The Party-Day Fields at Nuremberg
The off-the-cuff answer is usually that Adolf Hitler possessed such preternatural powers of rhetoric that he was able to hypnotise his audiences, whether one person or five hundred thousand. He was the ‘strong leader’ for whom the Germans yearned. Yet his performances do not stand up to analysis: all sound and fury, delivered in a funny accent with the gesticulations of a marionette. He was uneducated and boring; his table-talk was piffle, hour after soul-destroying hour. He was the man you dread sitting next to on a bus.
I suspect that the person who was really responsible for the death of Germany’s conscience was a man who had none of his own yet was diabolically clever: a true Faust. A narcissus whose diary recorded the petty triumphs and even pettier disasters of his daily life in excruciating detail; a man who coolly supervised the murder of his own six children when he couldn’t bring himself to face the consequences of his actions. Josef Goebbels, a psychopathic dwarf with a club-foot and a bottomless reservoir of hatred and contempt for humankind.
It was Goebbels, like all sociopaths a cynic, who figured out how to create a new religion which would sweep aside the Germans’ self-control by exciting and enthralling them, inspiring them with overwhelming feelings of glory, destiny and superiority, inflating their bruised feelings of self-worth and offering them a new future, a utopian vision of freedom where they would be physically and spiritually united with countless millions just like them, to dominate the world for all time. They deserved it! They were – of course! – the master-race.
Goebbels’ cold heart knew what salesmen know: people make life-changing decisions because of what they feel, not because of what they think, still less because of what they know. His cold eye appraised systems which used emotional manipulation to achieve extraordinary behaviour: the exaltation of the churches and their martyrs; the atmosphere inside a cathedral; the discipline of the public schools and their inmates’ indifference to comfort; royal weddings and jubilees; the laughter and tears of cinema audiences; the wolf-pack instincts of football crowds. Cleverly, he stole visual and aural prompts from the worlds of sport, theatre and the military: bright light and deep shadow; crimson and black, the visceral colours; the sheen of gold; the flapping of flags, the beat of drums, the rhythm of marching boots, the sound of thousands of voices singing, shouting and cheering in unison…. the use of vast crowds to extinguish individualism and evoke the predator within, free of morals, free of responsibility, free of constraint.
The showcase for this mind-bending extravaganza was the Party-Day Fields just outside Nuremberg. Eleven square kilometres of limestone, granite and beaten earth for the ritual enactment, every year from 1933 to 1938, of the Nazis’ adulation of themselves. Parts remain. The city seems ambivalent about its brief sojourn in the Fuehrer’s sun: ashamed but also proud. Few of the buildings were ever finished and the remnants are interspersed with warehouses, race-tracks and sports fields; traffic grinds through on its way somewhere else, families stroll with picnic baskets, dogs trip over their paws as they race to meet other dogs. No-one seems to look up at the towering walls of the Congress Hall or down at the granite slabs of the Grand Street. The iron-and-stone personification of the Thousand-Year Reich is, now, just a place to wander on a sunny day.
Albert Speer, Hitler’s obsequious architect, was reputed to be a good organiser. But you will look in vain for evidence of architectural talent in the sprawling Party-Day Fields. There is no refinement, balance or aesthetic sensibility in the proportions or the detail. All is massive, square, clunky, crude. Speer’s ‘talent’ was to over-awe. He said that he aimed for grandeur; he achieved the grandiose. The Congress Hall, designed by local architects within Speer’s master-plan, is the largest surviving edifice. It is big – like a U-boat pen – but bare and utilitarian; a pastiche of the Colosseum on which it was modelled. Today it houses a museum where the introductory film intercuts clips of present-day skateboarders with scenes from ‘Triumph of the Will’. Round the corner are photographs of Wehrmacht soldiers shooting Serbian civilians in the back of the head; further on, pictures of the stone quarries at Mauthausen where 30,000 were deliberately worked to death.
The wall-surfaces of these huge buildings were clad in stone but the interiors were rubble and clinker. The soft-focus images in ‘Triumph of the Will’ give an impression of monumental structures, destined to last a thousand years, but most of them are stage-sets designed to last two weeks. We can detect here the values of Josef Goebbels: reality was irrelevant; illusion was all. Goebbels could hoodwink fifty million people, make them believe black was white, make them feel they were doing a good thing by shooting children in the back, make them throw their lives away in the slaughter of 1945. He revelled in his ability to deceive. He was a moral abyss with exceptional technical skills. He stands as an example of what an able human being can become once all humanity is stripped away.
We visited the Party Day Fields in an effort to understand the magic which the Nazis used to pervert an entire nation. It was possible to glimpse the role of size and scale in robbing the troopers and the citizens of their better selves; it was possible to dimly understand how the Nazis created feelings of excitement and exaltation here, using sets and props, lights, music and sounds, colours and gimmicks, drama and numbers, noise and movement, fear and awe.
Hitler, a mental midget, probably believed what he said. Goebbels believed nothing but had the technical ability and the moral nihilism to create a gross illusion, a crashing falsehood which ensnared millions of otherwise normal citizens who rapidly became blood-stained activists or silent supporters.
But it was a show, a performance staged by experts who were laughing behind their hands at the gullibility of the people. In the end, the scenery collapsed and the arc-lights sputtered out in a deluge of blood. The Party-Day Fields are as good a place as any to contemplate the gimcrack illusion on which the Twelve-Year Reich was built.