An insane dream to build a supercontinent

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

States' lack of cooperation doomed Atlantropa, a plan to house Europe's masses; migrant crisis faces similar problem

Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris recently announced plans to buy a Greek island to give refugees from the Middle East and Africa a country of their own. Although he referred to his proposal as a "crazy idea" on Twitter, he is serious.

As a radical solution to providing land for the peoples of a war-torn continent, it certainly pales in comparison to an earlier plan from the first half of the 20th century, which was seriously considered by heads of state and, at one point, even the United Nations - the plan for Atlantropa, which would have involved the partial draining of the Mediterranean Sea and the creation of a Eurafrican supercontinent.

Atlantropa was the brainchild of German architect Herman Sorgel, who tirelessly promoted the project from 1928 until his death in 1952. His experience of World War I, the economic and political turmoil of the 1920s and the rise of Nazism in Germany convinced him that a new world war could be avoided only if a radical solution was found to European problems of unemployment, overpopulation and, with Saudi oil still a decade away, an impending energy crisis. With little faith in politics, Mr Sorgel turned to technology.

Dams across the Strait of Gibraltar, the Dardanelles and eventually between Sicily and Tunisia, each containing giant hydroelectric power plants, would form the basis for the new supercontinent. In its final state, the Mediterranean would be converted into two basins, with the western part lowered by 100m and the eastern part by 200m. In total, 660,200 sq km of new land would be reclaimed from the sea - an area larger than France.

Later plans for Atlantropa also included two dams across the Congo River and the creation of a Chad and Congo sea, which Mr Sorgel hoped would have a moderating influence on the African climate, making it more pleasant for European settlers.

In line with colonial and racist attitudes of the times, he envisaged Africa with its resources and its land being entirely at the disposal of Europe - a continent with plenty of space to accommodate Europe's huddled masses. Such a proposal might sound absurd to our ears, but it was taken seriously by architects, engineers, politicians and journalists at the time. The extensive Atlantropa archive at the Deutsches Museum in Munich abounds with architectural drawings for the cities, dams and bridges of the future continent. There are also letters of support and hundreds of articles about the project, published in the German and international popular press as well as in specialised engineering and geographical magazines.

What made Atlantropa so attractive was its vision of world peace achieved not through politics and diplomacy, but with a simple technological solution.

Atlantropa would be held together by a vast energy net, which would extend from the gigantic hydroelectric plant in the Gibraltar dam, and provide the entirety of Europe and Africa with electricity.

The power plant would be overseen by an independent body, which would have the power to switch off the energy supply to any individual country that posed a threat to peace. Moreover, Mr Sorgel calculated that the construction of the supercontinent would require each country to invest so much money and people power that none would have sufficient resources left to finance a war.

Putting his faith in the peoples of Europe and their desire for peace, he dedicated a large part of his work to the promotion and dissemination of the project through the popular press, radio programmes, films, talks, exhibitions and even poetry and an Atlantropa symphony. He hoped that popular support would help him get the backing of politicians, which he needed in order to start construction.

Not surprisingly, in the eyes of his contemporaries, the required collaboration between nation states always appeared even more utopian than the vast technological dimensions of Atlantropa.

As the New York-based UN World observed in 1948: Harnessing Gibraltar for mankind's good does sound like a dream but, in this 20th century, no dream - not even that of cooperation between nations - is quite impossible.

By 2012, when the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in acknowledgment of its contribution to lasting peace in Europe, the hope expressed by the UN World appeared to finally have come true.

However, this year, cooperation between nations sadly looks like a distant dream once again.

Where once Mr Sorgel had used the image of a Europe bursting at the seams that is saved by a peaceful merger with the African continent, Europe is now confronted with the mirror image as people from across Africa and the Middle East stream towards Europe.

Now would be the time to prove that the Peace Prize was indeed deserved. Now would be the time to show solidarity and unity. Instead, the EU appears on the brink of being torn apart over its inability to find a communal solution to accommodate a group of refugees, whose number ultimately comes to no more than a meagre 0.11 per cent of the overall population of the Union. Sadly, European unity - and with it a solution for the refugee crisis - once again appears more utopian than Mr Sorgel's plans for draining the Mediterranean Sea.

  • The writer is a Lecturer in Visual Culture and Cultural History, King's College London.
  • This article first appeared in theconversation.com, a website of analysis from academics and researchers.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'An insane dream to build a supercontinent'. Print Edition | Subscribe