As human beings go, Hitler was pretty much the bottom of the barrel. He may have dressed neatly and been educated, but the workings of his mind were a plague upon humanity. Given all that, he put together a concept in pre-WWII years that actually brought some benefit, although not quite as he envisioned it. Hitler, uncharacteristically, developed a healthful-seeming program called “Kraft durch Freude,” or “Strength through Joy.” It basically sounds like the common modern-day notion that having a good time outdoors is good for the body and soul. Outdoor activities like hiking, skiing, and playing at the beach were organized by the program committee to invigorate and build up the populace. What Hitler intended for that “strength” to be applied to is less appealing than the process of achieving it, but in any case, the out-of-doors was seen as a salutary locale.
The British had somewhat earlier begun a similar resort development style, put forth by one Billy Butlin. His “Butlin’s” resorts were close-to-nature, low-budget destinations for the common man and his family. Hitler added a sort of good-for-the-Fatherland aspect to his vacation philosophy. In service to this idea, in 1936, he directed the construction of a large hotel complex on Rügen Island, which was named Prora. Out of five such grandiose beach retreats that he originally dreamed of, it would be the only one to actually be built. Rügen Island is Germany’s largest island, sitting close by its northeastern coastline on the Baltic Sea. While it’s no Isla Cozumel fronting a bathtub-warm sea, still, it is scenic and comfortable at the proper season. In fact, the town of Binz, just south of Prora, had been a popular resort since the late 19th century.
The look of the Prora complex was the antithesis of the relaxing tropical palapa, but it could house one heck of a lot of weary Aryans as they refreshed their tired minds and bodies—as many as 20,000 at a time. Plans called for eight building blocks, each six stories tall and 450 meters long. For the metrically disinclined, that’s over a quarter mile, or nearly five football fields in length, per building! Besides the physical activity, classes on Nazi philosophy would also be taught. It was a mind and body thing, after all. Hitler’s concept wasn’t just for the great good of the people. It is presumed that the entire affair was a wholesome-looking program meant to casually groom the masses mentally and physically for his planned war.
Indeed, the road to quasi-vacation paradise soon veered off onto the warpath as Hitler’s attention shifted focused onto taking over the first bits of Europe, and the hotel project stalled. By that time, around 1939, only five of the blocks had been built, a slightly arcing row of enormous, no-nonsense Bauhaus design, set back from the beach sand at a margin resembling those of the high-rises that now cover Miami Beach. Each unit had a view to the sea, except for those built in short perpendicular phalanges at the backside of the long main wall of accommodations. After cessation of construction, the Nazis housed some workers and internally displaced war refugees at the site. At the war’s end, its eastern location put Rügen Island in the hands of Communist East Germany. Their labor forces made some improvements on the massive buildings, and they served as quarters for Soviet troops, and later for East German army soldiers. Following that usage, however, the buildings were basically abandoned and left to drift into disrepair, vandalized, and looted for what could be utilized elsewhere.
The whole enclave, sometimes called the Colossus of Prora, was a giant symbol of Nazi overreach, an artifact too large and perhaps too historically valuable to demolish, as the buildings eventually won protection as architectural landmarks of the Third Reich. They were also too gigantic to ignore, and before they crumbled too far into ruin, enterprising German developers finally took up the challenge, enticed by offers of governmental tax breaks. During the last few years, renovation has been underway for a new generation of leisure-seeking Germans. First came a youth hostel in one building, but now the place is slowly being upgraded to luxury apartments and vacation hotel units for the well-to-do, and it has been a success so far—95 percent of the apartments have been sold. Rügen Island is a pricey resort locale, but Prora prices are much lower than other offerings in the vicinity. It seems that enough time has gone by, and enough change brought to the feel of the place, that its old history is no longer tainting its brand. Parts of the gargantuan site are still in pretty bad shape, but if trends continue, the whole of it will eventually rise with stylish appointment. Prora serves the German people at last.
Want to see what the country of Germany looked like just after the work on Prora stopped? Get yourself a reproduction of National Geographic’s Germany in the late 1930s. A fascinating view of pre-war Germany, first printed in 1942—a great gift for a WWII history buff!