“Fritz Todt: Mission and Achievement”
by Marc Roland
In what is certainly among the Third Reich’s most outstanding short films, this biography not only captures the elusive Zeitgeist of that unique epoch, but artistically chronicles one of its most influential, though relatively unknown personalities. Fritz Todt makes a brief appearance in the far more famous “Triumph of the Will”, where he has a few words to say about the Autobahn, but is otherwise little remembered by most viewers. They will be surprised to learn that he was a construction engineering genius to match if not surpass the ancient Egyptian pyramid-makers or Roman road-builders --- a man whose impact on the modern world is very much still with us.
The musical sound-track underscoring his story is on a scale to match such a monumental life, maintaining a wonderful continuity and unbroken pace from first frame to last, dramatizing the narrative in the best style of Richard Strauss, who, for all we know, might have been the composer. Unfortunately, the only person credited is Richard Scheinpflug. He compiled and most skillfully arranged newsreels, private photographs, location shots, and other visual materials into a work as cohesive, well-designed, solid and enduring as anything created by the larger-than-life hero of his documentary.
It opens with an expressive panorama of Baden’s medieval fairy-tale city, Pforzheim, where Fritz Todt was born on 4 September 1891. Very early on in the film, the jovial nature and ebullient enthusiasm that sustained him throughout life in all his relationships --- from common laborers to world leaders --- and every undertaking, no matter how challenging, is apparent. He was one of those rare creatures in whom high genius was wedded to an agreeable personality. It was his common-sense good humor and obvious lack of guile, as much as his brilliant intellect, that made the realization of his grand concepts possible. Social standing or class differences were immaterial, because the only thing that mattered to him was fellowship in the common cause of a shared project.
In youth, he was deeply attracted to music --- the architecture of sound --- but civil engineering barely won out over his affections. However, his schooling was interrupted by World War One. He volunteered as a common soldier, participated in hand-to-hand combat on the Western Front, but later transferred to Imperial Germany’s fledgling air corps. “”Fly once,” he said, “and it’s in your blood for the rest of your days.” It was as a gunner aboard a Halberstadt reconnaissance plane that he earned an Iron Cross First Class and the distinguished Hohenzollern Order before being wounded in August, 1918.
After the war, Fritz completed his studies, but there were no opportunities for civil engineers in democratic Germany, so he considered himself lucky to find odd jobs mixing concrete or as a day laborer. Yet, he never forgot how these hard times forced him to see construction from the manual worker’s point of view, an experience he later incorporated
into the materialization of his grand designs.
Long before most of his fellow countrymen came to the same conclusion, he recognized that Adolf Hitler was alone capable of leading them to better things, and joined the NSDAP as early as 5 January 1922. Now he was simply S.A. man Todt, one of eventually millions of Stormtroopers, who often fought but more usually worked hard for the National Socialist Revolution. He rose rapidly through the ranks to become, by 1931, the equivalent of a brigadier general in the Sturmabteilung.
But it was his doctorate on "Sources of Error in Road Construction" during that same year that brought him to the Führer’s attention. The two building enthusiasts hit it off at once, and they became fast friends. Eleven days after Hitler was elected Chancellor two years later, he appointed the former day laborer to Generalinspektor für das deutsche Straßenwesen, the "Inspector General for German Roadways". Dr. Todt threw himself into his task with unparalleled energy, creating the world’s first modern super-highways. Beginning with just 700 hand-picked engineers and workers, he completed the long stretch between Frankfurt and Darmstadt in just 20 months.
Some of the film’s most appealing scenes show him in friendly conversation with his colleagues, both white and blue collar. During such moments, the man’s natural amiability is apparent. At the Reichsautobahn’s impressive dedication ceremony, featured in his biographical film, he told of Hitler’s “constant attention to every project detail. These roads will live on when we are gone, as a monument to our diligence.”
And so they do. Today’s national highway networks in Europe and America are copies of the Reichsautobahn he designed and built. In the process, his originally puny forces mushroomed to more than a quarter-of-a-million workers able to add 3 kilometers of road per day. Todt was always among these men, not wearing an upper class business suit, but invariably dressed in his Stormtrooper uniform, seeing to their every need and paying close attention to their suggestions. In delivering them “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” he won that diligence of which he was so proud.
In so doing, he solved the Fatherland’s chronic unemployment, because highway construction generated residual economic growth in related industries, especially automobile manufacturing, contrary to mainstream historians, who insist illicit arms production cured Germany’s economic ills.
A stunning scene in Scheinpflug’s film takes place during 1939, when the last of several gigantic trees fall to make way for Autobahn construction in the south, suddenly revealing the high Alps. By then, some 4,000 kilometers of modern highways spread over the Third Reich. Todt insisted that they must be consistent in their harmony with the landscape, their construction ever sensitive to the environment, in accord with the National Socialist respect for Nature. “Environmentally, as well as economically and socially,” he said, “the Reichsautobahn must be National Socialism in practice.”
When war came, Dr. Todt changed into his Luftwaffe uniform and turned his attention to building the West Wall, a line of fortifications defending the German frontier. With the Wehrmacht almost entirely engaged in fighting Poland, the French attacked, but were stopped cold by what they called the Siegfried Line. As the narrator of the film states, “Germany won the first battle without firing a shot.”
Next, Dr. Todt built the famous u-boat pens, monumental feats of construction to rival the pyramids, and impervious to the most powerful bombs dropped by the RAF. Coverage of these sprawling submarine bunkers, as Dr. Todt presents Admiral Karl Doenitz with their ceremonial ownership, is simply breath-taking.
After the invasion of the Soviet Union, he created that country’s first modern roads, and was in the process of building a 20th Century infra-structure for Russia, when he suspected that some conservative German Army generals were sabotaging the war effort. They learned of his suspicions, and, just after meeting Hitler at the Führer’s headquarters in Rastenburg, East Prussia, on 8 February 1942, the plane carrying Dr. Todt away to the Eastern Front suddenly exploded, killing everyone aboard.
Several long scenes dwell on his dramatic state funeral, which is particularly remarkable for the deeply forlorn expression on Hitler’s face, leaving no doubt that the words he spoke then were sincere: “I have in this struggle lost one of my most trusted colleagues and best friends.”
Perhaps in “Fritz Todt: Mission and Achievement” no other film has so successfully captured the texture of the Third Reich in peace and war, nor the remarkable genius of this great builder.
- Marc Roland