Air Museums in the Former GDR

Due to its strategic relevance to the Soviet empire in the years of the Cold War, the territory of the former German Democratic Republic, or ‘GDR’, experienced an uncommonly intense military presence, growing over the years from soon after WWII to the end of the Soviet Union and the retreat of Russian troops to their home Country.

The coexisting armies of Eastern Germany and of the Soviet Union each managed land, sea and air groups operating from the GDR. As a result, still today the countryside of the former communist-ruled part of Germany is full of airports – many of them abandoned or converted to solar powerplants – and former tank training camps.

Besides this hardware, leaving clear traces reaching to this day, the quick collapse of the Soviet system and the end of the Cold War generated an enormous quantity of military surplus at all levels in the mid-Nineties.

In particular, soon after reunification the People’s Air Force of Eastern Germany was merged with the West-German ‘Luftwaffe’, whose name was retained and which became the German Air Force still operating today. The result of the merger was not ideal from a logistic and supply chain point of view, with too many aircraft and helicopters with radically different designs – implying different spare parts, maintenance procedures, specialized training, … Consequently, all Soviet models, which had been the backbone of the East German forces, were soon stricken-off the military register, many of them going to private collections.

For this reason, you can often find former GDR aircraft in museums all over Europe. Clearly, many of them remained in the territory of their bygone mother Country, enriching local air collections and museums. This post is about four less-known gems of the kind close to Berlin and Leipzig. These photographs were taken during visits in 2017 and 2021.

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Flugplatzmuseum Cottbus

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This collection is located on the outskirts of the town of Cottbus, easily reachable about 70 miles southeast of Berlin. The premises occupied by this mainly open-air museum are to the south of the former local airport/base which was more recently converted into another solar plant. Actually, a hangar from here dating from WWII was dismounted and relocated to the state of Virginia.

The collection here is very rich, the majority of aircraft are kept in a well-maintained, non-flying condition, with a pretty large area devoted to aircraft restoration, and a well prepared and perfectly presented inside part with memorabilia, artifacts, aircraft parts, models, … – all in all, a primary attraction of the kind, well worth visiting for any aviation enthusiasts.

By passing the gates you will walk between a part of an Airbus A380 used for testing – a bit of an outlier for a military museum… – and an array of MiG-21, MiG-23 and MiG-27 formerly in service with the air force of the GDR.

The display of these aircraft side by side, the MiG-21s also in multiple different variants, is very interesting for making comparisons and spot both obvious and less evident differences between these iconic Soviet models.

A more rare, recently restored MiG-17 is proudly standing in front of the entrance to the main building of the museum.

Other highlights of the collection include two Sukhoi Su-22 aircraft. One of them bears markings of the Luftwaffe, suggesting it was used for some time in the air force of reunified Germany. The difference in size between the two massive Sukhois and the sleek MiGs is apparent having them sitting close to each other!

On the grass closer to the former runway are some Soviet helicopters, including a very well-preserved Mil-24 attack helicopter, also in Luftwaffe colors.

Close by, a couple of other MiGs in a bare metal colorway – one of them from Tschekoslowakia – can be spotted, together with some old western models, in the original colors of the Luftwaffe – these include an F-84, F-86, T-33 and a rare Italian G-91.

Other less aggressive aircraft in the area include a Let L-200 twin-propeller aircraft possibly for training, a Yakovlev Yak-11 acrobatic aircraft and some other aircraft for training, observation or crop dusting.

A full array of service trucks from various Soviet manufacturers are aligned in an open hangar, where a Soviet anti-aircraft SA-2 missile with its light launch gantry is also present.

The inside collection – not the usual dirty-and-dusty collection typical of wannabe air-museums, but instead a clean and well-presented, good-level small museum in itself – shows something on the local history of the former airport, various jettisonable seats from Soviet aircraft from different times, technical schemes for maintenance and training, as well as local findings of aeronautical interest. Among the latter, some pretty rare parts of downed aircraft from WWII, both from Nazi Germany and from the Allies – including the Soviet Union.

Also interesting was a temporary exhibition about the MiG-21 and its world-class success. The only thing I regret about the inside part is that all explanations were given in German only.

Some very interesting findings on the outside include a largely complete wreck of a Focke-Wulf FW190, what appears to be a bulky Napier Sabre II 24-cylinders engine, possibly from a Hawker Tempest or typhoon, a MiG-15 awaiting restoration, plus other engines and aircraft parts.

I would recommend this place for a dedicated visit about 1,5-2 hours long, especially if you are touring the area south of Berlin, very rich in terms of recent and past military history.

Getting there

Cottbus can be reached quickly by train from Berlin, but the museum is far from the town center. Going by car is definitely more convenient, a very fast highway going to the border with Poland – a few miles away – connecting Berlin and Cottbus in about 1 hour. Contact and information from their official website (in German, but basic info on opening times and location can be obtained very easily with some Google translation). Small parking nearby.

Luftfahrtmuseum Finowfurt

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The Luftfahrtmuseum – i.e. aviation museum – in Finowfurt has taken over a part of the former Soviet airbase of Finow, about 35 miles northeast of Berlin. Over the last two decades of the Cold War, this airbase was pretty busy with high-performance Soviet MiGs, ranging from the older MiG-21 fighter-interceptor, the ubiquitous MiG-23 fighter, the rare super-fast MiG-25 interceptor, and up to the modern MiG-29.

Finow received a plethora of aircraft shelters, including the older AU-13 for MiG-21 and -23, but also AU-16(2) and AU-16(3), the former intended for the Yak-28 and MiG-25, the latter for the MiG-29. The picture below portray the relatively rare AU-16(2), with its non-circular vault, in the still-active part of the airport in Finowfurt, today a general aviation field.

The museum, encompassing the northwestern corner of the former military premises, offers the chance to walk close and inside AU-13 shelters, with their heavy reinforced doors, self-actuated by means of motors mounted close to their own bodies, and moving on a rail.

Parked ahead of a group of such shelters, a MiG-21 and a MiG-23 make for a scenario closely resembling the days of operation of this former Soviet installation. The shelters are interspersed with former technical gear from the base, including searchlights of evident Soviet make – see the writings in Cyrillic.

A spherical dome on top of one of the shelters may have been the case for a rotating aerial.

An Ilyushin Il-14 old two-engined transport and a Yakovlev Yak-28 bomber sit on the opposite sides of a former taxiway, typically built with large concrete slabs.

To the far end of the museum area, a low building, possibly a former canteen or technical facility, hosts a nice collection of artifacts, which tell much about the history of Finow over the years. For instance, during the Third Reich, this airbase was involved in testing the Allied aircraft landed in emergency on German territory – models of B-17 and B-24 in the unusual colors of the Luftwaffe witness this episode.

Of course, most of the material on display is from Soviet times. An original schematic of the base, and old signs in Russian – both propaganda posters and more technical explanations – are included in this collection.

Also a few naive paintings from Soviet times have been preserved.

An interesting collection of Soviet technical gear includes aircraft cameras for optical imagery, helmets, flying suits, as well as weapons partly dismantled possibly for instructional purposes.

Ahead of the small museum building, a statue of Lenin can be found, possibly relocated from another spot of the former Soviet base.

On a spot nearby, anti-aircraft and theater missiles can be found together with ranging aerials – as well as an ubiquitous Antonov An-2 transport biplane.

An imposing sight in the museum is a freshly refurbished Tupolev Tu-134, in the colors of the East German flag-carrier Interflug. It was not the case on the day of my visit, but it is likely the aircraft can be boarded on some occasions. Nearby, also a large Mil helicopter – a former transport – can be found ahead of yet another aircraft shelter.

On display in the latter are some aircraft jet engines, as well as some communications rigs, and some explanatory panels, likely from a former technical school for air personnel.

A particularly interesting collection is hosted in an adjoining shelter, wisely converted for the scope. It is based on relics from crashed aircraft, from the years of WWII. A very active group of aviation archaeologists operates in Finow, and this fantastic display is the result of their preservation effort.

Artifacts range from engine parts to aircraft components from all the air forces involved in WWII, and include substantial remains from the wrecks of a Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, and a German Föcke-Wulf FW-190, a high-performing fighter manufactured in great numbers, but today sadly very hard to find even in museums.

Finally, closer to the former runway, two shelters cover a few helicopters, including some formerly in service with the Volkspolizei – the police of the GDR – as well as a MiG-15 with two seats for training, and a MiG-21.

Outside on the grass, a MiG-27 fighter bomber and a MiG-17, both in the colors of the GDR Air Force (aka NVA).

Approaching the exit, a deployable aircraft-stopping harness for emergencies can be seen, close to a movable SAM launcher from the NVA, and a massive Sukhoi Su-22 similarly in the colors of the NVA, like those to be found in Cottbus (see above).

The ticket office of the museum is hosted in a former technical facility with reinforced doors, possibly a storage for special ordnance.

Thanks to the proximity with Berlin and the wealth of interesting artifacts, this museum is a highly valuable Soviet counterpart to the Westwardly-oriented museum in Gatow (on a former British airfield near Potsdam, website here). Besides a rich collection of aircraft and technical gear, complemented by a display of interesting findings from the aviation archaeology group, Finow allows to get a flavor of how a Soviet base looked like in the days of operation. For aircraft enthusiasts, a visit may easily take 2 hours or more.

Getting there

The museum is conveniently located in Finowfurt, immediately out of the highway A11 (exit Eberswalde), going from Berlin to Szczecin in northern Poland. It is less than 1 hour driving from downtown Berlin. The museum is mostly open-air, with some collections hosted in former aircraft shelters. A large free parking is available on site. Website here. Please note that credit card may not be accepted. Going with cash is recommended.

Luftfahrttechnisches Museum Rechlin

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The museum of Rechlin can be found in the former premises of an Army research center dating from the years of the Third Reich. It is located in the open countryside, about 80 km north of Berlin, in the vicinity of lake Müritz. Following the Soviet occupation of the area in 1945, the center went on as a technical site of the Red Army.

The museum has restored the original buildings, and set up an exhibition mainly focused on the history of German military aeronautics. The exhibition is both indoor and outdoor.

The indoor part has on display a number of German aircraft, aircraft engines and several related parts, mainly from pre-WWII or WWII. A highlight of the show is a number of reconstructed exemplars, created putting together original parts and some reproduced components. Of course, the result is now airworthy, but considering how hard to find these aircraft are today in collections, this is a rare opportunity to have a first-hand look at how these models looked like.

A very interesting collection of original engines and components from the Third Reich period is on display. The level of engineering sophistication reached in the years of WWII is really astonishing. It was at that time that piston power reached its top development in aeronautics. Furthermore, the first jet engines entering production date from the final stages of WWII too, and are here represented.

Another hangar is mostly dedicated to large 1:1 mock-ups of extremely rare German designs from WWI and WWII, including a Dornier Do-335 in a push-pull configuration, which have been accurately assembled, providing a vivid portrait of how these now very rare-to-find aircraft.

Other exhibits include Soviet-made aircraft, partly dismounted for didactic purposes.

In another wing, the museum displays a rich exhibition of original artifacts from the era of Soviet occupation. These include many aircraft components, jettisonable seats, helmets, several radio components, papers and pictures.

Simulators for aircraft and helicopter cockpits are also part of the display.

Memorabilia include everyday items, Soviet newspapers, badges and celebration plates. The page of a German newspaper, from the date of the final withdrawal of then-Russian troops back home from Germany, titles ‘Farewell, Muzhiks!’ – really a momentous event.

In an adjoining room, uniforms and emblems from both the USSR forces and the East-German NVA can be found in display cases.

The outdoor exhibition is centered on a few original aircraft and helicopters, as well as fast motorboats and other vehicles. Aircraft include a MiG-21, MiG-23, and a massive Sukhoi Su-22.

As for helicopters, there are a Mil-2, Mil-24 and a Mil-8 – all Soviet-made. The latter two have the main rotor blades still dismounted.

The research center, and today the museum, is located just about 5 km north of Rechlin/Lärz airfield, active in the Third Reich in aeronautical research – Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet rocket-powered interceptors were studied here. The airfield became a large Soviet base from 1945 to the time when the then-Russian troops left. Today the airport has been converted for general aviation use. A report from an exploration of its premises can be found here.

Getting there

This is a proportionate collection, friendly to visit for everybody, in a nice rural setting. Memories from the history of aviation in Germany before and during WWII, as well as from Soviet operations taking place in the area – an often overlooked but crucial chapter in the military history of the GDR. The exact address is Am Claassee 1, 17248 Rechlin, Germany. Official website here. Visiting may require 45 minutes to 1.5 hours.

Flugwelt Altenburg/Nobitz

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Similarly to the museum in Cottbus and Finowfurt, this collection – whose name ‘Flugwelt’ translates into ‘World of Flight’ – is built on the premises of a former airbase – Altenburg/Nobitz, 20 miles south of Leipzig. Actually this was a very active center, managed by the Soviets who operated from here in the years of the Cold War with MiG-21, 23 and 27, and was also one of those sites in the GDR selected for nuclear weapons storage. Tactical missiles batteries were located also here in response to the deployment of Pershing missiles by the US on the territory of Western Germany. in the Eighties.

The airbase has been converted to non-military use, and today it is active mainly with general aviation flights. Some former hangars are used by private companies.

The air museum is made of two physically separated parts. The main building with the ticket office is the former entrance to the Soviet airbase. Here an incredible, original mural from Soviet times is still gracing the wall, together with a map of the airfield, again from Soviet times. From there you access the inside exhibition, cluttered with aircraft parts, engines, flight suits,… Not everything from the Soviet part of the Iron Curtain though, as uniforms and parts from Western Germany and other non-communist Countries can be spotted.

Among the most interesting artifacts in the exhibition, a large explanatory scheme of a servo-actuation plant of an aircraft, with explanations in cyrillic alphabet, and a simulator for a radar mounted inside the MiG-21. Both really used training items, very uncommon to find.

A part of an A380, two gliders, some Interflug memorabilia – the flagship airline of the GDR – and tons of models and radio-transmission hardware complete the picture. Unfortunately, also here everything is in German only. The volunteers are welcoming and helpful, but unfortunately communication is not easy due to language issues.

In a first part of the open-air exhibition it is possible to find a couple of MiG-21, one East-German and the other Soviet, a helicopter of the Police of the GDR, plus other aircraft from the West-German Luftwaffe, namely a Dassault Atlantique patrol, a G-91 and an F-86.

The two MiGs have been carefully restored, and the Red Army one appears to have been a former gate guardian at Altenburg/Nobitz.

Another part of the open-air collection can be found across the street, where a big Transall C-160 a Lockheed F-104 and a Sukhoi Su-22 can be spotted. The area is big and there is room for more aircraft – hopefully, this good-caring staff will have the chance to add even more items to their well-preserved collection in the future!

Curiously enough, the area was liberated from the Nazis by US troops in 1945, and handed over to the Soviets only after the end of WWII. A memorial stone remembers the actions of the US divisions fighting in the area in wartime.

Not time-expensive to visit (about 45 minutes to 1 hour for aircraft-minded people), besides a valuable aircraft collection and some rare artifacts of interest for aviation enthusiasts, this places offers the unique chance to enter a preserved gate building of a former Soviet airbase.

Getting there

The airport is located about two miles east of the nice historical town of Altenburg, itself about 30 minutes southeast of Leipzig. I would recommend going with a car and a good nav, for reaching the exact location of the museum may be a bit tricky with visual navigation. Website here, with some basic info also in English. The place is run by volunteers and it’s closed except during weekends in the good season, so carefully check opening times.

The German Inner Border – GDR vs. FRG

The Berlin Wall is widely known as one of the most emblematic symbols of the Cold War – a materialization of the ‘Iron Curtain’. The Wall – at least in its preliminary stage – was erected almost overnight in August 1961 by the Government of the GDR (‘German Democratic Republic’, or ‘DDR’ in German), and later developed into a complex and virtually impenetrable dividing barrier with fortifications, multiple fences, barbed wire, watchtowers, watchdogs, mines, truck stopping bars and other devices, isolating the part of Berlin attributed to the US, Britain and France from the Soviet occupation zone.

This monster, which caused many people to lose their lives, or forced them to risk everything – and leave everything behind – in the pursue of freedom, remained in place and was steadily updated until its triumphal demolition in November 1989.

What is less known is that the reason for building the Wall was the urge of the GDR to stop emigration towards West Germany (‘FRG’, Federal Republic of Germany, or ‘BRD’ in German) and the free world. Actually, the Wall was built following a massive emigration wave from the harsh living conditions of the GDR, taking place during the Fifties and mounting until the Wall was built. Literally millions of people fled the regions occupied by the Soviets from the end of WWII in 1945 until 1961.

Consequently, blocking the border only in the city of Berlin would have been nonsense. As a matter of fact, at the same time as the construction of the Wall begun, the government of the GDR started one of the most gigantic ‘border-armoring’ operations in history, by ordering fortification of the whole border line between East and West Germany. The Berlin Wall was actually only the tip of the iceberg, as all the more than 800 miles long border line between East and West Germany, extending from the Baltic Sea to Bavaria and the Czech border, was blocked with the same level of restraining techniques deployed in Berlin, to the explicit aim of preventing people from crossing the fence and going East to West. For the Communist government, East Germany had to be reconfigured basically as a nationwide prison.

This incredible operation, which engaged thousands border troops and tons of equipment, plus required continuous updates of the patrolling technologies, was reportedly so expensive that it contributed effectively to the collapse of the economy of the GDR. It crystallized the so-called ‘Inner Border’ between the two German republics, which had existed since 1945, but had never been so deadly. After the introduction of this strict border patrolling policy the number of people killed or wounded, and of those arrested because trying to cross the border, increased steadily until the re-opening of the border, following rapidly after the demolition of the Wall in Berlin in 1989.

Berlin is today an enjoyable city, full of interesting places to visit and things to do, and its urban configuration, so strikingly bound to the Wall and its history – unlike all other capital cities in Europe, Berlin is lacking a true ‘city center’ – with the passing of time is becoming more uniform. Differences between the two sides, once obvious, now tend to vanish, at least in the most seen parts of the city, with new buildings, fashionable shops and malls, stately hotels and governmental buildings rising where once the Wall had created barren flat areas, not restored for long from the ruins of WWII. Obviously, nothing bad in this process, which also makes Berlin one of the most lively places in Europe in terms of architecture.

The grim atmosphere of the Cold War years can still be breathed in many places in town especially in the former East Berlin, but even close to the few memorials of the Wall scattered over the urban territory it’s hard to imagine how it really felt like being there when the border could not be crossed. If you want more evocative places, you should look somewhere else.

In this sense, the preserved border checkpoints and portions of the fortified Inner Border are much more evocative, and constitute a very vivid, albeit little known, fragment of memory, inviting you to think about the monstrous effects of ideology and dictatorship. All along the former border, especially in the southern regions of the former GDR, you can still spot large areas spoiled of trees, where once the border fences run. Scattered watchtowers are not an unusual sight in these areas, even though many have been demolished immediately after dismantling the border. In some focal places, often corresponding to former checkpoints where important roads crossed the border, the fences have been totally preserved or just slightly altered, for keeping historical memory.

The following photographs were taken during an exploration of some of these sites in summer 2015, winter 2016, summer 2021 and again in summer 2023. The exposition follows a southern-northern direction along the former Inner Border.

Map

The following map shows the location of the sites described below. For some sites you can zoom in close to the pinpointed positions on the map to see more detailed labels. Directions to reach all the sites listed are provided section by section. The list is not complete, but refers to the sites I have personally visited. Border sites in Berlin are not included.

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Mödlareuth

Getting there

Mödlareuth is actually the name of a small village placed along the former Inner Border between Bavaria and Thuringia. The site is not difficult to reach by car, a 4 miles detour from highway N.9, going from Munich to Berlin. Just proceed to the village of Modlareuth, which is dominated by the ‘Deutsch-Deutsches Museum Mödlareuth’ (website here). This encompasses an open-air exhibition of the former border area, plus an indoor exhibition with patrolling vehicles, artifacts, videos and temporary exhibitions. Large free parking on site.

For photographing purposes, I would suggest approaching from the south, from the village of Parchim via H02. Mödlareuth is located in a natural basin surrounded by low hills, and the H02 proceeds downhill to the site, allowing for a perfect view of the former border area.

Sights

Most of the Inner Border once run in rural areas. In that case, ‘only’ double fences, dogs, watchtowers, truck-stopping grooves and mines were ok. In the less common cases when the border crossed or passed close to villages, something similar to what had happened in Berlin was replicated on a smaller scale, and a further fortification layer in the form of a tall concrete wall, was put in place.

This happened also in Mödlareuth, where the small village was split in two parts by a wall, gaining to this town the nickname of ‘Little Berlin’. The place was rather famous in the West before 1989, and it was visited also by vice-president Bush in the years of the Reagan administration.

As here one of the relatively few local roads not cut by the Inner Border was left, the village was also place for a border checkpoint for cars.

The open air exhibition showcases what remains of the wall – the most of it was demolished restoring the original, pre-war geography of the town -, as well as a full section of the border protection system and checkpoint. Looking from the West, you had first the real geographical border, coinciding with a creek as it was typical. Beyond it, poles with warning signs and distinctive concrete posts painted in black, red and yellow stripes (the colors of the German flag) with a metal placard bearing the emblem of the GDR. These signs had existed since the inception of the inner border to mark it, and date from older times than the other border devices. Then followed the wall. Behind it, a corridor for walking/motorized patrols and a fence. Then you had a groove in the ground, reinforced with concrete, capable of stopping a truck or a car pointing westwards from the GDR. An area of flattened sand followed next, to mark the footsteps of people approaching the border area. In different times, mines were placed in a much alike sand strip. Then followed a final fence.