Draining the Mediterranean

It was to be an engineering feat to surpass the Pyramids and be a wonder for all ages. The sea would be tamed, harnessed to produce abundant electricity and lowered to create vast new fertile plains. Europe would be linked to Africa, fresh water would make the desert bloom and there would be almost unlimited living space for a new generation of European pioneers. Atlantropa would see the Mediterranean Sea drained and the Panropa Project deliver a new world.

The dystopia presented in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is all too plausible. The United States fails to elect Roosevelt and, instead, collapses in on itself in autarkic and morally bankrupt bout of introspection. Japan annihilates the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour and establishes its Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere across much of Asia. On the other side of the world, Nazi Germany faces no western enemy and is thus free to destroy the USSR.

The Mediterranean and surrounding land - lighter green sea could have been reclaimed under Project Panropa

The book opens in 1962, 15 years after the end of a Second World War that lasted until 1947. The United States has been vanquished – its eastern seaboard subordinate to the Reich, the west given over to Japanese domination. Dick’s parallel universe is intriguing, and one concept more than any other caught my imagination: Atlantropa – draining the Mediterranean and creating a new world.

The idea is introduced as part of a character’s musings about the successes and failures of Germanic zeal:

“But Africa. They had simply let their enthusiasm get the better of them there, and you had to admire that, although more thoughtful advice would have cautioned them to perhaps let it wait a bit until, for instance, Project Farmland had been completed.

Now there the Nazis had shown genius; the artist in them had truly emerged. The Mediterranean Sea bottled up, drained, made into tillable farmland, through the use of atomic power — what daring! How the sniggerers had been set back on their heels, for instance certain scoffing merchants along Montgomery Street.”

Few ideas would so succinctly portray fanatical Nazi zeal or demonstrate the triumph of the will as an audacious bid to drain the Mediterranean. But surely this is a figment of Dick’s incredibly fertile imagination? A piece of science fiction every bit as fantastic as his portrayals of man’s colonisation of Mars and Venus?

Atlantropa - the monumental engineering works would have been wonders not yet surpassed

It might be a fantastical idea, but it was neither invented by Philip K. Dick nor first publicised in The Man in the High Castle. By the time Dick came to write this novel, the concept of Atlantropa (sometimes known as Panropa) had been around for over 30 years.

Philip K. Dick was correct to attribute the idea to the Germans, but it was not a product of the Nazi imagination. The main proponent of Atlantropa was a German engineer called Herman Sörgel. At the heart of his plan was a series of dams that would provide almost limitless hydroelectric power to the countries bordering the Mediterranean.

Sörgel set out his ideas in the 1929 publication Mittelmeer-Senkung, Sahara-Bewässerung, Panropaprojekt (‘Lowering the Mediterranean, Irrigating the Sahara: the Panropa Project’). The most important of his proposed dams would have been one of the wonders of the world – a vast structure spanning the continents of Africa and Europe. As noted on the Strange Maps blog: “calculations at the time cast doubt on whether there would even be enough concrete in the world to complete the gargantuesque project”.

By damning the nine miles of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean would be lowered by 200 metres. This would expose millions of acres of seabed for cultivation.

Exhibition poster from the Atlantropa / Panropa project

Further dams of almost unthinkably huge dimensions were proposed: across the Dardanelles to hold back the Black Sea and between Sicily and Tunisia (a distance of almost 100 miles today, but much less if the Mediterranean had been lowered) to provide a roadway and further lower the inner Mediterranean.

The hydroelectric potential of this network of dams was estimated to be 110,000 MW, of which 50,000 MW would come from the Straits of Gibraltar alone. By comparison, Britain’s largest power station, Drax, has an installed capacity of 3,960 MW. A contemporary project to Sörgel’s idea, America’s Hoover Dam, has an installed capacity of 2,000 MW. China’s Three Gorges Dam comes closer to the terrifying scale of the proposals with c. 22,500 MW of installed capacity. The projected hydroelectric potential was so great that, if realised, it would have equalled the installed capacity of the UK, Italy or Spain.

Sörgel’s plans were not limited to the Mediterranean. His vision for terraforming the region included a vast dam on the River Congo in Africa. This was intended to refill the ‘Mega-Chad basin’ around Lake Chad which would achieve the audacious twin aims of providing fresh water to irrigate the Sahara and creating a shipping lane to the interior of Africa.

Sörgel’s plan was held up as a peaceful alternative to seeking Lebensraum in the east. Although tainted in modern eyes by grandiosity and a disturbingly colonial attitude to Africa, it was resolutely pacific compared to the militarism of his times.

Herman Sörgel - the inspiration behind the project

That said, it was not incompatible with Nazi plans for the revival of Europe. Sörgel’s 1938 book Die Drei Grossen included a quote from Adolf Hitler on the flyleaf. Whilst this demonstrates that his concept was not inconsistent with Nazi ideology it was also a political expediency under the Third Reich.

Sörgel and his supporters developed their utopian ideas through detailed plans, maps and even scale models of several dams and new ports on the Mediterranean. He included views of the Gibraltar dam which was to be crowned by a 400-metre tower designed by Peter Behrens, projections of the growth of agricultural production, sketches for a pan-Atlantropan power grid and even provision for the protection of Venice as a cultural landmark via a canal to connect its world famous lagoon to the chastened sea.

Sörgel died on 25 December 1952 and his project did survive for too much longer. The Atlantropa Institute, an association of the sponsors and supporters of the project, finally disbanded in 1960.