A Theory of Ruin-value

The Word in Stone

Adolf Hitler was very interested in art and had originally hoped to have a career as an artist (Fest 1977: 566-7). He also believed that architecture can be of great political use. In Mein Kampf Hitler complained about the lack of "outstanding monuments" in German cities which could symbolise their glories. In particular, Hitler demanded more funds for architecture, the use of lasting building materials and the influence of a "higher ideal" for public buildings (Hitler 1939: 223-4).

After he had come to power in 1933, Hitler started planning not only various modern thing-sites, but also monumental 'public buildings'. Monumentality was for Hitler and his architects, just as for the rulers in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the only appropriate architectural expression for an eternal empire (Fest 1977: 782; cf. Assmann 1988: 90-1 and endnote 5). He saw architecture as a political weapon and as built propaganda. The prospective memory of Nazi architecture was not only to convey the greatness and glory of the German Reich to the German people, in order to help them keep faith in their own future, but also to astonish and overwhelm visiting foreigners and even later generations (Taylor 1974: 30-36, 272-3; Tamms 1974; Speer 1985; Adam 1992: chapters 10+11):

"Hitler liked to say that the purpose of his building was to transmit his time and its spirit to posterity. Ultimately, all that remained to remind men of the great epochs of history was their monumental architecture, he would philosophize ... Today, for example, Mussolini could point to the building of the Roman Empire as symbolizing the heroic spirit of Rome. Thus he could fire his nation with the idea of a modern empire. Our architectural works should also speak to the conscience of a future Germany centuries from now." (Speer 1970: 55f.)

Hitler spoke of architecture as "the word in stone" (Taylor 1974: 30); this phrase does not only underline the great political significance which he gave to architecture, but it is also an interesting allusion to the nowadays often disputed textual analogy of material culture. If architecture is 'the word in stone', then we need of course literary theory, such as reception theory, in order to understand it.

Hitler's special interest were improvements for the cities of München, the hometown of his party, and Berlin, which he wanted to transform into a world capital, "comparable only to ancient Egypt, Babylon, or Rome" (cited after Fest 1977: 783). This connection of Nazi architecture with Egypt, which is made frequently in contemporary literature, finds an interesting correspondence in the recent attempt to understand the pyramids with reference to the architects around Speer (Assmann 1988).

A Theory of Ruin Value

Hitler reportedly said at the cornerstone-laying for the convention hall in Nürnberg (modified after Fest 1977: 784):

"But if the Movement should ever fall silent, even after thousands of years this witness here will speak. In the midst of a sacred grove of age-old oaks the people of that time will admire in reverent astonishment this first giant among the buildings of the Third Reich."

It is clear that Hitler's architectural aspirations were not entirely original; he had predecessors and there were also contemporary parallels (see Scobie 1990: 94, note 5). Hitler may have known what the art historian John Ruskin had already in 1849 asked architects to consider (1996: 42):

"when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, not for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stone will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, 'See! this our fathers did for us.'"

In 1934, the architect Albert Speer proposed "A Theory of Ruin Value", on which Ruskin's hopes and Hitler's dreams could be based. Speer explained this theory in his memoirs (1970: 56):

"The idea was that buildings of modern construction were poorly suited to form that 'bridge of tradition' to future generations which Hitler was calling for. It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate these heroic inspirations which Hitler admired in the monuments of the past. My 'theory' was intended to deal with this dilemma. By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics, we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models.
To illustrate my ideas I had a romantic drawing prepared. It showed what the reviewing stand on the Zeppelin Field would look like after generations of neglect, overgrown with ivy, its columns fallen, the walls crumbling here and there, but the outlines still clearly recognizable. In Hitler's entourage this drawing was regarded as blasphemous. That I could even conceive of a period of decline for the newly founded Reich destined to last a thousand years seemed outrageous to many of Hitler's closest followers. But he himself accepted my ideas as logical and illuminating. He gave orders that in the future the important buildings of his Reich were to be erected in keeping with the principles of this 'law of ruins'."

Speer described the meaning of these laws in practice with the following words (p.528, note 2; see also Scobie 1990: 93-5):

"To this end we planned to avoid, as far as possible, all such elements of modern construction as steel girders and reinforced concrete, which are subject to weathering. Despite their height, the walls were intended to withstand the impact of the wind even if the roofs and ceilings were so neglected that they no longer braced the walls. The static factors were calculated with this in mind."

Recently, Angela Schönberger has, however, argued that this 'theory of ruin value', which legitimised the use of natural stone without any iron reinforcements, was in fact a euphemism which hid the real reason why this building technique was preferred: the economic necessity to minimise the use of iron which was urgently needed for the armament programme (Schönberger 1981: 168-9). It seems strange though that Speer would not allude to that in his post-war memoirs. Alex Scobie also reminds us that some of Hitler's ideas in that respect go back to Mein Kampf published 1924 (Scobie 1990: 95). Perhaps the economic benefit was only one more reason for a way of building, which was ideologically preferred in any case.

Interestingly, Hans-Ernst Mittig argued recently (1993: 21) that there is no proof that the theory of ruin value existed before 1969 at all (when Speer first published his memoirs). He went on to state that the theory of ruin value has left no traces in any publications of the Nationalsocialist period, and Mittig concludes that the popularity of this idea must be due to a contemporary fascination with ruins today.

Prora on Rügen

[Image] One of the most monumental buildings built during the National Socialist period, though never completed, is the ambitious Kraft durch Freude-sea-resort in Prora on Rügen (see map). It was built for 20,000 holiday-makers at any one time, but later used, among other purposes, for Nazi-German, Russian and East German troops and today houses e.g. a youth hostel and several museums (Rostock 1994; Lichtnau 1995). Prora's architecture by Clemens Klotz reflects some of the megalomania of Nazi architecture, although it is not a typical building of 'the word in stone'. Apparently Hitler himself as well as Speer showed considerable interest in the plans (Lichtnau 1995: 9-10).

[Image]However, the 'theory of ruin value' did not in this case lead to the avoidance of bricks or concrete reinforced with iron. As a result, the decayed ruins of today are mostly sad debris and anything but imposing ruins in 'a sacred grove of age-old oaks'. However, what is left of the buildings still expresses some of the power and might which Hitler had tried to embody in his architecture (see image left, from 1995). In this sense, he was successful (contra Taylor 1974: 280). Today, historians, architects and politicians are struggling hard with finding a solution for the problem of what to do with this huge historic monument on Rügen (Landeszentrale 1994), while the guests have long moved on to other seaside resorts and spas along the Baltic Seas such as Heiligendamm.

A theory of prehistoric ruin-value

Speer's reasoning, which was close to Hitler's own thinking, has wider implications for the interpretation of archaeological remains. Perhaps it is also no accident that the site of Prora has been associated with the megaliths on Rügen as well as with other archaeological sites such as Macchu Picchu (Landeszentrale 1994: 36, 69).

In a nutshell, what Speer and Hitler proposed was to build monumental architecture in the present in a way so that the ruins of those buildings in a thousand or more years time would still be impressive and speak favourably about the time when they were built. Unlike the motivation behind the building of the pyramids in ancient Egypt, it was not the preservation of monuments that was the ultimate aim of the builders, but their controlled decay! Whereas the architects of landscape parks of the 18th and 19th centuries built new ruins, those of Hitler's Germany were asked to build new monuments which would, over the course of thousands of years, mutate into appealing ruins by themselves.

Although "it is probably impossible to build so as entirely to avoid the ultimate effects of pleasing decay" (Piper 1948: 94), the 'theory of ruin-value' requires that the aura and aesthetic appeal of the ruined building in the future would already be present in the mind of its architect. The prospective memory implied in such reasoning takes into account natural decay and cultural ignorance over very long time periods.

Hitler and Speer drew the inspiration for the 'theory of ruin-value' mainly from the impressive ruins of Classical Antiquity in Greece and Italy (Hitler 1939: 223; Taylor 1974: 37-40; Scobie 1990). But as Speer's colleague Friedrich Tamms knew (1974: 125), prehistoric megaliths are potentially no less admirable ruins. Applying the 'theory of ruin-value' to the origins of megaliths, it is an interesting thought to imagine that they, too, were built with a similar prospective memory. The builders of megaliths may have anticipated the natural and cultural forces which they would be exposed to in the centuries and millennia of their 'life-histories'. Those megaliths which survived until the present-day have often lost their earthen body as well as much of their precious and sacred content; they are partly overgrown and their stone surfaces are weathered. But megaliths have also become striking monuments with a patina and a strong aura emanating from them. Friedrich Tamms (1974: 126) argued that an incomplete and therefore unused building can be particular impressive, because any practical use of it stands in the way of an appreciation of its pure form.

Is it possible that megaliths were originally conceived by their Neolithic builders as formidable ruins of future ages? Their present-day appearance may be the strongest supporting evidence which we could wish to have:

A megalith in Stuer (1046), Kreis Röbel (1995)

From this viewpoint, the message which megaliths 'want' to convey to us may be nothing other then the greatness of their builders. Since this is what the majority of antiquarians, travellers and archaeologists have always understood, the original meaning of megaliths may have been fully known for centuries.

Interestingly, Julian Thomas (1991: 123) and Trevor Kirk (1996: 63, 66) have both independently pointed to building characteristics of several megaliths which can be interpreted as evidence for deliberate attempts to imitate actual antiquity. Such ambitions to 'speed up' decay artificially may give even more weight to prehistoric 'ruin-value' as a main concern of the megalith builders. A similar argument with reference to certain Bronze Age tumuli has been made by Paul Garwood (1991: 25-6).


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 21 December 2004