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Technology and Culture 42.3 (2001) 596-598

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Book Review

Das Atlantropa-Projekt--Die Geschichte einer gescheiterten Vision: Herman Sörgel und die Absenkung des Mittelmeers

Das Atlantropa-Projekt--Die Geschichte einer gescheiterten Vision: Herman Sörgel und die Absenkung des Mittelmeers. By Alexander Gall. Frankfurt: Campus, 1998. Pp. 187.

This short but noteworthy book grew out of the author's 1994 master's thesis at the University of Munich. It is about the dream of German architect-engineer Herman Sörgel (1885-1952) to secure Europe's global position in the second quarter of the twentieth century with an engineering project [End Page 596] called Atlantropa, a gigantic dam across the Strait of Gibraltar. This dam would generate hydroelectricity when the level of the Mediterranean had dropped some hundred meters through evaporation and would become the nucleus of a vast network of power to solve Europe's energy problems permanently. It would also create 3.5 million square kilometers of arable land along the shores of a shrunken Mediterranean, which would relieve the pressures of Europe's overpopulation, irrigate most of the Sahara, and alter Africa's climate with a massive system of dams and artificial lakes in the Congo and Chad, eliminating tropical diseases and making the continent fit for European settlement.

The theme that inspired Sörgel's vision was unbounded technological optimism wedded to deep cultural pessimism--geopolitical, demographic, racial--about Europe's future in the aftermath of World War I. Sörgel believed that the war had fatally undermined Europe's position in the world, threatening it from the east with teeming Asiatic hordes--a "yellow peril" about to engulf Europe--and from the west with the rapacious dynamism of American capitalism. As Sörgel and his small band of followers saw it, only the realization of Atlantropa would give Europe the strength to become a "third force" and maintain its global standing against Asia and America.

While Sörgel's solution might have been unique, the problem with which he wrestled concerned many other Europeans and especially Germans of his generation, from Oswald Spengler to Karl Haushofer, Werner Sombart, Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, and Adolf Hitler. What such men had in common was an obsession with postwar enfeeblement and, for quite a few of them, a grandiose project that could cure it. One of the merits of Alexander Gall's book is that it pays attention to the broader context in which Sörgel's Atlantropa project was embedded and its parallels with other grand designs, such as the technocracy movement in the United States, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the post-1945 nuclear-power boom, the Soviets' Davydov Plan, giant wind-turbine projects, and spaceflight. In a chapter on geopolitics and living space, he points to the affinities between Sörgel's Atlantropa project and Count Coudenhove-Kalergi's 1920s vision of European integration. Both proposals were predicated on superseding the nation-state through peaceful collaboration and exploiting Africa as Europe's natural arena for expansion.

Although Gall notes the racism inherent in Sörgel's designs for Africa, he still puts a question mark after his discussion of Atlantropa's "points of contact" with National Socialism. He is right in a strictly technical sense. The Nazis had no use for the two central characteristics of Atlantropa--peaceful collaboration among European nations as a prerequisite for lowering the Mediterranean and the pursuit of Lebensraum in Africa--nor for Sörgel himself. On a more general level, however, and from today's vantage point, the similarities between Hitler's solution to Germany's problems and Sörgel's seem perhaps even more significant than their differences. [End Page 597]

Fundamental to both was a deeply rooted racism, in which the Other is scarcely human and the suffering and death of millions taken for granted. Fundamental to both was a faith in gigantic utopian designs, which called for massive resettlement and a complete restructuring of global power relations. Fundamental to both was the deeply problematical...


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