Hitler’s Northern Utopia by Despina Stratigakos (Princeton £25, 328 pp)
Adolf Hitler was mesmerised. In the spring of 1934, he went on holiday, a secret cruise in a German battleship through the fjords of Norway and, for hours on end, stared at the natural beauty around him.
A Norwegian crew member later recalled him being ‘enthused like a little boy over the mountains and the magnificent weather’.
That trip was apparently the beginning of a strange love affair — which comes as a surprise. If you thought (as I did) that, 75 years on from Hitler’s death, there could surely be nothing new to learn about him, then this book by U.S. architectural historian Despina Stratigakos is an eye-opener.
A group of Bund Deutscher Madel girls sitting in the sun at leisure camp of Deutsche Arbeitsfront at Altenhof, Brandenburg, 1930s
It reveals that, after he attacked Norway in 1940, Hitler devised plans for it that went beyond the brutal subjugation he intended for France, Poland and Russia after he’d conquered them.
His grand design was for beautiful Norway to be transformed into a Nazi utopia.
As he reigned supreme over a vanquished Europe, the author explains, Hitler and his Nazis would ‘take root in Norway and create a space for themselves as rulers of a Nordic empire that stretched to the Arctic Circle’.
These women belonged to the League of German Girls – the female wing of the Hitler Youth
Members of the Bund Deutscher Madel, aka League German Girls, with their coach, 1940s
The women were indoctrinated in Nazi philosophy and their main aim in life was to become a mother and rear perfect children to secure the future of the 1,000-year Reich
But Hitler’s fascination with Norway was not just sparked by the magnificence of its fjords. He also admired its genetic history, believing, as he wrote in Mein Kampf, that with their Viking origins, its blond-haired, blue-eyed people had the purest of Aryan bloodlines. They were at the very top of the racial ladder.
Here was a dictator who exterminated millions he considered racially degenerate. But he also encouraged selective breeding, and Norway was a chosen test bed for Nazi eugenics. Under an SS-inspired programme known as Lebensborn (‘Fount of life’), German troops were encouraged to impregnate the best-looking local girls, with the promise that the Nazi state would look after them and their children.
Newspapers back home projected jolly images of sunny Norwegian milkmaids falling in love with Adolf Hitler for saving them from moral and racial degeneration and doing their duty by breeding with his pure-blooded soldiers.
Members of a German U-boat crew ‘fraternising’ with Norwegian girls in a scenic area of Norway, as their photograph is taken, 1943
A smiling member of the BDM (Bund Deutscher Madel), the female branch of the Hitler Youth, carrying a collecting tin, circa 1938
Thousands of expectant mothers judged to be racially valuable were given priority medical care in specially built maternity homes, hotels and orphanages. Pampered Lebensborn mothers were rigidly indoctrinated in Nazi ways.
Childcare was strictly Germanic — there was to be no wailing in the nursery. The ‘purest’ babies were often removed from their mothers, forcibly if necessary, and sent to Germany to be raised in approved SS families, though most stayed in Norway.
Over the course of their five-year occupation of Norway, the Germans gave the country special treatment seen nowhere else, using forced labour and prisoners-of-war to build roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads, docks, power stations and facilities for business and industry. Norway soon became ‘the only occupied country in Europe where Nazi Germany invested more resources than it withdrew’.
Members of the ‘League of German Girls’ doing exercises – one girl jumping on their stretched out arms
In Hitler’s plan for his utopia, towns devastated in the brutal two-month invasion would be re-built on radically different National Socialist lines, emphasising the power of the state and the party rather than, say, the church.
More grandly, he had a vision for a purpose-built ‘Fuhrer city’, clawed out of the wilderness on a peninsula close to Trondheim in the north of the country — away, as he saw it, from the inter-racial decadence of Oslo, the capital, in the south. With a population of 300,000, Nordstern (meaning North Star) was intended to be one of the jewels of the Third Reich, along with Berlin, Hamburg, Nuremberg, Munich and Linz (Hitler’s home town). It would crown a Greater Germany that ran from the Arctic to the Alps.
Hitler’s mad, messianic imagination went into overdrive. This new Athens of the north, he insisted, would have an opera house, theatres, libraries and art galleries but, also, a stadium and swimming pools — everything necessary for a modern city of cultural importance. There would be extensive green spaces, and homes for its exclusively German citizens would be laid out in terraces on a south-facing slope, so every house had sunlight all day.
Members of the ‘League of German Girls’ at a wheelbarrow race
Needless to say, his dream Aryan city never materialised, although the vainglorious Hitler, his legacy always foremost in his mind, spent hours closeted with his chief architect, Albert Speer, drawing up plans and making models of what Speer claimed would be ‘the most beautiful German city’.
It was abandoned — though merely postponed in Hitler’s crazed eye — when defeat by the Red Army at Stalingrad on the eastern front in 1943 brought a switch of fortune, putting Nazi Germany on the defensive for the first time and heading for defeat two years later.
What’s more, as the war neared its end, withdrawing German forces followed a scorched-earth policy, destroying much of what they had built.
Norwegian women helping allied forced to open the mass graves of unidentified soldiers, as punishment for collaborating with the Germans in WWII, Trandum, Norway, circa 1945
Included in this destruction were the plans for the Fuhrer’s dream city. Only in recent years have researchers such as Stratigakos been able to piece together the odd map fragments and documents that survived and get a snapshot of the fantasy northern utopia he longed to build.
The human cost was high: those Lebensborn mothers and their children paid a terrible price when the war ended.
Thousands of women were arrested and imprisoned in the summer of 1945 for fraternising with the occupiers. There was no mercy either for their ‘German brats’, who were branded as outcasts and treated accordingly.
In an ironic turning of the tables, the postwar Norwegian authorities ruled that the mothers who’d slept with German soldiers were clearly mentally retarded, and so were their offspring. Children once elevated for their genes were now scorned for them.
Hitler’s dream of a purged and racially ‘pure’ Europe went the same way as his utopia of a shining new legacy city near the Arctic. It ended up in the dustbin of history.