Glancing up behind me, I’m acutely aware of the empty space where a giant gilded swastika once crowned the structure, and I feel a shiver down my spine that has nothing to do with the weather.
I’m standing on the podium from which Adolf Hitler addressed the Nazi party faithful during the Nuremberg Rallies of the 1930s.
On either side the ruined wings of the Zeppelin Tribune splay out, their monolithic columns long since destroyed, and before me the parade ground reaches into the shadows.
From any angle a spectator’s gaze would be directed here, at the rostrum.
The sensation is both profoundly unsettling and oddly compelling: you can see how it might go to a man’s head.
As a master of propaganda, Hitler understood the power of pomp and circumstance.
The overbearing architecture of Nazi Germany was intended to both awe and inspire, to impress and intimidate — to give the common man a sense of destiny, and yet remind him of his insignificance.
“These buildings are not intended for the year 1940, or for the year 2000, but rather they should reach out … into the centuries of the future,” the Führer told his rapt audience in 1937.
A man with a plan, then.
The National Socialists chose Nuremberg as the venue for their annual party rallies in the late 1920s, thanks to the city’s history as a medieval seat of the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1934, the year after he had wrested power from the German government, Hitler commissioned architect Albert Speer to design monumental buildings across a huge area of south-east Nuremberg to host the rallies — a complex of stadiums, parade grounds and arenas, and a gigantic congress hall.
Construction began at once, and the rallies grew in size and ceremony each year until 1938.
Work was still in progress when Hitler’s troops invaded Poland shortly before the 1939 rally was scheduled, triggering the outbreak of World War II.
Although concentration camp inmates excavated granite for the site throughout the war, work on the rally grounds was never completed.
After Germany’s capitulation in 1945, US troops symbolically blew up the copper-clad swastika that adorned the Zeppelin Tribune, and Nuremberg became known not as the city of the Nazi rallies, but where Nazi war criminals were tried and condemned: the birthplace of the rule of international law.
In the decades since, the rally grounds have mostly been returned to their original purpose as recreational spaces.
The shell of the congress hall now houses an exhibition featuring photos, film footage and testimonials that chronicle Hitler’s rise to power and explore the circumstances that made it possible.
It’s a powerful display that deals in fact, not sentiment, and it’s an astute achievement.
The people of Nuremberg may not be proud of their Nazi past, but they can take great pride in how they’ve handled its legacy.
History, whatever its provenance, deserves to be acknowledged.