Becelaire 1917 (Washington, 2005)
Adolf Hitler made this watercolor painting during the First World War when he wasencamped in Becelaire, a municipality in the vicinity of Ypres. Although in February 1914 Hitler was found physically unfit to serve in the Austrian army, when the First World War broke out he was granted permission to join the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment as a message runner. After just two months of training this regiment fought in the bloody First Battle of Ypres; of the 250 men in Hitler’s company only 42 survived. Hitler himself was wounded twice during the war. In October 1916, shrapnel hit him in the face during the Battle of the Somme and he spent five months in a hospital in Berlin. An attack with mustard gas in the night of 13 – 14 October 1918 left him blind for three months. Hitler was still hospitalized when he learned that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was forced to abdicate on 9 November 1918. The armistice was signed two days later, which greatly dismayed Hitler. He later explained that at this point he decided to enter the political arena, in order “to save Germany”.

Hitler considered the industrial towns and cities of Germany unattractive and meaningless. In Mein Kampf, he wrote: “Everything that our modern age has contributed to the civilization of our great cities is absolutely deficient. All our towns are living on the glory and the treasures of the past. If we take away from the Munich of today everything that was created under Ludwig II, we should be horror-stricken to see how meager has been the output of important artistic creations since that time. One might say much the same of Berlin and most of our other great towns. But the following is the essential thing to be noticed: Our great modern cities have no outstanding monuments that dominate the general aspect of the city and could be pointed to as the symbols of a whole epoch. Yet almost every ancient town had a monument erected to its glory.” Hitler’s vision of lasting, epoch-defining monuments harmonized with Albert Speer’s romantic concept of architecture, which he put forward in his contribution to Germany’s Four Year Plan of 1937, titled Stone not Iron: “The ages-old stone buildings of the Egyptians and the Romans still stand today as powerful architectural proofs of the past of great nations, buildings which are often ruins only because man’s lust for destruction has made them such.” Speer developed this notion into his Ruinenwerttheorie (“theory of ruin value”). In short, he found that great architecture leaves impressive ruins admired by future generations, and conversely, that buildings so designed as to gradually turn into aesthetically pleasing ruins are superior to begin with. In his memoirs, he wrote: “The idea was that buildings of modern construction were poorly suited to form that ‘bridge of tradition’ to future generations which Hitler was calling for. It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate these heroic inspirations that Hitler admired in the monuments of the past. My ‘theory’ was intended to deal with this dilemma. By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics, we should be able to build structures that even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models. … That I could even conceive of a period of decline for the newly founded Reich destined to last a thousand years seemed outrageous to many of Hitler’s closest followers. But he himself accepted my ideas as logical and illuminating. He gave orders that in the future the important buildings of his Reich were to be erected in keeping with the principles of this ‘law of ruins’.” The most grandiose architectural project of Hitler and Speer was Welthauptstadt Germania (“World Capital Germania”), a plan for the renewal of Berlin. In 1937-1943 many old structures were demolished in order to make way for new designs, but only a small portion of these mostly colossal buildings was realized.

Shortly after World War II, the American army discovered four watercolors by Hitler in a German castle. They belonged to the collection of Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s personal photographer, whom the Führer had given the watercolors as a present for
his fiftieth birthday. The American army confiscated the works and stored them in the secret vaults of the Pentagon. In 1982 Billy F. Price, a Texan businessman and collector of Hitler memorabilia, came across the watercolors and acquired the rights to them from Hoffmann’s heirs. A few years later, Price sued the federal government of the United States for 99 million dollars for being denied the right to exploit the works. But the government stated that “[t]he United States government is entitled to retain Hitler memorabilia which came into our nation’s possession because we won the war.” The government eventually won the legal wrangle in 2002 before the Supreme Court and decreed that the watercolors would never again be allowed to leave the vaults of the Army Center of Military History in Washington.

54 x 44 cm
GERT JAN KOCKEN
THE PAST IN THE PRESENT

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