While doing a little research on the subject of Philip K. Dick’s novel “The Man in the High Castle” recently, I was surprised to discover that one of the more unusual ideas mentioned in the novel – the draining of the Mediterranean Sea – was not the invention of the science fiction writer’s creative mind. In fact, this crazy idea predated the novel by several decades, and it was the subject of a very real and very seriously considered proposal by a mad-cap German architect Herman Sörgel.
Draining the Mediterranean Sea might seem like a barmy science fiction idea, but according to Herman Sörgel, who as early as 1929 proposed a massive engineering project aiming to do just that, such an undertaking would be entirely practical and extremely beneficial. According to Sörgel, the large-scale damming and draining of the Mediterranean could increase food production in Europe and Africa, increase prosperity throughout Europe, and even prevent wars. But how could this be achieved, and more importantly, why?
In 1929, Sörgel wrote a proposal detailing his ideas. He called it the “Panropa Project”, and it was first published in his book “Mittelmeer-Senkung, Sahara-Bewässerung, Panropaprojekt” (‘Lowering the Mediterranean, Irrigating the Sahara: the Panropa Project’). Later, in 1932, he reiterated his ideas in a book titled “Atlantropa”, by which the idea became more commonly known.
The Panropa Project
Simply put, the Panropa Project (and Sörgel’s subsequent publications on the subject) suggested that the Mediterranean sea should be dammed at several key points, lowering its level by as much as 200 meters (660 ft). The largest and most important dam would be built across the Straights of Gibraltar, separating the sea from the rest of the world’s oceans. A second dam would be built in the Dardanelles, separating it from the Black Sea. A possible third dam would connect Sicily and Tunisia, splitting the Mediterranean in two and allowing different water levels on either side. Each of these dams would provide large amounts of hydroelectric energy, while the lowering of sea levels would create new areas of fertile land along the entire Mediterranean coastline. This land could then be colonized and farmed, feeding the need of several European nations for territorial expansion, increased food production, living space and economic growth.
Sörgel’s father had helped pioneer hydroelectric energy in Bavaria, and he understood the growing need for electricity to be essential to Europe’s industrial future.
Sörgel saw this combination of new land creation and electricity production as a win-win, and he was sure that the entire of Europe could benefit from the idea. If anyone questioned the ridiculous scale of the project (which he thought would take around a century to complete), he had an answer to that too; the huge amount of labor required to build his dams would solve Europe’s unemployment problems for decades to come.
Subsequent engineering works included in Sörgel’s proposal included an extension to the Suez Canal (compensating for the change in coastline and sea level, and a canal connecting Venice to the sea through the newly emerged lands in the former Adriatic Sea. Later, he also proposed the creation of several large lakes in the Sahara desert, which he hoped would bring life to the region and create further agricultural opportunities.
Finally, Africa and Europe would be linked by both road and rail, with a major transport route running through Italy and the now adjoined island of Sicily, and bridging the gap to Tunisia (at the site of the possible third, central Mediterranean dam).
If Sörgel’s dream of damming the Straights of Gibraltar and draining the Mediterranean had been realized, here’s what the region would have looked like as a result:
As you can see, Sicily and Italy have merged (allowing the building of Sorgel’s third, central dam), as have the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, and many of the Greek Islands. The biggest change, however, is in the Adriatic Sea, which has all but disappeared, creating a huge area fit for agricultural expansion.
The Politics of Atlantropa
Herman Sörgel’s ideas about the draining of the Mediterranean Sea weren’t just about the generation of electricity and the creation of new farmland, they were politically motivated too.
At the time of Atlantropa’s conception, the concept of Lebensraum was key to German political thinking. Lebensraum suggested that Germany needed to expand in order to survive, gaining new resources and creating new living space for the German people. It was this idea that motivated Adolf Hitler to invade Poland and Russia. Sörgel was an avid pacifist, and it was his hope that his Atlantropa project could provide Germany and other European powers with the space they needed to expand while preventing another war. Instead of fighting, his vision saw the nations of Europe working together towards the same goal, and achieving a peaceful unity as a result. The political climate was not conducive to Sörgel’s ideas, however, and the Nazi Party chose to ignore Atlantropa in favor of the easier option of invading Russia instead.
Herman Sörgel’s ideas about a peacefully united Europe and the prevention of World War II might sound enlightened, but his vision would have sounded much less Utopian from an African perspective. While the project aimed to make North Africa fertile, this was for the benefit of Europeans and not the native African population. In his colonial mindset, Sörgel saw Africa as a colonial subject of his united Europe. The name ‘Atlantropa’ was actually his way of referring to the merger of Africa and Europe into a single super-continent and a single super-power; a super-power run for the benefit of its European inhabitants only.
Although Sörgel’s ideas were popular during the World War II era, neither the Nazi Party or the Italians took them seriously. After the dust of World War II had settled, the Atlantropa Project was considered once again as the victorious allies looked for ways to bring peace and unity to war-ravaged Europe, but the cost of rebuilding made such an ambitious project far too expensive, and the advent of nuclear energy meant that the potential for hydroelectric power was largely overlooked. Sörgel died in 1952, and the Atlantropa Institute was disbanded in 1960.
Atlantropa phased out of the realm of reality and into the world of science fiction, being mentioned in the Phillip K. Dick novel “The Man in the High Castle” and Soviet science fiction writer Grigorii Grebnev’s novel “The Flying Station”.
Now, with the world’s population growing out of control, with the need for renewable energy sources increasing, and with Europe’s resources being stretched to breaking point, could Atlantropa begin to be seen as a viable answer to our problems once again? Unfortunately for all the lovely fishies in the Mediterranean Sea, the answer is a distinct ‘maybe’. Of course, environmentalists are unlikely to let engineers tamper with such a large and important ecosystem as the Mediterranean right now, especially in the wake of such environmental disasters as the draining of the Aral Sea, but who knows what the future might hold.
This article was written by Mark Ball.