In his dosshouse days in Vienna, that wannabe artist Adolf Hitler made a modest income painting postcards. The most legendary was his view of Michaelerplatz, the little square behind the Hofburg. It was home to a 1911 building now universally referred to as Looshaus, a seminal monument of early modernism and the most famous project of the architect and polemicist Adolf Loos (“Ornament is crime”). Although the lower commercial level is classical in form, feeling and materiality, the upper floors—austerely white, with simple punched windows—were controversial from the get-go, famously lampooned by contemporaries as sewer-grating. Hitler, ever the traditionalist, hated the thing and in his postcard view painted out the elegant little structure, substituting its predecessor. His animus could only have been exacerbated by the fact that the client for the building—a bespoke tailor—was Jewish.
Of course, Hitler later commanded a far wider field for his techniques of obliteration. Cities and towns across Europe were smashed flat. His program of racial purification was—inter alia—understood as a project of beautification, the ugly, degenerate Jews and Slavs to be effaced by the more pleasing Nordic phenotype. In the Nazi “philosophy,” this collusion of the aesthetic and the ethical was ubiquitous, and much has been written about the fanatical stagecraft of the regime: the fetishization of uniforms and ceremonies, the remorseless décor, the concentration of thought-work onto the sleek forms of the instruments of mass destruction, the exultation of the Germanness of Wagner and the operatic trajectory of a nation consigned to flames, the whole nauseating policed mythopoesis that suffused everyday life in the Reich, leading to a Götterdämmerung crescendo of mass annihilation.
Hitler’s central artistic preoccupation, however, was architecture. The Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna was long the object of his ambitions, but it twice denied his application for admission. For several years, I had the ambivalent experience of teaching at the Akademie, and while strolling around that weird, amnesiac city, I often thought that if only Hitler’s application had gone the other way, the planet would have been afflicted merely with one more mediocre architect. Unfortunate, too, that Hitler channeled his rage at rejection into a lust for acceptance, an abiding emulation of the worst kind of academic values (the insistence on the correctness of historical forms, the exclusion of the unworthy, the veneration of authority), rather than into the liberating insubordinations of the avant-garde he so reviled.
As Hitler consolidated power, however, he found a young architect who was the quintessential embodiment of his own desires. The two men enacted a weird transference, developing a co-dependence that, among other things, measurably prolonged the war, resulting in the deaths of millions. Albert Speer was just the ambitious, disciplined mediocrity that Hitler aspired to be, and through a killer combination of obsequiousness and technical competence, Speer rose rapidly, higher and closer to the center of the regime, from interior decorator to minister of armaments and war production. Without reticence, he translated Hitler’s sketches into built form and presided over the dictator’s most exalted projects of reconstitution: the huge monumental buildings, the redesign of Berlin, Linz and other cities as the stage sets for the anticipated 1,000 years of murderous pomposity. So connected to this fantasy was Hitler that one of his last acts before he fed cyanide to his dog and put a bullet in his own head was to leave his bunker and gaze misty-eyed at the architectural model of the planned transformation of his hometown in Austria that Speer had painstakingly constructed for him.