Archives are generally envisioned as large collections of historical documents that have been rigorously organized by topic, meticulously arranged in boxes, and carefully placed on shelves. But many significant historical discoveries emerge not from order, but from disorder, sometimes as minor as a stray sheet of paper.
The Military Archives in Freiburg im Breisgau, a university town in southwest Germany, holds 50 kilometers’ worth of German armed forces records dating back to the mid-19th century. In July 2017, I was searching the collections for information relating to Adolf Hitler’s building plans for Nazi-occupied Europe. What I found instead was a master plan of destruction that no historian was ever meant to see.
Among naval records on the leisure-time activities of German troops stationed in occupied France was a misplaced copy of a directive from Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. Dated Aug. 12, 1940, the document conveyed Hitler’s order to Germany's Army High Command to destroy World War I memorials in occupied Belgium and France . The monuments, in Hitler’s eyes, served to defame the army and perpetuate hatred against the nation. Their eradication was thus necessary to restore Germany’s reputation and protect it for posterity.
Despite having researched the Third Reich for years, I was astonished by the Keitel document. Here was clear proof that Hitler had directly intervened to transform not only the physical landscape of Europe, but the landscape of memory itself.
Hitler’s mania for wholesale destruction is well known. He had always planned to erect his Greater Germanic Empire on the pyre of old—and, in particular, “non-Aryan”—Europe. He was obsessed with WWI and with avenging the Treaty of Versailles—the “stab in the back” he believed led to Imperial Germany’s humiliation. The June 28, 1919, treaty marking the official end of the war between France and Germany fostered resentment among right-wing Germans, who accused the German signatories of betraying their own nation.
To the frustration of war crimes prosecutors (and historians), Nazi leaders took pains to destroy or avoid creating evidence directly linking them to their crimes. The misfiled military order that I discovered in the Freiburg archive was either a careless slip or an intentional, courageous effort to preserve the facts by hiding the document in a folder that no one thought to shred.
Architectural historians have focused primarily on monumental or ceremonial buildings as a way to understand Third Reich society. Given the projects’ role in transcribing Nazi ideals into stone, this focus might appear logical. Nevertheless, it misses an integral part of the picture. As I explore in my book Hitler at Home (Yale University Press, 2015), the regime’s architectural works—large and small, public and private—functioned holistically. Hitler and his architects knew that the German racial community they sought to create would be forged not just in spectacular public places, such as Albert Speer’s Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, but also in the intimate spaces of everyday life, such as residential streets and markets. The order to eradicate war memorials in newly occupied Belgian and French towns suggests that the Nazis understood the influence of even modest monuments once they become embedded in a community’s everyday life.
In the 1920s and 1930s, tens of thousands of monuments were erected in Belgium and France to remember the war dead. As historian Jay Winter writes in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge University Press, 1995), the chaos and scale of WWI left millions of soldiers in war cemeteries spread across Belgium and northern France. Pleas from the bereaved to have their loved ones returned for burial went largely unanswered. Creating memorials became a way both to honor the sacrifice and heroism of the dead and to symbolically bring them home to rest.
Soldiers were not the only causalities of the Great War. Some memorials honored civilians who had been deliberately killed by German forces during the invasion of Belgium and France in 1914. Facing international outrage, Germany vehemently denounced accusations of atrocities committed by its troops as Allied propaganda. In August 1936, it condemned a national monument “to the memory of 23,700 civilian martyrs of Belgium,” inaugurated that month in the town of Dinant, as a “hate monument.” German foreign ministry officials objected in particular to the memorial’s provocative inscription, “Furore Teutonico” (Teutonic fury), which blamed the civilian massacres on German rage .
In May 1940, when German forces invaded Belgium and France, they took their revenge, razing Furore Teutonico and other troublesome war monuments. Beyond historical revisionism, this willful destruction of war memorials constituted psychological warfare—in essence, an act of killing the dead. It also deprived communities of the bereavement rituals that, over the years, had brought survivors together in shared grief and memories.
The August 1940 directive from Keitel that conveyed Hitler’s order to Army High Command also alluded to “individual instructions” communicated previously for the destruction of specific memorials; Furore Teutonico was presumably among those. Unlike these targeted acts, Keitel’s directive laid out a path for a more systematic and widespread alteration of memory. Army units in occupied districts were to be instructed to survey their area of operations, including museums, and document WWI memorials and displays. So-called hate monuments were to be eliminated, German weapons displayed as war trophies were to be collected, and statuary, sculptural reliefs, and inscription panels were to be demounted and shipped to the Zeughaus (military museum) in Berlin. All of this was to be accomplished by Nov. 1, 1940.
Of the WWI memorials taken to Berlin, the most powerful came from the forest of Compiègne, France. There, in the railroad dining car of French marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Allies and Germany had signed the armistice that ended the fighting on Nov. 11, 1918. The French transformed the site into a memorial and museum in the 1920s. In June 1940, as France’s defenses crumbled, Hitler insisted that the French sign an armistice in that very rail car in Compiègne. His engineers even demolished a museum wall in order to relocate the car to its exact location in 1918.
In his June 22, 1940, diary entry, Hitler’s minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels crowed that the ceremony, orchestrated and presided over by Hitler, had expunged Germany’s shame. In his July 1 entry, Goebbels wrote that Compiègne represented both a “site of shame” and a “site of national resurrection.” Hitler ordered the rail car and two stone memorials from the armistice site to be taken to Berlin.
In order to understand what the dictator intended to do with his war trophies, I traveled from Freiburg to Berlin, where the Federal Archives holds records from Speer’s tenure as the general building inspector for the Reich capital, a title bestowed on the young architect by Hitler in 1937. There, I found a crumbling folder from the 1940s containing reports and correspondence about monuments brought to Berlin from France .
Most of the documents concern the two Compiègne stone memorials, which arrived in Berlin on nine railroad cars in early August 1940. (For liability reasons, the stonemasonry firm entrusted with their storage noted the condition of the blocks, many of which had been damaged during their transport.) The memorials were to be stored long term, until they could be re-erected in the planned Soldiers’ Hall (Soldatenhalle), a monumental building central to the transformation of Berlin into Germania, Hitler and Speer’s vision for the capital of the Nazis’ Germanic world empire.
Designed by architect Wilhelm Kreis in a spare Neoclassical style, Soldiers’ Hall was conceived as a shrine to Germany’s military glory and positioned by Speer near his showpiece for the new capital, the gargantuan People’s Hall (Volkshalle). The design for Soldiers’ Hall, documented in published models, floor plans and drawings, featured a barrel-vaulted interior with a colossal Victor statue. Beneath this space lay a crypt housing the sarcophagi of German generals. In these dramatic surroundings, WWI memorials taken from occupied lands would have been recast in a new light, transforming former victors into losers, and former losers into victors. The rail car from Compiègne would have been “the hall’s first exhibit,” according to Speer’s 1969 memoir. In Hitler’s remaking of the Great War, the railroad car was ground zero—the place where the rewriting of history began.
Soldiers’ Hall was the intended destination for trophies from other WWI “shame sites” as well. A Nov. 12, 1940, letter from Speer’s office to the Soldiers’ Hall site manager inquired after the whereabouts of “the Reims bronze group.” Dedicated in 1924 to the West African colonial troops who had successfully defended Reims, France, against German attack in 1918, Monument to the Heroes of the Black Army featured four African soldiers, scanning their surroundings while sheltering a white officer bearing the French flag.
The memorial, which the Nazis had removed from its massive African granite pedestal and loaded onto a Berlin-bound train in mid-August, reminded the Germans both of their defeat at the hands of African soldiers and of France’s use of nonwhite colonial troops in the occupation of the Rhineland after 1918, which the German press had termed the “black shame” (schwarze Schande). German voices across the political spectrum accused France of intentionally humiliating the occupied by subordinating them to African troops, endangering white women and the racial order in Europe. In his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, Hitler blamed a Franco-Jewish conspiracy for “contaminating” the “heart of Europe” with “Negro blood.” Displaying the Reims memorial in the Soldiers’ Hall was likely intended to reinforce Nazi ideologies about France’s racial degeneration and the image of “Aryan” German soldiers as the protectors of white women.
In the end, the bronze sculpture never made it to Berlin. Somewhere along its journey, it had been diverted and melted down to make bullets to feed Germany’s insatiable armaments industry. Hundreds more bronze statues in France would suffer a similar fate.
While Soldiers’ Hall was awaiting construction, some of the trophies seized from France and Belgium were displayed in Berlin’s Zeughaus. On Heroes’ Memorial Day, March 16, 1941, Hitler gave a speech at the Zeughaus that portrayed WWI and the Battle of France as a connected life-and-death epic that ended in triumph for Germany. After his address, Hitler toured the exhibition of military trophies from the Western campaign.
A week later, on Hitler’s decree, the Compiègne rail car was displayed in Berlin’s Lustgarten, where more than a 100,000 people paid 50 pfennigs (approximately $4 today) to see it; the money collected went to the Nazis’ Winter Relief charity. The rail car then disappeared from the news. At the end of November 1943, the Christian Science Monitor reported that the “famous French Compiègne railway coach” had been destroyed when bombs damaged the Zeughaus. In fact, the Nazis had taken it for safekeeping to Crawinkel, in central Germany, where it burned in an accidental fire that destroyed the town’s train station in the final weeks of the war.
We may never know how many WWI memorials were removed or destroyed in Belgium and France on the basis of Hitler’s orders. Efforts to replace the lost monuments, initiated before the end of World War II, continue to this day and intensified before the armistice centenary, on Nov. 11, 2018. The week prior to the anniversary, French president Emmanuel Macron and Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta dedicated a bronze replica of Heroes of the Black Army in Reims.
On Nov. 10, 2018, Macron was joined at the armistice site by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the first German leader to visit it since Hitler. The stone memorials had long been returned and reinstalled, and a replica of the rail car placed on display in a new Armistice Museum. After dedicating a plaque to the centennial and Franco-German reconciliation, Macron and Merkel entered the rail car and sat together on the same side of the table, as friends. Where once the armistice had been signed, the countries’ leaders signed a book of remembrance.
This show of unity turned somber the next day as Macron addressed world leaders gathered at the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris. Alluding to the global rise of nationalism, he warned that “the old demons are reappearing, ready to do their work of spreading chaos and death. … At times, history threatens to resume its tragic course and jeopardize the peace we’ve inherited and which we thought we had secured for good with the blood of our ancestors.”
That day, Reuters would report that Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), had criticized Merkel for participating in the armistice commemorations. The AfD, which entered the German parliament for the first time in 2017 on a platform of protecting the country against the perceived threat to German culture posed by Muslim and African immigrants, has called on Germans to rewrite the country’s history books to focus more attention on domestic war victims.
And yet here was Gauland accusing Merkel of attempting to rewrite history by appearing among the war’s “winners.” Germans, he said, “can’t put ourselves in a historical situation that clearly favors the winner and walk alongside Mr. Macron through the Arc de Triomphe.”
Hitler had wanted to recast the Allies as the losers of the Great War, and Germany as its ultimate victor. Gauland, on the other hand, believes that standing apart as the defiant loser of Europe’s world wars would better reassert the lines of division among European nations that Merkel has worked to efface.
The struggle over how to remember World War I continues. Its landscapes of memory are continually invaded by new sets of politicians, historians, and architects, who rearrange the terrain in order to justify interpretations of the present as well as ambitions for the future. Today, we find ourselves living in a culture of accelerated commemoration, where the erection of monuments has become instrumentalized—if not weaponized—to serve competing views of world events. As designers of these projects, we play an important role in materializing this new commemorative landscape and, quite possibly, in erasing older ones.
While my discovery of Keitel’s directive in the Freiburg archive sheds new light on Hitler’s revisionist plans, it also suggests we would do well to examine the motives behind destruction as well as construction. We must confront our own relationship to the past and think carefully about the narratives we trust. Finally, we must remain open to the archive’s disorder, to those hidden or misplaced histories that lead us to question what we already know.
- Keitel, Entfernung der Haßdenkmäler in Frankreich und Belgien, Aug. 12, 1940, RM 45 IV/863, Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, Freiburg, Germany. [Author's note: Although the order was directed to the Army High Command, the Naval High Command and the Luftwaffe commander-in-chief were copied on the communication.]
- Ein Denkmanl des Hasses, typed manuscript, Aug. 21, 1936, published in Deutsche diplomatisch-politische Korrespondenz, R 4902/1751, Bundesarchiv, Berlin. [Author's note: This was the vehicle for the press releases of the German Foreign Ministry.]
- Folder labeled “Betriebsmittel G.m.b.H.,” in Generalbauinspektor für die Reichshauptstadt, R 4606/4749, Bundesarchiv, Berlin.
Read the author's other articles in ARCHITECT: "The Invasion of Memory: Hitler’s Attempt to Rewrite the History of World War I" and "Nazi Architecture Bros: The Young Men in Albert Speer’s Office."