The Waldbühne. A normal venue with a peculiar history.

The Waldbühne during a play, 1930s/40s.

Clear as the day, we don’t want to live in a world which is created by Nazi’s  All their crimes towards humanity and peace will make us disapprove them and their ideology till eternity. But what do we have to do with the Nazi’s architecture? Can a building even be Nazi? Especially for constructions with a non-political function, it may be a bit overdone to close them for their Nazi heritage. That’s why we never stopped sport events at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, regardless its function during the Olympic games of 1936. Needless to say, I am interested after hearing about the Nazi history of the Waldbühne (then: Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne) – the stage where Neil Young played last June the 3rd. This ‘Greek’ amphitheatre has been build for tens thousands of visitors during Hitler’s reign, an ideal applauding machine for propagandist plays. Who initiated this stage? How did it contribute to the Nazi’s utopia of a Tausendjähriges Reich (Thousand Year Empire)? Given the many shadow sides of the Nazi regime, the question arises if it is also connected to the dystopia of the Nazi’s crimes. And what happened to the amphitheatre after the war – or how did it came to a stage for events and rockbands? Does this mean that we still applause in numbers right as the Nazi masses were supposed to do? Or is this feeling a bit overdone?

The Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne (Dietrich Eckart Stage) was initiated by Joseph Goebbels. As a Minister of Propaganda in Hitler’s Germany, he thought that a amphitheatre with a capacity of 100.000 visitors would make be an impressing applause machine for propagandist theatre plays. It was named after the Nazi poet, propagandist and orator Dietrich Eckart (1868-1923) who was active in the Nazi Party’s earliest days. Before, Eckart had once a modest success as moderator of the Romantic Peer Gynt theater play in 1912. Although Eckart never seriously broke through as a poet and critic, he was a well-known figure within Bavarian Nazi circles directly after World War I. Being the first one who grasped Hitler’s talent for giving speeches, Dietrich Eckart can be seen as the one who mainly lifted Hitler in his prosperity. Initially, Hitler was thankful for this success, after which a certain level of friendship developed. Nevertheless, Hitler’s well noted biographer Ian Kershaw can tell us that they were already drifted apart when Eckart died in December 1923. By that time, Hitler was already the main orator and agitator of the Bavarian Nazi’s and simply did not need the older and experienced man anymore, since he also could be a competitive.

The Waldbühne. ©Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P019137 - Frankl, A. - CC-BY-SA

In an urban context, the Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne was part of Welthauptstadt Germania – a megalomanic architectural plan to reshape Berlin for a Nazi utopia. Two axes -from North till South and from West till East- would host the biggest buildings in the world. For example, the Große Halle (Great Hall) was planned at the North of the North-South Axe, hosting about 150-180.000 people. Only a couple of its foundations were realised and it is likely that its 320 meter high construction would have collapsed by a wind force seven storm. At the East-West Axe, it came to other prestigious projects. Here, the Siegessäule was relocated in 1938/9, from the Platz der Republik -in front of the Reichstag- to the Großer Stern – where it can be found up till nowadays. The East-West Axe would also accommodate locations such as the Adolf-Hitler-Platz (now: Theodor-Heuss-Platz), the Wehrtechnische Fakultät (military-technical college, constructed since 1937) and the Olympic Stadium (constructed between 1934-36). That the Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne is related to the Olympic Stadium is proven by the fact that they are both architected by Nazi Party’s member Werner March, who happened to be one of Hitler’s favorite architects. The amphitheatre was situated at the Olympic Stadium’s Westside and constructed during the same period between 1934 and 1936. In its design, Werner March chose to use the 30 meter deep ravine of the Murellenschlucht. This created a grandstand which became steeper the further away from the stage – which created optimal acoustics for its 25.000 visitors it was able to host. The Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne was mostly inspired by the Greek theatre of Epidaurus, build around 330BCE. Moreover, four ‘Greek’ statues by Adolf Wemper were placed at the amphitheatres entrance. Two nude male figures -one with a spear, the other with a sword- symbolise the Nazi state. Two female figures -also nude- with a laurel wreath and one with a lyre symbolise the athletics and arts which performed inside the amphitheatre. The Greece inspiration was not only given by the heritage of the Olympics. Nazi’s felt themselves attracted by the Ancient Greeks for many reasons, for example because of having a pure reputation -as the nude figures may prove- in contrast to the decadent Romans.

The Frankenbürger Würfelspiel. Drawing and ©Johann Hazod

The Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne was opened in August 1936, during the Olympic Games in Berlin. For the special occasion of the première, the Frankenburger Würfelspiele (Frankenburg Dice Game) was written by the Nazi Party member Eberhard Wolfgang Möller. The story, in short, is about a group of Protestant peasants in Austria during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) or in May 1625 to be precise. These peasants had to roll the dice by the Catholic, Habsburg (or: Austrian) Emperor to make a chance to save their lives. The peasants were all saved by a mysterious Black Knight, who force the Emperor and his fellow combatants to roll the dice themselves. Of course, some lines of the Nazi play propagate the so called ‘superior Arian race’, and the Hitler Youth joined the stage as soon as the ‘good’ won over the ‘bad’. Another propagandist message was the defamation of Austrian authorities. This home-country of Hitler, which moreover seemed more German than anything else, succesfully stayed independent from Hitler in 1934. The tension would after all lead to the ‘Anschluß‘ (Annexation) of Austria in 1938. In despite of the clear propagandist messages, the Nazi’s were not united in their opinion about it. The Nazi Party newspaper Der Angriff (The Attack) was positive about the play, another associated body for cultural policy thought that its message was too Christian. This Amt Rosenberg (Rosenberg’s Organisation) was headed by Alfred Rosenberg – who was just like Dietrich Eckart the Nazi Party’s oldest ideologists.

During the Nazi Era, the ravine of the Murellenschlucht was not only the stage for the Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne and some Olympic athletic games. A whole extra update could be written about the history of the Erschießungsplatz V (Shooting place #5). For this, we have to start in the middle of 1944, when it seemed obvious for most of the German soldiers that their war was lost. Fighting was not a matter for ‘the Fatherland’ anymore – but for the sake of your fellow soldiers, or even your own surviving. Deserting was, for many German soldiers, a consideration between the risk of being a casualty in the War or of their own Nazi regime. Unfortunately for them, Hitler gave command to fight ’till the last man’. Thirty thousand deserters were caught and about twenty thousand were executed. Between August 1944 and April 1945, an unknown number (estimation: ±230) of deserting soldiers were executed at the Erschießungsplatz V. In memoriam to the hundreds of executed soldiers here, it is worth raising questions. How did they get the information which made them desert from the army? How much did the German people know about the state of the war? Did they believe Hitler’s propaganda, telling them that the coalition between the USA and the USSR would fall apart? One thing is for sure. Although he must have realised that the war was useless, Hitler was indifferent about the lifes of his young German soldiers. “A soldier can die, a deserter has to die!” – is an infamous quotation of the Nazi leader.

Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling, 1930s. ©Unknown

After the War, the Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne was renamed as Waldbühne (Forest Stage) in an attempt to lose the Nazi heritage. The Waldbühne became a stage with multiple functions. One of the most important moments has been the farewell of the legendary boxer Max Schmeling on October 31st 1948. This heavyweight became champion during the Olympics of 1936 – beating his ‘Afro-American’ rival Joe Louis. The Nazi’s celebrated this victory as a prove of the ‘Arian’ superiority over the ‘African’ Joe Louis. Schmeling himself actually never was a Nazi Party member, nor did he accept that his ‘Jewish-American’ trainer would be fired by the German state. Still, Smeling would battle for the Nazi state – if Hitler, whom he had met personally, would guarantee the safety of all other athletes. After Schmeling won – the pride of the Nazi’s was not everlasting. Joe Louis won the next battle in June 1938 – after he knocked out Schmelling after 124 seconds. Also without being the national proud, Schmeling would guarantee the safety of fellow citizens – taking care of two Jewish children during the violent Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) of November 1938. Schmeling did not fight as a boxer between July 1939 and September 1947 – although he fought as a soldier and was injured in the Battle of Crete in September 1941. After he started boxing again, Schmeling fought five battles – losing the third. When Schmeling fought his last battle at the Waldbühne, he was celebrated although he lost his last battle against Richard Vogt.

Ceremony to Kurt Schumacher. Waldbühne, August 24th 1952 (Berlin-Westend)

Another impressive farewell for which the Waldbühne provided a stage was the grief ceremony after the death of Kurt Schumacher. At the age of 19, he lost his left arm in December 1914 when he served as a soldier in WWI. After the War he became an active social democrat in Berlin, making career as a Party member in Germany’s Southwest during the 1920s and ending up as a member of the German parliament in 1930. It’s no surprise that Schumacher ended up high on the Nazi’s list for political opponents and he was rounded up in June 1933. For the next twelve years, Schumacher was beaten and held into various concentration camps – ending up in Dachau. This camp was (in)famous for holding opponents of the regime, when they had no priority to die. In a paradoxal way, that Schumacher was wounded during the First World War may have saved his life after all. Before he was restored of his imprisonment, the social democrat passed away at August 20, 1952. Four days later, 20.000 people gathered at the Waldbühne. His remainings were not present here – since Schumacher is buried in Hannover.

Waldbühne after a concert of the Rolling Stones. September 1965 (Berlin-Westend)

The Waldbühne wasn’t only a venue for farewells. Also the annual Berlinale (Berlin’s film festival) had a location to show films here in the open air. Since the early 1960s, when all war damage was finally restored, also pop-stars were welcomed – as the Rolling Stones noticed in 1965. In the evening from 15 till 16 September that year, the young crowd stormed the stage. The Rolling Stones fled after playing only 20 minutes – after which a part of the crowd wrecked the venue and provocated the police. The police tried to control the youngsters with water – causing a damage of 400.000Mark (€200.000 or about €1.2 million for nowadays standards) to the recent restored amphitheatre. The shock in the press was even greater – and one can say that the 1960s generation conflict in West Germany kicked off with this riot. Within a few years, this generation conflict would be more militant as elsewhere in Europe. No other country had a serious relative to the violent Rote Armee Fraktion, although the Italian Brigate Rosse may have come close. Perhaps it is good not to overrate the importance of the riot during the Stones’ gig. In my insight, the generation of older Germans were more perpetrators as in the Netherlands, France or the UK. The younger German generation had more and deeper political and moral questions to ask their parents than elsewhere. In the UK, the question would usually be whether the father was a hero during the War – liberating the continent – or not. In post-war Germany, the question was whether how guilty he had been – and why. As a result, the British youngsters tended to rebel in a cultural way: against the Victorian moral. Following new trends as mini-skirts, long hair, listening to The Beatles. In West Germany, the generation conflict was more political: the rebels were socialist, willing to use violence, living in Kommunes (communities) and probably: more wrought up. I think those deeper, social problems were the base of the RAF phenomenon more than anything else.

After the riot, it took about one and a half decade before gigs were frequently organised again. The 20th of June 1980, Bob Marley gave a concert for 18.000 fans of reggae music. A year after this great success, all licenses to organise events at the Waldbühne were bought. In 1982, it came to the construction of the tent over the original stage. Ever since, the Waldbühne is a stage as there are many others. Bruce Springsteen played at the venue in 1988, Neil Young played there last June 3rd and rockband Muse will do it upcoming Sunday the 14th. Many great other artists did play here and will do it. The Nazi heritage is wiped out as much as could be anyway. So to speak, the Waldbühne still provides an open air stage for the masses to enjoy their favorite film or artist. In the summer months, it is no surprise that the S-Bahn track towards it are more crowded with visitors of various concerts.

Ticket for Bruce Springsteen's concert at the Waldbuehne in Berlin (1988)

In this article, I’ve summarised a history of a theatre – which always have been a place where many things happen at the same time. At first, chosen is to place the Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne in a wider context of urban planning. Interesting here is that Nazi authorities -again- overrated their own capabilities. The Große Halle could not have been realised in its original design, while the Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne didn’t host a quarter of its planned visitors. That the theatre was named after a mediocre critic -who was was forgotten by Hitler during his life- is even more ironic. Secondly, written is about the theatres specific première and the execution of deserters. I think it’s an interesting similarity that in the propagandist play during the theatre’s opening, an evil Emperor threatens to kill his disloyal peasants. Over eight summers later, Hitler did the same with his deserters. Since 2001, a memorial to the executed deserters can be found in the forest, directly West of the Waldbühne. The 104 traffic mirrors gave me a surreal effect, giving you the urge to stop. And confusing the literal ‘looking back’ with the metaphorical way.

After the War, the Waldbühne got rid of its Nazi propagating heritage immediately. First by two enormous farewells for two evident opponents of the Nazi regime, later by a riot which was anything except an applause for authorities. In my analysis about the German 1960s, I tried to relativise the importance of this riot for the further German history. For the Waldbühne itself though, it introduced a period of rest which took fifteen years. Only since 1980, the Waldbühne became a normal stage just like there are many others. To given an answer on the question whether we have to feel like being part of a applauding machine as initiated by Goebbels: I don’t think so. First of all, the Minister of Propaganda had a grandstand in mind which was five times bigger. And just like the most of Nazi utopia: it never came there. Secondly, an amphitheatre itself cannot be. The Waldbühne is not a political statement: it is about the event which takes place there. Given the presence of the Stones, Bob Marley and Neil Young – there is no need to worry. Nevertheless, the geographical exclusiveness also caused a bloody phenomenon. Besides visiting any concert at the Waldbühne, I can recommend a walk at the western pathway – watching the violent history back in over a hundred mirrors.

Pathway and memorial to the deserted soldiers. Murellenschlucht, Berlin-Westend (July 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser