Forst Zinna – A Soviet Ghost Base in Germany

The area of Jüterbog, about one hour driving south of downtown Berlin, boasts a long military tradition since well before the Cold War. Yet the most astonishing density of military installations in this region was reached in the years of the Third Reich, and later in the decades of Soviet occupation, lasting until the early 1990s.

Many chapters of this website are devoted to the subject of Soviet occupation in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), with portraits of many military bases over its former territory (see for instance this chapter, and links therein). These either belonged to the NVA, the armed forces of the GDR, or the Red Army of the Soviet Union, which retained a significant military presence in the GDR all along the Cold War, despite this country being formally independent.

This chapter deals with one of such military bases, Forst Zinna. This base stands out in the East German panoram, due to the intriguing history of the place on one side, but also thanks to the plenty of interesting sights you may find there (as of mid-2019) – whereas many other similar abandoned installations have been wiped out by local governments, sometimes to be converted into something else.

The large military base at Forst Zinna was founded at the dawn of the Third Reich in the mid-1930s, and named after the führer, Adolf Hitler. The core was constituted by a set of solid multi-storey buildings, aligned along at least four parallel rows about a third of a mile in length, built in a typical old-German style. These hosted barracks and training rooms, used by an artillery and transportation school. There were also many service buildings, like canteens, sport and administration facilities. The base was operated by the Wehrmacht until the end of WWII, when the region was conquered by the Red Army. Thanks to its design, featuring large halls and common spaces, it was selected immediately after WWII to host an academy for future German functionaries of the yet-to-be-founded GDR (or DDR, the German acronym for the GDR).

The place was decorated and refurbished reflecting the style of the new communist owners and the cultural paradigms enforced by Stalin. Just before the latter’s death, in February 1953 the academy was transferred, and Forst Zinna was handed over to the Soviet army. They further enlarged the base, adding storage areas, small farms for food production, technical buildings, plus over the years some new housing.

The end of the story is similar to many military areas in the GDR. The Soviets finally left, the bases were too many for reunified Germany in a post-Cold War scenario, so most of them were either demolished, converted or forgotten. Forst Zinna has been largely demolished, but some of the buildings, built before the end of WWII, are reportedly registered as landmarks. The whole area is sitting in the wild vegetation and is not really looked after, but much is still there and makes for a mysterious memento of past vicissitudes Germany managed to survive. To the war historian and urbex fanatic as well, Forst Zinna has really much in store.

Photographs in this post were collected during two long visits in July and August 2019.

Sights

The base occupies a roughly square area, with a side about .8 miles long. For making the description easier, its premises can be divided into three ideal sectors.

The barracks area to the southwest, where you also find an easy access to the base, is populated with the oldest buildings, erected well before WWII. These comprise living quarters, school-like buildings, canteens, administration buildings, at least one gym, a theater, an open-air movie theater, a prison, and more. There are also a couple of clearly distinguishable Soviet-built apartment buildings, much more recent and taller than their neighbors.

To the north of the base you can find a sizable area which likely hosted a huge deposit for vehicles, as well as other technical facilities. Here demolition works have stricken hard, and today only a few buildings are still in place. Yet these include what appears as a centralized power/hot water supply plant, as well as large services for the troops, which make for interesting pictures.

In the last sector to the northeast, a large U-shaped technical building hosts a unique room with Soviet memorabilia. In this area you can find also a swimming pool, a football field with nice Soviet murals, and much dumped military material. Also here demolition works must have been carried out at an early post-Soviet stage, as vegetation has already grown over the debris.

You can find aerial pictures of the Forst Zinna base in this chapter.

Southwestern Area – Most of the Barracks and Older Buildings

Accessing the base via the southwestern corner, you immediately meet the the first original buildings from the pre-WWII period. They are painted in a nice dark yellow.

From the pics you can appreciate the length of the blocks in this part of the base. Among other spectral items, former notice-boards for activities in the base, like the movie theater, or for the latest news.

The perimeter is marked by a concrete wall running very close to one of the rows of buildings. The walls appear decorated with didactic explanations of something technical.

Entering the buildings, you may find tons of derelict memorabilia items, including hand-written registers, book covers, etc., all in Russian. Something in no shortage in the base is surely restrooms! There are really many.

The actual function of the buildings needs to be guessed, but some must have been used as schools – or even kindergartens – at least in Soviet times, when modern housing was added to the base also for the families of the troops. This theory maybe supported by the type of decoration you sometimes find in these buildings.

Walking in some of the taller yellow buildings, likely hosting also some living areas in the years of operation, you soon perceive the style is clearly pre-Soviet – too elaborated for USSR standard, and typically German. The age of the buildings can be judged also by the heating system, based on tiled stoves fed with coal. Traces of coal can still be seen in the corridors, where the stoves were loaded!

The stairs are particularly nice in style. You are not encouraged to climb upstairs, especially in those buildings were the roof is leaking. Under the roof you can appreciate the wooden structure supporting the external tiles.

Some rooms of these buildings used to host other services, like for instance a – likely – tailor, or uniform shop, as you can see from the furniture and from the explanatory sign.

Close to the southwestern corner of the base you can find two twin apartment buildings in a typical shabby Soviet style, possibly dating to the 1970s.

The size of the apartments is incredibly small! They are apparently small one-room unities, with an extra-small kitchenette and a microscopical bathroom. On the plus side, all have a balcony on the facade.

Leftovers of the original furniture are abundant here – as you may see, everything is extremely poor quality. In some of the bathrooms you may find some stickers decorating the wall, and even traces of toilet paper holders!

The ‘Soviet ghost’ aura here is extremely intense, as everyday items can be found everywhere, like the troops had just left. In the backyard of these buildings you can find remains of a playground, broken bicycles, and even traces of hanging wires!

Just ahead of these buildings, you can see a mystery one-storey tunnel structure made of a set of progressively smaller sections – making it look like a weird ‘telescopic building’. It is clearly from a relatively late age, maybe one of the last additions to the complex.

The long rows of yellow barracks are interspersed with areas or buildings dedicated to special functions. For instance, at some point you can find a rather large open-air training area, with many types of ladders, balance axes, leapfrogs and more training rigs still in place, albeit completely surrounded by wild vegetation.

Another item is apparently a school building, with a typical academy-style front facade, and classrooms inside. By this building there is also a kind of small firefighting post (not sure), which includes a cylinder bell with a nice sound – really weird, complementing the unreal silence of this place!

There are at least two large canteen buildings. In the first you find very big kitchen rooms, with large ventilation hoods and stoves still in place.

There are also storage rooms, some with wooden trays, maybe for bread, or maybe for putting trays after lunch.

In the second canteen, even larger, you can find also remains of a Soviet decorated wall, with traces of writings and small paintings.

Other special buildings, close to one of the canteens, include a nice greenhouse.

There is also a relatively large open-air movie theater, with a covered stage and uncovered seats for the public. The benches are gone, but their legs remain. The machine room to the back is in a really bad shape.

To one side of the open-air movie theater you can find one of the strangest items in the base. It is an area severed from the others by a serious barbed-wire fence – still difficult to go through! In this kind of ‘private garden’ you can find two explanatory signs in Cyrillic, and what appear to be gym gear for fight training. There is also as a small monument – or a grave? – composed of a glass obelisk planted on a delimited area on the ground.

Even weirder, the adjoining building features very small windows… an exploration of this building allows to clarify its purpose – it used to be a prison, the small windows being on the sidewalls of the cells! There are four cells at least, with peepholes in the doors. Everything very similar in style to the Soviet prison in Karosta, Latvia, except you can’t experience the thrill of sleeping in ‘safely’ – see this post!

Not far from the fenced courtyard you can find a naive wall painting portraying two tanks transported on railway trolleys. One of the troopers has been stricken by an electric shock, as apparently his rifle touched the high-voltage cables over the railway – oh no!

There are also sport-themed murals on a fence. A building nearby looks like a garage for a small vans or for cars, maybe a mechanics shop or similar. There is also a storage room with nice wooden paneling.

The garden + prison ensemble may be interpreted as a military-police-run part of the base, likely an unwelcoming sector of the installation in its heyday! Not far you can find also an academy building with large halls, including a former gym. The vocation of the place is witnessed by a sport-themed mural.

Another special building close by the mystery quarters probably used to be a club, with a kitschy decorated room, and another gym area, with another interesting sport-themed mural. Some of the less explicitly Soviet murals may date to the years immediately after WWII, when Forst Zinna was a training academy for future key-figures of the ‘political life’ (?) of the GDR.

Another interesting building can be found to the northern end of this sector of the base. Some decorative details look more modern than the age of the base. It looks like there was a kind of glass-covered patio, or a large greenhouse.

A highlight of the northern part of this sector is the large theater building. Unfortunately, the roof of the theater room has recently collapsed completely, destroying everything below it. Yet the foyer was spared, with one of the most famous Soviet murals in the GDR. Considering the style, it must date from a relatively recent Soviet age, even though the military gear in the portrait is not really recent.

Still in place is the coat hangers area, with some inscription in Russian on the wall nearby. The building – well, what remains of it – is likely from pre-WWII times.