Prora in June 2017
Sean Gallup/Getty Images Prora in June 2017

For the last decade, Ulrich Stuke, an architect with a residential practice based in Berlin, has become skilled at modernizing the city’s high-ceilinged turn-of-the century apartment buildings, making the most of historic materials and updating original floor plans. But on a recent windy and rainy afternoon, Stuke is pacing the half-finished hallways of a very different sort of project. Six stories high, nearly 1,650 feet long, and 387,000 square feet in total, the building is part of a vast vacation complex constructed by the Nazis on the island of Rügen, along Germany’s Baltic Coast. Called Prora and designed in 1936, the project was slated to include eight buildings that would have stretched for 2.8 miles along the island’s wind-blown, white-sand beaches. Every one of the 10,000 rooms would have featured a view of the sea. The vast beachfront complex, only partially completed before the start of World War II, nevertheless became a mainstay of Third Reich propaganda, which promised affordable seaside vacations for loyal German workers.

Today, Prora is the second-largest architectural remnant of the Third Reich, after Albert Speer’s rally grounds at Nuremberg. Abandoned for decades, the mile-long oceanfront ruins have slowly been carved up, sold off to investors and, during the last five years, redeveloped for sale as vacation apartments and rentals. So far, architects have renovated or rebuilt the concrete and brick skeletons of three of the original buildings, with two of those projects opening in stages over the last two years. Drebing Ehmke Architekten, a Greifswald, Germany–based firm, oversaw the conversion of one section into apartments and a hotel; a fourth building was turned into a youth hostel.

Critics have argued that developers are using Prora’s historic status—the site was given a preservation designation in 1992—as a tax dodge, and ignoring or suppressing efforts to remember its dark past in order to sell apartments. A “ghetto on the beach only fascists could have come up with,” is how the German newsweekly Stern described the project in May. Locals have complained that the site is being sold off to rich investors, gentrifying a sleepy part of what is a popular summer vacation destination.

Stuke sees it differently. “Hitler was never here. It’s not a Nazi building, any more than the Volkswagen Beetle is a Nazi car, or the Olympic Stadium in Berlin was a Nazi stadium,” the architect says, carefully wiping his feet before stepping into a top-floor penthouse that is tastefully decorated in seaside-cottage tones of white and gray. “Here we have a chance to make something good out of bad ideology. What’s so terrible about people using the place for vacations?”

Rendering of Stuke's redevelopment project at Prora
Stuke Architekten Rendering of Stuke's redevelopment project at Prora

“Seaside Resort of the 20,000”
Prora was designed by Clemens Klotz, a Cologne-based architect who received several prestigious commissions from Hitler’s National Socialist regime. Klotz’s proposal for the resort was the winning entry in a competition organized by the German Labor Front, a Nazi trade union. The project was part of the Kraft durch Freude (KdF), or “Strength through Joy,” program, a scheme to reward working-class members of the Nazi party with affordable vacations and leisure activities like concerts, plays, and libraries.

By 1939, KdF was the world’s largest tourism operator—millions of Germans participated in the program’s trips each year—and Prora was designed to be the crown jewel. Propaganda films dubbed the project the “Seaside Resort of the 20,000.” There, the masses “shall find relaxation and the strength to continue working,” as one film claimed. Writing in the Berliner Zeitung last year, the German historian Götz Aly called Prora “propaganda written in stone, a promise to German workers that a brighter future was on its way.”

The plans for the project were ambitious, even by the standards of the Third Reich. The design called for a hotel complex with two curving wings, each more than a mile long, flanking a 4.3 million-plus-square-foot central square, which was anchored by a central auditorium big enough to accommodate all 20,000 vacationers at once. Klotz designed reception halls capable of handling 3,000 arrivals and departures of passengers each day. Docks were to extend about a half mile out into the Baltic to welcome cruise ships packed with vacationers.

In case of rainy days, the design of the complex included a movie theater, bowling alleys, indoor swimming pools, theaters, cafés, and “reclining halls,” buildings with open floor plans and floor-to-ceiling windows where guests could get fresh air without stepping outside. The rooms themselves were Spartan by modern standards: Each double unit measured about 8 by 16 feet and was to be outfitted with identical furnishings. Toilets and showers were communal.

Construction at Prora
Hans Sehringer Construction at Prora

In 1937, two years before Germany invaded Poland and set World War II in motion, Prora’s design was awarded a “Grand Prix” at the Paris World Expo. Unlike many of the building projects championed by Hitler, the design was clean and modern; it was inspired by Germany’s “New Building” movement, which rejected Expressionism in favor of more functional design.

In fact, the project owed much to a Le Corbusier proposal (never realized) for reshaping the North African city of Algiers. Le Corbusier imagined a long, snaking residential complex along the city’s waterfront—a project that clearly inspired Klotz. “What’s special about [Prora] is that it’s not classic Nazi architecture,” says Katja Lucke, a historian who runs the Prora Documentation Center on Rügen, which chronicles the history of the complex. “Its architectural style has more to do with the Bauhaus.”

“It’s neither barracks architecture nor Nazi architecture,” writes architect and historian Jürgen Rostock in his book Paradise/Ruins: The KdF Resort of the 20,000 on Rügen. “It comes more from classical modernism, and from design that’s oriented strictly towards function.”

Still, the scale of the project unmistakably bears the ideological imprint of the Nazi regime. “When you’re in a reception hall with ceilings 60 feet high, surrounded by 2,000 other people, you’re intimidated,” Lucke says. “It’s clear you’re just a small part of a larger mass, with no individual voice. … The way it was built, the way it was planned, the way it looks is all because of Nazi ideology.”

Even after construction was halted in 1939, Prora remained a useful tool to the Nazi regime. It was promoted in propaganda throughout World War II, “advertised so heavily some people thought it actually existed,” according to Lucke.

During the war, the site was used for a variety of purposes, many of them grim. Military police battalions that trained there were deployed to the Eastern Front and participated in the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Polish forced laborers and Soviet POWs were imprisoned in Prora’s half-finished structures. When German cities were set aflame by Allied bombs late in the war, refugees from Hamburg and elsewhere were housed inside. Later, during the Cold War, it became a retreat for members of the East German secret police and a secretive training ground for “allies” from Cuba, Yemen, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Shortly after German reunification, the government contemplated turning Prora into a massive barracks and training center. A few years later, in 1996, a local university commission suggested transforming the site into a multi-use complex, with a senior center, youth hostels, apartments, and shops. Instead, local authorities abandoned Prora, and for almost 20 years it slowly decayed. Curious beachgoers explored the empty hallways and concrete stairwells. Locals moved in, squatting in the best-preserved parts of the complex and opening ceramics workshops, art studios, and other small shops. An ad hoc museum dedicated to the East German army took hold in one wing; in another, activists founded the Prora Documentation Center.

The Prora Documentation Center
Bildagentur-online/Schoening The Prora Documentation Center

A One-Dimensional Tourist Development?
Today, the complex’s Bauhaus inspirations are a key selling point for the renovated apartments. One radio ad describes Prora as “inspired by the vision of architect Le Corbusier, with timeless modernist lines,” neglecting any mention of Klotz, KdF, or the Nazis. “Of course they don’t want to make a big deal of the Nazi era, because they want to sell houses,” says Lucke. “They’re being coy and refusing to treat the history critically.”

Several parts of the buildings were purchased by a local investor for €500,000 in 2006, then parceled out and resold to at least four developers. What started modestly in 2011 when the youth hostel opened has since become decidedly high-end: Because of the project’s historic designation, apartment buyers get tax breaks, and sales—units start around €150,000 and run upwards of €600,000 for the penthouses—have been brisk. The target market is middle-to-upper class Germans looking for investment opportunities and vacation homes. As far as Lucke’s concerned, that’s a shame. “Now it’s a one-dimensional tourist development,” she says. “There’s no residential element at all.”

Critics also complain the clean lines of the original design have been all but erased by the hodgepodge development: Each hall now looks a little different, with mismatched balconies that weren’t part of the original design interrupting the sweeping seafront curves Klotz had envisioned.

Rendering from Stuke's project
Stuke Architekten Rendering from Stuke's project

Stuke bristles at the accusations, pointing out that before the developers arrived Prora’s buildings were being left to decay. When he started his €76 million renovation project in 2013, located on the southernmost part of the complex, he felt the weight of history—and expected scrutiny and pressure from the public. “It’s a huge challenge. It’s a historic building, and everyone knows it,” he says. “Getting it from those times to modern standards—that’s the complicated part.”

The major problem was how to bring the apartments into line with modern fire, safety, and noise insulation standards, as well as how to add elevators, ventilation, and heating without sacrificing too much square footage. Because the original ceiling height was under 8 feet, wiring and piping had to be run through walls. Stuke drew up new floor plans for studios and one-bedroom units on the lower floors, and penthouses with roof decks on the top of the building. He designed floating balconies to keep the façade as clean as possible, a compromise with the historic preservation office. Visually there’s almost nothing left of the original building on the inside, save for the brick and ironwork in the staircases.

Floor plans from the Prora Solitaire redevelopment
Floor plans from the Prora Solitaire redevelopment

The success of the redevelopment so far has increased interest in the last available building, where the Prora Documentation Center, staffed mainly by local volunteers, has been housed on two sparsely decorated floors since 2000. Several long-term tenants have already been forced out, and the future of the center is now threatened. Lucke hopes to strike a deal with local politicians to make sure any potential development includes plans—and funding—for a museum. “We’re not saying Prora can’t be used. It wasn’t a concentration camp, or a Gestapo prison,” she says. “But its past needs to be talked about honestly.”