by Despina Stratigakos
Reviewed by Lucy Tiven in The Washington Post, August 20, 2020.
During the summer of 1942, “every fifth Norwegian worker was employed on a German construction site,” writes architectural historian Despina Stratigakos in her new history of the Führer’s Norwegian architecture and infrastructure projects. Drawing from a staggering trove of archival letters, maps, plans and diaries, Stratigakos’s “Hitler’s Northern Utopia” gracefully juxtaposes the oppressor’s dream with Norway’s brutal reality as she examines the country’s occupation and the labor force that worked on building the Nazi fantasy state that never was.
From the moment Germany invaded Norway, in 1940, “frenetic building activity” was the norm. Adolf Hitler’s interest in Norway bordered on obsession. “The Nazis considered Norwegians to be racially superior to Germans and admired — even envied — their Viking origins,” Stratigakos writes. And yet Norway’s infrastructure was viewed by the Reich as woefully inadequate.
During Norway’s occupation, Germany began construction on such projects as roads, bridges, tunnels, power stations and airfields. “The astronomical costs of these projects made Norway the only occupied country in Europe where Germany invested more resources than it withdrew,” Stratigakos writes. The most obvious remnants are part of the Atlantic Wall, the system of German defenses that stretched from Norway to the Spanish border. (Nazi propaganda touted the Atlantic Wall’s impregnability though it was breached in a matter of hours on D-Day.) But many more artifacts are still in use, “hidden in plain sight.”
Much time and money were spent on soldiers’ homes meant to protect Germans physically and mentally from the outside world. These “cocoons” were designed to keep “German boys German,” so everything from the food to the elaborate interior design was meant to evoke the occupiers’ homeland.
The subtler aesthetic signature of the Nazis’ Norwegian architecture, compared with what Germany built in Eastern Europe, reveals Norway’s unusual place in Nazi ideology of racial hierarchy and strategic thinking.
“The aesthetic highway, with its exciting curves and natural panoramas, was reserved for Germany and Austria, and conquered countries did not deserve the extra effort required to create infrastructure-as-artwork,” Stratigakos writes.
Stratigakos has the rather enviable problem of too much good material; the book could broadly benefit from narrowing or slowing down. And yet, the book’s archival texture and speed could also be seen as a way to capture the vanishing quality of the built environment that makes its history worth telling.