Berlin Belastungskoerper

The eccentric engineer: ‘Germania’ and Hitler’s Impossible City

Image credit: Dieter Brügmann from Wikipedia

This edition tells the story of the engineers behind the infamous reminder of Hitler’s Impossible City – a grand place to house the ‘Master Race’ and an enduring relic of an imperial capital that was never built.

If there’s one thing that megalomaniacs tend to have in common, it’s a love of grandiose statements. Hence, behind every tyrant, there’s usually an ambitious architect. Behind them, a very nervous structural engineer.

Of all the megalomaniacs and all the grandiose statements, few can compete with Adolf Hitler and his plan to build a new capital city for his great German Empire – ‘Germania’.

Under the supervision of Hitler’s favourite architect, Albert Speer, Germania was to rise on the foundations of old Berlin, as a capital worthy of the ‘Master Race’. It was to be vast, both in extent and in the scale of the buildings within it. Created along a monumental east-west axis, the city would include a great ‘Volkshalle’ [People’s Hall], designed by Hitler and modelled on the Pantheon in Rome. However, Hitler’s temple to himself would be so large that St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican would fit inside it, while Agrippa’s old Pantheon would fit – just – into the oculus in the roof.

Of course, building on this scale presented several problems, the most notable being that Berlin sits on a marsh around the River Spree – not the ideal foundation for the largest structures on Earth. Of course, people had managed similar feats. Winchester Cathedral is built on a raft floating in a marsh and has stood up for over 900 years, though admittedly with a lot of interventions.

Yet Hitler’s plan put most cathedrals in the shade. Speer realised that before ground could be broken, a serious experiment had to be done. The engineers of Dyckerhoff & Widmann were brought in to construct the ‘Schwer­belastungskörper,’ or ‘heavy load-bearing body’ in the borough of Templehof, where Speer planned to build Germania’s Triumphal Arch.

As was typical with the plans for Germania, this arch was to be big – three times bigger than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Indeed, the Arc would fit under the arch of Speer’s proposed gate. Therefore, it would be heavy, hence the need for the Schwerbelastungskörper – a trial weight equivalent to the pressure that one pillar of the intended arch would exert on Berlin’s soft ground.

The Schwerbelastungskörper consisted of a solid concrete cylinder, 11 metres in diameter and weighing 12,650 tonnes, set on a foundation reaching over 18 metres underground which housed rooms containing stress meters and tiltmeters to measure what subsidence – if any – took place. The whole structure placed 1.24MPa of pressure on a 100-square-metre area. Speer calculated that if the sinkage was less than 6cm, work could go ahead. Otherwise, massive stabilisation would be needed before building could begin.

Assuming all went well, there would then be the problem of the Schwerbelastungskörper itself. More than 12,000 tonnes of concrete is not easy to get rid of, so the plan envisaged creating an artificial hill over the structure, upon which the arch itself would be built.

Any modern-day visitor to Berlin can see that Hitler’s plans for Germania never came to fruition. Although much land was requisitioned, and many buildings demolished, construction was paused with the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Germany had first to seize an empire before building its imperial capital. Of all the main monumental structures, only Hitler’s Reich Chancellery was completed.

Building briefly began again after the defeat of France, when Hitler visited Paris and the sight of the Arc de Triomphe reminded him of his own far more majestic plans. Only the invasion of Russia and necessary diversion of resources brought building to a final halt in 1943.

The 5km-long ‘Avenue of Splendours,’ the 350,000m2 Großer Platz, the Fuhrer’s Palace and Hitler’s monstrous Volkshalle all remained just plans and models. Even Speer’s triumphal arch never made it off the drawing board.

Yet the Schwerbelastungs­körper did. Unlike the Reich’s Chancellery, it has survived to this day. Plans to demolish the eyesore were mooted, but its sheer solidity meant it was unsafe to dynamite the structure in a built-up area. It remains where the engineers placed it.

It served its purpose. Measurements continued at the site up to June 1944. After the war, an analysis showed the structure had subsided by 19cm in two and a half years. Had the plans gone ahead, some poor engineer would have had to tell Speer – and perhaps even Hitler himself – that their grandiose city was doomed to sink into the marshes of the river Spree.

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