You’d have thought there would have been a big hall or something,” declares an disappointed American voice on leaving the Prora Documentation Centre, a museum on the edge of a half-disused, half-renovated holiday camp in north-east Germany. What he was hoping for, in the largest single surviving remnant of the Third Reich, is some hint of the past. But there is little of that here today.
The Third Reich destroyed many cities, but it never built one.
It began some – notably the industrial city of Wolfsburg – and it planned many others. But mostly, its ideas about what they called the Volksgeimenschaft (“people’s community”) went unrealised. With one exception: the Strength Through Joy (Kraft Durch Freude) resort of Prora, on the Isle of Rügen.
Commissioned by KDF, the leisure organisation operated by Robert Ley’s German Labour Front, Prora was planned in the mid-1930s to the designs of Clemens Klotz and substantially built before the outbreak of the second world war.
It was intended as an immense holiday camp, the largest in the world at nearly three miles long, stretching in a sandy arc along the Baltic Sea.
But Prora would never welcome holidaymakers. Instead its use has been largely military, first as a training camp for the Nazi military police, then for the East and later United German armies. That is, until now.
If you make your way to Prora today, along the sparse roads that run through sleepy, rural Rügen, you’ll see billboards.
Some show people running happily along the beach, others show the bleak blocks spruced up and populated via computer rendering.
The Strength Through Joy resort is now for sale, awaiting its first residents.
You could say that Prora was the first modern holiday resort.
Repeated concrete blocks in rows, each with a view of the sea, connected to nightclubs and restaurants, all two decades before the coasts of Spain and Greece developed their own equivalents.
Its architecture has none of the colourful style of the Weimar Republic, but rather an arresting lack of sentimentality and detail.
The leisure centres and cafes are decorated with classical columns, and the unbuilt festival hall would have pushed Prora a little closer to Poundbury, but this is a machine aesthetic, and a chilling one.
The first civilian use for Prora, in the late 1990s, was for a YMCA in one of the eight mindbendingly long blocks.
Cologne-based writer Christian Werthschulte remembers staying there as a teenager, and “hated every minute of it”.
It’s not hard to imagine why – even with its gorgeous sandy beach the place feels bleak and harsh.
The youth hostel was recently renovated, but other blocks have been sold to developers.
Some of these are being renovated, some are being stripped back to their concrete frames for the same purpose, but walk along the sandy beach and you’ll find that one huge long block has been transformed, its dun concrete painted and gleaming glass balconies added; two others are undergoing a transformation into the same.
Compared with the delicate way Germany normally handles its fascist heritage, this is unusual.
Prora’s dereliction, like that of Albert Speer’s Zeppelinfeld in Nuremburg, once stood as an instructive image of Nazi hubris. Now, it is becoming the place it was intended to be.
Wertschulte, recalling his school trips there in his youth, points out that “it would be a good place to teach Germans about everyday life under the Nazis”.
That was indeed the original plan.
Katja Lucke, who works at the Prora Documentation Centre museum, tells me that after its military use was wound down, an independent study “recommended a mixed use of the building complex: for soft tourism, education, culture, living and social care.
The use would have been connected with the consideration of the history of the building and the intention to protect and preserve it”.
But, realising the complexity of the task, “the federal finance and estate office decided to sell it, basically to get out of the responsibility”.
Instead of treating Prora as a whole, the state sold it off, piece by piece.
A sceptical local government “had not too much influence and not too expensive lawyers”, says Lucke. As a result, “every block has a different investor”.
Ironically, investors are attracted by the subsidies the building is given as a heritage monument.
The units in Block 1 have been on sale now since 2016, and they cost between £300,000 and £600,000.
Most have now been sold. Show flats are available for viewing: when you’re inside, it’s much like any contemporary luxury apartment, with sleek kitchens and glass balconies.
The flats are aimed at the typical German luxury clientele – middle aged, wealthy, seldom from the local area. These units are explicitly marketed as second homes for people from Hamburg and Berlin; what Iris Hegerich, of the Berlin-based developers IrisGerd Immobilien, has called “high-calibre customers”.
In the winter, as with any other resort, it will be empty. As a result, the plans have been unpopular in nearby towns like Binz and Sassnitz, where there will be little benefit to be had from the new resort.
‘Why not make the place nice?’
Has the history of the site been a help or a hindrance in marketing Prora?
“Both,” says Elisa Weizmann, a spokesperson for Irisgerd Immoblien. “The story belongs to this ensemble and will always be part of Prora.
The untouched nature of Prora makes it easy to forget the dark past.
Through the reconstruction of this building we are concentrating on creating something new for the future.”
Units are advertised on the promise that the buyer can be beside “one of the most beautiful beaches in Germany at any time”.
It is striking, visiting Prora, how normal the imagery put out by the property companies is.
You could be anywhere.
But of course you are not – you’re in the largest built relic of German fascism, a place where mass murderers were trained.
But as one beach-goer comments, “Germany is full of memorials”.
Why have another? Why not make the place nice?
For Katja Lucke, Prora offers “a chance to explain National Socialist ideology and to experience it, because one can see it”.
Given how similar Prora now seems to many modern resorts, it also makes clear how certain Nazi ideas about mass tourism became “normal”, albeit in a different form.
It’s not the only Nazi-era idea gaining prevalence in Germany today.
In the summer and autumn, election posters all over Rügen – which is part of Angela Merkel’s constituency – urged a vote for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a party which bases its appeal on hostility to foreigners, family values, and an end to interrogations of Germany’s past.
The AfD argues there should be an end to “monuments of shame” such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.
The party’s vote rose sharply in this rural, depopulated island. Now that you can live in the old Strength Through Joy camp and enjoy it as a holiday resort like any other, the “normality” the AfD wants from the remnants of Germany’s past is being realised – through the simple wonders of the real estate market.