Ephemeral Cult Sites – The Staging of Space and Material at Nazi Mass Rallies (2020)

Among the new tasks that Germany presents its architects, is the festive design of temporary spaces for special events. For the most part, this area is new for building planners, and with this publication, we would like to intentionally steer consciousness towards it. We believe that the design of festive spaces is one of the most necessary vehicles of expression of our time and that artists, among them particularly architects can expect an abundance of beautiful, but also difficult tasks in their future.[1]

Deutsche Bauzeitung, 1935

An elementary endeavour of the NSDAP was to establish an aggressive visual presence in public, a propaganda measure that had been stipulated since the party’s founding days in 1920: Until the seizure of power the three main design elements “to constitute presence in public without public activity” were the political poster, the flag and the swastika.[2] When the Nazis seized power thirteen years later, instead of hastily marking public space with individual symbols to promote the party and establish visual dominance, it laboriously created huge political arenas in which almost everything was “transformed to a symbol”[3]. Festival arenas and parade streets, which provided architecturally choreographed settings for massive political rallies, advanced to becoming the two most essential components of every city’s urban redesign, serving solely to celebrate highlights of a newly, autocratically imposed political calendar. These celebrations were to provide a commonality of experience, promote unified national identity and quickly and permanently establish tradition and ritual.[4]

The main goal of my doctoral thesis in art history was to illustrate and analyze how meticulously organized, aesthetically calculated and hence, psychologically manipulative the aesthetical apparatuses of these political Nazi celebrations were – whether these sites were designed for mass rallies or smaller public events. As the title of my dissertation suggests, their structures were determined by two criteria, space and material. My aim in approaching both criteria was to bring light to the intended ideological and political connotations of both phenomena.[5]

It was not, however, my priority to explore in detail the cognitive impact of the aesthetics on the participants, on which various empirical studies in the field of social psychology have already been published.[6] Rather, the main focus of my research was on the iconography of space and the materials utilized, as an expression of an autocratic and aggressively authoritarian regime.

I utilized significant inspiration from publications, conferences and lectures on political iconography, particularly in the context of the research training group “Political Iconography” under the direction of Martin Warnke[7] and Wolfgang Kemp[8]. In addition, my method of analysis was based on the methods of the fledgling research area of the iconography of materials (referred to as material culture). Here, primarily the work and inspiration of Monika Wagner are to be emphasized.[9] Her publication “The Material in Art” continuously serves as a major inspiration.[10]

For my study, originally researched and written in German, I visited numerous archives throughout the country and scrutinized a wide range of original, contemporary sources: official documents, the party’s internal reports, diaries and propaganda material like film, photos and original pamphlets. Articles from technical journals, essays and publications written by contemporary, essentially regime conform art historians were also both helpful and revealing.[11] In the context of a primarily art-historical classification, I obviously also consulted relevant secondary literature. Currently, I am translating this opus for publication in English and hope, along the way, to find an interested publisher or documentary filmmaker.

My opening chapter, “A New Order of Time and Space”, deals with the phenomenon of festival culture, whose socio-political and psychological significance was quickly recognized by the Nazis. The fact that political celebrations presented “great disciplinary and educational possibilities”[12] had been articulated by the National Socialist Party as early as the 1920s and were soon strictly regulated by specific departments of the government. After the Nazi’s seizure of power in 1933, public life, therefore, underwent a huge transition. After all, in order to psychologically mobilize an entire nation, strategies had to be developed that weren’t located on the level of logical observation and rational reflection but that triggered subconscious feelings by creating “sensuous”, communal experiences, as an entry in a contemporary guidebook on public holidays demonstrates:

…mankind has always had a need for congregation, contemplation, faith, recuperation and will formation… If human beings didn’t stand on such grounds or have that position, they would have no law, no bond, no strength. They would be disparate fen-fires, set into an empty room in turmoil… each human thought and especially those of the German is disposed however, to see a cosmos, an order and to recognize, create and live it.[13]

Besides establishing a cyclical political calendar, specific cultic rituals[14] were created and permanently installed. For these specific purposes alone, cultic sites, political symbols and other highly effective aesthetical elements were designed. How these political “ambiences” served in removing the masses – both geographically and psychologically – from everyday life[15] in order to ensnare them in the totalitarian system of “leader” and “followers”, I further analyzed throughout individually themed segments of that chapter.

In the second chapter, “Urban Cult Sites”, I focussed on sites within cityscapes, such as in Berlin and Munich. Mono-functional areas, like the rally grounds on the outskirts of Nuremberg, pose an exception but follow the same principles structurally and architecturally: Every form of government seeks to shape the urban development of a city, the design of public spaces and systems especially, in order to represent political intentions.[16] However, the more in need of representation a totalitarian or absolutist system is, the more of a necessity it becomes to be implemented in urban planning. It is well-researched and had been thoroughly described in the literature that megalomania[17] became one of the regime’s most important architectural features. Until the outbreak of war, festival sites and streets were aggrandized with immeasurable dimensions following those very characteristics, in a way that has, in general, only become of such significance in totalitarian regimes.

Adjoining parade streets were equally relevant, being part of the cult site’s infrastructure. Their description served as the analysis of ritualistic functions and aesthetical features of the political marches and parades. By investigating these exemplary sites that were specifically designated and designed for political rallies, I pursued the questions, of when, how and exactly by what means, political, rather cultic space is constituted – not only by reconstructing and analyzing the permanent architecture but by using specific utilized ephemeral materials.

It was therefore of further major relevance to determine how ephemeral materials, in opposition to solid and durable materials[18], constituted disparate semantic levels.[19] In my analysis, I attempted to more precisely define the status of these festive elements. This was especially because, in most of the secondary literature, the materials of ephemeral stagings are merely treated as “cultic props”[20]. Moreover, I was able to illustrate in these chapters that stylistically these transient materials even had an impact on the regime’s official architecture, Hitler’s “Word of Stone”.[21]

Even in the most current literature, the historiography covering these mass rallies has focussed mainly on those in Nuremberg and Berlin, which have been the most prominent and well-documented by contemporary mass media. It is far less well researched and publicized, however, that political rallies were not confined to architectural settings in urban areas, but were also executed in the countryside, amplifying and utilizing hereby the “natural” ambience. This was my subject in my third chapter, “Political Cult Sites in Nature”, in which I was able not only to uncover prominent aesthetical features but also to illustrate, which calculating propagandistic connotations were sought by instrumentalizing these natural habitats and their regional materials. My focus was on a site located in idyllic, natural surroundings near Hameln, followed by a unique study and analysis of natural, indigenous materials utilized for political propaganda purposes.

The Nazis also selectively enhanced and propagandized picturesque, small-town settings, whose historical façades and materials were perceived as especially “Germanic,” to exploit them for Nazi ideologies. Sight lines to specific monuments or façades within these cult spaces, and even objects in the distance, were symbolically utilized. Historically, it is not unusual that certain topographies, such as visible historical structures, silhouettes and skylines, are either negated or an ennobling vicinity is sought.  But the Nazis frequently utilized this method, like their constant search in other areas to justify their ideologies.

In many suburban or partially industrial areas, however, the unaltered historical architecture proved unsuitable as a political backdrop, so ephemeral materials such as light, textile flags, banners and fire served not only in representing the state’s symbols but also gained a new role as independent “building materials”. These ephemeral materials served therefore both the expansion and the constitution of new political space and meaning, as well as being used to both hide and cover up disadvantageous spaces.

My fourth and final main chapter on lighting effects begins with a chapter on fire, “Lumen Naturale – Fire Spectacles”, which covers different techniques of utilizing natural fire as a political medium and comprises therefore many different locations since its vast employment was of almost pyromaniac nature. After 1936 open fire was present at all political rallies and celebrations, whether in the form of braziers, as mobile torches at parades, large solstice bonfires or even artificial fire, created by pointing spotlights at flickering, red flags – all of these I described and analyzed in individual subchapters.

Symbolically, archaic fire possesses as one of the four elements, ambivalent characteristics: Historically, fire represents illumination and enlightenment, destruction and renewal, spirituality and damnation. Many of these contrasting mythical and religious features the Nazis instrumentalized for ideological purposes.

On a very archaic level, fire can be emotionally and aesthetically an impressive medium and the fact that it is always most effectful at night was well known to the propagandists. In 1925 the philosopher Ernst Cassirer had written: “The unfolding of a mythical feeling in a space results anywhere from the contrast between day and night, light and dark”[22]. Even the NSDAP’s meetings were preferably held in the evening. If any celebrations started in the daytime, the highlights, Hitler’s appearance or his speech, were mostly postponed until the evening.[23] Gatherings and celebrations that took place after dark were favoured, so that the participants would be in a less critical and more of an illusory state of mind that could then be filled with ideologies.[24] Likewise, the darkness could act disinhibiting as well as disguising, which is also why “consciously […] terror was veiled by partial anonymity”[25], like the deportations of millions of people, the fires and destructions of the “Reichskristallnacht” in November 1938, or the book-burnings of ostracized authors on May 10, 1933, brutally illustrated, which all took place under the covers of the night.

Electric light, as the “ephemeral design tool par excellence”[26], took on a primary role in the designing and reorganization of space at political rallies, which took up, next to fire a major part of the fourth chapter, “Lumen supranaturalis – Lighting Effects”. At nearly every major Nazi celebration, light shows were organized, or at least attempted. Not all of them were included as an integral part of the festive ceremonies because they were not always formally, iconographically, organizationally or technically advantageous or even feasible.

Albert Speer’s Lichtdom, Reichsparteitage, 1938

The employment and advancement of lighting technology had already begun in 1933 at the torchlight parades in celebration of Hitler’s seizure of power. The additional feature of this nocturnal celebration were massive floodlights to illuminate the space and enhance the parade, which later became a central theme in the design of political space. It culminated only three years later, in 1936, in the creation of a virtual architecture, the Cathedral of light, which was staged annually until 1938.

Albert Speer’s “Lichtdom” was the cultic highlight of the entire, meticulously organized Reich’s party rallies in Nuremberg. The effect of this light show must have been quite overwhelming because even foreign ambassadors delivered positive reports. It was staged in a way that perpendicular, blue light from 151 anti-aircraft searchlights positioned in a square surrounding the enclosed participants on the Zeppelinfeld, shot up vertically and flooded the night sky, the pillars of light slowly closing. Like the dome of a huge cathedral, it appeared high above the masses, who were instructed to vow in unison, to believe in “a God in heaven” who had sent them Hitler as a saviour.[27]

With this installation it seems that propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ aspirations were settled: In the first edition of his proposals regarding the establishment of a festive, calendrical cycle, that he had submitted to Hitler in 1933, it reads: Until now, “propaganda has been extensive, now it must become intense. It is no longer of importance to address a large number of participants, but to activate an ‘inner experience’. Participants should be so carried away that they ‘make confessions’.”[28]

In my final chapter, I summarized superordinate phenomena that epitomize specific characteristics of Nazi cult sites and its materials: Not only was I able to investigate how the space, in which these quasi-cultic procedures took place was designed, often instrumentalizing their specific environments, thus elevating them to political landscapes. But based on recent studies in the field of the iconography of materials (also called material culture)[29], I was able to uncover the extent to which ephemeral materials were used, moreover, their relevance as carriers of specific, well-calculated contents of political propaganda, which has hitherto only sporadically been analyzed. Specific characteristics of these materials, a further phenomenon that has also not yet been researched is that these sites were also modified and transformed through primarily moving materials, like flags, fire or light, that were actively used within these cultic rituals, which proved not only to be an emotionally enticing characteristic but most suitable for reproduction and mass distribution through the still evolving propaganda tool, film.

Frances Livings (c) 2019


[1] Zu den neuen Aufgaben, die Deutschland seinen Architekten heute stellt, gehört die vorübergehende festliche Gestaltung von Räumen für besondere Begebenheiten. Das Gebiet ist für den Baugestalter zum größten Teil neu und wir wollen durch unsere Veröffentlichung bewußt auf diese Aufgabe aufmerksam machen. Wir glauben, dass die festliche Gestaltung von Räumen zum notwendigsten Ausdruck unserer Zeit gehört und dass die Künstler, unter ihnen besonders die Architekten, eine Fülle schöner, aber auch schwerer Aufgaben von hier zu er­warten haben. DB April 16/17, 1935, p. 315.

[2] Schmeer 1956, p. 23. On the so-called „Sturmtrupps“ see Balistier in Diesener/Gries 1996, p. 23-34 und Bytwerk in Diesener/Gries 1996, p. 35-50.

[3] Alkemeyer/Richartz in Herrmann/Nassen 1994, p. 83.

[4] Eric J. Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge 1999.

[5] Specifically on this methodology, see Warnke 1984.

[6] On the perspective of empirical studies, see Brockhaus 1997; Straub 1998. To conduct further studies on participants’ perspectives, the interdisciplinary work group on researching the development of social structures was founded in 1997: The project “On the social psychology of the consciousness of Nazi history” was under the supervision of Harald Welzer at the Psychological Institute of the University of Hannover. The focal point of these studies is the question, of which biographical experiences constitute the formation of memory of the Nazi era. For its documentation, of a variety of interviews and surveys, keyword catalogues have been created. Publications on this research approach: Welzer 1997 and 2002.

[7] A major source of inspiration was the publication Politische Landschaft (Political Landscape) by Martin Warnke. Warnke 1992.

[8] The Research Centre for Political Iconography is located at the Warburg Haus Hamburg, which has an extensive library and an image index. < http://www.warburg-haus.de/ >

[9] The “Material Archive”, founded and initiated by Monika Wagner at the Seminar of Art History in Hamburg is a collection of texts and images on materials in art after 1945.

[10] Wagner 2001. See also Wagner/Rübel/Hackenschmidt 2002.

[11] Especially relevant is the programmatic publication by Hubert Schrade: Schicksal und Notwendigkeit der Kunst, Leipzig 1936.

[12] Roth 1938, p. 19 f.

[13] Original source: “…die Menschen [haben] von seither [ein] Bedürfnis nach Sammlung, Besinnung, Glauben, Kraftsammlung, Willensbildung […]. Hätten die Menschen einen solchen Grund, einen Standpunkt nicht, so hätten sie kein Gesetz, keine Bindung, keine Kraft. Sie wären ungleiche Irrlichter, in einen leeren und wirren Raum hineingesetzt. […] während jeder menschliche Gedanke und der des Deutschen vor allem gesonnen ist, einen Kosmos, eine Ordnung zu sehen und zu erkennen, zu schaffen und zu leben.” Roth 1938, p. 14 f.

[14] In the following, rituals are defined as the repetitive exercising of cultic, religious acts. Rites are to be equated with customs that are often of folkloristic nature. On specifically Nazi rituals see: Behrenbeck 1996; Gamm 1962; Voegelin [1938] 1993; Loiperdinger 1987.

[15] On the contrasts between everyday life and holidays („Alltag und Feiertag“) see Schievelbusch 1992, p. 83 ff.; Alkemeyer in Dreßen 1986, p.76; Herding/Mittig 1975, p.8.

[16] Nevertheless, in Nazism streets (in the form of access roads leading to the fairgrounds and the Reichsautobahn) obviously still fulfilled pragmatic, economic and military functions that corresponded with the organisational fanatism that prevailed under the regime. Napoleon had already created national roads to conquer and occupy that served in supporting military operations in antiquity. Roads can also be regarded as means to distribute propaganda – similar to the webbing of railway networks in the 19th century, as a medium of progressive communication. (Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise. Zur Industrialisierung von Raum und Zeit im 19. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt/M. 1989.)

[17] Speer 1969, p. 63 ff. and Vondung 1971, p. 150. Also on the monumentality and features of the consecration of Nazi celebration sites.

[18] For durable materials in Naszim (and in the Weimar Republic) see Fuhrmeister 2001.

[19] Georg Friedrich Koch made a brief reference to this contradiction between ephemeral and durable materials at the Nazi Party’s Rally Grounds, claiming: “The architecture itself becomes, in its essential elements, a foil for the ephemeral decorations.“ Koch in Arndt/Koch/Larsson 1978, p. 140.

[20] For example, Yvonne Karow writes: “The architecture and the decorations of the stagings are applied exclusively, to aid the liturgy, a function that is determined as a Nazi specific one.” Karow 1997 p. 17. She also uses it for the title of that chapter “Prop-Architecture”, Karow 1997 p. 33. See also Vondung who writes, “… in the Nazi party’s festive rooms the swastika or Hitler’s bust were mostly flanked by imperial eagles, chandeliers or similar bits of decoration. […] The nature of these props […] and their use […] show, however, that above technical aspects, the attempt was made to imitate a sacred Christian space and to utilize the resulting consecrating effect.” Vondung 1971, p. 155. „Kultrequisiten” p. 189-193.

[21] Inspired by ideas such as Dieter Bartetzko’s chapter entitled “Flags become Pillars”. See: Bartetzko/Illusionen in Stein 1985, p. 62-70. Even Volker Ackermann claims that Albert Speer’s ephemeral design of Hindenburg’s funeral, on August 7, 1934, in the Tannenberg Memorial, which was later rebuilt by the brothers Krüger, later influenced the building’s structure: “Speer placed Hindenburg’s coffin so in the middle of the main courtyard so that for anyone standing at the entrance of the monument, the view resulted in a line of flight across the coffin, lectern, cross and tower. In this way, he anticipated the axis, that later, would run through the octagon in the direction of Hindenburg.” Ackermann in Behrenbeck/Nützenadel 2000, p. 99.

[22] Cassirer 1953, p.119. He also states that: “The dominant power over mythical-religious consciousness, exerted by this antagonism, can be traced back to the most highly developed religious cultures.”

[23] The fact that the Nazi’s political gatherings were held in the evenings was continued from the workers’ assemblies of the Weimar Republic, which were also held in the evening hours to facilitate each worker’s participation and thus achieve the largest possible number of participants.

[24] At many events, Hitler made the experience, that his audiences’ ability to think critically was reduced after a long, tiring day at work and were also more susceptible to the stimuli of Nazi propaganda in the dark, especially towards the illusionistic powers of light and fire. In “Mein Kampf“ he confessed that by scheduling the gatherings for the evenings and by choosing an interior design, that radiated warmth, he could fulfil his intention to “impair people’s freedom of will” and to reduce their “spiritual [.. .] resilience”. Thöne 1979 p.43.

[25] Schmeer 1956, p. 9.

[26] Roland Jäger, „Truppentriumph und Kaiserkult. Ephemere Inszenierungen in Hamburg”, in: Diers 1993, p.86.

[27] Offizieller Bericht/Reichsparteitage 1936, p. 172. It says: During this sacred hour, in which an infinite cathedral, going into infinity, arches over us, we want to pledge: “We believe in God in heaven, who created us, directs us, and watches over us and has sent us you, mein Führer, to liberate Germany. This is what we believe, mein Führer.” The ritual of this confession of faith was recited annually at all rallies in Nuremberg at which the Lichtdom was staged.

[28] Vorschläge der Reichspropagandaleitung zur nationalsozialistischen Feiergestaltung vom April 1935, Gesamtverantwortlich: Fritz Kaiser, München 1935/36. Quoted from: Vondung 1971, p. 40.

[29] This area of research began in 1969 with Günter Bandmann and underwent its most detailed studies with Monika Wagner’s analysis of materials in contemporary art. Bandmann in Städel-Jahrbuch 2/1969, p. 75-100. For further fundamental theories see also Kemp/Ausst.Kat. 1976, p. 9-14 and especially Wagner 2001.