The 20th century was marked by awe-inspiring engineering projects on a scale unmatched in human history. The Hoover Dam, the U.S. highways system, and the Three Gorges Dam are only a handful of the ambitious programs humans embarked on in the last century.
These projects are remarkable achievements, but they in no way match the scale of what people were able to imagine during those heady days of seemingly unlimited progress, when anything seemed possible. Among the most ambitious, borderline megalomaniacal, plan belonged to Hermann Sorgel. His solution to the problems facing Europe post World War I was nothing short of re-engineering an entire continent.
A man with a plan
Hermann Sorgel was a German architect who proposed his plan for Atlantropa (also known as Panropa) in the 1920s. He believed that the problems plaguing Europe — chronic warfare, unemployment, and political strife — were caused by overpopulation. The solution would later be encapsulated by the Nazi concept of Lebensraum, “living space.” Sorgel’s concept differed from that of the Nazis in that his concept of more European living space in that it was not limited to only Aryans. Also, it did not involve the aggressive theft of such living space from other nations. Point of fact, Sorgel’s Atlantropa scheme was explicitly pacifistic; it sought to make more living space for Europeans not by taking land from other Europeans, but by expanding Europe itself.
This would be achieved by lowering the level of the Mediterranean Sea using a series of dams, the largest of which would cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Twenty-five miles long,t would control the inflow of water from the Atlantic Ocean, and in the process produce huge amounts of hydroelectricity that would provide cheap power to millions. A tunnel connecting Spain and North Africa would be built underneath the massive dam, and it would contain two railroad lines and four road beds. The monstrous barrier would have lowered the level of the Mediterranean by 660 feet, freeing up huge tracts of land for European settlement. The Adriatic Sea would have ceased to exist, and Sicily would have expanded to the point it basically merged with the toe of Italy.
The next dam would cross the Dardanelles Straits, in what is now Turkey, and a third dam would be built between Sicily and Tunisia. This dam would effectively divide the Mediterranean in two, and it would act as a roadway to link southern Europe and Northern Africa. A set of locks and gates would be added to the Suez Canal to keep the connection to the Red Sea and the larger world.
Notice how the terms “European” and “European Settlement” have been used over and over. That is because, despite Sorgel’s peaceful intentions for Europe, he cared little for the vast majority of the world that wasn’t of European descent. This sentiment especially extended to Africa, which according to the racist thinking of the times was a dark continent with no history, civilization, or culture of any value. So, in his eyes, it would be no problem to simply take what Europe needed from Africa. If Europe needed land, then North Africa would have to become part of Europe. The next phase of his plan involved damming the Congo River to expand Lake Chad, and then using that water to irrigate the Sahara Desert. The now semi-tropical lands would effectively be a bread basket for a united Europe.
An unworkable idea?
For Atlantropa to work, it would have required the cooperation of every state in Europe. In a continent shattered by warfare and bad blood, that was a tall order. If it was politically unfeasible, Atlantropa was also an economic non-starter. France was shattered by the fighting on its homeland during World War I, and still in recovery in the 1920s. Germany was suffering from rampant inflation and the demands of the Treaty of Versailles. The lands of the former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had collapsed into warring factions. There simply was not enough political or economic will to be mustered for a project the size of Sorgel’s Atlantropa.
Plus there were other factors to be considered. The nations of southern Europe were not thrilled by the idea. Large parts of their economies depended on the sea. Lowering the sea level would leave hundreds of villages, towns, and cities high and dry, completely changing ways of life that go back hundreds of years. It is doubtful too that the peoples of North Africa would be thrilled to have Europeans annex their lands.
The human costs would multiply once the inevitable environmental consequences kicked in. Sorgel proposed nothing short of deliberately shifting the climate of an entire continent. Then there is the ecological devastation that would result from the draining of the Mediterranean, the flooding of Lake Chad, and the irrigation of the Sahara. Many species of plants and animals, both on land and sea, would likely have gone extinct, and it is difficult to predict the cascade of effects that would have resulted from their absence.
Faded into history
Hermann Sorgel campaigned for Atlantropa for 25 years until his death in 1952. Interest in the project waxed and waned, but progress both technological and cultural eventually sounded its death knell. With the advent of nuclear power, people discovered a sustainable way to produce cheap power. After the horrors of World War II and the revelations of Nazi Germany’s atrocities, views toward racist attitudes began to shift. Colonial powers such as Britain had lost hold of their overseas territories bit by bit, and world opinion was turning against colonialism in general.
Simply put, Atlantropa became a relic in a changing world. The Atlantropa Institute held on eight years after Sorgel’s death, but eventually dissolved in 1960. Hermann Sorgel’s vision of utopia faded into history, becoming nothing more than an interesting footnote.
“Atlantropa.” Wikipedia.org. 30 December 2013. Wikipedia. 17 January 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantropa>
“First Facts on the World’s Biggest Engineering Job.” The Spokesman-Review. 31 May 1929. Retrieved From: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1314&dat=19290531&id=yahXAAAAIBAJ&sjid=xPMDAAAAIBAJ&pg=5860,4476781>
Edit Suisse Group. “Atlantropa.” Cabinet. Spring 2003. Issue 10. Retrieved From: <http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/10/atlantropa.php>