On the picturesque beaches of the northern German island of Rügen, along the Baltic Sea, sits an empty 20,000-person resort. The buildings stretch nearly three miles down the coast, with all 10,000 rooms facing the beautiful bay just 500 feet from the water’s edge. Yet, no one ever used the rooms, movie theater or planned swimming pools.
Prora, known by locals as The Colossus, was built from 1936-1939 as part of the Nazi program of “Strength Through Joy.” The plan was to house workers in eight identical six-story buildings, feed them catered meals in scheduled seatings, and prepare them through propaganda and social activities to do their part in Hitler’s plan for Germany. It was also one of the largest architectural projects of the time, with 9,000 workers. The design, done in a Bauhaus style, won a Grand Prix award at the 1937 Paris World Exposition.
[ See our complete gallery of Prora, the Nazi resort making a bid for luxury travelers ]
But the Nazi resort plans never came to fruition. The outbreak of World War II meant the project was never finished as construction workers headed to the weapons factories instead.
But finally, some plans are moving forward to turn some of the buildings into luxury apartments and vacation rentals.
Building 1 was purchased in 2012 for $3.5 million by real estate group IRIS GERD. The plan is to turn the building into 163 vacation rentals called Neues Prora (“New Prora”). The vacation apartments range from one to three bedrooms and some will even include saunas and their own private terraces and gardens. The owners claim that as of last month, 50 of the units already have contracts signed on them. A model apartment is open now and the New Prora is scheduled to open in 2015.
Parts of Building 2 were also purchased in 2012 by two Berlin investors, who planned to build luxury apartments, calling the project "Meersinfonie" (Sea Symphony). The owners claim the majority of the 60 apartments, which range from about $150,000 to $350,000, have already been sold. Renovations are under way and expected to finish by mid-2015.
A ceremony was held last June, with marketing materials advertising the completion of the buildings “73 years (sic) after the start of construction.”
During the war, the half-built structures served as training grounds and housing for Nazi policemen. Also, locals used the buildings as shelter during bombings. After the war, refugees found shelter in the unfinished resort. Parts of Prora were later was used as a military outpost, first for the Soviet Red Army and then for the East German National People’s Army. Later, it housed some police vacationers and a small number of East German conscientious objectors sent to serve as construction workers instead of soldiers.
Since German reunification, though, the buildings have largely been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. The government briefly intended to demolish the place. Instead, it gained status as a heritage site. Plans have come and gone to renovate the massive resort and make it a tourist site, but financing has fallen through more than once.
Today, the complex houses a museum (called a documentation center) that chronicles the history of Prora and a disco club. And in 2011, Europe’s largest youth hostel, with 400 beds, opened in Building 5 after a $2.3 million renovation. The youth-hostel association also runs a youth camping ground.
At the hostel’s opening, there were concerns that marketing for the hostel played up its shady history and might attract neo-Nazis.
"We will do all we can to prevent brown (Nazi) ideology from gaining a foothold here," said Rügen district councillor Kerstin Kassner to a German newspaper at the time.
Naturally, not everyone feels good about turning a place with such a dark history into a vacation spot or forgetting the past.
“We should not be following in the footsteps of Strength Through Joy,” said Jürgen Rostock, the director of the documentation center, to The New York Times in 2011. “We think this is a very important monument to the social history of the Third Reich,” he said. “It explains why the Germans were seduced by the Third Reich. This was an offer to them.”
"Prora should be left as a reminder of the past and it shouldn't become a package holiday resort. We must not forget our history," Kathrin, a shopkeeper, told the BBC.
Plans for a hotel in another building have stalled and the remaining buildings remain an empty monument to the region’s history.
[ Fancy less historically and ethically fraught vacation destinations? We thought so. ]