One Engineer's Crazy Plan to Drain the Mediterranean
By Lucas Reilly
In the 1930s, German architect and engineer Herman Sörgel hatched an ambitious plan that he believed could unify post-World War I Europe: partially drain the Mediterranean Sea and create a new super-continent called "Atlantropa."
First outlined in a 1929 book, Sörgel's "Atlantropa Project" planned to lower the Mediterranean's water level by as much as 650 feet, generating hydroelectricity and creating thousands of square miles of arable coastline. The project demanded some of the most ambitious dams ever constructed, including a 21-mile dam at the Strait of Gibraltar that would create 50,000 megawatts of electricity—conservatively, enough power to supply least 8.2 million homes. Overall, the drop in water would free up nearly 373,000 square miles of coastal land for farming or colonization. (For comparison, the entire country of France is just over 248,000 square miles!) In the process, Europe and Africa would be linked.
Despite the project's grand scale, Sörgel believed creating a new super-continent would be relatively easy. The plan was modeled after smaller engineering projects that were already in the works. In the 1920s, the Netherlands had begun erecting dams and dikes in and around the North Sea, a project that eventually helped the country reclaim thousands of acres of land once covered by the Zuiderzee bay. Some of that new land would become the province of Flevoland, now home to 400,000 people.
Damming the Mediterranean seemed easy by comparison. Water enters the sea from two major arteries, with the Atlantic pouring in from the Strait of Gibraltar in the west and the Black Sea rushing in from the Dardanelles in the east. By pinching the flow at those two straits, the Mediterranean would plummet almost immediately.
A pacifist and dreamer, Sörgel believed the project could help Europe recover from its post-World War I economic woes, bringing the continent's countries together to share resources and vital infrastructure. Writing at Atlas Obscura, Toon Lambrechts says, "Because of its scale, Atlantropa required cooperation between countries, creating an interdependence that would rule out future armed conflicts."
The Atlantropa Project, however, had a few big blind spots. Over at the Big Think, Frank Jacobs argues that Sörgel's plan was too Eurocentric, with this new "Euro-African continent entirely run by and for the benefit of Europe(eans), [and] Africa(ns) being reduced to supplying raw materials." Indeed, Sörgel didn't appear to think very hard about how Africans might be affected by his project—along with draining the Mediterranean, he also planned to flood the Congo Basin and submerge most of the country of Chad. According to Cabinet Magazine, Sörgel saw "Africa as an empty continent void of history and culture." (The engineer went so far as to say that Atlantropa would make Africa a "territory actually useful to Europe"—a remarkably tone-deaf thing to say considering Europe's colonial role on the continent at the time.)
While Sörgel's idea received a lot of press during his lifetime, the leaders of the Weimar Republic did little to make the blueprints for Atlantropa a reality. And when the Nazi party came to power, it dismissed Sörgel's ideas altogether. Sörgel would fight for his vision until his death in 1952. Eight years later, the Atlantropa Institute—an organization dedicated to keeping his dream alive—dried up.