Castels for the dead were a specific type of war memorial that were planned especially during the National Socialist era. They were to be built after the National Socialist “final victory”.
After the First World War (1914-1918), the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK) (German War Graves Commission) was founded in 1919, whose self-declared task also included honouring the fallen soldiers by means of war memorials (often synonymously called “memorials”). Under the direction of the architect Robert Tischler, this organization first planned the construction of a large memorial in Bitola in what was then Yugoslavia in 1929/30. The structure, which was built from 1935 to 1937, consisted of a cubic hall of honour with a narrow portal and a bronze gate. In the centre of the courtyard, which was surrounded by a 2.50 metre high quarry stone wall, 3000 fallen soldiers of the World War were buried. This structure was first called “Totenburg” in 1936. Other such monuments of monumental character were subsequently built in Petrisoru (Romania), St. Annaberg (Silesia) Waldenburg (Silesian Memorial) and Tannenberg (East Prussia).
In 1941 Adolf Hitler appointed the well-known and renowned architect Wilhelm Kreis (1873-1955) as “General Architect for the Design of German War Cemeteries”. Kreis had already designed and built large memorials before World War I, such as the Burschenschaftsdenkmal near Eisenach (1900-1902) and many Bismarck towers. The monuments at Annaberg and Bitola had met with his approval; he planned memorials in just this style. The monuments were to be erected in all countries where the German Wehrmacht fought during the Second World War (1939-1945). Thus, numerous plans were made for monuments near Warsaw, near Narvik, at Mount Olympus (Greece) and in North Africa. The largest and most famous design concerned the erection of a war memorial on the Dnepr (Ukraine), which was to reach a diameter of 280 metres and a height of 130 metres and bear Etruscan features.
Stylistically, Kreis often used some of his older designs from before 1914, incorporating architectural borrowings from all sorts of eras that seemed appropriate. Only the overall impression counted. As a certain continuity, it can be noted that the model of the Staufer castle Castel del Monte was particularly often used.
For the monument in North Africa he rather resorted to the motif of an Egyptian temple
Kreis also exhibited his designs for the buildings on the Dnepr and North Africa in an exhibition of his work in 1953. At this time, the term “castles for the dead” became common, which had always been called “honorary monuments”, “war memorials” or “memorials for the dead” by Kreis himself and in the specialist journals. In 1955, the VDK had the German War Gravesite El Alamein erected near El Alamein to commemorate the fallen of the African campaign, which clearly bears the features of the Castel del Monte.
Architectural historian Winfried Nerdinger (b. 1944) once called the “castles of the dead” the “most gruesome planning in 20th-century architecture.”
- Gunnar Brands:
- Bekenntnisse eines Angepassten – Der Architekt Wilhelm Kreis als Generalbaurat für die Gestaltung der Deutschen Kriegerfriedhöfe, in: Ulrich Kuder (ed.): Architektur und Ingenieurwesen zur Zeit der nationalsozialistischen Gewaltherrschaft 1933-1945, Berlin 1997, pp. 124-156. ISBN 0-88402-260-9(Here you will also find numerous graphic sketches of Kreis’ designs. )
- From World War I cemeteries to the Nazi “Fortresses of the dead” – Architecture, heroic landscape, and the quest for national identity in Germany, in: Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn (ed.): Places of commemoration. Search for identity and landscape design (= Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture, Vol. 19). Washington/DC 1995, pp. 215-56. ISBN 3-7861-1915-5(Here are also numerous graphic sketches of Kreis’ designs.)
- Christian Fuhrmeister: The “immortal landscape”, the space of the empire and the dead of the nation – The castles for the dead Bitoli (1936) and Quero (1939) as strategic memorial architecture, in: kritische berichte, Heft 2/2001, S. 56-70.
- Christian Zentner (ed.): Das große Lexikon des Dritten Reiches. Page 583, Totenburgen; Weltbild, Augsburg 1993; ISBN 3893505636.
- The War Graves Photographic Project
- Cited in: Gunnar Brands: Bekenntnisse eines Angepassten – Der Architekt Wilhelm Kreis als Generalbaurat für die Gestaltung der Deutschen Kriegerfriedhöfe, p. 124