“Germania” – the mythical capital of the Third Reich. Looking back at the plans that Albert Speer came up with for Adolf Hitler in 1935, one can only wonder how the Nazis thought they could ever realize their supersized construction plans. From the monstrous Volkshalle with an intended capacity of 180,000 to the gargantuan 117 meter tall Triumph Arch – all of Berlin was to be remodelled into a capital city worthy of an empire not seen since the antiques. It all came differently though, hardly any of Speers and Hitlers plans were ever fully realised, and very little of what was has survived to this day. What has survived though is a sliver of Hitlers Autobahn in Berlin.
Beginnings of the Reichshauptstadt Germania
In 1925, Adolf Hitler had already lamented in his book “Mein Kampf that modern cities, unlike in the antiquity, no longer had landmarks, “monuments of pride”, and that the state should enforce its presence in the public with its buildings. One Hitler rose to power, planning began as how to reshape Berlin into Germania – the new capital of the German Reich.
Hitler thought it would be a good idea to rename Berlin to Germania upon its completion, as it would, despite the great distances between the members of the germanic race and the capital, create a feeling of togetherness. It’s easy to forget how far east Germanys borders used to stretch – with Schirwindt being the most eastern German city, directly on the border to Lithuania.
Hitler created the title of „Generalbauinspektor für die Reichshauptstadt“ (General Building Inspector for the Imperial Capital) just for Albert Speer, and designated him as the head of the office of the same name. Speer and his team redesigned the capital between 1935 and 1943 – and their plans would have had drastic consequences for Berlins inhabitants if they were ever implemented.
It was planned to demolish over 50,000 apartments, forcing over 150,000 people to move though the Nazis planned to alleviate this by filling the vacant apartments of exiled and murdered jews, as well as creating giant new city blocks like the Siedlung Grazer Damm. In addition, the Nazis decided to empty the St. Matthäus and Twelve Apostel cemetries in Schöneberg – moving 15,000 bodies – to make space for their new construction projects.
On a side note, some of the Nazis grand plans can be found close to Rechlin in norther Germany. The Nazis built a mock city of sorts in the forrest that they could bomb and see how good their concrete bunker buildings were. The buildings, known as Weiße Häuser Rechlin still stand to this day.
As housing would be reduced in the city center, new city distrcits were planned in the east and south, and an entire new “Education District” was to be built in Grunewald. A Military Engineering Faculty was constructed in Grunewald – though it was never furnished. After the war, the area became a dumping ground for the war debris – and this is where we get the 120 meter high Teufelsberg from – upon which the former US flight surveillance and monitoring station was built.
The East West Axis
Central to Speers planning were the so called Ost-West Achse (East West Axis), Nord-Süd Achse (North South Axis) and a ring road.
The Ost-West Achse was planned to have a length of 50 kilometers, starting off in Wustermark and passing along Heerstraße, along the Kaiserdamm and Bismarckstraße along to the Straße des 17 Juni, past the Brandenburger Tor all the way down to the frankfurter Allee. Construction began in 1935, and a 7km long piece was unveiled in 1939 for Hitlers 50th birthday. This piece of the Ost West Achse is quite possibly the most well known today, as it is the segment from the Kaiserdamm along the Großer Stern with the Siegessäule – up to the Brandenburger Tor (passing by the Soviet War Memorial).
The Siegessäule – which had originally stood in front of the Reichstag was moved in the middle of the giant roundabout. Its width and height was increased by roughly 7 meters each as not to appear too small in contrast to its surroundings. The most visible remnant today of the Ost West Achse are the 800 street lamps – the two pronged candelabras. The Berliner Kraft- und Licht-Aktiengesellschaft (known as Bewag today) developed the new lights, while Speer designed the lamps themselves.
The Nord-Süd Achse was planned as a 6km long and 120 meter wide boulevard, stretching from the district of Moabit down to Südkreuz in Tempelhof. The southern segment of the Nor Süd Achse was to be garnished with a colossal 117 meter high and 170 meter wide Triumph Arch – which was to be inscribed with the names of all 2 million german soldiers who had died during the first world war. All important Reich and Party ministries, as well as company headquarters and cultural institutions were then envisioned to be placed along the Nord Süd Achse.
Even the Prussians knew that the ground that Berlin was built on was absolutely terrible (Berlin was basically built on a swamp), so to test the ground, the Nazis built the “Schwerbelastungskörper” – a heavy load-bearing body. It was basically a 12.650 ton heavy concrete monstrosity, which showed how much a concrete structure would sink into the ground over time (a more in depth article on this fascinating piece of engineering will follow soon). The Schwerbelastungskörper is the only above ground piece of construction of the Nord-Süd Achse that was completed and that survived the war.
The end of the Nord-Süd Achse was reserved for the Große Halle – a gigantic congress hall that would have had space for up to 180,000 people. The Dome itself was supposed to be 290 metres high, with a diameter of 250 meters. The sheer amount of resources and workers needed to complete this project are nearly incomprehensible. Hitler calculated that the cost of construction would be about 1 billion Reichsmark (that would be 243 Billion Euros in todays money) – which he mainly wanted to finance through tourist entrance fees.
The 4 Rings and the Telefunken Werk
Along with the North South and East West Axis, Speer planned at first 2, and later 4 Autobahnringe (ring roads) around Berlin. The first ring would have gone around the Tiergarten, while the second third and fourth rings would have taken larger and larger loops around the city. Both the Axis roads would have then enabled the traffic to cut into and out of the city with relative ease.
While Speer and the Nazis were planning their ring roads and triumph arches, the Telefunken – one of the leading radio and electronics manufactures for both civilian and military use – was looking for a larger and cheaper plot of land to move its headquarters to. Telefunken, being a manufacturer of important military equipment (vacuum tubes, transmitters and radio relay systems) was both encouraged and “motivated” by the Wehrmacht, Reich Ministry of Armaments and War Production, and the Special authority of the general building inspector for the Reichshauptstadt to move to a 240,000 sq plot of land along the Goerzallee in Lichterfelde-Süd.
In the new Telefunken plant, 38,000 square meters were allocated to the head office and the research and development departments, almost 22,000 square meters for workshops and about 15,000 square meters as a warehouse. Up to 6,000 German employees worked in the building complex, but during the war this rose up to 10,000 people.
During the Second World War, Telefunken mainly produced products for the military (developing radar devices). In 1942, an equipment plant was built south of the Goerzallee, as well as an Unterkunftslager (acommodation camo) along the nearby teltow canal. Around 600 french prisonsers of war lived in the barracks and were forced to work in 10 hour shifts in the production plants. The Factory itself also employed polish forced labourers in the kitchens.
During the construction of the new headquarters in 1937, the construction crew built a 400 meter long, and 70 meter perfectly asphalted piece of road directly in front of the Telefunkenwerk (including the curbside)- the start of the “4th Ring”. Turns out that this would be the only existing piece of any of the 4 ring roads built by Speer. But why is this the only piece that was ever built? The simple answer is that they were just building ahead of schedule so to speak – and the war and subsequent loss of said war got in-between the construction plans.
From Telefunken to McNair Barracks
The Telefunken Werk in Lichterfelde-Süd survived the war with slight damage – but the productions facilities were completely dismantled nevertheless. From 1945 to 1949, the Telefunken complex housed the US headquarters in Berlin. The US forces moved their headquarters to into the buildings of the former Luftgaukommando III in Berlin Dahlem in 1949, paving the way for the former Telefunken Werk to be converted into the McNair-Barracks. Named after the General Lesley J. McNair (who was killed through friendly fire in 1944 in France), the McNair barracks were soon expanded to become the third largest barracks of the Berlin Brigade (after the Andrews Barracks and Roosevelt Barracks), stationing upwards of 2300 soldiers at times.
So what became of the 400 meter long piece of Hitlers Autobahn in front of the McNair Barracks? Well the square was officially known as “Vierter Ring” – it was even listed as such in the street name catalogue. Turns out that Speer and his ilk had unwittingly created the perfect parade ground. The “4 Ring” as it was locally known, was wide and long enough for the American troops to spend hours practicing their parade marches, as well as allowing them to include their vehicles and tanks in the process. The 4th of July parades that were held on the “4 Ring” were always a local spectacle.
From 4 Ring to Platz des 4. Juli
The fact that the square had kept its name “Vierter Ring” wasn’t a simple mishap – it was most likely a deliberate oversight. Officials probably thought that the name was innocuous enough that nobody would make the association to the Nazi Ringbahn project (there are still hundreds of streets named by and after Nazis in Berlin to this day). In 1976, the District Office of Steglitz offered the General of the Berlin Brigade – R.D Tice – to change the name of the 400 meter long Autobahn turned parade ground into an American name of his choosing. The General chose “Platz des 4. Juli” (4th of July Square) in honor of the 200th anniversary of Americas independence – and thus the name was officially change by December 1976.
With the German reunification, and the ratification of the 2+4 treaty in 1991, the Allies relinquished all their rights as occupying powers and allowed Germany to be established as a fully independent state. A few days after the usual 4th of July parade at the McNair Barracks in 1994, The US president Bill Clinton and the first unified German Chancellor Kohl attended the farewell parade of the US troops on the “Platz des 4. Juli”.
The Platz des 4. Juli today
After 1994, the McNair Barracks were handed over to the city of Berlin. Over the years segments of the Barracks were sold off and converted into housing units, schools and kindergardens. The former Telefunken complex was even registered as a listed monuments and is – one wouldn’t have thought – the second largest protected monument (60,000 sqm) in Berlin after the closed down Tempelhof Airport.
Around the year 2018, parts of the McNair Barracks were still being converted, while another section was still left completely abandoned. This seems to be the results of a long ongoing dispute, as some people had an issue with a proposal to build a school, sports hall and refugee accommodation in an empty segment of the building. As of 2020, it seems like the dispute still hasn’t been fully resolved.
As for the former Vierter Ring, it’s more less stayed the way it was left. A small section has been rudimentarily adopted as parking space – but the largest portion of it is still immaculately tarred and left empty. The “4 Ring” used to hold a really nice flea market every other Sunday for a couple of years, but again disputes with the district and the new neighbours which complained about the noise saw an end to that.
These days no parades are held on the tarmac of the 4th of July square – but it’s found another purpose. It’s become the ideal test road people who are learning how to drive. Its become especially popular amongst budding motorcyclists – and the spray paint markings on ground can attest to that.
All in all, the Platz des 4. Juli looks like just another paved street – but it shows that once you scratch a bit deeper, you can unroll 80 years worth of Berlin history.
Nazis and the Autobahn myth
While on the topic of Hitler and the Autobahn, I wanted to use the opportunity and briefly clear up some quick myths and misconceptions that frequently pop up. Just like the myth that Mussolini made the Italian trains run on time, people seem to think that Hitler built the Autobahn.
Did Hitler build the Autobahn?
Hitler did not build the Autobahn. The Mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer (who would later become West Germanys first Chancelor) built Germanys first Autobahn in 1932.
Platz des 4. Juli