Disorderly Cities

Richard J. Evans

  • A Blessing in Disguise: War and Town Planning in Europe, 1940-45 edited by Jörn Düwel and Niels Gutschow
    DOM, 415 pp, €98.00, August 2013, ISBN 978 3 86922 295 0

In 1941, the architect Hans Stosberg drew up ambitious plans for a new model town, with monumental public buildings grouped around a main square, and leafy boulevards branching off a central avenue which led to the factory complex that would provide the bulk of the work for a population of 80,000. There were to be twelve schools, six kindergartens, twenty sports fields, swimming pools, offices, banks, shops and a number of satellite settlements, every one of them constructed around a main square and equipped with similar public buildings and modern amenities. The whole conglomeration was to form an ‘urban landscape’ divided into cell-shaped districts, each forming its own sub-community within the overall structure of the town. Houses, or ‘people’s dwellings’, were to be supplied with central heating, garages, gas cookers, laundries and vegetable gardens. The old idea of a city as a concentration of densely populated buildings packed into a townscape of narrow streets and winding alleyways was to be superseded by the modern concept of a spread-out complex of roads and buildings that merged seamlessly into the natural environment. Funds poured in from the government, and businesses vied for a favoured place in the new urban landscape. To celebrate the start of construction, Stosberg had special greetings cards made for New Year 1942, which he sent out to friends, colleagues and acquaintances. The words below the picture proudly announced: ‘Birth of the new German town of Auschwitz’.

In January 1943 Stosberg proclaimed that his purpose in building the town was ‘to provide German people with an expanse of soil that can become a stretch of home earth for their children and themselves’. Recently incorporated into Hitler’s Reich, Auschwitz and the surrounding area had been inhabited by an inconvenient mixture of Poles and Jews. Some five thousand Jews were arrested and deported to the ghettos of Sosnowitz and Bendzin, and no doubt, in due course murdered. The employees of the I.G. Farben chemicals factory that was to provide work for the Germans coming to the town lined the streets to see them go. The Poles – 90 per cent of the remaining 7600 inhabitants – were examined. If they showed no physical signs of being racially German, such as blond hair or a long skull, they were dispossessed and deported too. By October 1943 an initial population of six hundred Reich Germans had expanded tenfold.

But the countrified urban idyll they had been promised didn’t materialise. Construction was slow, the water supply and sewage disposal system didn’t work properly, conditions were insanitary, and the sweetish smell of burning flesh wafted over from the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yet on the whole, relations between the townspeople, the ever expanding I.G. Farben factory and the SS cohorts who ran the camp remained cordial. In March 1943, SS officers from the camp even invited the settlers to a ‘communal feast followed by entertainments in the afternoon’. While the forced labourers in the I.G. Farben camp at Monowitz and the two camps at Auschwitz were succumbing to malnutrition, lice-borne spotted fever, beatings, shootings and gassings, two hundred German inhabitants of the town celebrated the New Year in 1943 at the Ratshof pub on the main square, eating their way through goose liver, blue carp in aspic, roast hare roulade and pancakes, washed down with numerous bottles of German sparkling wine.

Auschwitz was in many ways the model of what the Nazi planners had in mind for the postwar world, above all for the German East: a new urban landscape inhabited by ethnic Germans who managed vast factory enterprises worked by the forced labour of Slavs and other supposedly inferior racial groups, and bordered by extermination facilities to deal with the expendable, the hostile and the racially alien. Part of the purpose of dividing the new town into small community cells was to make it easier for the regime to control the population through locally based officials. Hitler wasn’t referring only to grandiose public buildings when he said: ‘Our buildings are built to reinforce our authority.’

Because the buildings were designed to be spread out rather than huddled together, Auschwitz would also be less exposed than conventional cityscapes to attack from the air. Thousands of Germans flocked to the area from Hamburg, Essen, Cologne and other cities damaged by the strategic bombing offensive in 1943. Ever since the First World War, the widespread belief that cities would be annihilated by aerial bombardment in the next major European conflict had inspired architects and planners to think of ways to build cities that would make them less vulnerable to attack from above. ‘The war of the future’, one German architect declared in 1934, marked ‘the death sentence for cities in their present-day form’. The answer lay in ‘intermeshing’ them with the surrounding countryside. Le Corbusier too claimed that ‘fear of aerial torpedoes’ would lead to ‘the complete transformation of cities, through their demolition and reconstruction’. ‘Ideally,’ a German air-raid protection official wrote, ‘cities should be rebuilt from scratch.’

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[*] Neal Ascherson wrote about the occupation of Marseille in the LRB of 18 July.