What Happens When A Nazi Monument Is Transformed Into Luxury Housing

In Hamburg, a major Nazi monument is being repurposed into deluxe apartments. A lesson on the luxury boom, and the way Germany faces its uncomfortable history.

Architectural rendering of the Sophienpalais, part of the future luxury residences
Architectural rendering of the Sophienpalais, part of the future luxury residences
Gerhard Matzig

HAMBURG – The Nazi eagles have haven't exactly flown away, but have been removed from the roof of the former Nazi command headquarters in Hamburg, an unmistakeable example of national-socialist architecture built in the Harvestehude quarter in 1937.

“They’ve been put into storage,” says Uwe Schmitz, CEO of Frankonia Eurobau, by telephone. There is a pause, then he continues cautiously, almost uncertainly. “The eagles, of course, we can put them back up ... or not.”

It is this “or not” that riles Alexander Krauss from the office for the protection of historic buildings in Hamburg. First he laughs in disbelief, then exclaims, “Oh God! Not that again.” Krauss recently wrote an article about the conversion of the former Nazi headquarters, a project that has sparked fierce disputes among city authorities but has gone largely unnoticed by most of the population. Normally there is far more fuss when a listed building is converted, but in this case the silence speaks volumes.

In his article, Krauss writes, “They are not shying away from confrontation with the office for the protection of historical buildings. If threats and intimidation do not work straight away, they can always resort to lawyers ... and apply political pressure in order to ensure that their ideas go through.” Although Krauss doesn’t mention him by name, the criticism is directed at Uwe Schmitz, the successful project developer who is converting the former Nazi headquarters into luxury residences.

Confronting history

The site is in one of the most expensive areas in Germany, where not so very long ago the Nazis drove Jewish residents out of their homes. Soon the park area and the headquarters itself will be transformed into a luxury housing complex of villas, townhouses and apartments. The most expensive apartment in the park area costs 6 million euros, while in the main building buyers are paying up to 20,000 euros per square meter. A one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor is to be sold for just under half a million euros.

“The grand listed building of the former Hamburg command headquarters is being restored carefully and sympathetically,” the developer’s website says. Krauss, on the other hand, argues that the building has been all but destroyed. The diggers have been doing their work, and now all that remains of the former headquarters is the long, thin facade, the one with the eagles. It seems that Krauss is fighting a losing battle. “What are you supposed to do when even the city authorities are prepared to accept the destruction of a historically significant building?”

Frankonia’s marketing department has posted a video about the project in which the camera pans across the impressive facade, down a pillar-flanked hall and up a luxurious staircase. The red carpet leads to a club lounge, which is to be furnished by Karl Lagerfeld. It is the former Nazi ballroom. In the video, the two massive eagles still stand on their perches, casting their shadows over the building.

Johannes Kister from the KSG architecture firm in Köln is in charge of the project and knows nothing about the divergent interests of a city seeking investment and a heritage office that wants to protect the “only significant public building from the Third Reich in Hamburg,” as art historian Hermann Hipp has put it. The firm’s motto is “Preserve the soul of the old, without dogma, with expertise,” but Krauss believes not enough of the old has been preserved. He thinks the building has been “gutted.” “We’ve lost this battle,” he says.

But who is responsible? The investor? The architect? The city authorities? Or the residents moving into the luxury apartments? It was suggested that the building could be turned into offices instead, which would have allowed it to retain more original features, but residents were against the idea. The investor has permission from the authorities. From a legal perspective, all is well. The question, however, is whether it is right. Is this how German society wants to deal with its uncomfortable heritage?

At the moment the Nazi-era facade is green. Schmitz wants it to be “gleaming white,” the white of villas in Harvestehude and pretty boats in Hamburg harbor. Why not? Plans to build a supermarket on the site of the former concentration camp in Ravensbrück have sparked outrage, but at the former Nazi headquarters in Hamburg silence reigns.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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