Friday, September 06, 2013

The Forbidden City: Lenin's last stand at Wünsdorf-Waldstadt

Lenin is a lonely man. He’s the only one left, gazing forlornly across the overgrown lawn, abandoned by his comrades after they all departed in a hurry on a fateful day in August 1994.
Loneliness prevails despite the fact there are two of him. Another Lenin frowns disparagingly in front of a boarded-up villa, maintaining some form of dignity despite the fact he’s covered in lichen and no one has even asked him how he’s feeling for nearly 20 years.
They still haven’t come back, the Russians. There used to be thousands of them, so many that Wünsdorf-Waldstadt was known as Little Moscow, with trains to the real Moscow going every day.
To the natives it was die Verbotene Stadt, the Forbidden City. The East Germans weren’t allowed within an ass’s roar of it, and they just had to like it or lump it.
They lumped it of course. They lumped a lot of stuff over the course or the GDR. The East German head honchos were happy to have the Red Army on hand in case their people got  a bit rowdy, as they did in 1953, when Soviet tanks and troops put an end to the short-lived rebellion of June 16-17.
Wünsdorf was the Red Army’s headquarters in Germany, the biggest Soviet military camp outside the USSR.
It’s abandoned now, mostly forgotten and discarded, left largely to rot in the woods that give the “Forest City” its name.
But this story is a long one. What follows is what I’ve gleamed from painstaking research into various conflicting and contradictory reports…
Military facilities existed in and around Wünsdorf long before the Russians came along. The Nazis – as Germans were called for that unfortunate period in history – used it for military purposes too. They used it even before they became Nazis, when they were finding their feet as Germans.
Six years after the formation of the German Empire in 1871, the Prussian army established a shooting range at Kummersdorf. In 1888, that was linked by rail line with another shooting range at nearby Jüterbog.
The whole area really gained in strategic significance with the construction of the railway. The train station opened on the Berlin-Dresden line in 1897 and by 1910 there were quite a few army barracks in Wünsdorf-Zossen. (Zossen being the main town to the north.)
A telephone and telegraph office was established in 1912 and the infantry school followed the year after that. The 60,000-acre area had become Europe’s largest military base by the time the First World War kicked off in 1914.
That same year, work began on the first mosque to be built on German soil. It opened the following year on July 13, 1915, catering for Muslim POWs from the Halbmondlager (Crescent moon camp). The wooden mosque remained open for Berlin’s Muslims even after the end of WWI, but was closed due to disrepair in 1924 and subsequently torn down.
There weren’t only Muslim prisoners in the Halbmondlager. There were Irish POWs there too. They weren’t happy about being thrown in with the more exotic prisoners, however, and they were subsequently moved to a separate barracks, also in Zossen.
Some were recruited by Roger Casement to form the Irish Brigade to fight against Britain for Irish independence, and an Irish team beat Germany 4-1 on December 5, 1915. Never let it be forgotten!
The Germans treated the Irish well enough, until one of the camp guards was stupid enough to call them “English” and a brawl broke out between them. Apparently they weren’t looked after so well after that. They probably weren’t called English after that either.
Wünsdorf remained important from a military perspective even after the war, with barracks, a military hospital and stables.
The Army Sports School was established in 1919, honing German athletes up to 1943. The German team trained here ahead of the 1936 Olympic Games, though there was little they could do to stop Jesse Owens stealing the show. The building later became “Haus der Offiziere” (Officers’ House) under the Russians.
The military bathhouse was built around 1919 too, but that was destroyed by the Russians in the 1950s. Evidently they weren’t all that much into hygiene.
Wünsdorf-Zossen was already home to a motorized division of the Reichswehr (Weimar Republic army) in 1931, but the shit really hit the fan when the Nazis came to prominence in 1933.
Adolf’s buddies didn’t waste any time and quickly expanded the area’s military capabilities, forming the first Panzer division of the German Wehrmacht (as the unified army, navy and Luftwaffe would become in 1935) that same year.
By 1935 they moved the Wehrmacht headquarters here, formed the third Panzer division, and reestablished the army’s driving school in Wünsdorf. They also started with a load of building work in the forest to the north of the town to accommodate all the workers and employees.
Of course, they weren’t satisfied with just that. There were serious plans afoot! Work on the bombproof bunkers with sections underground began in 1937. Maybach I and II were complemented by the highly modern communications center Zeppelin, which had walls up to 3.2 meters thick and a 1-meter shell around it.
There was also an underground residential area and 19 of the remarkable-looking aerial defense bunkers that resemble Stone Age rockets. Bombs would simply slide down their sides and explode harmlessly below. Well, they were harmless unless you happened to be ringing the doorbell. Each one had its own dog, with a Tier-Luftschutzkasten for each. I presume this was stuffed with first aid materials and whiskey for survivors of bombing raids, and wasn’t just a lucky-dip briefcase full of doggy treats.
Work on Maybach I was completed in 1939 and the Supreme High Command of the German Army (Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH) moved in on August 26, a few days before the invasion of Poland.
Maybach II wasn’t ready until early summer 1940, when the Wehrmacht headquarters – the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, OKW) – moved in.
The OKW and OKH fulfilled different roles but likely would have been united only for the dastardly Hitler, who kept the rivals separate so he could maintain control. He was too mad for his own good in the end.
Zeppelin, codenamed Amt 500 (Germans love their Amts), was one the largest news-gathering hubs in operation during WWII. It sent commands to German troops everywhere.
With the war in full swing, other important Germany army command offices were moved here in 1943 to get away from the pesky bombs falling elsewhere.
Of course, the bombs fell on Wünsdorf too as the war was coming to an end. Nowhere was safe. The first bombing took place in 1945, with the third and apparently most serious attack on March 15, when 120 people were killed and a heap of houses would have been destroyed.
The Russians arrived on April 20, when they apparently took the place without a fight. As the story goes, the only Germans left were the caretaker and four soldiers, three of whom surrendered immediately, while the fourth couldn’t “because he was dead drunk.”
The phone rang and one of the Russians answered. It was a senior German officer. “Ivan is here,” the soldier who picked up reportedly said, before telling yer man to go to hell.
(More on all that, and on Zossen, here: http://germspeer.blogspot.de/2009/02/zossen-germany-wwii.html)
Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s leading staff made Wünsdorf-Zossen their headquarters, and evidently the Russians felt at home, for Вюнсдорф (as they called it) became the High Command seat for the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (Группа советских войск в Германии, ГСВГ) until they left in 1994.
The bunkers were mostly blown up to make them unsuitable for military use according to the Potsdam Agreement, but Zeppelin survived with just a bit of damage to the western entrance.
Locals were booted out, the road was closed to traffic, and the area was restricted for Soviet use only. In March 1953, there were around 800 residents and 30,000 soldiers.
From Wünsdorf-Zossen, the Russians provided their East German counterparts with military backing to secure the 155 km border around West Berlin on August 13, 1961. The Berlin Wall began life as a human shield of soldiers with guns.
From October 22, 1971, the Russians were also charged with ensuring East Germany’s skies were safe. Zeppelin became headquarters for the Soviets’ 16th Air Army.
At times, “Little Moscow” was home to as many as 75,000 Soviet men, women and children. The forest city had everything for their needs including schools, supermarkets and businesses.
When the Russians left on the last train to Moscow, they left behind a 260-hectare area from which 98,300 rounds of ammunition, 47,000 pieces of ordnance, and 29.3 tons of munitions were disposed of, not to mention other bomb and weapon parts. There was also the 45,000 cubic meters of rubbish, including chemicals, waste oil, old paint, tires, batteries and asbestos.
Some of the buildings have since been converted back into homes and occupied by families lured by affordable housing in the middle of a forest, while Wünsdorf-Waldstadt has also been declared a “book town” – literarily an effort to draw visitors, or books.
There’s plenty of wildlife there too. I’ve met deer on each of the three occasions I’ve been to the forest city. On the last occasion I saw a deer the size of a rabbit and a rabbit the size of a deer. There’s other wildlife too, but that will declare itself if it wants to. And the mosquitos will want to.
Only the really thrashed buildings are easily accessible. Evidently there are Wünsdorf enthusiasts who have taken care to seal the most historically important buildings, keeping them in pretty good condition.
Having seen the destruction wreaked by brainless idiots elsewhere, I think it’s a good thing. I’d rather not be able to get into a building at all than have it go up in flames. Of course that doesn’t stop a man from trying. After all, you never know what delights await inside, especially if a building is locked up and well-preserved.
I* made it into the former Army Sports School/Officers’ House, the one with Lenin gazing impressively outside. It wasn’t easy but it was certainly worthwhile. Evening sunshine through the beautiful windows flooded the corridors with light, bathing the soft shades and gentle palettes in a flattering glow. The building’s fading glory is reminiscent of Beelitz-Heilstätten’s. Beauty to warm the cockles of your heart.
I hurried from room to room, snapping like a crocodile, cursing my squeaky shoes, all the time listening for the tell-tale sounds of undesired company. After taking my fill of pictures I rushed back to where I got in only to find someone had sealed my escape route. Locked in!!!
But my eyes had tricked me. They often do in places like these. The hole was there, albeit a much tighter squeeze out than in. I sqeeeeeeeeeezed through, crawled down the dark steps, over the barbed wire, hopped over the fence and basked in the glory of it all.
More buildings presented themselves, the infantry school, the military hospital, the tower, garages, more, more and more. I ran from one to the other in a frenzy, trying to cram in as much as physically possible, jumping over walls, climbing over fences. I didn’t notice the barbed wire tearing at my legs until I was back on the train to Berlin and I looked down and saw the blood. My shirt was white with sweat and my arms and hands covered with dirt.
I didn’t care. I’d been to the Forbidden City. I have to go back, I’ll go back.

 
What
Former headquarters of the Soviet military forces in Germany, a city in the forest, aka Little Moscow, aka the “Forbidden City.” Before that, the Nazis’ underground bunker headquarters for the German Wehrmacht and Army's High Command, home to the sophisticated Zeppelin communications bunker that sent commands to German forces during WWII. Before that, a military area going back to the time of the Imperial German Army and Prussian Army.


Where
Wünsdorf-Waldstadt, Zossen, Germany.

How to get there
Regional trains go every half hour or so to Wünsdorf-Waldstadt from Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Alexanderplatz and Friedrichstraße, as well as Gesundbrunnen. The journey takes about an hour. The “Airport Express” to Schönefeld often terminates at Wünsdorf-Waldstadt, so next time you’re going to the airport you can marvel at all the history hidden at the end of the line.
When you get out of the train station, turn east of the tracks (left of the direction the train was travelling), and walk up Bahnhofstraße as far as the junction. Turn left onto Berliner Straße, walk up a good bit and the bunkers, flak towers and abandoned barracks are all up to your right, through the woods and some other stuff.
To get to the “Haus der Offiziere” (with Lenin outside) from the station, turn right at Berliner Straße, take the second left along Hauptallee, and you should find it without too much difficulty on the right hand side. There’s even more stuff to the right of that. There’s stuff everywhere really.
Unfortunately I haven't been able to locate a good map to share with you. If any become available tough kindhearted readers or otherwise, I’ll certainly make it available.

Getting in
Well, it depends where you want to get in to. The trashed buildings are easy to get into as mentioned before, while the preserved buildings, namely those in and around the “Haus der Offiziere” with Lenin outside, are not. Getting into any buildings involves a lot of fence hopping and climbing over barbed wire.
The Maybach I&II bunkers were mostly destroyed by the Russians but you can still amble around the ruins. There are tours of the bunkers and other tours available if you’re of a mind to pay. These are generally run from the “Bucherstadt” part of Wünsdorf.
The Garnisonsmuseum Wünsdorf is well worth a visit to get an overview of the site before the Russians came along. It’s a labor of love for the staff there, and they’re very friendly and helpful. If you ask nicely they’ll also let you enter one of the remarkable rocket-shaped aerial defense bunkers for a look. Highly recommended.

When to go
Go during the day so you can see stuff. There’s so much stuff to see you’re better off going early in the day too. It’s not really a party location so I would not recommend going at night.

Difficulty rating
7/10. Hard to give this a proper rating because the site is so big with so many buildings, all with different levels of difficulty to access. Some buildings are easy, some not. Some are well-reserved and some not, making them all the more treacherous to visit. Be careful! Navigating the site is quite tricky on account of its sheer size, while a lot of the main points of interest are scattered all around. Tours are no doubt an easier option, though they’re not quite the same.

Who to bring
Like-minded explorers, someone to carry your sandwiches and beer, or drag you back out by the legs if a roof falls on your head.

What to bring
A bit to eat, a bottle of water, a beer, camera, torch, mosquito repellent, carrots for the rabbits, news from Russia for Lenin.

Dangers
As mentioned before, some of the buildings are in a bad way so obviously you need to take care when snooping around. Floorboards should not always be trusted and ceilings only fall in one direction. You may see neighbors living in some of the former barracks. Just ignore them and carry on unless they happen to be giving you dirty looks. As usual in such places, there are warnings about munitions, explosives, chemicals, unexploded bombs and that kind of thing, so just be careful where you step isn’t your last one.

*Me and I are not necessary the same person, nor do they necessarily refer to me or I, or indeed myself. Me and I are merely useful pronouns and may not be referring to anything in particular. The author certainly takes no responsibility for their use.

4 comments:

  1. Interessant! ;) Good Stuff, IB.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, this place sounds a bit like Liepāja.

      Delete
  2. Shouldn't this be on Abandoned Berlin? Or better yet, wikifuckinpedia. This is so thorough and authoritative that all you need is some little superscript letters and some footnotes. Word.

    db

    ReplyDelete