Atlantropa, also referred to as Panropa, was a gigantic engineering and colonization project devised by the German architect Herman Sörgel in the 1920s and promulgated by him until his death in 1952. Its central feature was a hydroelectric dam to be built across the Strait of Gibraltar, which would have provided enormous amounts of hydroelectricity and would have led to the lowering of the surface of the Mediterranean Sea by up to 200 metres (660 ft), opening up large new lands for settlement, for example in a now almost totally drained Adriatic Sea.
Sörgel saw his scheme, projected to take over a century, as a peaceful European-wide alternative to the Lebensraum concepts which later became one of the stated reasons for Nazi conquest of new territories. Atlantropa would provide land and food, employment, electric power, and most of all, a new vision for Europe and neighbouring Africa.
The Atlantropa movement, through its several decades, was characterised by four constants:
- Pacifism, in its promises of using technology in a peaceful way;
- Pan-European sentiment, seeing the project as a way to unite a war-torn Europe;
- White-centric superiority (and even racist) attitudes to Africa (which was to become united with Europe into "Atlantropa"), and
- Neo-colonial geopolitics which saw the world being divided into three blocs, America, Asia and Atlantropa.
Active support was limited to architects and planners from Germany and a number of other primarily northern European countries. Critics derided it for various faults, ranging from lack of any actual cooperation of Mediterranean countries in the planning to the impacts it would have had on the historic coastal communities left stranded inland when the sea receded. The project reached great popularity in the late 1920s/early 1930s, and for a short period again, in the late 1940s/early 1950s, but soon disappeared from general discourse again after Sörgel's death.
The plan was inspired by the coeval understanding of the Messinian salinity crisis, a pan-Mediterranean geological event that took place 5 to 6 million years ago. The contemporary geologists proposed that the large salt deposits surrounding the Mediterranean coast were the result of its partial isolation by a shrinking of the seaways connecting to the Atlantic. Today it is a majority opinion among geoscientists that the Mediterranean underwent a significant drawdown during that period.
The Utopian goal was to solve all the major problems of European civilization by the creation of a new continent, "Atlantropa", consisting of Europe and Africa and to be inhabited by Europeans (who were supposed to flourish under the effects of the climate changes, as opposed to Africa's native populations). Sörgel was convinced that to remain competitive with the Americas and an emerging Oriental "Pan-Asia", Europe must become self-sufficient, and this meant possessing territories in all climate zones. Asia would forever remain a mystery to Europeans, and the British would not be able to maintain their global empire in the long run – hence a common European effort to colonize Africa was necessary. The lowering of the Mediterranean would enable the production of immense amounts of electric power, guaranteeing the growth of industry. Unlike fossil fuels, this power source would not be subject to depletion. Vast tracts of land would be freed for agriculture – including the Sahara desert, which was to be irrigated with the help of three sea-sized man-made lakes throughout Africa. The massive public works, envisioned to go on for more than a century, would relieve unemployment and the acquisition of new land would ease the pressure of overpopulation, which Sörgel thought were the fundamental causes of political unrest in Europe. Sörgel also believed the project's effect on the climate could only be beneficial. The Middle East under the control of a consolidated Atlantropa would be an additional energy source and a bulwark against the Yellow Peril.
The publicity material produced for Atlantropa by Sörgel and his supporters contain plans, maps, and scale models of several dams and new ports on the Mediterranean, views of the Gibraltar dam 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. Concerns about climate change, earthquakes, attacks and the fate of African culture were often ignored as being unimportant.
After the Second World War, interest was piqued again as the Western Allies sought to create closer bonds with Africa and combat communism, but the invention of nuclear power, the cost of rebuilding, and the end of colonialism left Atlantropa technologically unnecessary and politically unfeasible, although the Atlantropa Institute remained in existence until 1960.
Most proposals to dam the Strait of Gibraltar since that time have focused on the hydroelectric potential of such a project, and do not envisage any substantial lowering of the Mediterranean sea level.
In Gene Roddenberry's novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Strait of Gibraltar has been dammed. Roddenberry may have borrowed the idea from Sörgel via the popular works of Willy Ley, whose book Engineers' Dreams describes both Atlantropa and Sörgel's other grand design, the forming of an inland sea in central Africa.
A similar idea has a central role in the 1950 novel by Soviet science fiction writer Grigorii Grebnev The Flying Station, popular in the Soviet Union in the early 1950s and translated to Hebrew. It depicts a future where Socialist Revolution is triumphant worldwide and leads humanity to undreamed happiness and prosperity, but must still fight off neo-Nazi remnants who skulk near the North Pole and plot to sabotage the Revolution's most prestigious project – the erecting of a huge dam at Gibraltar. The book took up the technical details of Sörgel's idea while diametrically reversing its underlying geopolitical implications.
David Mason's The Shores of Tomorrow (1971), with the theme of conflict between numerous timelines of alternate history that found means of invading each other, includes a technologically-advanced world where a project similar to Sörgel's had been realised thousands of years ago, with the former Mediterranean sea bed transformed into fertile agricultural land. During a cataclysmic power struggle the dam at the Gibraltar-analogue is blown up and the valleys flooded by the Atlantic waters, with immense loss of life.
Discussion of the project rates a chapter in John Knittel's 1939 novel Power for Sale.
There is a passing reference to a huge hydroelectric dam spanning the Strait of Gibraltar in the alternate history novel Under the Yoke by S. M. Stirling. Although the word "Atlantropa" is never used and there is no mention of lowered sea levels in the Mediterranean, Stirling's novels of the Draka are something of an inversion of Sörgel's vision, in that it is Africa that subsumes Europe to create the new composite continental entity, with the guiding light coming from Pretoria rather than Munich.
In the PC game Railroad Tycoon II: The Second Century, a dam is built across the Strait of Gibraltar in one of the missions.
In the Harry Turtledove novella "Down in the Bottomlands", the area of the Mediterranean Sea is a desert through natural causes - the Strait of Gibraltar had naturally closed thousands of years earlier. The story has the protagonist try to stop a terrorist plot to open up the natural dam to the Atlantic Ocean with a nuclear weapon.
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