By definition, utopias are imagined perfect places, impossible to realize because human nature is deeply imperfect, and we all want different things. But that, of course, doesn’t stop some people from trying to achieve their definition of a perfect society—no matter how destructive and violent they have to be to do so. The root of “dystopia” is utopia, after all.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Adolf Hitler tried to remake Europe in his image, which led to the imprisonment and genocide of millions and millions of Jews, gay people, people with disabilities, and other ethnic and religious groups that did not align with his definition of a superior race. A lesser-known part of this atrocious moment in history? Reconstructing Berlin as the Third Reich’s monumental capital city. It was known as Welthauptstadt Germania, or “World Capital Germania,” and it was about glorifying and legitimizing National Socialism. If the Nazis won WWII, this city was intended to symbolize their anointment as a world power.
In Episode 5 of Nice Try!, host Avery Trufelman tells the story of Germania through interviews with Luisa Beck, a reporter based in Berlin; Lawson Deming, visual special effects supervisor for the Amazon series Man in the High Castle; Paul Jaskot, professor of art history at Duke and author of The Architecture of Oppression: The SS, Forced Labor, and the Nazi Monumental Building Economy; and Wolfgang Schäche, an architectural scholar who grew up in West Berlin.
Germania as a concept and a goal first emerged in Mein Kampf, Hitler’s 1925 autobiography and manifesto. He wanted a city with buildings more grand than Rome’s, boulevards more triumphant than Paris’s, and structures more sublime than Gothic cathedrals. In 1937, Hitler appointed Albert Speer to be the Third Reich’s chief architect, and these ideas were set to paper, erected in scale models, and actually constructed in the real world.
“Utopia is of course an impossible world, and the scale of their building was certainly impossible at the time,” Jaskot says of Hitler and Speer’s plans. “At the same time, though, they were highly effective in using their utopia as a goal—as something that allowed them to enact some of their racist policies.”
Many of the Third Reich’s political and economic policies—like their forced labor concentration camps—were directly tied to physically building this world. Through the lens of Germania, we can see how these systems work together in building not just idealized worlds, but the worlds we live in today.
“We haven’t thought about architecture as the whole process of labor and that these processes of labor are connected with our ethics as human beings, with our economies, with our political goals, and with what we think is good in our society,” Jaskot says. “And I think those are questions we need to ask today as much as we ask them historically.”