Nazi Land Reclamation: Hitler's Bid to Create Lebensraum by the Sea

By Rachel Stern in Dieksanderkoog, Germany

In 1935, the Nazis reclaimed land from the North Sea to gain new "Lebensraum" for Aryan families. The centerpiece of the new community on Adolf Hitler Koog, since renamed Dieksanderkoog, was a grand hall. Historians want to convert it into a museum to explain Hitler's racist ideology.

Dieksanderkoog, an area of land reclaimed from the North Sea by the Nazis, is a scenic place frequented by cyclists and dotted with holiday homes. Located where the Elbe River flows into the North Sea about 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of Hamburg, it encompasses 1,330 hectares of winding roads and meadows.

One tattered sign in front of a large red-brick building in the center of the local village reveals its origins. It was founded in 1935 as the Adolf Hitler Koog, a community of workers and artisans selected by Nazis to live there after being deemed racially pure by their standards.

The building, the old community center known as the Neulandhalle (New Land Hall), was designed as the architectural centerpiece of the Adolf Hitler Koog.

Professor Uwe Danker, a historian at the University of Flensburg, plans to raise awareness of the history of this forgotten place by converting the hall into a memorial and learning center that he says would differ from every other in Germany.

Unlike most World War II monuments in the country, Danker said, Neulandhalle would not just focus on the deadly consequences of National Socialism, but would also cover the active ideologies that led up to it in the first place.

"Restoring Neulandhalle would show the other side of the coin," said Danker, standing in front of the imposing house with a steep-gabled roof topped by a massive square tower to symbolize power.

"Now there is a unique opportunity to show the seductive power of National Socialism and its focus on racial purity and its 'blood and soil' ideology, and to decipher it in an authentic place," said Frank Trende, author of a book on Nazi land reclamation who has lived in Dieksanderkoog for the past 24 years.

'Ethnically Clean Community'

The local church owns the hall but does not want to put it up for sale for fear it might be purchased by right-wing extremists, said Provost Andreas Crystal. From 1971 to 2010, the local Protestant church used it as a recreational facility, with furnished rooms upstairs for overnight visitors. But it has been unoccupied for the past two years because the church can no longer afford its upkeep.

While Danker says some descendants of the original hand-picked population still live in the area, he has not met any resistance to his restoration project.

Developed in 1935, the Adolf Hitler Koog was intended to fulfill the concept of "Volksgemeinshaft," a nation that lived up to Nazi ideals of racial purity and was loyal to Hitler's ideology. The land was reclaimed by building dykes.

"This was a showpiece of racial integration," said Sebastian Lehmann, an assistant on the project and one of the co-authors of a study published this summer laying out its design and history. "It was an 'ethnically clean' community of 112 people. They had to go through a tough selection process in order to live there."

Settlers in the Koog had to produce documentary evidence that proved their Aryan ancestry dating back to 1800, said Lehmann. The new inhabitants were personally examined and hand-picked by senior local officials.

Hitler himself was present when the project was completed. A propaganda poster from September 1935 shows the opening ceremony of the Adolf Hitler Koog, with three blond girls bowing before the Führer and his fellow Nazis.

"The building was a sign of power. You would see swastikas and big guards," said Danker, referring to two large statues depicting stern men, one armed with a rifle and the other holding a shovel, staring stoically into the distance. The original statues were removed after the war, but replicas will be put back in their original place as part of the museum's refurbishment.

The inside of Neulandhalle still displays a mural of shirtless men shovelling soil. While the community was a peaceful project, said Danker, it generated violent ideologies.

Hinrich Lohse, the Gauleiter or regional Nazi party chief in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, was the main protagonist involved in bringing Adolf Hitler Koog and Neulandhalle to life. He was also the German administrative chief of Ostland, as Nazi Germany called the occupied territories of the Baltic states and parts of Belarus. Ostland was one of the main sites of the Holocaust. An estimated 1 million Jews were murdered here.

Keeping History Intact

The new museum would juxtapose the past with the present, restoring parts of the original building while keeping its design intact, said Danker. He said most of the visitors would be holidaymakers and school groups.

"We don't simply want to reconstruct it, " said Lehmann. "In order to fully reflect on it, we need to show different layers of time."

If the funding goes through, work on the learning center will begin in the fall of 2014, and finish in 2017. "There are financial obstacles in the renovation that we must overcome," said Danker.

The project would cost €4 million (around $5 million) and the team has yet to find full funding to implement it. In September, the regional government set up a working group devoted to the restoration of memorial sites in the state. They will meet for the first time in November, said press spokesman Oliver Breuer. Then, the regional government will decide whether they want to put money into the project.

The Neulandhalle exhibit would include original furniture, vintage documents and a model of the Koog and its farmhouses. It would discuss the three concepts essential to Nazi ideology, said Lehmann: race, propaganda and Lebensraum, a Nazi concept that glorified rural living and "living space."

The museum would lead visitors up a path to the top tower, a bright room that looks out to the Elbe and vast fields. The tranquility would be juxtaposed with an exhibit on the atrocities of World War II. "It would offer a cognitive dissonance to the immediate beautiful surrounding, and reflect the Janus-faced essence of the concept of a racially pure national community," said Lehmann.

One window points to the South, to Neuengamme, the main concentration camp in northern Germany. Another faces north to Ladelund, one of the subcamps of Neuengamme where more than 300 of 2,000 people died during its six weeks of existence. A last window would point to the east, to Ostland.

"The memorial of Neulandhalle is not only a place to come to terms with the past in Schleswig-Holstein, but all of Germany," said Frank Trende. "Hitler launched an almighty digging effort to reclaim land from the sea. But the shovelling was an attempt to distract from his true intention: to dig millions of graves."

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