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November 5, 2018

The 1920s plan that’s weirder than any of Boris Johnsons’: draining the Mediterranean Sea

By Charlie Lawrence

Long before Boris Johnson was advocating a Channel Bridge, and various other pointless infrastructure projects, there was the Atlantropa project of the 1920s. Like something born out of the fevered dreams of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, this involved building a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar to effectively seal off the Mediterranean.

Without its main source of water – 35,000km3 per year of the sea’s water comes from the Strait, compared to just 1,200km3 from rivers – the plan was for the isolated Mediterranean to start to dry up. The receding sea would create usable land, which the architect of this bizarre project, German engineer Herman Sörgel, envisaged would be used for agriculture.

The project, which would have also had the potential to create vast hydro-electric energy, called for the Mediterranean to be lowered by 200m, which would completely rewrite the topography of the existing coastline, including the complete disappearance of the Upper Adriatic and the sealing of the Dardanelles. You can just imagine how annoyed Putin would be if this plan was enacted in the contemporary world. He’s gone through all the trouble of annexing Crimea only for a crackpot inventor to seal off access to the Mediterranean for Russian warships.

But petty geopolitical quibbling was never a concern for Sörgel. His idea was utopian, intended to solve post-war European issues such as the dire economic situation and the perceived lack of living space (Lebensraum in German). The latter became a rallying cry for the Nazis and Sörgel half-heartedly pitched his idea to them in 1938, including a quote from Hitler at the front of one of his books.

As with much of that era, the project must also be understood within the colonial context. Sörgel hoped this new land would bridge the gap between Europe and Africa, creating a new continent called Atlantropa – hence the project’s name.

As if the big plan wasn’t big enough, phase two involved creating another sea in the middle of the Sahara to be used for irrigation of the desert and, in Sörgel’s words, make Africa a “territory actually useful to Europe”. This seems to ignore the hard work Europeans were already doing to pillage the continent, but I doubt many people are going to shed tears for them.

Sörgel thought that his plan would be a panacea to all of contemporary Europe’s problems and prevent another war. Noble ideals indeed but also really stupid. Imagine the devastation to the lives of the millions of people who live along the Mediterranean coast. Ancient cities like Algiers, Barcelona and Athens would be obliterated. And what would happen if Sörgel’s imagined dam was bombed? A flood that would make the Old Testament God blush wiping away all this new land.

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This is not to mention that convincing the countries of Europe to work together on anything for a long period of time is no easy feat. That said, after WWII the Nato allies revisited the Atlantropa plans, hoping to stave off communism’s spread to Africa but the plan was ultimately dropped. Luckily for everyone, the end of formal colonialism and the lack of money killed off any remaining appetite for the project.

Sörgel himself died in relative obscurity. He was only allowed to dream so big because his wife, Irene, was a successful art dealer. This meant he could dedicate 25 years of his life to promoting this terrible idea without actually needing to profit from it.

Atlantropa can remain in the big dustbin of big engineering projects. Hopefully even Boris Johnson will leave it there – after all it would involve working with Europe (which he hates)… but then again it would also involve recolonising Africa (which I imagine he would love).

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