Beach holidays for Nazis

Aerial photo of Prora today by Ralf Roletschek
Aerial photo of Prora today by Ralf Roletschek

There was a time when the completion of ‘the world’s tallest building’ was an occasion for great public excitement and national pride. This is hardly true any more. Do you even know which building carries the title today? (In 2020 it is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, completed in 2010, which at 828 metres is more than twice the height of the Empire State.) The rivalry between tall buildings has become a kind of pathology to be understood through the teachings of Sigmund Freud. Perhaps a more curious question is ‘what is the world’s longest building?’ – although, since this is not the subject of competition, few people know the answer either.

If one discounts long fortifications and defensive walls, in particular the Great Wall of China, then the longest true building ever constructed is the ‘Colossus of Prora’ on the Baltic coast of Germany. This is a holiday resort on the island of Rügen, built by the Nazis between 1936 and 1939. Originally the complex extended to 4.5 kilometres in length – five times as long as the Burj Khalifa is tall – although only 3 kilometres survive today. Planned under the Strength through Joy programme of leisure activities, Prora was to offer cheap beachside holidays to German workers – a kind of vacation counterpart to the Volkswagen car. Robert Ley, who had overall responsibility for Strength through Joy, took inspiration for Prora from Butlin’s holiday camps in England.

The main building was an extended line of eight accommodation blocks on six storeys, with space for 20,000 visitors in double-bedded rooms, all of them with sea views. Originally there were communal bathrooms and toilets. The architect was Clemens Klotz. Purists might object that Prora is not strictly 3 kilometres long, since there are narrow breaks between the blocks. But the buildings are all to the same design, constructed in a single programme, and the blocks are continuously aligned, so we will ignore this cavil. Hitler was enthusiastic about the project and commissioned a second architect Erich Putlitz to design a giant Festival Hall, capable of seating all 20,000 guests, which was not built. There was also to have been a theatre, a cinema and two swimming pools.

The building was never put to its intended purpose. When war broke out in 1939, the accommodation blocks had just been finished, and the construction force was transferred to the nearby Peenemünde base where the long-range rockets with which Britain was attacked were manufactured and launched. Parts of Prora have since been occupied, from time to time, by wartime refugees, the Luftwaffe, the Soviet Army’s 2nd Artillery Brigade, the army of the German Democratic Republic, and most recently a series of youth hostels. An exhibition space, the Prora Center, was set up in 1995. Since 2004, blocks have been sold off separately to developers, who are converting some into luxury apartments at prices up to 700,000 euros. The old rooms are being knocked together, fitted kitchens installed and glass-fronted balconies added. Now tourists can rent space via Airbnb intended originally for members of the master race