The Third Reich was so entrenched within every fabric of German society that it is difficult to travel in Germany, and other parts of Europe which were occupied by the Nazis, without coming across remnants of the past. The legacy of the Third Reich continues to astonish and surprise tourists and historians alike, even if you expect to be confronted with genocide, totalitarianism or mass killing. Today’s ‘Travelling Historians’ blog looks at Chelsea and Hannah’s most surprising ‘unexpected’ finds on their travels!
HR: Let’s start with you – what was your most unexpected finding about the Third Reich that you discovered when travelling?
CS: There have been many, but one of the most surprising was Berlin in the summer of 2015. Naturally, as the capital of the Third Reich, you expect to find many Nazi relics. But I was most astonished to learn from a local tour guide that I should pay special attention to the red marble walls of a nearby underground (U-Bahn) station. Apparently, the Mohrenstrasse U-Bahn station was built with the distinctive red marble that once lined Hitler’s personal offices of the Reich Chancellery!
HR: Really?! They recycled the marble from Hitler’s offices? When was the station built?
CS: The station was originally built in 1908, but rebuilt again after the war in 1950.
HR: Why did they rebuild it with that marble? I suppose building materials in 1950s Berlin were hard to come by. But even so, you’d think that they might have reconsidered using something so controversial.
CS: Exactly! That’s what I found so confusing. Why would they use marble from Hitler’s offices so casually to rebuild a nearby station in 1950? But this is where it starts to get interesting… Ever heard of Ernst Thälmann?
HR: The Communist leader?
CS: Yes! Ernst Thälmann was a German politician and the leader of the Communist Party in the 1920s. He was a charismatic, capable leader but when the Nazis came to power, he was arrested. He had a terrible fate too – he spent a full 11 years in solitary confinement until his execution in August 1944.
HR: What does he have to do with the marble at Mohrenstrasse station?
CS: In 1950s, the Mohrenstrasse U-Bahn station was located in recently founded East Berlin. When the station opened, it was named ‘Thälmannplatz’ to honour the Communist politician. But two Berliner newspapers reported that the marble needed for the reconstruction of the Thälmannplatz station had been delivered from Thuringia within only 108 days.
HR: So, then, the marble slabs didn’t come from the Reich Chancellery!?
CS: It is likely that they did not. But even so, some historians (Hans-Ernst Mittag, Marmor der Reichskanzlei, 2005) have questioned the GDR’s motives. Could it be that the marble did originate from Hitler’s Reich Chancellery offices, but that the GDR did not want to admit it had to rebuild a new station from leftover Nazi materials? That could have made the new communist state look weak or incapable.
HR: But if the marble did come from the Reich Chancellery, why didn’t the GDR use it like a trophy? Along the lines of “Aha, look how we have destroyed and repurposed your old, broken stuff into our own!”
CS: Great point! More recently a memo discovered in mid-July 1950 shows that the red marble slabs had been specially ordered from the Thuringian VEB Marmorwerk Saalburg. So it is likely that the marble was not from the Reich Chancellery. Regardless of the marble’s possibly nefarious origins, it reveals how the legacy of the Nazis has been repurposed and manipulated for political purposes, and then further mythologised into local legend. This bizarre lesser-known myth still tells us an enormous amount about the politics of Holocaust and Nazi memory in Germany today. Fascinating, no?
HR: Absolutely. I never knew!
CS: What about your most unexpected finding on your travels?
HR: For me one of the most surprising was that whilst visiting Ljubljana Castle on a visit to Slovenia in 2016. There was a concentration camp uniform that had been worn by a Slovenian prisoner in one of the camps.
CS: But why was that surprising? The concentration camps and the ‘striped pyjamas’ are well known.
HR: It was because of where I was, Slovenia! When you read about the history of the Holocaust or see maps of the concentration camps, there is no Slovenia because it didn’t exist – it was then part of Yugoslavia. So although there were Slovenian victims, they are counted as Yugoslavian. Given the changes of political boundaries, which created ‘new’ countries, such as Slovenia, it was surprising to learn about Slovenian victims, but it doesn’t quite match up with what we know about the Holocaust.
CS: Yes, that’s a really interesting point that by changing such political boundaries, it can create a disjointed understanding about the identities of victims of the Holocaust. But you also mentioned another castle that you visited with a surprising Nazi past…?
HR: Yes! So I visited Neuschwanstein Castle which is in Bavaria, Germany. It is a beautiful castle and is actually the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the Disney animation. I visited and toured the outstanding architecture and saw incredible views across southern Germany, especially as it was a lovely day. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I returned home and watched the film ‘The Monuments Men’ that I discovered the Nazis had used that same castle to hide hidden artwork and treasures that they had stolen from around Europe. There was simply no mention of it at Neuschwanstein Castle!!
CS: Love it. So a fairy-tale castle in the mountains was used to hold stolen treasures? No wonder they made a movie about it!
HR: From the Nazis perspective, it was the perfect hiding place – far away from towns and cities, hidden by the mountains and hopefully wouldn’t be targeted by the Allies due to its location and historical relevance! Speaking of the mountains nearby, our tour guide told us that one of the mountains was completely hollow as it had been ‘emptied’ by concentration camp inmates to build V1 and V2 rockets – again something completely surprising to discover. When looking at majestic alpine views, you would never know!
Dr Chelsea Sambells and Hannah Randall