A picturesque German island plays host to one of the longest building complexes in Europe; a structure that straddles almost three miles of coast overlooking the Baltic Sea. It is known as the “Colossus of Rügen,” and its identical windows and balconies stretch on as far as the eye can see.
In fact, it was intended to be the biggest holiday resort in the world, having been built to cater for as many as 20,000 visitors at once. Alas, history had something very different in store for it.
This island is called Rügen, and it’s located just off the coast of Pomerania in the north of Germany. It’s roughly 30 miles long by 20 miles wide, and its variety of expansive beaches, cliffs and scenic landscapes have helped to make it a popular tourist destination for many years.
Indeed, most visitors today stay in the kind of quaint holiday apartments or hotels you’d expect to find on a paradise-like island. But if this complex had been a success in the late 1930s, it would have been a very different form of accommodation.
It was the idea of a German politician named Robert Ley, who wanted to recreate the concept of affordable holiday camps – such as the U.K.’s Butlins resorts – in his own country. The plan was to create a venue for beachside holidays that was accessible even to low-paid workers, thus helping create a happy and content workforce.
To determine the design of this new resort, then, a competition was held. And, as this was an era in which the Nazi Party held sway in Germany, Albert Speer, Hitler’s foremost architect, oversaw the contest.
The winner was one Clemens Klotz. His design for eight monolithic buildings, located just 500 feet from the shoreline, would offer easy access for those wishing to enjoy a relaxing swim.
In 1936 construction on the complex, known as Prora, began. Moreover, for the next few years nearly all of the Third Reich’s construction resources were poured into the project. Almost 9,000 people worked on it in some capacity.
The buildings were constructed so that each room would offer residents a view of the Baltic Sea. Essential facilities, meanwhile, were located on the other side, with shared bathrooms positioned on each floor.
Hitler had big plans for Prora. As well as creating what he hoped would be “the most mighty and large” vacation resort ever built, he planned to add grand touches such as a hall with the capacity to accommodate all 20,000 visitors at once.
The Nazi Party’s leisure organization, Kraft der Freude – which translates as “strength through joy” – intended Prora to be the first of a series of similar resorts rolled out across the country. They hoped that affordable vacations would encourage Germans to support them. The buildings would be used as backup military facilities in the event of war.
The design for Prora was a popular one at the time, and in 1937 it scooped a Grand Prix award at the Paris World Exposition. But despite such accolades, the resort would never get to reach its glory days.
In 1939 Europe was braced for the start of World War II and construction on Prora ground to a halt. Workers were directed elsewhere and the resort remained an unfinished shell. Ten thousand rooms suddenly sat empty, waiting for guests that would never come. The completed structure stretched for nigh-on three miles along the coast.
During the war the complex saw sporadic use. When Allied Forces rained down bombs on Hamburg some citizens took refuge there. Later, refugees from East Germany and female members of the Luftwaffe were housed at Prora.
In 1945 victorious Soviet forces established a base at Prora and remained there for a decade. When they left they stripped everything of value from the buildings, leaving them in an even more sorry state than before.
The newly formed German Democratic Republic’s National People’s Army then took possession of the buildings, and they remained there until German reunification in 1990. As various military units and training facilities moved in and out over the years, Prora’s purpose as a vacation resort seemed to slip further and further away.
It wasn’t until 1993 that the complex was abandoned for good. With the exception of one block that was used as a museum, a gallery space and a youth hostel, the rest of the resort began to slowly decay.
However, things may finally be on the up for the vacation destination that never was. In 2004 a decision was reached to sell the site as individual lots rather than one whole – and the offers began to trickle in.
Blocks one and two in the eight-block complex were sold to a company that planned to convert them into accommodation and shops. Block five, meanwhile, was earmarked as the location for a new youth hostel that finally opened in 2011. It now promotes itself as the longest youth hostel in the world.
In 2015, more than three quarters of a century after Prora was built, the first tenants moved into the apartments built within the resort’s walls. For the new residents the promise of affordable living by the ocean seems to outweigh whatever sinister feeling might be left over from the ghosts of the buildings’ past.