In the 1920's the people of Europe feared the future as a dark, despairing place. Despite the loss of over five million Europeans in the Great War, the region was still plagued with the social maladies which had led to the conflict. The humans were maladjusted to the Industrial Age and the changes in labor which it spawned. To make matters worse, both scholars and soothsayers of the day postulated that world's fluxing economies would congeal into two economic blobs: the Americas would unify into a wealthy super-state in the west, while the east colluded to become an enormous pan-Asian power. Europe would be left economically isolated, with a limited range of climates for farming and fewer resources at hand. Nowhere was the gloom thicker than in Germany where the terms of the Treaty of Versailles led to poverty and hunger for much of the population. It was in the midst of that dark time that an architect named Herman Sörgel devised a plan to preserve Europe through this daunting new worldscape.

Sörgel spent years promoting his scheme to save Europe: the construction of vast hydroelectric dams spanning the Mediterranean. The massive turbines would furnish a surplus of power, and the re-engineered sea would turn the life-hostile Sahara desert into a fertile wetland. In an era when it seemed technology could do no wrong, a considerable segment of the population supported Sörgel's ambitious plan.

Herman Sörgel was born 2 April 1885 in Regensburg, Germany. Just after the turn of the century Sörgel began studying architecture in Munich. He submitted his doctoral thesis in 1908, but it was rejected. Five years later he turned in a fantastically similar paper. This time it was accepted, and so well received that Sörgel successfully expanded it into a book. From such events Sörgel learned a valuable lesson of persistence--it was a lesson that served him well though the rest of his life. He was working as an architect and journalist in 1914 when World War I broke out across Europe. His country engaged in hostilities, but Sörgel professed himself a pacifist, and did not participate. In the aftermath of the First War to End All Wars, Sörgel looked around at war-ravaged Germany, and worried for the future. Not just his future, nor his country’s. Sörgel worried for all of Europe. The forecasted Super-America and Pan-Asia economies prompted more fear: since the Americas spanned all the latitudes and climates, they would always be able to farm, and would eradicate hunger. With their legendary abundance of resources, the Super-America would need import nothing from Europe. The predicted Pan-Asian union presented the same problem with a distinctly oriental lilt. Europe would be helplessly sandwiched between these two behemoths--small, underfed, and under-powered.

Sörgel's solution lay in the very thing that was leaving so many unemployed and destitute: technology. The pioneering footprints into the Industrial Age were still fresh, and the world was replete with a blind, loving trust of all things advanced. Electricity was the solution to all problems, and hydroelectric power was deemed cheap, exploitable, and renewable. As an architect of ambition, Sörgel was fed up with penny-ante dammed rivers. In 1927 Sörgel first published the plan he called Panropa. The plan he presented was meglomanically grand, but somewhat vague. Two years later a more detailed, but just as egotistical, version was unveiled was called Atlantropa.

Project Atlantropa proposed building a dam near the narrowest point of the Straight of Gibraltar, resulting in an eighteen-mile-long structure from Morocco to Spain. A second dam would halt the Bosporus river to block off the Black Sea to the east. Although some of the Mediterranean's water comes from rivers, most flows in from the Atlantic Ocean. Water pushing through turbines would create power for all of Europe and Africa, and lower the level of the Mediterranean by more than 300 feet. 90,000 square miles of new land would be exposed in the area between beach front properties and the relocated beach.

The descended sea would also dry the waterway between Sicily and Italy, and a third dam from Sicily to Tunsia would serve as a bridge to allow travelers easy access to colonize Africa. Of course, before any such colonization, Africa would need to be "improved." Yet another Atlantropa dam would be built across the Congo, swelling Lake Chad from it’s current state of "occasionally wet" to an inland sea of 135,000 square miles. The Congo lowlands would flood the "unproductive" forests, subsequently washing away uncounted villages, species, and indigenous people.

Sörgel extolled the virtues of his mega-project in four books, thousands of publications, and countless lectures. The massive supply of electricity would make nations share a single power-grid, and ease strife among countries by making them interdependent for their power. It would also, hypothetically, curb the European lust for war by providing an easy way for the dense Anglo populations to move south and displace the African natives. At the time, people in the Africkas were widely considered without culture, purpose, or productivity, and few Europeans harbored second thoughts about rearranging the natives without their consent. Sörgel and his supporters suggested that the colonization would be a boon to Africa, and provide water and work to the current population.

Map of Atlantropa (click for larger view)Project Atlantropa garnered a cult following including designers who drafted plans, and financial supporters. As the media doted upon Sörgel as an engineering pop-star, he founded the Atlantropa Institute to promote the project. But for all the popularity, he was unable to get the project off the ground. In 1933 he took a proposal to the Nazis; if anyone had a penchant for construction on a grand scale, it would be them. Upon examining Sörgel's plan, the Nazis flatly refused. Aside from the fact that the Nazis main interest lay away from Africa, the pith of Atlantropa was to benefit all of Europe, and that was something in which they had no interest.

Though the Atlantropa Institute managed to survive though Europe's Second War to End All Wars, it gradually lost most if its funding, and it fell from the favor of the fickle public. Never one to give up, Sörgel passionately pushed the project for the rest of his life--a life that ended tragically on Christmas Day 1952 in a hit-and-run automobile accident. Reports indicated that Sörgel was bicycling along a road "as straight as a die" when he was struck. The car that killed him was never found.

Though the idea in itself was grand, most believe that it was utterly untenable. The construction of the Gibraltar dam would have required more concrete than the whole world's production of the time. Some critics maintained that such a change in the world's waterway would affect climate in unpredictable ways, though adherents argued that all of the changes--from redirecting the Transatlantic Flow to the alteration of the Sahara's humidity--would be for the better. Perhaps the most strongly argued point against the enormous Terra Reforming was the casual conquer of Africa and its people.

In 1960 the Atlantropa Institute was dissolved, and its legacy left to the realm of science-fiction, where it can still be seen today.

Written by Jason Bellows, posted on 25 September 2008. Jason is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.
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