The Strait of Gibraltar is a location of extremes. On a worldwide scale, the stretch that separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea is tiny, just eight miles. One might suspect that something of this size might easily fit into the schemes of modern engineering. The world’s longest bridge is over 100 miles long. The Chunnel, connecting England and France, is 31 miles long. Yet, neither bridge nor tunnel crosses the strait.
On a smaller-than-global scale, the strait packs a lot of power into its eight miles. For its size, the strait is deep. At the Chunnel’s lowest point, it sits 377 feet below sea level. The Strait of Gibraltar bottoms out at nearly 3,000 feet. Coupled with rather strong currents pushing through a choke point, this stat considerably hinders the ability to craft a suspension bridge and likely balloons the cost of a potential tunnel. Currently, if you want to cross the strait, your options are ferry or airplane.
These facts haven’t stopped the imaginations of engineers, however. Various architects have floated ideas for bridges, including floating bridges. Spain and Morocco have discussed the possibility of a tunnel many times. Just this year, the two nations agreed to begin construction on a tunnel in 2030 (these ideas often disintegrate).
To German architect Herman Sörgel, these notions could all be filed into a folder called “child’s play.” In the 1920s, he devised a project that would not only harness the power of the strait but reshape the entire Mediterranean region.
Sörgel’s time on Earth coincided with some of the greatest upheavals in human history. Born in 1885, he lived through both World War I and World War II. As a German, he experienced these conflicts firsthand. The idea of Lebensraum, a concept of German expansionism and nationalism, fueled two eras of attempted imperialism and, in the end, cost Germany millions of lives and economic development (in addition to the dire impacts on those who fought Germany).
Unsurprisingly, many people looked for ways to break the cycles of war in Europe. Sörgel dreamed of a world where Germans didn’t need Lebensraum and everyone could live in peace. Relying on the better angels of humans to create this peace through treaties and goodwill wasn’t cutting it. How could an architect help the situation? Sörgel believed he had the answer, a utopian mega-engineering plan he called Atlantropa.
He was going to craft extra land. A lot of extra land.
How would he achieve such an aim? He wanted to dam the Strait of Gibraltar, the Bosporus Strait, the Congo River, and a stretch of the sea between Sicily and Tunisia. These projects would lower the Mediterranean’s level by 200 meters (660 feet).
Why would anyone want to lower the water level? According to Sörgel, the goal was world peace.
Atlantropa would ease the desire for Lebensraum in Germany and unite a wartorn continent by providing new places for densely populated peoples to live. Not only would new homelands emerge, but the dams would generate massive levels of hydroelectricity (to the tune of 50% of Europe’s consumption needs), new job opportunities, and food for millions of people.
In addition to the Mediterranean alteration, Sörgel’s vision would also turn the Sahara from a desert into a fertile mega-region by refilling the basin around Lake Chad. Sörgel viewed Atlantropa as a merging between Europe and Africa, which would divide the world into a triad of self-sustaining zones, alleviating the need for conflict (America, Asia, Atlantropa).
As bizarre as this agenda might seem, it was rooted in the Messinian salinity crisis, a natural, ancient draining of the Mediterranean. Scientists had just started to understand the geological happening millions of years ago; Sörgel figured, if this sort of thing could happen naturally, perhaps we could replicate it.
A few problems stood in the way. Obviously, the project would require exorbitant amounts of capital. Who would foot the bill? Sörgel envisioned a process that transpired over a century, which is probably wise in terms of engineering, but projects on those timescales often languish. Second, Sörgel tended to focus on the positives. More land, more power, more food. Many scientists wondered about the negative climatic implications. The Messinian salinity crisis did not seem to be a great time to be alive in the region. What would happen if we messed with the natural equilibrium? Lastly, what about the coastal places that would suddenly lose their seagoing status? Sörgel’s detailed plan took some contingencies in this latter area. He suggested creating a long canal to keep Venice an iconic destination and extending the Suez Canal to remain connected to the sea.
And, of course, because it was the early 20th century, Sörgel’s plan had some imperialistic flaws, despite its overt focus on pacifism. Creating a harmonious hybrid of Europe and Africa might sound Edenic, but Sörgel did not concoct a place where Africans and Europeans were equals. Instead, Atlantropa would solve Europe’s problems by utilizing the resources of Africa.
Without further research or firsthand experience, it’s hard to suss the true intentions of Sörgel. He pushed his idea from the 1920s until his death in 1952. Though his stated goal directly contradicted the aims of Nazi Germany, he also featured a quote from Adolf Hitler in one of his books about how Atlantropa was consistent with Nazi ideology. For science fiction fans, the notion of Atlantropa pops up in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a novel with an alternative reality in which the Nazis and the Japanese won World War II. Still, one gets the sense that Sörgel was less a Nazi sympathizer and more an opportunistic dreamer, in the sense that he would pitch the idea to anyone who might be able to implement it. Was he looking to subjugate Africans and enrich Europeans? Maybe. Was this attitude the result of a greedy, power-hungry human or simply something in which few people of the era found fault? Based on the prevailing imperialistic paradigms of the era, he could have been viewed as “progressive.”
Either way, the dream of crafting new land out of the Mediterranean via massive hydroelectric dams never came to fruition. After World War II, the continent had no political or monetary will to chase a project of that scale. Further, the aims of colonialism finally began to wane, relegating the futuristic notion of Atlantropa as a relic of the past.
Ideas to dam the Strait of Gibraltar continue to emerge every now and then. The project certainly would produce power levels far beyond 9,000. The physical characteristics of the strait, however, continue to befuddle even the biggest imaginations.
Further Reading and Exploration
Atlantropa: the colossal 1920s plan to dam the Mediterranean and create a supercontinent – The Conversation
ATLANTROPA: Herman Sörgel’s plan to drain the Mediterranean – Cabinet Magazine
The Bonkers Real-Life Plan to Drain the Mediterranean and Merge Africa and Europe – Atlas Obscura
Building Atlantropa: One Man’s Plan To Drain the Mediterranean Sea – Discovery