A Guide to Germany’s Darkest Places

Beer, bratwurst and lederhosen are an undeniable part of German culture. But so too is the country’s brutal 20th century history. SPIEGEL ONLINE takes you to 10 of the country’s most unsettling sites:

The Vogelsang Fortress — Ideology Cast in Stone

vogelsangBundestrasse 266, starting at the German town of Gemünd not far from the border with Belgium, winds out of the town and up onto a high plateau. Before long, past a small town called Morsbach, you will come to an inconspicuous turnoff. The drive takes you through beautiful woodland past bright blue lakes. But it is a beauty that lies in direct contrast with the journey’s endpoint: Vogelsang Castle, one of the Nazis’ elite training schools.

Open to the public only since January 2006, the complex is sprawling and confusing, the fortification full of nooks and crannies. Indeed, most opt for a guide to point out the most important sights.

vogelsang2Under the direction of Robert Ley’s German Workers Front (DAF), one of three elite training centers took shape on the Eifel Ridge beginning in 1934. It was designed as an investment in the Nazi party’s future, where the next generation of Hitlers was to be formed. Sport formed an important part of the curriculum, as did racial theory and geo-politics.

The 500 students — a number which eventually grew to 1,000 — were known as “NS-Junkers”, and were housed in sparsely furnished barracks. The complex was taken over by the armed forces at the outbreak of war and subsequently used to accommodate the troops during the Ardennes Offensive and the push into France.

The differing national attitudes towards a place that is connected with National Socialism is rarely as obvious as here. While the English, say tour guides, are most concerned with understanding the complex from a pragmatic viewpoint, and the Americans are the first to ask how often the “German Führer” visited Vogelsang, the Germans on the other hand feel duty bound to find a politically correct justification for their own curiosity.

vogelsang3They say they feel “committed to the past,” hope to “act against forgetting” and are openly disgusted by “the megalomania and the image of humanity of that era.” This could perhaps make sense if it were the case of one or two instances; it however does not explain the stampede of almost 600,000 who have visited Vogelsang since its opening on Jan. 1, 2006. Hardly any of the German visitors admit that part of the appeal is that the site has changed little since the Third Reich.

Björn Troll, the press spokesman of the company that operates the tours, has a more relaxed attitude towards the issue. “When I started my job at Vogelsang at the beginning of 2009, I was asked how I could justify working in these buildings. I feel good about my job: After all I’m here instead of the National Socialists!”

Before its opening, many feared Vogelsang would become a Mecca for right-wing extremists but that has not come to pass. “Our house rules include how best to respond to neo-Nazis” says Troll. In addition, they are “well connected with the state security and the regional police.”

vogelsang4Visitors to this historically significant site have largely the Belgian army to thank for its well-preserved condition. After a short takeover by the British, the Belgians moved into the region in 1950 and the complex was maintained under the name of Camp Vogelsang (“Birdsong”) until their departure in 2005. With the exception of a few damaged statues, the removal of the swastikas and some amended lettering, the grounds have survived 60 years unscathed, just like a time capsule.

Vogelsang is a difficult place that does not easily open itself up to visitors. The images in one’s head of concentration camp conditions and Nazi party rallies do not apply here. Vogelsang is best described as a symbol for Nazi ideology.

No place makes this clearer than the clearing surrounded by woods on the edge of the complex that is the location for the “torch-bearer.” The sculpture, five meters (16 feet) tall, apparently was used for target practice. An übermensch carved out of stone, with every muscle sharply defined, the left hand clenched into a fist, the right clasped around a torch: an example for the “master race,” whose seed was once to be planted at Vogelsang.

Wewelsburg — Himmler’s Cult Site

ss officers hall at wewelsburgThe picturesque Renaissance castle of Wewelsburg looks down upon the Alme valley in the district of Paderborn. Build in the early 17th century as a residence for the Paderborn prince-bishops, it is now home to a museum and youth hostel.

But it’s not the site’s royal past that draws most visitors today. During the Nazi years, the castle was used as a school for the notorious SS. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and a major player behind the execution of the Holocaust, sought to use the building as a training ground for SS leaders. To that end, he ordered massive renovation works, initially carried out by the German Workers Front and then by inmates from the Niederhagen concentration camp.

The interior was completely redesigned and decorated with SS ornamentation, while the exterior was designed to resemble a castle. Himmler declared the north tower and the “consecration hall” to be a center of National Socialist rituals. When it became clear that the site was about to fall into the hands of the advancing American army, Himmler ordered it to be blown up on March 31, 1945. But the order was never carried out in full.

The site likewise never became the SS training center Himmler had envisioned. Instead it became a center for research into the kind of racial purity the Nazis envisioned. It was also a center for archaeology in the region, with the end of creating a mystic, folkloric past for the SS.

A permanent collection in the former guardhouse recalls Wewelsburg’s Nazi past. Visitors can also visit the “vault” in the north tower and the Obergruppenführer hall. The “Black Sun” ornamentation on the floor of the hall still enjoys dubious popularity with the far-right scene.

Point Alpha — Cold War Frontier

point alphaIf the Cold War had ever erupted into World War III, it would hav e happene d at Point Alpha. That, at least, was the firm belief of NATO strategists, a conviction that transformed the place into what is today one of the clearest reminders of the tense standoff between East and West.

During the Cold War, Point Alpha was a key observation point hard up against the fortified border dividing East and West Germany in the state of Hesse. The site overlooks the Fulda Gap, which, because of its topography, would have been a prime spot for a massive tank invasion through the hilly region. Had the Soviets broken through there, the path would have been open to Frankfurt.

point alpha2In addition to serving as an important base for US troops monitoring the border, the site was also useful for intercepting East German radio traffic. The base was continually expanded from 1951 onward.

Today, the memorial includes preserved and partially reconstructed East German border installations in addition to a museum. A red line painted on the ground meanders between the barracks, the gray equipment sheds and the munitions bunkers. American tanks were allowed up to this line only — one centimeter further and the other side could interpret it as an attack. Alpha Point plays host to over 100,000 visitors a year.

Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg

In Adolf Hitler’s Germany, three cities were singled out for special importance. Berlin was the political and administrative center of the Nazis’ efforts to take over Europe. Munich was the Nazi movement’s soul as the birthplace of the movement. And Nuremberg became the place where the Nazi party staged mass demonstrations year after year.

Nazi Party Rally Grounds in NurembergThe gatherings, which took place in early September each year until the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, were imposing both for their size and choreography. Hundreds of thousands of SA, SS and Nazi youth group members would gather in uniform, chanting Sieg Heil with their right arms raised in the Nazi greeting — surrounded by tens of thousands of cheering Germans.

The site provided the backdrop for Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial documentary “Triumph of the Will.” In 1935, it was the place where Hitler’s deputy Hermann Göring announced the Nuremberg Race Laws, which legalized the oppression of the Jews and severely curtailed their ability to participate in German public life. The laws paved the way for the ensuing horrors of the Holocaust.

Prior to 1933, the site played host to a vast sport complex — indeed Nuremberg hoped to stage the Olympic Games there in 1936 but lost out to Berlin. Today, however, no other site in Germany comes close to clearly demonstrating the megalomania of Hitler and the Nazis. The vast Congress Hall, the largest surviving Nazi construction, is a horseshoe shaped building with room for 50,000 people.

Zeppelin fieldBut it is the Zeppelin Field that is most closely associated with the Nazi Party gatherings. In total, the field provided room for 320,000 people with space for 70,000 in the grandstands. The Nazi leadership would gather on the central grandstand, designed to recall the Pergamon Altar of the ancient Greek world. Nazi propaganda head Joseph Goebbels’ was fond of surrounding the field with powerful searchlights, creating the effect of vast pillars surrounding the site.

Today, the documentation center provides film and photographic material as well as an audio guide, allowing visitors to listen to the propaganda speeches and to get a look into both the atrocities and the every day life of the Nazi period.

Wannsee Conference House — Home to the Final Solution

Deu Ns Zeit MachtuebernahmeWhat today is a peaceful suburb of Berlin and popular recreational lake in the summer has not always been quite so bucolic. Wannsee is also where the Nazi leadership gathered in 1942 to hammer out the Final Solution to the Jewish question. The meeting was held on Jan. 20 at Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58, a villa on a residential street near Wannsee beach used by the SS at the time as a conference center. It is here where the Holocaust got its start.

Speaking for an hour before taking questions, Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s appointed chief executor of the final solution, spoke of how 530,000 German and Austrian Jews had been forcibly emigrated under measures already taken in Germany, since the Nazis came into power in 1933. Adolf Eichmann, recording secretary for the conference, compiled research in preparation for the meeting that divided Europe into those countries under German control and the others, and then listed roughly how many Jewish people lived in each one. Heydrich used the research to determine there were 11 million Jews in Europe, with over 500,000 residing in countries outside of German control.

A plan was then hatched to transport Jewish people from German occupied territories to labor camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe. Those in working condition were to work on roads, and in the course it was assumed many would die from natural causes. Eichmann reportedly said during his trial in 1962 that after the meeting, which in total lasted 90 minutes, cognac was served and those in attendance spoke bluntly about methods of killing and exterminating Jews.

In 1992, the Wannsee villa was turned into a Holocaust memorial, following the efforts of historian Joseph Wulf, who lead an effort to memorilize the house in the 1960s.

The Last Submarine — U-995 in Laboe

U 995It was taken out of its element, brought to land, restored and prettified for visitors. It shimmers in gray like a stranded body under the Naval Memorial at Laboe, north of Kiel, next to the dunes and paddleboats that are lined up along the beach. And even as the sun sets on its steel flanks there is a shadow of menace associated with its role during World War II. The U995, the last surviving Type VII- C/41 submarine, was the mother of all German subs.

Weighing in at 769 tons and stretching 220 feet long, the U995 had five torpedo tubes, an 88 millimeter gun and four 20 millimeter guns. She had an illustrious career first serving under Germany from her commission in 1943 until her surrender in Norway in 1945. After a short stint with the British, U995 crossed enemy lines in 1948 and served under the Royal Norwegian Navy. She served out her remaining days under the Norwegians as Kaura, after she was renamed in 1952, until her eventual retirement in 1965. The U995 made her way back to her homeland, at a cost of one Deutsche Mark, and in 1971 was turned into a museum. During her career she sunk several ships using five torpedo tubes.

The interior is not for those with a tendency toward claustrophobia. It is narrow, stuffy and it is almost impossible to walk standing up straight. Hand rails, valves and ladders are everywhere. Although the machine room is free of heat and noise these days, it makes one wonder how people could have spent weeks living and working here. A U-boat is a terrible place, and that is certainly apparent from a visit to Laboe. Of the 40,000 seamen who served on submarines during World War II, 30,000 never made it home. Neither did their thousands of victims, most of whom met their ends in the North Atlantic.

Berlin Wall Documentation Center

Berlin Wall Documentation Center in BerlinIt was once possible to see it from outer space. Today there is only around 200 meters left of the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the division between East and West Germany during the Cold War.

In 1999, 10 years after the fall of wall, a documentation center was established at Bernauer Strasse, one of the best preserved stretches of the former barrier. Visitors to the permanent exhibition there can find out about the construction of the wall and the consequences for the lives of the people on both sides. Over 100 people, mostly young men trying to reach West Germany, died trying to cross the Berlin Wall. Notable escape attempts involved underground tunnels, hot air balloons, sewers and aeriel wires.

The Wall was actually two barriers. In between stood an empty strip of land known as the “death strip.” The strip was cleared of everything except for sand and gravel, so guards could easily spot footprints of people trying to escape. The strip also gave clear sight to the guards, instructed to fire on would-be escapers. The death of Peter Fechter is perhaps the most famous example of the dangers of the death strip. Fechter, 18, was shot in the pelvis by DDR guards in 1962 while trying to cross the “death strip” into West Germany. He laid there on the strip in plain site of Western onlookers and press and was given no medical attention by either side. He sadly bled to death within an hour.

It is best to walk along Bernauer Strasse by foot to go past the pieces of the wall and the barricades. This was where the famous escape attempts from 1961 occurred when people jumped out of the windows in the East to try to reach the pavement on the other side.

Dachau Concentration Camp

The list of Nazi concentration and death camps is long and harrowing: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Majdanek, Buchenwald. There are dozens more.

But for all of them, there was a model. And that model was Dachau. Opened in March 1933, just weeks after Adolf Hitler took power and in the wave of political arrests that took place after the Reichstag fire in Berlin, the camp is located at a former World War I munitions factory on the outskirts of the town of Dachau, not far from Munich.

Dachau Concentration Camp MemorialAt first, the prisoners were mostly those from the left side of the political spectrum: Social Democrats, Communists and others who objected too strenuously to Nazi policies. It was only in 1938, following the Night of the Broken Glass, that large numbers of Munich’s Jews were incarcerated at Dachau, prompting an enlargement of the camp.

In all, during the camp’s 12 years of existence, some 200,000 prisoners from all over Europe were locked up in Dachau. It also served as a training center for SS concentration camp guards and they were schooled in the brutality necessary to run Nazi Germany’s camp system.

Though mass gassings did not take place at Dachau, some 41,500 people lost their lives within its walls, including thousands of Soviet prisoners of war shot to death just outside the camp gates. Advancing American troops liberated the camp on April 29, 1945.

Today, the memorial includes an extensive museum documenting the degradations of life in Dachau and the horrors of the Holocaust. Behind the exhibition hall, in what used to be the camp’s administration building, is the low structure housing the isolation cells, one of which was occupied by would-be Hitler assassin Georg Elser.

In addition, visitors can wander through the camp grounds, where the foundations of the barracks remain, including notorious Block 5 where Nazi “doctors” carried out medical experiments on prisoners. Beyond the barracks lies the crematorium — and the gas chamber, which was most likely never used.

Terror Strikes the Munich Olympics

The modern design of the Munich Olympic stadium was envisaged to be the jewel in the crown among the architecture created for the 1972 Olympic Games. That year marked the return of the Olympics to Germany for the first time since the Nazis played host in1936 in Berlin. Created by architect Günther Behnisch and engineer Frei Otto, the stadium’s airy modern architecture was intended to wipe the slate clean, to ward off bad memories of the last event.

But after two successful weeks the event billed as the “The Happy Games” turned into a living nightmare.

On Sept. 5, a group of 11 terrorists from Black September, a militant group with ties to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, broke into the Olympic Village and took 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and officials hostage in their apartments. Two of the hostages who resisted were killed in the first moments of the break-in. The rest were kept hostage during a tense standoff in the Olympic Village, lasting almost 18 hours.

Munich's Olympic VillageThe world’s eyes were fixed on the terrorist attack when late in the evening the terrorists and their hostages were transferred by helicopter to the nearby military airport of Fürstenfeldbruck. The terrorists had been told they would be given a plane to travel to an Arab country. In actual fact, the German authorities had plotted to ambush the terrorists and free the hostages.

Due to a succession of miscalculations and botches, their plan culminated in a blood bath. All the surviving Israeli hostages shot dead or incinerated during a hand grenade attack. The death toll at what became known as the Munich massacre was 11 Israeli Olympic team members, one police officer and five terrorists.

The dramatic events of that black day have been recounted in the Oscar-winning documentary, One Day in September. Steven Spielberg has also created a film which dramatized the aftermath of the massacre, his 2005 feature entitled Munich.

Although Olympic events were initially suspended after the tragedy, Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee president, ruled that “the Games must go on.”

These days the futuristic sweeping structure of the stadium has become a city landmark — but there is little to remind visitors of its dark history. In recent years the stadium, which can hold just under 70,000 people, has hosted football matches, athletics and even a cross country skiing competition.

Observant visitors, however, will note a small memorial to the tragedy, directly outside the building. A gray stone plaque on the bridge linking the stadium to the former Olympic village reads “During the Olympics games in Munich 11 Israeli sportsmen and one German policeman suffered a violent death during a terrorist attack.”

Another memorial tablet to honor the slain Israelis stands outside their former lodging at Connollystraße 31. The names of the victims are also engraved onto the side of a metal sculpture at the military airport in Fürstenfeldbruck.

From Death Strip to Green Strip

former border strip of wallThe former border between East and West Germany, where hundreds of people lost their lives trying to flee to freedom, is now a green strip of nature that stretches from Travemünde on the Baltic Sea in the north to the border with the Czech Republic. It is Germany’s biggest natural habitat, a biotope that stretches 1,400 kilometers.

Hikers can now enjoy wildlife and plants where barbed wire, guns and landmines used to be. The once deadly stretch of earth is now teeming with life.

Those who go in search of the remnants of the Cold War 20 years after the fall of the wall will have to look carefully. While much has been removed, a lot of other pieces of the Iron Curtain have been overgrown.

The German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation is now supporting the project “Green Band Germany” in order to develop tourism along the former border. It has already established hiking trails in the Wartburg region and in the Harz Mountains.



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