The 1920s plan that’s weirder than any of Boris Johnsons’: draining the Mediterranean Sea

Spoiler: this was not a well-thought out plan. Image: Wikipedia via Creative Commons.

Long before Boris Johnson was advocating a Channel Bridge, and various other pointless infrastructure projects, there was the Atlantropa project of the 1920s. Like something born out of the fevered dreams of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, this involved building a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar to effectively seal off the Mediterranean.

Without its main source of water – 35,000km3 per year of the sea’s water comes from the Strait, compared to just 1,200km3 from rivers – the plan was for the isolated Mediterranean to start to dry up. The receding sea would create usable land, which the architect of this bizarre project, German engineer Herman Sörgel, envisaged would be used for agriculture.

The project, which would have also had the potential to create vast hydro-electric energy, called for the Mediterranean to be lowered by 200m, which would completely rewrite the topography of the existing coastline, including the complete disappearance of the Upper Adriatic and the sealing of the Dardanelles. You can just imagine how annoyed Putin would be if this plan was enacted in the contemporary world. He’s gone through all the trouble of annexing Crimea only for a crackpot inventor to seal off access to the Mediterranean for Russian warships.

But petty geopolitical quibbling was never a concern for Sörgel. His idea was utopian, intended to solve post-war European issues such as the dire economic situation and the perceived lack of living space (Lebensraum in German). The latter became a rallying cry for the Nazis and Sörgel half-heartedly pitched his idea to them in 1938, including a quote from Hitler at the front of one of his books.

As with much of that era, the project must also be understood within the colonial context. Sörgel hoped this new land would bridge the gap between Europe and Africa, creating a new continent called Atlantropa – hence the project’s name.

As if the big plan wasn’t big enough, phase two involved creating another sea in the middle of the Sahara to be used for irrigation of the desert and, in Sörgel’s words, make Africa a “territory actually useful to Europe”. This seems to ignore the hard work Europeans were already doing to pillage the continent, but I doubt many people are going to shed tears for them.

Sörgel thought that his plan would be a panacea to all of contemporary Europe’s problems and prevent another war. Noble ideals indeed but also really stupid. Imagine the devastation to the lives of the millions of people who live along the Mediterranean coast. Ancient cities like Algiers, Barcelona and Athens would be obliterated. And what would happen if Sörgel’s imagined dam was bombed? A flood that would make the Old Testament God blush wiping away all this new land.

This is not to mention that convincing the countries of Europe to work together on anything for a long period of time is no easy feat. That said, after WWII the Nato allies revisited the Atlantropa plans, hoping to stave off communism’s spread to Africa but the plan was ultimately dropped. Luckily for everyone, the end of formal colonialism and the lack of money killed off any remaining appetite for the project.

Sörgel himself died in relative obscurity. He was only allowed to dream so big because his wife, Irene, was a successful art dealer. This meant he could dedicate 25 years of his life to promoting this terrible idea without actually needing to profit from it.

Atlantropa can remain in the big dustbin of big engineering projects. Hopefully even Boris Johnson will leave it there – after all it would involve working with Europe (which he hates)… but then again it would also involve recolonising Africa (which I imagine he would love).


The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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