the mere thought of this beach resort crowded with 20,000 people, all probably model Aryan Nazis at that, it's the ultimate horror. It makes my skin crawl.
But as already indicated, it never came to that. Hitler
's other plans got in the way: war. After the outbreak of WWII
with the attack on Poland
in September 1939, construction efforts at Prora were drastically reduced and within two years halted altogether. Workers were called to the front and the concept of innocent, happy Nazi family mass holidays were indefinitely postponed.
The buildings already standing were put to other uses at times – including the housing of citizens of the city of Hamburg
after they had been made homeless as a result of the Allied bombing of their city. Later it became a refugee camp to house those fleeing from the east as the Red Army approached and Germany
was losing the war.
At the end of WWII
, Prora was for a while taken over by the Soviet
occupying forces before it was handed over to the military of the newly founded GDR
, called ironically "Nationale Volksarmee" (NVA), or 'National People's Army'. I find that ironic, because that designation could just as well have been one of Nazi origin, inasmuch as it utilizes the same propagandistic key words. So in a way it was fitting that Prora was still serving the "national people", though not as a civilian holiday resort but as an army barracks of sorts. The Nazis could have had little to complain about this.
Prora remained in the hands of the NVA until the collapse of the East German state and the whole Eastern Bloc
in 1989/1990. That also meant it remained out of bounds to the general public until the 1990s. Immediately after the reunification of Germany
the Bundeswehr (the West's military) briefly took over, but moved out by 1992.
With the huge complex now finally open to the general public, but with nobody in charge to look after the maintenance of the buildings and the surrounding infrastructure, it became an open question as to what future Prora now had.
It still is largely an open question. Big plans for investment came and went but no unified master plan for Prora's future ever came to fruition. So only parts of the buildings found isolated new uses. This includes the museum exhibitions described below, but also for instance a youth hostel. One of the halls originally intended to be a theatre is now in use as a massive discotheque (and it will hardly play the sort of music the Nazis, or the NVA, would have wanted here …)
Other parts of Prora have fallen into dereliction. Some bits are downright ruins – not just through neglect and dilapidation: some of the accommodation blocks were deliberately destroyed during the time the Soviets held Prora. The southernmost block was completely levelled and the northernmost ones were partly blown up, but the main concrete frames are still standing – albeit in a precarious state of instability that makes them dangerous to enter. The same is true for the colonnades of what would have been the reception hall. Funding is need for securing these parts – but so far the lack of unified planning has meant that too little is being done in this respect.
However, the whole Prora complex is at least a listed building now – so nobody could simply come along and tear it down .. although there probably are people who would like to see just that. But fortunately this unique relic is to be preserved (however insufficiently for the time being) so it can be visited. And indeed it does attract thousands of visitors every year – including dark tourists.
For us dark tourists, Prora is indeed a unique attraction – if a somewhat difficult one. Like at Nuremberg
it is those glossy facade parts of Nazism that I find tricky to deal with – those "it wasn't all bad" aspects. Because deep down they were
every bit as nasty, from an ideological point of view, but covered with a deceptive veneer of "fun" and "joy". It's this aspect that makes Prora so exceptionally creepy.
What there is to see: The main thing is to first get a feel for the absolute vastness of
the Prora complex. It consists of most of the original eight oblong six-storey accommodation blocks that stretch along the seafront in a slight curve for a whopping 3 miles (4.5 km). That is you could hardly see from one end to the other.
On the ground, from close up, it's hard to get a full impression of this enormous expanse – at least not in summer, when the foliage of the tall trees that have grown between the front of the buildings and the beach obscure a good view of it all. Round the back, i.e. at the facades facing inland, you do get a somewhat better idea. But it's only when seen from the air (or in aerial shots) that the full vastness of the complex can be grasped.
Short of that you have to make do with exploring Prora's subsections individually. The most intact parts are to be found around the stretches just north and south of the central core (which itself is largely derelict) where the housing blocks are more or less complete and convey a pretty authentic impression of what Prora was supposed to look like.
However, those (like me) with a love for spectacular ruins and a general aura of dilapidation should head to the northernmost end of Prora. Here the Soviets partly destroyed the blocks which now stand as empty shells, with the staircase wings in dramatic states of semi-collapse. You can't go in, but seeing them from the outside is wow enough.
When I say "you can't go in" what I really mean is: you shouldn't go in. Just a few years ago, some intrepid urban explorer fell to his death while clambering around in some of Prora's unsecured structures. Apparently his body was only found months later. Do not follow such examples of recklessness, tempting as it may be.
Other semi-dilapidated parts of Prora can be found in the centre of the complex where there was supposed to be a huge reception hall. Of this only part was built but it features an enormous facade with tall columns. On the coastline you can track down parts of the structures that were supposed to be a promenade and landing stage for pleasure craft.
All these parts just stand there only to be taken in for what they are – abandoned relics that testify to unfulfilled megalomaniacal plans of the Nazi era
To actually learn more about this ideological background of Prora, head for the various exhibitions. Here, some attempts have been made to commodify and interpret this background. The approaches vary quite a bit, but all have their different merits.
The most didactically focused one is the documentation centre
. Here you get an in-depth account of how the general Nazi ideology of creating a "Volksgemeinschaft" formed the background for the planning of Prora. (See above
The official name of the exhibition, "MACHT
Urlaub", incidentally, is a play on the double meaning of the first part – "Macht" as a noun means 'power', but as a verb phrase "macht Urlaub" means 'go on holiday!' … the ambiguity is surely intended to symbolize the interconnection of the Nazis
' idea of power and their exploitation of people's simple desire for having a good time (see above
and also under the Nazi Party Rallying Grounds exhibition
The largest exhibit on display is a model of the entire Prora complex. It's of the architect's planning design type, i.e. doesn't show any realistic details, just plain white shapes of buildings set in stylized surroundings. But it does give you a vague impression of how expansive the complex would have been when finished.
Otherwise the exhibition is very text-and-photo oriented, with few artefacts plus some audio-visual elements, but overall has a certain "dated" feel about it, even though it isn't actually that old. It's more the approach that is. I can well imagine that some visitors will find a bit too "dry".
Note also that all the texts are in German only – however, you can buy a very good English-language exhibition catalogue at the reception desk (9.80 EUR). It does not follow exactly the structure of the permanent exhibition, but covers a good deal of its content, so it will surely help a lot in case your grasp of German isn't up to reading the original texts.
The approach of the exhibitions at the "KulturKunststatt
" is in a way the absolute antithesis of that of the documentation centre. For one thing it's far less "didactic", offering much less interpretation of the ideological context – without denying its importance, I hasten to add. In fact there had been misunderstandings in the past on the part of misguided people who seemed to think this exhibition was rather glorifying the Nazi past of the place. That is not so. And the management of the KulturKunststatt is quite open about the "unwanted" materials such neo-Nazis
have sent them – they even display them in a specially marked cabinet and explicitly distance themselves from this. That's quite remarkable, I found. Others would probably have simply kept this unwanted attention hidden and uncommented.
The "KulturKunststatt" is actually a conglomerate of various totally different exhibitions, plus – very incongruously – a Viennese cafe. Of the exhibitions, only some are of interest to the dark tourist and only two parts directly relate to Prora as a place. The rest offers things like vintage motorcycles or various appliances and gadgets from the GDR
era. Nostalgic maybe, but not especially enlightening.
A bit more up some dark tourists' street may be the extensive exhibition about the GDR military NVA, featuring plenty of army gear and communist-era relics. Most impressive – if that's the word – are the rooms furnished in original GDR-style in which NVA soldiers/officers would have spent their leisure time. It's all eerily stuffy and very 1970s in design.
The best bit in the "KulturKunststatt" by far is the huge scale model of the Prora complex. Now this is infinitely more impressive than the plain model at the documentation centre. This model, made in 1996, is based on the original model produced by the actual architects for the presentation of their plans to the Nazi big shots. That eerie connection aside, the model does actually give a better impression of the vastness of the whole complex than the real thing outside does! And it's lovingly detailed too. Even though the scale is quite small (ca. 1:250) the model is 18 metres long!
Another very lifelike impression of what Prora would have been like is the reconstructed hotel room of the sort that holidaying KdF families would have been accommodated in. It's tiny – depressing even (and that's no accident – see above).
Furthermore there's a wealth of documents, original brochures of the time (all in German of course) and objects such as tea mugs with the Reich's eagle and swastika on them. As said before, the exhibition is a bit thin on interpretation and in parts feels a bit like a huge jumble room, but the amassed authentic elements make up for this. As such it's the perfect counterpart to the documentation centre. There is very little overlap so it is definitely worth seeing both.
Unfortunately when I visited Prora, I didn't have a chance to see the third exhibition on offer here, that at Prora Zentrum
, as time had simply run out (it's easy to underestimate the distances to be covered and amount of time required
at this place!).
So I'm afraid I can't say anything about this third approach of commodification of the Prora legacy. My feeling, going by what I read on their website, is that the centre's main thrust is directed towards education, especially school groups. That would fit in with its location right by the new youth hostel in the northern part of the Prora complex.
To what degree the Prora Zentrum is also useful for individual adult dark tourists I cannot say. I would definitely have liked to visit their exhibition and see how it compares to the other two that are so fundamentally different from each other in style. Maybe the Prora Zentrum's approach sits somewhere in between? Also good would have been to go on one of the guided tours that the centre offers. Well, I suppose I have to come back one day to do these things.
One last word about when to go … I went in late summer, which was fine weather-wise and for making use of the longer opening hours. However, I reckon a very good time for getting a better first-hand impression of the vastness of the architectural complex of Prora would be in winter, when there are no leaves on the trees shielding a wide view of the long crescent shape of the accommodation blocks. Some photos in the exhibitions taken in winter confirm that it may also be even more eerily atmospheric at that time of year … when there are no beach holidaymakers around and the place will be generally much emptier. Well, maybe one day.
All in all, Prora is a very unusual kind of dark tourism destination. Its dark aspects are not so visible at the surface (except for those nice-and-grim-looking northern ruins!). Here, things lie a bit deeper, buried in the Nazi
ideological background that brought the whole idea of the site about in the first place. It is therefore a good thing that these aspects are described, illustrated and interpreted at three different exhibitions, all with quite different approaches.
The whole conglomerate still has a certain underdeveloped feel about it – but I thought that aspect actually lends it a particular atmosphere in its own way. Not all of it is unproblematic, but if you come reasonably well prepared with some background knowledge, then Prora can be a very intriguing place to visit indeed.
UPDATE 2016: the southern part of the complex is now undergoing a substantial redevelopment – it's being turned into (luxury) apartments and a hotel. Balconies are being added to the facade that is facing the sea and all the walls have been painted white. This obviously alters the original character of the building quite fundamentally (despite the developer company's claims to the contrary). How much it will detract from the site's merits as a dark-tourism destination remains to be seen. As long as other parts of the complex are not so drastically altered and the exhibitions remain in place it will still be worth visiting. You could even stay inside the building (using the new hotel when it's finished), but the overall gloomy “flair” of Prora will probably never be the same again.
on the eastern coastline of eastern Germany
's largest Baltic Sea island, Rügen, between the ferry port of Sassnitz to the north and the seaside resort town of Binz to the south.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: only accessible in part, costs for tours and the exhibitions are fairly reasonable.
Details: Rügen is connected to the mainland by means of a dam/bridge that takes the B96 trunk road across the sound from the north-eastern edge of the city of Stralsund. At Bergen carry on eastwards on the B196, then at Karow turn left and take the B196a/293 country road directly into Prora's centre.
There are also train connections – given the size of the Prora complex it even has two stations, Prora Nord (north) and Prora Ost (east), served by regional trains. There are hourly departures from Stralsund; the journey takes ca. 45 minutes.
At Prora itself you may want to have your own means of transport to cover the enormous distances as well. Car access is restricted in parts of the complex, so many people use bicycles to get around, which is certainly an appropriate means of transport at this seaside location anyway. There are, however, several car parks too, including one quite near the northern ruins as well as at the documentation centre and the "KulturKunststatt".
Walking would naturally give you the best impression of the vastness of the complex – but that would seriously require a lot of time! A whole day may not be enough for that.
If you want to stay overnight and don't fancy camping or the youth hostel, consider making the active seaside resort of Binz your base, which is just a few miles to the south. It offers a plethora of pensions, hotels and holiday apartments as well as restaurants and all manner of other amenities.
Visiting details for the various exhibitions at Prora are as follows:
"KulturKunststatt" – open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., admission 6.90 EUR (concession 3.90 EUR), including all the various exhibitions. It is not possible to pay less to just visit one or two of them individually.
Time required: The exhibitions can be done in between half an hour and up to two hours or more each, crucially depending on whether you can read German or not – and also on your interests. Parts of the "KulturKunststatt" in particular will be of little or no interest to the dark tourist. Conversely, some of the coverage of the documentation centre's exhibition may be quite familiar to visitors who already have a decent understanding of how the Nazi ideology and propaganda was structured, so these visitors can probably skip quite a proportion.
Getting around between the different parts of this huge complex can be the most decisive time factor. If you're on foot, better have a day or two at your disposal – riding a bike between the different sections is thus a very worthwhile idea. If you're there by car, note that not all sections are directly accessible by car, so you'll have to factor in walking time too.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Near the northernmost point of Rügen at Cape Arkona you can visit a former GDR
military bunker ("NVA-Bunker"). Inside is a thematic exhibition.
Outside Rügen, the nearest other major dark site of the area is the former Nazi
rocket development facility (birthplace of the infamous V2
) at Peenemünde
, located on the neighbouring island of Usedom. You have to go via the mainland, though, through Stralsund and Greifswald, and that can be a drive of more than two hours.
An only slightly longer drive can take you ca. 120 miles (190 km) south to the concentration camp
memorial site of Ravensbrück
to give you an impression of the other, much, much grimmer side of the Third Reich
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
It is no coincidence that the Nazis chose Rügen as the site of the first of their planned colossal seaside resorts. The island is famed as one of best marvels on Germany
's coast. Apart from beaches and seaside resort towns, it also features some of Germany's highest cliffs, in particular the world-famous chalk cliffs of the UNESCO World Heritage status Jasmund National Park.
- Prora 01 - grey facade
- Prora 02 - one of many blocks
- Prora 03 - wear and tear
- Prora 04 - completely ruined northern wing
- Prora 05 - derelict
- Prora 06 - collapsed
- Prora 07 - commodification 1
- Prora 08 - commodification 2 - in multiple ways
- Prora 09 - huge scale model
- Prora 10 - scaled down but still enormous
- Prora 11 - relics from the Nazi era
- Prora 12 - KdF relics
- Prora 13 - KdF era room
- Prora 14 - GDR era room
- Prora 15 - get them young
- Prora 16 - military relics
- Prora 17 - GDR high tech
- Prora 18 - GDR products
- Prora 19 - echoes from the past
- Prora 20 - incongruous Viennese wine tavern
- Prora 21 - Meinungsvielfalt - plenty of opinions in guest book collection
- Prora 22 - another exhibition plus disco and home-style food options
- Prora 23 - commodification 3
- Prora 24 - classic text-and-photo-panel style plus interactive stations
- Prora 25 - rather plain model of Prora
- Prora 26 - photo of a KdF-era room
- Prora 27 - photo albums from the era
- Prora 28 - probably from THAT infamous St Louis
- Prora 29 - the role of propaganda
- Prora 30 - the role of women
- Prora 31 - the role of intimidation architecture
- Prora 32 - the beachfront today
- Prora 33 - you cannot see the Prora buildings from the beach