So horrendous were the manifold atrocities perpetrated by Adolf Hitler and his followers that decades passed before scholars began to address the Nazis’ use of the visual arts in their comprehensive program for domination. This blind spot was attributable to the long-held notion that cultural aspects of the Third Reich must be ignored, because even to acknowledge them was tantamount to approval. Some people decried any attention paid to the Nazis’ unquestionably repellent but also undeniably effective exploitation of mediums as venerable as architecture and urban design and as innovative as photography and filmmaking. Especially suspect were the propaganda “documentaries” of Leni Riefenstahl, which began to be screened again in the US during the late 1960s. Critics felt that these and other works of Nazi art diverted attention from morally weightier matters, most of all accountability for the Holocaust.1
The reappraisal of Nazi architecture was initiated by a groundbreaking series of studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s—especially Anna Teut’s Architektur im Dritten Reich, 1933–1945; Barbara Miller Lane’s Architecture and Politics in Germany, 1918–1945; and Robert R. Taylor’s The Word in Stone: The Role of Architecture in the National Socialist Ideology—and has been expanded significantly by several recent publications that confirm there is still much to be learned about this vexed topic. Among a younger generation of scholars unafraid to confront such once-taboo material, none has surpassed Despina Stratigakos, an architectural historian at the University of Buffalo, whose Hitler at Home detected damning signs of moral depravity in the Nazis’ seemingly minor design decisions.2
In her latest book, Hitler’s Northern Utopia: Building the New Order in Occupied Norway, Stratigakos takes on another unexplored but vastly larger subject and demonstrates a keen understanding of how Hitler’s perversion of architecture reflected that thwarted master builder’s ideological values, even beyond the German fatherland. Not the least of the surprises in this admirable but unsettling new study is that among the twenty or so countries subjugated in whole or in part by the Nazis, Norway was unique because Germany spent more on development there than it extracted in booty. The Nazis’ Norwegian architectural and infrastructure program was so ambitious that one is amazed not to have known more about it until now, but this omission is in no small part a consequence of the relative paucity of studies (especially in English) on the country’s modern architecture in general, compared with the copious literature on that of other Scandinavian nations.3
As Ian Kershaw points out in Hitler, 1936–1945: Nemesis, the invasion of Norway in April 1940 was almost an afterthought for the Führer, whose military advisers had to press on him the strategic necessity of occupying it before launching the Blitzkrieg against the Low Countries and France a month later. The immediate task that faced the Germans was to secure Norway’s more than 15,000 miles of coastline from the British, whose navy had blockaded North Sea shipping access to the Scandinavian Peninsula. The Third Reich imported most of the iron ore needed for its armaments and munitions industries from neutral Sweden, and land routes through Norway were the surest way for Germany to acquire that essential raw material.
An immediate architectural result of the conquest was the construction of the northernmost portion of the so-called Atlantic Wall, the sequence of heavily fortified defensive emplacements that eventually stretched all along the western coast of Nazi-dominated continental Europe and Scandinavia for some 1,670 miles, from the French-Spanish border on the Bay of Biscay to the upper Arctic limits of Norway on the Barents Sea. (A number of those abandoned concrete watchtowers, pillboxes, and bunkers still stand, in various states of decay.) This vast undertaking was carried out by Organisation Todt, the paramilitary Nazi construction corps that took its name not from the German word for death (as well it might have, considering the high mortality rate in this forced-labor operation throughout Europe), but from the group’s head, the civil engineer and early Nazi Party member Fritz Todt. Celebrated for his realization of the Autobahn during the previous decade, he was killed in a plane crash early in 1942, before his building agenda in Norway could be fulfilled, and momentum slowed in his absence.
Norwegian resistance forces waged a much more spirited defense of their homeland against the superior German military than several of their European counterparts. As a result, 14,000 buildings in twenty-three towns were very seriously damaged and required emergency reconstruction. The cost was estimated at 400 million kroner (equal to about $1.4 billion in current dollars). Although that economic burden was largely imposed on the Norwegians themselves through taxation, it represented but a fraction of the Nazis’ Nordic spending spree.
On the other hand, the Nazis had a knack for keeping labor costs down. Sections of Riksvei (National Road) 50—the 1,800-mile-long highway that leads from the capital city of Oslo in the south to the town of Kirkenes, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle—were still unfinished when the Nazis invaded, nine years after the project was begun in 1931. To complete this strategically vital lifeline and other infrastructure projects, the new overlords imported 130,000 enslaved laborers (most of them Soviet prisoners of war, plus others from Poland and Yugoslavia), 17,000 of whom died under appalling conditions. One particularly fatal segment of Riksvei 50, where more than a thousand prisoners perished, is still known as Blodveien (Blood Road).
Instead of simply restoring the demolished towns of Norway, the invaders seized the opportunity to reshape these far-flung settlements in accord with Nazi precepts of urban design meant to promote social cohesion and political control. The resident Reich commissioner, Josef Terboven, was put in charge of the rebuilding; he was supervised from afar by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect. Speer remained preoccupied with his megalomaniacal plans for transforming Berlin into a new national and world capital city to be renamed Germania and at first was resentful of this provincial distraction.
To implement their architectural remaking of occupied Norway, in June 1940 the Nazis founded an agency named Brente Steders Regulering (Burned Sites Redevelopment, or BSR), which was headed by the respected Norwegian urban planning specialist Sverre Pedersen. Whether we now see Pedersen as an apolitical functionary who selflessly agreed to assist in rebuilding his homeland or as a willing Nazi collaborator, his contemporary countrymen certainly adjudged him the latter. A major complicating factor was that he used his Nazi connections to save his eldest son, a captured resistance fighter who had been given a death sentence that was commuted to imprisonment. Pedersen resigned in disgrace from the BSR after Germany’s defeat in 1945, and though he returned that year to his teaching position at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim, students boycotted his classes. He was forced to take an extended leave of absence, retired in 1954, but by 1961 was deemed rehabilitated and received the King’s Medal of Merit. Pedersen died a decade later at age eighty-nine.
Stratigakos’s most detailed and revealing case study in Hitler’s Northern Utopia examines Pedersen’s several successive schemes for reshaping Molde, a small city on a peninsula 230 miles northwest of Oslo, where King Haakon VII and his government took refuge from the invading Germans before fleeing to England to set up their wartime government in exile.4 Long included among the country’s foremost touristic beauty spots, Molde stretches along its south-facing waterfront with an expanse centered by a town square that leads to a central wharf on the fjord, just as the Piazzetta di San Marco far more elegantly addresses the Venetian Lagoon and similarly serves as the symbolic front door of that city.
Such civically owned central spaces—allmenning (commons)—are prevalent in Norway’s seaside towns, where they often serve as the fish market. But the Nazis saw them as made-to-order templates for their requisite Marschplätze (marching squares), where mass rallies could be held. Stratigakos’s unearthing of the plans for Molde is a major rediscovery, and their clear sequence of alternative proposals affords an idea of the pressures that Pedersen faced as Nazi higher-ups critiqued his work, not on its aesthetic or urbanistic merits but for its political efficacy.
Although in one early version Pedersen substantially enlarged Molde’s existing allmenning, the Speer deputy who vetted the plans complained to his boss that “everything [is] too cramped and too small,” and the Norwegian architect was sent back to his drawing board. He eventually created a second square to the north and twice the size of the existing one, and the conjoined area now dominated the town plan. Another element in the Nazis’ co-opting of cities as theatrical backdrops for political display, and closely related to the marching square in its importance, was a thoroughfare sufficiently ample to accommodate another favorite Hitler event, the nocturnal Fackelzug (torchlight parade). That requirement resulted in Pedersen’s widening of Molde’s main east–west avenue, the Storgata, which followed the curve of the shoreline and fed into the enlarged town square.
Symptomatic of the Nazis’ social engineering micromanagement was the repositioning of Molde’s principal Protestant church (now a cathedral), which had been leveled by the German bombardment. In each of Pedersen’s subsequent plans, he moved its replacement farther and farther away from the visually prominent spot the landmark had enjoyed before the invasion. Hitler was eager to eradicate both the Protestant and Catholic faiths (many of whose clergy, if not always their leaders, supported the anti-Nazi resistance) and planned to supplant them with a secular form of neopaganism. Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian collaborator who founded the country’s fascist Nasjonal Samling (National Unity) Party in 1933 and then headed the wartime puppet government from 1942 until liberation in 1945, concocted his own woozy new creed, which he named Universism and wanted to institute in place of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as Norway’s official state religion.
Not surprisingly, the prominent cross-topped church spire that appeared in initial renderings of Pedersen’s Molde rebuilding scheme met with strong disapproval from his superiors. Though they dared not eliminate such a high-profile Christian cynosure altogether at that point, in later iterations it was relocated yet again and obscured by taller buildings. But the scheme was never fully implemented, for as the tide of war turned against Germany its essential resources had to be reapportioned to more urgent defensive measures, and nonessential building in Norway was halted.
The Nazi occupation of Norway necessitated the sudden proliferation of another specialized form of architecture: homes for unwed mothers, to accommodate the sharp spike in out-of-wedlock births of children fathered by members of the German forces. This was hardly an unwelcome development from the Nazi perspective, for a great deal of Hitler’s interest in Norway stemmed from his obsession with its people’s supposed racial purity. Although he disparaged the country as culturally backward and even degenerate—a view he based on its rapid embrace of modern architecture during the 1930s—he was fascinated by its preponderance of tall, blond, blue-eyed “Aryans.” It was their genes that he wished to fully incorporate into his projected master race, as promulgated by the Lebensborn (Fountain of Life) eugenics movement begun in Germany in 1935 by his adjutant Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS.
Thus, German soldiers siring children with suitable-looking Nordic women was not only tacitly tolerated but actively encouraged and idealized, as in the 1943 propaganda booklet Schwert und Wiege (Sword and Cradle) by Wilhelm Rediess, the SS chief in Norway. It depicted such luxurious maternity and infant-rearing installations as the Heim Hurdal Verk, near Oslo, which was established in a former resort replete with a Neoclassical manor house and park.
However, the invaders’ purpose-built maternity homes were less imposing. Heim Klekken, about twenty-five miles northwest of Oslo, brings to mind a midrange vacation condo in a second-tier Colorado ski resort. Some 8,000 children (an estimated 12,000 if one includes unplanned pregnancies that weren’t part of the Lebensborn program)—derisively known among patriotic Norwegians as tyskerunge (German brats)—were born as a result of this racially motivated initiative. The most genetically promising were placed with adoptive families in Germany, often those of SS officers. Children who did not measure up to the Nazis’ exacting standards languished in group homes, and the approximately five hundred who remained there by the war’s end were returned to their mothers, adopted, or sent to orphanages.
Another architectural by-product of the occupation was the network of military social centers created throughout Norway for German troops; 300,000 of them were stationed there, on average, throughout most of the war, though their numbers would increase to 450,000 by 1945. They needed secure places where they could relax off-duty without having to mix too familiarly with local inhabitants, which Nazi authorities deemed unwise (whatever extracurricular procreative activities the men may have been up to). Indeed, in many communities there were no large structures that could be commandeered for group socializing, and the number of garrisoned personnel sometimes exceeded the local population. The new Soldatenheime (soldiers’ homes) were predominantly single-story wood-frame multi-use facilities with inviting domestic interiors meant to convey a comforting gemütlichkeit. For example, to remind enlisted men of their fatherland’s cultural heritage, four artists were brought from Frankfurt to the Kristiansand outpost to paint large murals that depicted (in the approved hyperrealistic National Socialist style) scenes such as a quaint village street in Hesse with step-gabled roofs and half-timbered façades and an allegorical fantasy on Goethe’s Faust.
Many of these two dozen modular, partially prefabricated facilities were designed by the Norwegian architect Fritz Jordan. Before the war he had worked in the progressive mode known in Scandinavia as Functionalism (rather than the International Style, as it was called in the US), but now he turned to a more traditional look in response to the Nazis’ antipathy to modernism. He was forced to share authorship of the plans with the Nazi operative Edgar Haller, who had no architectural training but determined the designs’ general outlines.
These blocky Soldatenheim schemes generally followed the bilateral symmetry and Stripped Classicism favored in Nazi architecture, and were conceived not to fit in with their modest surroundings but to stand apart from them as conspicuous impositions by the country’s new masters, signified by the exaggeratedly horizontal wings of the stylized Nazi eagle emblem that was invariably affixed above the main entry. Jordan’s Norwegian citizenship made him a useful tool for Nazi propaganda, yet his overseer ultimately dropped the real designer’s name from the buildings’ credits.
Stratigakos does not say what happened to Jordan after the war, but evidently he built very little thereafter. For a six-story residential building of 1948 in Oslo he reverted to the Functionalist style reviled by the Nazis, but apart from that and a small neo-vernacular structure of 1953 in the town of Drøbak, his career seems to have ended well before his death in 1981, which like Pedersen’s came when he was eighty-nine.
One architectural category that the Nazis did not stint on in Norway, even after their financial resources were stretched thin on two fronts, was the system of some five hundred concentration camps they set up immediately after conquering the country, which incarcerated an estimated 150,000 political and war prisoners. Many of those camps were repurposed from existing jails and prisons, while others were constructed from scratch to house enslaved laborers on remote construction sites.
This subject is the focus of Trond Risto Nilssen and Jon Reitan’s excellent monograph Legacies of the Nazi Camps in Norway, which deals mainly with the Falstad concentration camp, located on a remote coast some thirty miles northeast of Trondheim and refashioned from the architect Claus Hjelte’s Falstad Reform School of 1921, a state-run youth rehabilitation facility. Nilssen and Reitan interweave the political and architectural aspects of this infernal machine for human misery with a skillful blend of detachment and outrage. The existing main building at Falstad—a substantial brick rectangle surrounding a large courtyard—resembled a prosperous farmer’s manor house, but the flimsy outbuildings added by the Nazis were barely fit for livestock. One inmate, a Norwegian Jew named Julius Paltiel who also survived Buchenwald and Auschwitz, later insisted, “Nothing was worse than Falstad.”
Given how long it takes for most large-scale architecture to reach fruition, even under accelerated dictatorial conditions, the Nazis’ most grandiose visions could not be executed during their five-year domination of Norway. Although the biggest of those projects has long been known about in that country, Stratigakos’s discussion of the unrealized scheme for Nordstern (North Star), a completely new German city of 300,000 inhabitants that was to be built on a peninsula west of Trondheim (the country’s ancient Viking capital and fourth-largest population center), will come as a revelation to many readers elsewhere. Just as Hitler cherished the idea of turning Linz, his Austrian hometown, into the new cultural capital of his future pan-Germanic empire, he was likewise beguiled by the prospect of founding a Nordic metropolis that would glorify the Norwegians’ biological superiority and their genetic contribution to his perfecting of the master race.
For the immense task of planning Nordstern he went once more to Speer. But although that ruthless opportunist, who had earlier turned up his nose at more workaday assignments in Norway, leapt at this chance to conjure an entire ideal city from the ground up, time was no longer on his side. Following Fritz Todt’s sudden death in 1942, Speer was named his successor as Reich minister for armaments and war production, and thereafter was unable to concentrate on this plum job. Whether or not Speer’s conception of Nordstern progressed much beyond the very generalized ground plans he sketched out on large-scale maps and the large raised-relief topographical model of the site fabricated by a Munich firm in 1941 remains unknown. But no elevation renderings of the detailed sort he devised for Germania have emerged, and this pipe dream went up in smoke along with Hitler’s fantasies of global domination.
Norway has never had a national reckoning about what occurred under Nazi occupation. Only lately have serious investigations reopened this prematurely closed chapter in Holocaust history, as indicated by books such as the Norwegian journalist Marte Michelet’s 2014 Den største forbrytelsen (The Biggest Crime), made into a film directed by Eirik Svensson in 2020, and her 2018 Hva visste hjemmefronten? (What Did the Resistance Know?). In the latter, Michelet asserts that members of the clandestine Norwegian network that smuggled an estimated nine hundred Jews to safety in Sweden charged extortionate fees for their humanitarian help (although it has also been claimed that the money was used to finance the movement’s risky activities and did not enrich its members).
What set the stage for the Nazis’ astonishingly rapid roundup, expulsion, and extermination of Norway’s Jews is illuminated by Bjørn Westlie’s chilling account Det Norske Jødehatet (The Norwegian Hatred of Jews). Published in 2019 but yet to be translated into English, it documents the consistently anti-Semitic editorial stance of the country’s most influential newspaper, the Oslo Aftenposten, from the early 1930s onward. Westlie argues that the Aftenposten’s prejudicial portrayal of Norway’s small Jewish population as a parasitic alien community fomented a poisonously negative public perception of these outsiders in an overwhelmingly Christian culture. In his Histories of the Holocaust (2010), the British historian Dan Stone notes:
Only in Norway and France does one see collaborationist regimes that eagerly set about dealing with the Jews…. Despite the hatred for the occupiers among much of the population (especially in Norway, where, paradoxically for the Nazis, the population was the epitome of the “Aryan”), the bureaucrats who identified, rounded up, and sent Jews away to their deaths were largely locals, with a thin layer of German supervision.
Among the deportees was a fifteen-year-old girl, Kathe Rita Lasnik, who is the subject of a gripping and heartrending addition to the literature of the Holocaust, one that again proves that the unspeakable horror of the Nazi genocide against the Jews is most comprehensible in individual life stories rather than mass demographics far too vast to truly grasp. Kathe—Always Been in Norway by the Norwegian literary critic Espen Søbye was originally published in Norwegian in 2003 and is now available in English. It would be incorrect to see this as a minor pendant to the story of Anne Frank, who was killed at the same age as Lasnik. The Norwegian girl did not leave a diary like that of her now celebrated Dutch contemporary, yet Søbye makes us care about her no less deeply.
Although this haunting book does not deal with architecture in the same direct way as the two other titles under review here, it nonetheless vividly evokes the urban setting of Oslo, where Lasnik was born and went to school. Her father was a master tinsmith, her mother had worked in a tobacco factory, and they raised four daughters, of whom Kathe was the youngest by fourteen years. Søbye visits and includes photographs of the three addresses where the family lived during her brief lifetime, the last of which was 7B Hertzbergs Gate, a five-story redbrick Functionalist structure in the Zeilenbau (linear building) format typical of the exemplary workers’ housing estates that proliferated in Germany during the Weimar Republic.
The Lasniks moved into their final dwelling when its construction was completed in 1938. The second-floor one-bedroom flat had a maid’s room (which they sublet to a boarder during the occupation to make money) as well as a balcony. It was the work of the Oslo architects Henrik Nissen and Gunnar Brynning, who clearly kept abreast of advanced developments in modern housing and sensitively adapted them to their local setting. Yet whatever social benefits such improved residential conditions may have fostered under the country’s progressive interwar governments, they were brutally canceled out by those complicit Norwegians whose precipitous descent into barbarism paralleled that of the Nazis.
Earlier in his career, Søbye worked as a statistician for the Norwegian state, which gave him expertise with census, school, and other public records that he uses to painstakingly flesh out a portrait of the lost child, whose parents had emigrated from the Russian province of Lithuania in 1908. His laconic tone can seem puzzling at first, given the gravity of what he is describing, but his masterful restraint heightens one’s sense of despair and impending doom.
The subject of Kathe—Always Been in Norway never felt herself to be anything but the Norwegian citizen she was from birth. On the obligatory identification form presented to the country’s Jews two and a half years into the Nazi occupation—an ominous prelude to their deportation ten days later—was the question “When did you come to Norway?” This implied that Jews living in this ultra-homogeneous Christian nation, whose constitution banned them entirely between 1814 and 1851, must have been born elsewhere. On that line she neatly wrote, “Alltid vært i Norge” (I’ve always been in Norway).
Early on the morning of November 26, 1942, Kathe Lasnik was arrested in an enormous police sweep, along with her mother and unmarried older sister. (Her father had been wrested from a hospital sickbed two days earlier.) They were all herded onto the German cargo ship SS Donau in Oslo Harbor, and it departed immediately. Four days later it docked at the Baltic port of Szczecin, where the passengers were put into railroad boxcars, transported to Auschwitz, and gassed upon arrival on December 1. Of the 532 Jewish Norwegians on that voyage to oblivion, nine survived the war. Overall the Nazis killed 42 percent of the country’s 1,800 Jews.
By the 1990s, when Søbye began his research, only a small number of Kathe Lasnik’s aged relatives, childhood friends, schoolmates, and neighbors had firsthand memories of her. Her two surviving sisters had fled to Sweden with their husbands and then lived in Israel and the US well into their nineties. It is sobering to contemplate that their youngest sibling, who was born in 1927, might still be alive today had fate not precluded her escape from the genocidal dragnet that still casts a dark shadow eight decades afterward.
May 13, 2021
The Norwegian royal family’s activities during World War II are the subject of Alexander Eik’s eight-part miniseries Atlantic Crossing, which is being aired on PBS this spring. ↩