A luxury hotel is coming to a structure built by the Nazi’s victims.
In 1942, 1,000 forced laborers—victims of the Nazi regime—were made to build the St. Pauli bunker in Hamburg, Germany. The construction of the massive structure was done in just 300 days. And in 2021, a luxury hotel will open inside of it.
The NH Hotel Group recently won a contract that would allow them to open up a new nhow hotel, a chain of design hotels, in the bunker. The forthcoming property will include 136 rooms, a bar, a coffee shop, and a restaurant.
What we do with structures that come with dark histories is a complicated topic. But any way you cut it, generating profit with a trendy design hotel located inside a Nazi bunker is about as ghoulish as reinventions come.
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The St. Pauli bunker is one of eight flak towers (large anti-aircraft gun towers that doubled as air-raid shelters for civilians) that were constructed on Hitler’s orders in response to Allied air raids. After the war, it was determined that the amount of explosives it would take to demolish the building would damage nearby residential neighborhoods. So, over the last century, the bunker (along with many of the other towers) has remained and instead been repurposed.
In 1950 it was used to broadcast the first television images in Germany. It’s been the site of a nightclub, a music school, and office space. More recently, the roof has become the site of a public garden.
Playing Into Propaganda
How we, in the present day, frame historical artifacts aligns us in a certain way. Similar to the topic of tourists taking inappropriate selfies at Auschwitz, it’s important to consider what stories you’re validating and what stories you’re casting aside.
The bunker didn’t just serve a practical function for the Nazis, it served a symbolic one as well. The hotel chain’s own description of the bunker’s history notes that the Nazis used the bunker as a point of pride in their propaganda. The image of the daunting structure no doubt made for a very clear representation of strength and fortitude. But that’s the story that’s reinforced by emphasizing its aesthetics and design over all else.
The hotel’s website pays lip service to plans for a memorial by redirecting visitors to the Hilldegarden association, which maintains the roof garden as well as memorials and projects (like actively seeking out the stories of those forced to work on the bunker) that honor the Nazi’s victims. But outsourcing concerns to a preexisting organization doesn’t exactly speak to a project that’s going to be handled in a mindful way.
Respectfully repurposing a space with a tragic history requires a degree of altruism that those in pursuit of the inherently cynical goal of monetary profit rarely if ever exhibit.
Who, after all, could feel comfortable bellying up to a hotel bar or literally sleeping at night knowing the venue in which they’re being entertained was a Hitler pet project? (Not only did he order the construction of the flak towers, but he was also particularly interested in their design and even supplied his own sketches.) If your business is operating in a place with a dark history, you have to discourage your customers’ compassion from dampening their mood for spending money on food, drinks, general frivolity. And the best way to diminish that compassion is to downplay (or better yet, erase) the suffering inextricably linked to the building’s origin in favor of appreciating its overall design.
By presenting the building as a piece of interesting architecture first (complete with an artfully rendered illustrations on the hotel’s website), it becomes divorced from its origin, which is inherently disrespectful of the people that were forced to build it.