Hitler’s Northern Utopia by Despina Stratigakos

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Hitler’s Northern Utopia addresses a hitherto unresearched aspect of the already extensive literature on Nazism, and that is architecture in a distant place like Norway. A decided paucity of exposure in the literature is undoubtedly due to a lack of specific knowledge among the relatively small number of mainstream historians whose bent is architecture. While reading Stratigakos, I was struck by the avid attention to details that would have required an expert eye to see, and an acute mind to sort through. This researcher hunts for, and finds, issues that others have failed to see.

It is not to be argued that Germany under Hitler saw Norway as less important than other areas of Europe. Hitler’s appetite for conquest and glory was insatiable. The idea of a northern state under Nazi control awakened the mythology of the Vikings and the plunderer-conquerors of so long ago. Norse gods and the mythology of places like Valhalla were not to be resisted. Areas of geographical complexity and great beauty, where human endeavour confronts adverse landscapes and climate, where the human will to succeed is soundly matched by the constant questioning of whether all the pain and effort is worthwhile, a place where Nazism’s ‘supermen could demonstrate their dynamic control even under the harshest of circumstances’, such was a land that attracted Hitler. This is the basis upon which this researcher constructs a thorough, original, and absorbing piece of academic scholarship.

Stratigakos reveals that much of the original constructions, the buildings and the infrastructure, that are accepted Nazi workmanship, is not easy to find. However, the author devotes attention specifically to these areas, and provides reasons why much of the original work has disappeared. The assumptions that the conquered Norwegian people would welcome German invaders, and that they would accept mass murder and exploitation of human competencies as normal human behaviour, perhaps explain why so much German construction is not to be found or why there are no longer prominent, German-built, landmarks. Stratigakos’s working out of these hypotheses into acceptable conclusions makes fascinating reading.

Apart from the construction and significance of architecture and infrastructure projects that occupy much of the book, there is a more than adequate treatment of Speer and Hitler’s half-baked conception of Norway as a northern wing of an all-encompassing, post-war Germanic empire. The union of Nordic and German blood occupies a significant proportion of the middle to late chapters where German fantasy-making among the upper echelons of the Nazi movement is revealed.

In the military and civilian building projects explored in this book, we see the German occupiers taking root in Norway and creating a space for themselves as rulers of a Nordic empire that stretched beyond the Arctic Circle. Alongside this physical appropriation, we also witness the imaginary construction of Norway as a place that belonged to the invading Nazis, who sought to naturalize themselves as the saviours and rightful inhabitants of this northern land (6-7).

 The conclusion can only be that Norway was more than a fortress; it was an acquisition to become a new home after the war was won. Norway was to be treated differently than other conquered lands.

Norwegians were to be convinced rather than compelled—steered gently toward the glorious National Socialist future that they did not yet realize they wanted…Creating the physical conditions for a National Socialist revolution in Norway would thus involve developing novel forms and types of architecture in response to native landscapes and traditions. This more subtle approach was expected to be powerful and effective not despite but by virtue of these adaptations (8).

 Stratigakos constructs her arguments as she would an architectural monument. In Chapter 2 she introduces, and builds upon, infrastructure as a basis for the creation of a Nordic empire. Her arguments span such varying concepts as a scenic highway and “a pipeline of Aryan babies meant to improve Germany’s genetic stock”. Characteristically, in Chapter 3, she raises a logical objection to the generality of these ideas by pointing to Hitler’s patronage of cultural and recreational facilities in Norway’s far north that were for German use exclusively. Her Chapter 4 examines Albert Speer’s idea that Norwegian architects and planners should be transposed to Germany and, having taken in the superiority of German ideas, returned to Norway to rebuild towns that had been damaged in the invasion of 1940.

The final chapter relates to the building of a major city outside Trondheim in the far north that would enable the rulers to create their own myths of Arctic origin.

The German point of view ignored the horrific treatment that was inflicted on prisoners-of-war (mainly Russian) and on the native Norwegians themselves. The result was Norwegian resistance to the appropriation of their land, and ultimate failure of German aims.

Stratigakos labels German aspirations as fantasy. She quotes journalist Wilhelm Brepohl’s view that Oslo was not really Norwegian. He explains that left-wing political forces, influential for decades, had done everything possible to “completely erase awareness that a good deal of Norway’s accomplishments have arisen on German foundations” (21). As a result, Norwegians living in Oslo “had no interest in or feel for the far north of the country. Indeed, their estrangement was so complete that the capital’s residents had little connection anymore even to their own history” (21).

While justly rejecting Brepohl’s thesis, Stratigakos endeavours to supply balance in her research report. She notes that some journalists ‘looked to German-built infrastructure in Norway as a kind of bridge between past and future” (225). She instances the immense German-built Gardermoen aerodrome as ‘a gift to Norway’. I suspect that she might be trying too hard to introduce balance to a series of tragic episodes that have no redeeming qualities.

I’ve not read any of Despina Stratigakos’s works before Hitler’s Northern Utopia, but I will certainly, and very quickly, remedy that. Stratigakos has published two works previous to Utopia. They are Hitler at Home and Where Are the Women Architects? – both published by Princeton. In addition she has written for Architect Magazine, BBC History Magazine, and the Atlantic, all on her special interest, Nazi Germany. It does not surprise me that she holds a professorship in architecture at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Her latest research makes a significant contribution to the exposure of the wounds inflicted on Norway by Hitler’s henchmen.

Hitler’s Northern Utopia: Building the New Order in Occupied Norway


By Despina Stratigakos

Princeton University Press

ISBN: 9780691198217

Cloth $US29.95 – £25.00; 314 pages


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