Hitler’s forgotten attempt to build the world’s largest Olympic stadium

On September 7, 1937, German construction workers laid the cornerstone for what was to become the world's largest stadium — one that would hold over 400,000 spectators. Designed by Hitler's close adviser Albert Speer, the monumental structure drew as much inspiration from the Greek Panathenaic Stadium of Athens as it did from Hitler's brazen megalomania. But in the end, it was simply not meant to be, a project cut short by the demands of World War II and the eventual demise of the Third Reich.

‘An entire nation in sympathetic wonder'

During the groundbreaking ceremony, Hitler unveiled a two-meter high model of the Deutsches Stadion ("German Stadium") to an excited crowd of 24,000 people. He described it as "words of stone" that were to be stronger than anything that could ever be spoken. And indeed, Nazi architecture was grandiose and domineering for a reason — a way to make the German volk feel insignificant and small, while showcasing the unbridled power of the regime.

Hitler’s forgotten attempt to build the world’s largest Olympic stadiumS

At the same time, however, the Nazi architects wanted the structure to emphasize a sense of community, and to create a bond between the competitors and spectators. Writing in 1937, Wolfgang Lotz wrote:

As in ancient Greece, the elite and most experienced men chosen from the mass of the nation will compete against each other here. An entire nation in sympathetic wonder is seated on the tiers. Spectators and competitors merge in one unity.

In addition to serving as a sports complex, Hitler was also planning to use it for Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg — what would have undoubtedly engendered similar feelings among the spectators.

Hitler’s forgotten attempt to build the world’s largest Olympic stadiumS

‘It is we who will determine how the sporting field is measured'

There's no doubt that the completed horseshoe-shaped stadium would have been impressive.

The designs called for a structure 800 meters (2,625 feet) in length and 450 meters (1,476 feet) wide. Its external façade would have been 90 meters (295 feet) high, equipped with several express elevators that could take 100 spectators at a time to the upper levels. Each end of the horseshoe shaped stadium was to be joined by two gigantic towers featuring enormous eagles with wing spans of 15 meters (50 feet).

Earlier, while Speer and Hitler were putting the designs together (the Nazi duo often collaborated on their megaprojects), Speer realized that the playing fields did not match official Olympic dimensions. Hitler responded by saying, "That's totally unimportant. The 1940 Olympics will be taking place in Tokyo. But after that they will be held for all eternity in Germany — and in this stadium. And it is we who will determine how the sporting field is measured."

It's a very telling statement — a remark that not only expressed Hitler's overconfidence in winning the war, but also an admission that his ultimate goal was global domination. He also spoke of launching the "Aryan Games" at some future point.

Speer also expressed concern about the project's cost. Again, Hitler dismissed his reservations saying, "That's less than two Bismarck class battleships. Look how quickly an armored ship gets destroyed, and if it survives it becomes scrap metal in 10 years anyway. But this building will still be standing centuries from now."

Hitler hoped to see the stadium completed by 1945 in time for the Reich Party Congress.

Hitler’s forgotten attempt to build the world’s largest Olympic stadiumS

Proof of concept

Prior to the groundbreaking ceremony, Speer and Hitler decided that it would be prudent to construct a test stadium to get a better sense of the final version's sightlines and acoustics. To that end, they brought in 400 workers to construct a 1:1 scale model of the stadium — but in a section measuring 27 meters (88 feet) wide, 76 meters (250 feet) deep, and 82 meters (270 feet) high. And to do so, they had to clear an entire hillside of trees near the town of Achtel.

After the cement was laid, the construction workers erected wooden grandstands across the five levels. And though spectators sitting at the top would have been over 80 meters (260 feet) away from the playing field, Speer said that the view was "more positive" than he anticipated.

It took the workers 18 months to achieve this "proof of concept."

Hitler’s forgotten attempt to build the world’s largest Olympic stadiumS

At the end of the war, Achtel was almost totally destroyed as the Germans put up a bitter resistance against advancing American troops. But remnants of the test stadium are still intact today, what the locals now call ‘Stadium Mountain.' The objects have had the vegetation removed and is now placed in monument protection — a permanent symbol of Nazi hubris.

Hitler’s forgotten attempt to build the world’s largest Olympic stadiumS

Sources: Much of what we know from this episode comes from Speer's personal memoirs written after the war, including Errinerungen and Architektur: Arbeiten 1933-1942. Other sources: Haaretz and Spiegel.

Images: Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgeländ via Spiegel; Lencer via Haaretz.