We were lured to the Baltic Sea by rumours of something ugly hidden in the woods. That and the promise of a getaway weekend in the Ostseebad Binz, hotel with sauna and fresh fish for dinner. We traveled by train from Berlin, through drizzly depressing Brandenburg and Mecklenburg with their forlorn towns and boarded-up train stations and forests blushing with vague light. The sun came out for us as soon as we reached the island of Rügen and we spotted some deer grazing on windy meadows, behind them bright flashes of the sea. We set out on our search the next day, strolling along the shore with the other tourists and locals and nordic walkers, whose sticks left sharp holes in the sand, and one barefooted man (it was March, he was crazy), until we spied it through the bushes. Separated from the friendly beach and the glittering sea by some scraggly trees loomed a brownish-gray building that immediately brought to mind twentieth-century madmen: a monumental fascist structure, five stories high and stretching to the vanishing point in both directions.
Strength through Joy
This was what we’d heard about and wanted to see for ourselves, the Kraft durch Freude Seebad Prora, one of its kind and even more hideous and gargantuan than we had imagined. A monotonous slab of cement-framed windows with identical side wings jutting out at right angles, it makes you think of a prison or of the Ministry of Finance or War or something equally evil in an Orwellian vision of the future. It takes a while to remember what it actually is: vacation housing. Kraft durch Freude means Strength through Joy and was a Nazi organization belonging to the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labor Front) that organized and supervised the recreation and leisure of German workers. KdF set up sewing circles, put on concerts, offered gymnastics lessons and chess game evenings, and hosted holiday tours throughout the country and abroad, refreshing work-weary assembly line workers with hiking trips in the Alps or herding miners onto special KdF cruise ships for leisurely jaunts along the Italian coast.
The idea was to make it possible for German workers to enjoy some of the same perks as their employers, thus leaving them no grounds for developing an insurrectionary class-consciousness that could upset the Nazi ideal of the Volksgemeinschaft – one people fused together by blood and sweat and hostility to everyone excluded by it, impenetrable by the wedge of class. Well-rested workers could return to the plants, including, of course, the munition plants, with renewed vigor and productivity: strength through joy.
And here was a building constructed for them, as many of them as possible, 20,000, in fact, at once, a concrete block extending in one interminable stretch parallel to the coast, making us feel very small and soft. With the standard holiday lasting ten days, it was large enough for two million vacationers to enjoy the Baltic seaside between spring and fall every year, for two million pairs of eyes to look out of the windows – every bedroom faces the sea and take in the view, for two million pairs of legs to cross the stretch of sand and plunge into the blinking bracing water, for two million mouths to open and close around forks in the vast dining halls placed at regular intervals between the dormitory wings. Everyone together, everyone the same, everyone happy and strong and joyful, thanks to the Baltic Sea, thanks to the air and the sand and the seagulls, thanks to the robust Aryan blood in their veins, thanks to the builders and the architects – one of whom was appropriately named Clemens Klotz (German for big heavy shapeless block) –, thanks to the party. Generous funding of KdF projects meant that the workers would only be charged 2 Reichsmark a day, covering everything from room and board to bath towels.
Naked rooms, shards of glass and bits of trash
All of this was hard to imagine as we stood in front of the empty shell of a building that spring morning, the weeds all along it crunchy with broken glass, slim trees growing on the roof, the 150,000 cubic meters of wood that were felled to make room for the building slowly winning back territory. Signs were posted at regular intervals warning of risk to life and limb, the doors boarded up, but we finally found an unsecured entrance and wandered around the decimated insides of the place, stripped of every removable object, except for some poster scraps on a wall here and there (Tom Cruise and John Travolta – who on earth hung those up?).
On one of the landings we found a neat pile of black fire stones from the beach, each seemingly chosen with great care and left there, full of some kind of meaning we could not decipher. Otherwise the endless hallways and naked rooms contained nothing but shards of glass, bits of trash, and the unreal, gorgeous view of the sea through the windows. A quote attributed to Gorbachev was painted onto the pocked plaster of one of the walls (“In the nuclear age, saving the earth from nuclear destruction is the responsibility of all of humanity, the concern of all peoples”). We had to pick our way around puddles of black water ominously standing in the hallways and we were cold, the thick walls having a refrigerating effect, so we didn’t linger long and were glad to be outside again in the sunshine.
A fascist utopia after all
But then were drawn right back in, unable to resist the hysterically advertised private museum (“500 meters to the museum!” “400 meters to the museum!” “300 meters to the museum!”) in one of the wings, which, along with a floor devoted to motorcycles made in the GDR, includes an exhibition on the history of the matchless KdF project. Building began in 1936, we learned, and came to a halt in 1939 when Germany went to war and all resources and manpower were diverted to what had become the nation’s only cause and purpose, leaving no time or money for working-class leisure. The half-finished construction was used for military training until the Soviets came and dismantled parts of it for building materials. They also interned dispossessed property owners, whose seafront villas were “refunctioned,” and housed refugees from the East in the wings that remained intact. We wondered if any of these involuntary residents knew or appreciated the fact they were living in a holiday resort.
The exhibition also boasts a continuously looping documentary film in which every contemporary witness waxes nostalgic about the war (“Those were good times,” a radio operator instructor reminisces, and seeing the photo of him, one grinning young man and a cheery gaggle of young women in a we’re-away-from-home mood, we thought, “sure bet it was”), and a model of what the finished 4.5 km-long structure was intended to look like. Yes, that’s four point five kilometers. Even the model is overwhelming. The tiny trees and bushes neatly lining the cardboard paths are interspersed with little red and white flags, red with a blank white circle in the middle, scrubbed clean of those indecorous swastikas, giving the impression the KdF Seebad Prora was a Japanese development, only backwards.
The museum is an information overload, screaming block letters everywhere, pointing you this way and informing you of that, reams of photocopied texts and newspaper clippings on every square inch of wall. But it wasn’t until we did some research back at home that we confirmed for certain that the “Colossus of Rügen” had never actually fulfilled its intended purpose, had never provided holiday respite to a single worker. That information must be included somewhere in the exhibition, but it is well hidden, as if the museum’s operators want to downplay that one disappointing fact. It was just a dream after all, a utopian fascist fantasy that collided with other fascist fantasies and lost. Never fulfilling its destiny of becoming a workers’ paradise, the bleak, uncompleted building was passed from military command to military command (after the Soviets, the East German military, the NVA, moved in, followed by the West German military, the Bundeswehr, who made use of the crumbling monstrosity until they in turn abandoned it in 1992). At least the Prora Seebad has the distinction of being the only KdF holiday resort to make it past the planning stage, at least it exists, seemed to be the message of the display.
View blocked by wreckage of history
We did notice a more reflective-looking exhibition in another part of the vast complex, the government and foundation-funded Dokumentationszentrum Prora, but by then we were KdF’d out and skipped it in favor of the “Wiener Kaffeehaus” on the top floor of one of the wings, where we had some greasy food in the company of wistful former NVA men who had come to show their sons and wives the section of the museum commemorating their part of the story. From there we continued our walk along the endless building, past the disemboweled section that fell prey to the Soviets, where we climbed a fence and cut across the freshly planted lawn dotted with spanking new restroom buildings belonging to a new youth hostel/campsite facing the KdF structure.
Pitch your tents here, kids, your view of the sea blocked by the wreckage of history, graffiti-smeared and shattered, where your grandparents and great-grandparents would have frolicked their summers away if things had gone differently. Evenings you can party at the Disko Miami that inhabits another wing, set apart from the rest by the bright pink paint on the façade. It must be dankly cavernous in there, and drafty and perfect for hard industrial music and as reminiscent of Miami as the café upstairs is of Vienna.
On our way back to Binz we fantasized about making good on the utopian promise of the KdF building. Why not put it to use as a holiday resort for today’s “working class,” J. suggested for immigrants, illegals, the precarious, and the unemployed. “Imagine Prora crawling with Africans and Arabs and Slavs and Turks, vacationing in the house Hitler built for his Aryan workers.”
The idea made me a little giddy. Paint and gardens and curtains and art could take an edge off the ugliness without canceling the egalitarianism, I mused. J. made a big, enthusiastic gesture with his arms. “Just picture it: self-exploiting ‘free’ (here he made quotation marks in the air with the index and middle fingers of both hands) lance cultural workers like us could be given a holiday from their laptops, we could sit under the trees on the roof of the KdF building, letting the waves and the sun and the Baltic breeze unbend our hunched spines and loosen our creaky joints.”
Burden or Chance?
“And the welfare recipients,” I crowed, “they would lose the pallor in their faces and the hopelessness in their eyes as they wander through the forests overlooking the sea and scratch their initials and those of their lovers into the trees next to the gouged names of the generations that went before.”
We were walking faster now, both talking at once. We could see it in front of our eyes: children of all different colors running wild on the beach, getting in the way of the silvery sedate health spa patients. The mysterious lifeguard tower we had noticed on the beach in Binz, looking like a space ship about to take off, another piece of local architecture no longer fulfilling its purpose, could be reclaimed for parties and reading groups, its enormous oval windows framing the view of the gentle, clear fading sea. There would be evenings of dancing together in the Disko Miami or on the sand, learning each other’s languages, borrowing each other’s sunscreen.
Get some Strenght and Joy!
After a couple of weeks we would start feeling it, the strength, growing gradually out of our joy, and we would be so full of ideas of how to use it and of motivation and we would exchange addresses and return to our cities and towns and villages and asylum-seekers’ hostels and we would be different and stronger and most of all, we would know each other and the different things we needed and wanted – which have nothing to do with a Volk or a war but with life in a million different facets – and we would get to work right away. And when our energies started to flag or the everyday worries of rent and childcare and dealing with the bureaucrats threatened to sap our energy, we would head back to Prora, where every room faces the sea.
Illustration by Herr Müller, Berlin