Why you should care
Because the most immodest proposal of all time could have solved the biggest problems of the 20th century — and created even bigger ones for the 21st.
Germany in the 1920s wasn’t a place for the meek of mind. As a population ravaged by World War I was suffering under the terms of its peace treaty, the country was experimenting with democracy, home to a bold avant-garde arts scene and pushing scientific boundaries (Albert Einstein and eight other Germans received Nobel prizes in this period).
It was a time and a land of big personalities and big ideas — and no concept was bigger than that of Herman Sörgel, a monocle-wearing academic whose pacifism kept him away from the front lines of the Great War and whose doctoral thesis on the theory of architecture was rejected twice, presumably because it was almost murderously boring.
And yet, this now largely forgotten and unlikely protagonist hatched an idea that may have been the most immodest proposal of all time — on a par, perhaps, with landing a man on the moon. In short, Sörgel’s grand plan was to dam the Mediterranean Sea and drain most of it to reclaim vast amounts of land and turn Europe and Africa into a single megacontinent.
Although Sörgel published multiple iterations of the plan, known as Atlantropa, throughout his life, the most developed ones involved a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar to connect the Iberian Peninsula with Morocco and cut the Mediterranean off from the Atlantic; another dam in the east to separate it from the Black Sea; and a third from the former island of Sicily (now connected to Italy) with Tunisia. Oh, and he’d also dam the Congo River to help irrigate the Sahara Desert.
The sea level of the Med would fall 100 meters east of the Sicily-Tunisia dam and 200 meters to its west, enabling an area of seabed larger than France to emerge, all while creating near unlimited hydroelectric power. While the Panama and Suez canals were world-changing engineering projects, “there’s really nothing else like [Atlantropa]” throughout history that was planned on such a “continental scale … [except] perhaps the Great Wall of China,” says architectural historian Peter Christensen at the University of Rochester, who lectures on the audacious project.
… the unknown consequences of altering the geography of planet Earth on a scale that’s never been attempted before or since.
The plan was intended to solve what Sörgel saw as Europe’s most pressing problem: the growing threat of an economically united “pan-Asia” across the eastern hemisphere and a similar bloc among the wealthy Americas in the west. His plan would create a new megacontinent, sometimes referred to in his work as “Eurafrica,” which would also help unite the region so the horrors of war would never be repeated. “It wasn’t some pipe dream and then dismissed,” says Christensen.
Indeed, the publication of the initial plans saw Sörgel rocket into media stardom. He toured the country with his idea, incorporating designs of other architects far more accomplished than himself — one version of the Gibraltar dam included a 400-meter tower (100 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower, the tallest structure in the world at the time) by Peter Behrens, a mentor of architect Le Corbusier. There was even a massive canal planned to Venice — which otherwise would have been left high and dry several dozen miles inland — to preserve its cultural beauty.
Even “Hitler knew of the project,” says Christensen, but “didn’t like it” — the Nazis didn’t much care for Africa. That said, Sörgel’s 1938 book, Die Drei Grossen A (“The Three Big A’s” — as in the future superpowers of Asia, the Americas and Atlantropa), had a quote from Hitler on the flyleaf, so it’s unclear whether the Führer warmed to the idea. Science fiction author Philip K. Dick certainly did, though — Atlantropa is mentioned in his book (and the Amazon TV show), The Man in the High Castle, about a postwar world following a Nazi victory.
Unlike Hitler, both Sörgel and the Atlantropa Institute that he founded survived the war and continued lobbying for the megaproject, though they were never able to convince anyone from Mediterranean countries whose coastlines would be annulled, that this was vaguely a good idea. Sörgel was killed in a hit-and-run car crash while riding his bike on Christmas Day, 1952; the Atlantropa Institute was disbanded in 1960.
To be clear, Atlantropa would have been no paradise, and Sörgel no hero. At the heart of the proposal are two very dangerous and very bad ideas: a very European concept of colonialism and a specifically German notion of Lebensraum, or “living space,” which the Nazis exploited to justify expansionism. “There’s a very strong undertone, or maybe just an explicit tone, of [European] hegemony” over Africa in the plans, says Christensen — Sörgel created materials depicting Africa as a woman producing wheat and fruit and holding it up in offering to Europe, he says. Indeed, Eurafrica was not to be a diverse post-national utopia, but a megacontinent controlled by and for Europeans.
While the human side may have made the project a nonstarter, there were practical concerns too — it would have required more concrete than the entire global production at the time, and it would have destroyed the ecology of the Mediterranean, not to mention the unknown consequences on climate patterns caused by altering the geography of planet Earth on a scale that’s never been attempted before or since.
Nevertheless, we haven’t done a great job of maintaining climate patterns as it is, so maybe as we start to tackle the 21st-century problems of climate change and mass environmental migration, once again it might be time to think big.