A Few Remains of Nazi Grandeur in Germany

Architecture is possibly one of the disciplines where the ringleaders of the Nazi dictatorship invested most, for it provided a direct mean to display and impose their ‘new aesthetics’ to the German people and to foreign visitors from abroad.

The victory of the Allies in WWII wiped out the Nazi apparatus, but nowhere as in Germany did the new post-war leadership take the  deletion of all traces of the Third Reich so seriously. Even in museums of military history – there is an excellent example in Ingolstadt,  Bavaria, perhaps one of the most beautiful museums on the topic in Europe – there are just a handful of Nazi insignia. Swastikas, Nazi uniforms, weapons and memorabilia can be found to an incredibly greater extent elsewhere in Europe, especially in Britain, or in museums in the US. They are really also abundant in the countless exhibitions about the Great Patriotic War – WWII for Russians – in the former USSR, and generally beyond the Iron Curtain.

Concerning architecture, especially in Berlin many buildings of all ages were totally demolished as a result of US/British air raids, and during the last battle for the city opposite the Red Army. Similarly, the town centers of many larger towns were severely damaged. In the reconstruction process, little care was taken in keeping trace of this dark page of the German history, and the reborn downtown districts assumed in many cases a new face, where 1950-styled buildings shared the stage with medieval cathedrals and public schools from Bismarck’s time – pretty much nothing from the 1930s.

Yet of course some creations of Hitler’s architects have come to these days. Despite the evil ideology behind them, some are remarkable works of art, displaying a clear relationship with functionalism, typically found through various interpretations also in many realizations of great architects of the Thirties, in the US as well as all around western Europe. Examples are those buildings connected with infrastructures, like airport terminals or railway stations – much needed in the post-WWII period, and preferably restored instead of being demolished. More items of this kind survive than possibly of any other from Hitler’s era in todays German cities. A majestic example is the terminal of the now closed Berlin-Tempelhof airport.

Most of the surviving buildings hold a public function – like departments of the government or sport arenas. In a very few cases, buildings strongly connected with the devious ideology of the Third Reich have been preserved – albeit not greatly publicized – as museums. A first notable example is the complex around the Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg, with the unfinished huge congress hall for the conventions of the Nazi Party. A second one is the disturbing ‘spiritual center’ of the infamous SS in Wewelsburg.

This chapter collects a few photographs from these three places. Of course, it is far from a complete review of the architectural heritage of the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. It just provides an insight on a relatively unknown group of relics from Hitler’s era in Germany.

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Sights

Berlin-Tempelhof Airport Terminal

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Possibly the most complete and grandest example of Nazi architecture, the airport terminal of Berlin-Tempelhof is interesting both from an architecture standpoint and for its historical significance. The terminal was designed and built in the late 1930s and completed in 1941, greatly enlarging a preexistent construction.

At that time, nothing comparable existed in the world. The terminal is more than a mile long. It was built with a direct access from the land-side buildings directly to the long side of a narrow hangar on the air-side, which basically ran all along the terminal. Considering the small size of the aircraft of the day, this ‘hangar-terminal’ configuration could be exploited to simultaneously load and unload a high number of flights, with operations taking place directly in, or just outside, of a covered hangar. During WWII, parts of the hangar were used to manufacture military aircraft, exploiting forced laborers from a concentration camp prepared nearby for the purpose.

But the features of the terminal turned also extremely handy during the Berlin blockade of 1948-49, when Stalin tried to force the his former western Allies to withdraw from Berlin by cutting off the western sector of the city. The western Allies set up the famous airlift, supplying the western sector with basically everything that was needed for a population in the order of a million, for 15 months! Tempelhof was the major airport in Berlin – the other being the British airbase in Gatow, near Potsdam – and laid in the American zone of the city. Thanks to its peculiar structure, it could manage the immense flow of goods flown in by more than 1’000 flights per day.

In the Cold War years, the airport was operated as a logistic base by the US forces. In the meanwhile, the construction of a larger airport – with a smaller terminal, but longer runways – was started at Tegel, and this was promoted to the main airport of West Berlin for civil air traffic. State flights still were operated in and out of Tempelhof, President Reagan’s Air Force One 27000 notably operating from Tempelhof on a famous state visit in 1982. After the German reunification the airport went on working as a civil airport, but the relatively short runways and noise issues led to its closure in 2008.

Sadly, today this glorious airport has been turned into another city park. It is rather difficult to use it for the scope though, as all the cement and asphalt of the apron, runways and taxiways are still there, there are no trees, and the terminal is an imposing presence on one side. Moreover, it is really a surplus for a city like Berlin, scattered with plenty of beautiful and immense green areas. The terminal building has not yet found a new occupation, and is basically a well-guarded ghost. Hopefully, if it will not be re-opened as perhaps a general aviation or light aviation airport, the municipality will find a way to better preserve this interesting monument.

Pictures from the year 2015 show the main building giving access to the terminal on the northwestern corner of the airfield still in a rather good shape. The empty parking ahead of the passenger entrance with nobody around gives a lunar aura to the place.

The neat lines of this part of the building deceive its actual size. From a former visit still in the days of operation – year 2006 – you can notice the roomy check-in hall, right beyond the main entrance.

Close by one of the glass entry doors you can spot a memorial to General Lucius Clay, the American mind behind the Berlin Airlift.

The grand perspective leading to the entrance is really an architectural masterpiece. Also noteworthy is a series of covered passages leading to lateral courtyards to the sides. These service passages are not visible when approaching the terminal from the distance, preserving the general sense of order without renouncing to the functionality of the construction.

There are two surviving marble eagles from Hitler’s time, on the front walls of the buildings to the sides of the main perspective.

The eagle head ahead of the parking is from the eagle sculpture originally standing on top of the main façade in Hitler’s times. That eagle was taken away after the capture of the city and the end of the war. The head went to the Army Academy in West Point, NY as a spoil of war, and was returned after the German reunification.

Moving along the wings of the building you can appreciate the size of the construction, really uncommon for Europe in the Thirties. The quality of all materials is also really striking. Their cost must have been really high.

To the extreme northeastern tip of the building you can spot some former radio installations, likely connected with air traffic control or military operations. From there you can get access to the former air side of the airport. At the time when the pictures were taken it was possible to walk around freely, but unfortunately not close to the hangar. Some sort of historical preservation society is keeping the place off-limits, opening it to the public on rare guided visits in German only – but I could not join in any of them.

There is also a historical propliner ahead of the iconic ‘Berlin Tempelhof’ sign on top of the hangar. Anyway, walking on the apron and runways produces a ‘history was made here’ feeling, and it is worth trying! Again, a few shots from the days of operation show the hangar from inside the terminal building. Historical pictures from local panels show the use of the hangar for the production of aircraft and technical parts.

Getting there and moving around

The former airport is not far from downtown Berlin, around 3 miles south from the Brandenburg Gate in the former western sector of the city. Access to the terminal is from Tempelhofer Damm. Parking is possible along this major alley, or on the many roads around the airport – parking is rarely a problem in Berlin. Be ready to walk though, as usual when touring an airport.

Access possible also with public means of transportation. The front terminal can be easily reached from the U6 stops ‘Platz der Luftbrucke’ or ‘Bhf Paradestrasse’. Access from the east is easier from the U8 stops ‘Boddinstrasse’ or ‘Leinenstrasse’. There is finally an S-bahn station on the southwestern corner of the airfield – ‘Bahnhof Tempelhof’ – where U6 meets with several S-bahn lines.

My last visit to the place dates back to 2015, and as the area was undergoing renovation with multiple potential plans for changing its role and shape, it is possible that this information is not very accurate.

Anyway, at the time of this visit the terminal was closed to the public, with very limited chances to visit inside on irregular tours provided by a local architectural society in German language. Nonetheless, touring the exterior is possible on your own, and there are also a few descriptive panels along the perimeter. There are multiple entrances to the former air side, which is a public park with many people around.

Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg

Nuremberg is an ancient imperial city in the heart of Germany, taken over as the symbolic capital of the ‘new kingdom’ by the theorists of the Nazi doctrine, due to its historical significance in German history. This town became the focal point of Hitler-led Nazi Party (NSDAP is the acronym of the party name in German language) well before the fateful general elections of 1933, when Hitler was elected chancellor of the German Republic. Among the activities of the NSDAP since the Twenties was a yearly rally, where for a few days all sections of the party met in Nuremberg for a series of group activities, including political speeches, commemoration of the fallen soldiers of the German wars, sport, camping, dining, etc.

In the years preceding Hitler’s raise to power, these rallies took place in the Luitpoldhain Park, to the southeast of the town center. The park had at its center the Hall of Honor, a memorial to the soldiers of German Wars, erected at the end of the Twenties. Today, leaving behind some construction works carried out by the NSDAP in the 1930s – including a massive Luitpold Hall and a tribune, today completely demolished – the place has regained its commemorative function, and is still used as a nice and sober city park. Yet historical photographs of Hitler celebrating the fallen German comrades ahead of the very monument you can see today produce a strange feeling.

In the years of the dictatorship, the rallies turned into a megalomaniac ostentation of power, with hundreds of thousands participating in the reunions. Correspondingly, the area involved in these parades was greatly enlarged, and a plan was made to realize a group of dedicated buildings.

The most famous of them, thanks to the historical movies of the parades recorded at the time, is the Zeppelin Field. This was a parade ground designed from scratch by Nazi architects. The white tribune with the huge swastika on top, in the background of an immense, perfectly ordered and disciplined public, crowding the arena and listening to the voice of the Führer, is one of the permanent symbols of the Third Reich monstrous machine. Actually, the same tribune is the subject of another very famous movie, where the swastika is blown up with dynamite after the capture of the city of Nuremberg by US troops, marking the end of the Nazi rule in Germany.

The tribune and the constructions along the perimeter of the Zeppelin Field underwent major post-war deconstruction works, as the area came to host a car racing circuit and later a rather minimal sporting ground. What remains of the building is still rather massive, yet the top colonnade is gone, and as of 2016 the place looked little guarded and partly abandoned – eventually making it even grimmer! You can be on the exact podium where Hitler stood in his golden days admiring his evil creation.

The final and most prominent part of the plan is the congress hall of the NSDAP. Like most of the gigantic construction project for the area, this building was never completed, yet it reached a rather advanced state of completion. It is a U-shaped, three floors building, clearly inspired to the ancient Roman architecture. It should have been the building for the congresses of the NSDAP.

Today, this is the only preserved building of the complex, and hosts an extremely interesting museum and documentation center on the history of the Nazi Party and of the rallies. Really an interesting insight in the aesthetics of Hitler’s era and in the strange history of this strange political movement, which has been instrumental in shaping the face of todays Europe – and possibly of the world. Surely worth visiting.

A somewhat off-topic note, yet fitting in this chapter, concerns the hall of the Nuremberg Trials. These post-war trials were held in Nuremberg soon after the end of the war, mainly because of the significance this city had gained for the NSDAP. The courthouse, used as such also under the Nazi dictatorship, survived the war rather undamaged. Today, it is home to the Memorium, a very interesting museum documenting the trials from an anecdotal perspective, as well as from a more elevated viewpoint, describing its significance for international law – it was the first time an international conflict ended up in a trial.

Besides the museum, which is mainly centered on panels and photographs, you can see the famous Courtroom 600, where the trials took place. This was a bit altered since the years of the trials, yet some peculiar features, like the artistic doors, are exactly those you can see in the famous video recordings from the time.

Getting there and moving around

The area of the NSDAP rallies can be found about 2.5 miles southeast of the historical district of Nuremberg, Bavaria. It can be conveniently reached by car, or with public transport. Tramway line 8 departs the central railway station and has several stops in the area of interest. The S-bahn station ‘Nurnberg-Dutzenteich’ is 0.3 miles from the congress hall.

Today the area is mainly green, with much room for relaxing with a good walk. There are some explanatory panels with maps outlining the scheme of the Nazi master plan, including the buildings which were actually erected, those which were later demolished, and those which were just planned.

The centerpiece is the museum ‘Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände’, in the unfinished congress hall. Despite the distance from downtown Nuremberg, this is a major attraction for foreign visitors, hence the museum is prepared for large crowds. Visiting is possible with an audio-guide in many languages, and it is really worth the time and price. Website here.

The Memorium Nuremberg Trials, is hosted in a still active section of the Courthouse and is conveniently reachable by car of with the U-bahn U1, stop ‘Bärenschanze’, about 1 mile west of the historical town center. It can be visited on a self-guided basis, with audio-guides in many languages. This exhibition is really well designed and very interesting, and may take a couple of hours for a complete exploration. Yet due to the relative absence of tangible ‘hardware’ it may turn out unbearable for smaller children. Website here.

Spiritual Headquarter of the SS, Wewelsburg

The castle of Wewelsburg is connected to one of the most obscure aspects of the Nazi ideology – magic practices. The castle was founded centuries before the advent of the Nazis. Soon after the rise to power of the NSDAP, the head of the SS Heinrich Himmler got fascinated by the triangular perimeter of the castle, which appears to point towards the North. This is nothing special for a normal mind, but the SS  were the treasurers of the German race culture, and they were trying all the time to establish a solid link between basically themselves and the ancient settlers of Greenland – the Thule people – described in some legends as the most ancient northern population. This was instrumental in sustaining that the world belonged to the SS, which had been there since before everyone else.

This apparently silly idea represented for this group of fanatics a sufficient motivation to trigger a world war, were they saw themselves as the leaders of a liberation movement, regaining a rightful control over Europe (just to start) to the German race, after centuries of undue occupation by other races.

Wewelsburg gained more and more importance as the Nazis started preparing for war. The northern tower of the castle was declared the center of the world, and the heart of the SS soul. The School of Wewelsburg represented the spiritual leadership of this military organization, which enjoyed a surprising independence – and an extensive budget – even in the suffocating bureaucratic apparatus of Hitler’s political dictatorship. As such, Wewelsburg came in the middle of a visionary master plan, where it had to be at the center of a circular construction with a radius of 1 kilometer. Construction works started on this project, satellite concentration camps for forced laborers being opened on site for the purpose. The work did not develop much though, due to the intervening war events and things evolving differently from the Nazi plans.

The castle underwent some modifications under the SS. It was generally refurbished to host regular reunions of the comrades of the School of Wewelsburg, with SS-themed furniture which can be seen in the local museum devoted to this incredible story.

Furthermore, the northern tower was largely modified inside, with two round rooms appearing one above the other on two levels. The top one was completed as the ‘Room of the Black Sun’. It is centered on a mosaic pavement with a swastika motif. A disk made of pure gold, disappeared after the war, represented the sun in the center of the pavement, and marked the very center of the world.

The bottom room is basically a crypt, receiving little light from the outside, and resembling a chapel. At the center of the room you can find a basin like in a baptistery. All around there are little stands, possibly provisions for thrones. On top of the vault, just beneath the sun in the top room, there is a rare stone sculpture of a swastika.

The real use of these rooms is rather mysterious. It seems likely that Himmler with the School of Wewelsburg wanted to create a kind of ‘elite of the elite’ in the SS. The crypt might have been a place for ritual initiation ceremonies, and the top hall a kind of meeting area for the group. Selected officials and intellectuals of the SS met regularly in Wewelsburg, but basically no documentation exists of the content of these meetings. Yet the well-known mental inclination and conviction of the components of the group, the symbolic significance of the Wewelsburg site for these people and the temple-like setup of the northern tower suggest some sort of esoteric ritual might have taken place here.

The area reportedly fell into disrepair soon after WWII, and even worse, conceived by some as the shrine of the still alive ‘spirit of the SS’, it rapidly became the stage of black masses, magic practices and satanic rites. To contain the drift, the top hall was turned into a Christian chapel and an altar was put in place. This was later removed when castle opened as a museum on local history, a youth hostel and more recently as part of a very interesting museum and documentation center about the SS.

Getting there and moving around

The castle of Wewelsburg is located on top of a cliff in the homonym village, about 8 miles southwest of the medieval town of Paderborn, immersed in a beautiful north-German landscape. It appears to be about 2 miles south of the Paderborn-Lippe local airport. The castle can be conveniently reached by car, parking available nearby the entrance.

There are several exhibitions, including a museum about the ancient history of the castle, a documentation center and museum on the SS, which provides access to the Northern Tower and its mystery rooms, and a space for temporary exhibitions – at the time of my visit, there was one on the racial aspects of Nazi ideology. All museum are very modern and extremely interesting. There is also a hostel right inside the castle.

The site is really interesting to visit and a good destination for a nice half-day trip for everyone. Yet despite the nice panorama and the pleasant 16th century architecture, the association of the castle with dark activities in the dark years of Himmler and the SS makes this castle mysterious and somewhat grim, adding to the experience.

Surrender Sites of Nazi Germany – Reims & Berlin-Karlshorst

Differently from what one is usually taught in schools, World War II in Europe did not stop in one moment with the death by suicide of the Führer, on April 30th, 1945.

As soon as the advancing Western Allies established strongpoints within the original borders of Germany – as these had been before the war – in 1945 the chain of command in Germany began to vacillate. Rumors about contacts between top-ranking Nazi officials and the SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) have lived to this day, and they are reasonable even though not well documented – as a matter of fact, Hitler dismissed both Göring and Himmler just before his death, on account of unauthorized contacts with ‘the enemy’, promoting Admiral Dönitz to the rank of president of Germany.

The understandable confusion of those days at the ‘top of the pyramid’ is reflected by the local autonomous surrender of substantial parts of the German armed forces around Europe, against the will of the Führer, and even before his death. Literally millions of soldiers were disarmed on both fronts in April 1945, and the process culminated in the surrender of all German forces in Italy on April 29th, the day before Hitler’s death.

The new German president Dönitz acted with the same authority of the Führer in the last stormy days of the collapsing Nazi rule, early May 1945. Under Dönitz’s mandate, between the 1st and 7th of May 1945 some separate surrenders took place, including all German forces in Austria, North-West Germany, Holland, Denmark, Berlin – who surrendered to the Soviets -, Mecklenburg and Pommern north of Berlin, and Bavaria. The German navy ceased war operations on May 5th, by direct order of admiral Dönitz.

All this preceded the ‘official’, authorized, unconditional surrender which was signed on behalf of acting president Dönitz separately by General Jödl in the headquarters of the Expeditionary Force in Reims in the early hours of May 7th, and by Feldmarschall Keitel in Berlin-Karlshorst on May 8th, in presence of General Zhukov of the Red Army. The capitulation called for quitting all military operations at 23:01 CET, May 8th. Both of the signers were arrested soon after, as were Dönitz, Göring and other top German players of the war in Europe.

Today, the two locations where the unconditional surrender(s) were signed are open for visitors. The following photographs were taken during visits in 2015 and 2016.

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Reims – Musée de la Reddition

The headquarters of the SHAEF where the ‘instrument of surrender’ was signed on the western front occupied the building of a high school.

Today, the building has returned to its original function, but a small part of it with the original room and table have been preserved inside of a museum on-site. The walls of the room are covered with original maps from the time, resembling how it looked like in 1945.

Other rooms are packed with showcases, where you can see many items, including an official copy of the document signed by Jödl, authenticated by Dönitz, uniforms, original flags and other memorabilia.

The museum is rather small, and can be toured in about 30 minutes at most. This excludes the video presentation, which I had not the chance to watch.

Getting there and moving around

The historical place is located to the north of the city center in Reims, very close to the railway station. The exact address is 12 Rue du Président Franklin Roosevelt, 51100 Reims. There is chance of public parking nearby. If you parked somewhere else for visiting historical Reims, I suggest not moving your car, as the museum can be easily reached with a short 5 minutes walk from Porte de Mars, right on the northern edge of the center. Website here.

Berlin-Karlshorst – Deutsch-Russisches Museum

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Soon after the end of the war and the division of Berlin, with the district of Berlin-Karlshorst falling under Soviet rule, the Soviets converted the building where the capitulation was signed for hosting their headquarters. After the birth of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) at the end of the Forties, the place was turned into a museum.

Besides the very room where the document was signed, you can find some dioramas dating back to the first years of the museum, as well as a specifically designed foyer and a stained glass window portraying the statue of the Soviet Soldier in Treptower Park – dating from the same late Stalin’s era.

More recently, the museum has been refurbished and enlarged with very interesting and well prepared exhibits, including many memorabilia items, findings and relics not only from the events of May 1945, but more in general from WWII and the less known eastern front.

Compared to the museum in Reims, this is much broader and richer, going well beyond the preservation of the room and the evocation of the last stage of the war.

Getting there and moving around

The museum is in a nice residential area in southern Berlin. This is not a touristic area, so you’d better go there only if you are interested in this specific museum, cause there is not much else to see. Yet if you are interested in WWII and especially to the eastern front, I would say this absolutely a must – all in all, there is not so much information in the touristic areas of Berlin about WWII, so this might fill the gap.

Anyway, the exact location is Zwieseler Strasse 4. This can be reached with bus 296 from the S-3 station Karlshorst or from U5 stop Tierpark. Alternatively, from S-3 Karlshorst it is a walk of about ten minutes. Finally, if you are going by car – the most convenient way – there is a parking right in front of the building. Website here.

Peenemünde Army Research Facility

Peenemünde is broadly known for having hosted the first ever large-scale research center and test ground for military rockets, missiles, flying bombs and innovative ordnance and weaponry in the world. The small town of Peenemünde is located on the island of Usedom, a nice, almost flat island on the shore of the Baltic sea, on the border between today’s Germany and Poland – ‘Peene’ is a river having its mouth (‘münde’ in German, from which the name of the place) where Usedom island is.

History – in brief

The Peenemünde site was a creäture of the administration of the Nazi regime in the late Thirties. It grew rapidly to a considerable size especially for the time. The site included an electric power plant, later used after the closure of the research center for supplying energy to the East German power grid, an airport, later converted into an air base and operated by the Air Force of East Germany, a sea port, a series of technical facilities for testing and producing all that was needed to assemble rockets, their systems and engines, as well as for preparing propellants.

There were also several launch pads for missiles and flying bombs, and last but not least, scattered over a broad area, housing for thousands of people, which included high-ranking technicians and people from academia – there was also an advanced wind tunnel -, military/SS personnel, as well as factory workers, including many prisoners of the regime.

The site was so large that a dedicated local railway was built and operated to allow people commuting, modeled on the urban railway of Berlin. The railway network was the third in size in Germany, following Berlin and Hamburg.

This enormous installation was directed by Wehrner von Braun, later to become a technical leader in the US research efforts in the field of rocketry, and a central character in the race for space opposite the Soviets.

Peenemünde was never an operative launch site – it was far too distant from potential targets in Britain for the limited range of flying weapons of those days – but due to its primary relevance as a testing and production site of the v1 flying bombs and later of the v2 missiles, the site became a designated target of very intense bombing raids.

The Peenemünde complex was severely hit in a series of air attacks launched by the Allied British and US air forces in the summer of 1943. After that, production was moved in forced labor camps in central Germany – Mittelbau/Dora being probably the most in-famous – whereas only research and testing was still conducted in Peenemünde, with plans to move progressively more and more equipment to other destinations scattered over the territory of the Third Reich, for which construction was started in the last years of WWII.

The Soviets captured what remained of the complex in Peenemünde at the very end of WWII in May 1945. By common agreement, the Allied put an end to rocket research in Germany, the Soviets materially blowing up every technical building still standing in the area, with the exception of the power plant, the airport and a few others. Parts of the machinery in the powerplant as well as almost all railway tracks were reportedly transferred to the Soviet Union.

Since then, the air base of the East German Air Force has been developed in more instances, adding aircraft shelters, a tower and other technical buildings that are still standing – the airport is today open to general aviation. The power plant was updated over the years by the Communist regime, becoming one of the most polluting plants in Germany, whereas the former launch pads and the area once occupied by technical buildings were rapidly reclaimed by nature.

The following photos were taken during a visit to the site in April 2016.

Sights

Museum

After 1989 and the German reunification, the power plant was soon closed, and a museum (Historical Technical Museum, website here) on the history of the Peenemünde site, recognized worldwide as the cradle of modern rocketry, was opened in it.

Among the few buildings of the Nazi era still standing today, the building of the ticket and book shop of this museum used to be a bunker for governing the power plant also in case of an air raid.

There are three main exhibitions in the museum. The open air exhibition, on the ground of the power plant, is composed of an original v1 launching ramp moved here from France, with a v1 flying bomb assembled from original pieces, a reconstructed v2 rocket, and a local train from the original local railway system.

In the photos it is possible to see the launch system of the v1, which was pushed to its take-off speed by a piston moving in a pipe underneath the bomb, in the body of the ramp. Mostly similar to modern acceleration systems on aircraft carriers, except for the piston was moved as an effect of a chemical reaction involving hydrogen peroxide, and not water steam as it’s most typical for aircraft carriers.

The second and third exhibitions are hosted in the building of the power plant – itself a significant example of industrial architecture from the days of the Nazi regime – and describe the history of the army research center and of the powerplant. The first of these two is the ‘central piece’ of the complex, no visit of Peenemünde is complete without a look at this exhibition.

In the photographs it is possible to see some of the artifacts in the exhibition about rocketry in Peenemünde. It is possible to appreciate the advanced technologies tested here already in those early years, including high pressure mixing of liquid propellants, graphite deflectors for thrust vectoring, inertial navigation systems, turbopumps for pumping the propellant into the combustion chamber at the correct rate. There are also original signs from the area.

Scaled mockups of all items tested in Peenemünde, much more numerous than the v1 and v2, add to the show, together with models of the former launch pads. Especially launch pad ‘VII’, used for the v2 rocket, was so well designed that it was adopted also in the US after the war as a blueprint for their own designs.

A visit to the complex of the power plant may easily take 2 h 30 min for an interested subject.

Former test grounds and launch pads

The launch pads were placed closer to the airport, very close to the northeastern shore of the island, to the north of the village of Peenemünde. Today, this broad ‘ghost area’ is partly fenced, surely not accessible with private vehicles, possibly accessible by foot. It is a kind of natural preserve, with much wildlife around.

The best way to explore this area, without getting lost in the trees and with a chance to spot what is still in place, is going with a society offering guided tours of the site, named ‘Historische Rundfahrt Peenemünde’ (website here). As of 2016 there are tours offered in German three times a day on a regular basis, but it is possible to arrange tours in English upon request at your preferred time – this was my only option as I don’t know much German. In my case, it turned out I was the only visitor on that tour, so I had the guide – a gentleman speaking a very good English, and with an incredible knowledge of many technical matters – all for me for the duration of the whole 3 h 15 min tour. You move mostly with a minivan, so apart from the bumpy road the visit is very comfortable.

The tour starts by the airport of Peenemünde, and you are soon driven into the site. With the help of a digital map, the guide will show where you are standing with respect to the buildings and installations that were originally there. You can see from the photos that Soviets took their job very seriously, so that very little remains of the original structures. You can recognize the original plan of the site mainly by the asphalted roads still in place today – albeit covered in dust.

The most prominent sight in the complex is surely launch pad ‘VII’, once used for the v2. It is possible to spot the containment banks all around the launch site. The concrete flame deflector is still in place, filled with rainwater. The walls of the deflector were water-cooled to resist the extreme heat of the rocket exhaust at takeoff. The water pump occupied a part of the lateral banks, together with measuring equipment and a sheltered observation deck. Still standing is a water nozzle used by firefighters in the – likely – event of fires due to malfunctions in the launching process.

A stone celebrates the launching of the first v2 missile from this site.

The rocket used to be moved to the launching position – above the flame deflector – with a special trolley. Multiple silos were placed around a common track made of concrete, built outside the perimeter of the containment banks. The trolley, loaded on a sliding platform, could move along the concrete track. The missile was collected from the assembly silo, the platform moved along the concrete track to reach the head of a short metal railway track where the trolley could be pushed to reach the flame deflector, in the middle of the containment banks – see the photo of the model above. Like the flame deflector, the concrete guide is still standing today, filled with rain water.

Other interesting sights of the visit are the experimental launch ramps of the v1, placed to the northernmost part of the island, right behind the beach. A first experimental ramp (type 1) was totally made of concrete, and was clearly not adopted for operational use, being too difficult to build and manage. Other two ramps, not so different from one another, were the first examples of types 2 and 3.

Type 3 was adopted operationally and deployed to the coasts of France and Belgium. Inert concrete warheads used in test flights can be seen in the photos, left from the age of testing.

You can see here that all ramps pointed directly to the Baltic sea. Telemetry towers were installed on the neighbor islands of Oie and Ruegen for tracking the experimental flights and taking measurements. Two such towers that are still standing today can be spotted from here in the distance, you can see them in the photos.

Before leaving, having shown a great interest for the topic of aeronautics, I was given the opportunity to tour an incredible exhibition of weapons, systems and artifacts from the area they are putting together in a small farm surviving from the days of WWII – where rabbits were bred for feeding the staff and for making fur for airmen. As of May 2016 this was not yet open to the public.

Among the artifacts you can see in the pictures from this exhibition, TV-guided bombs, experimental solid propellant rockets, a piloted v1 and tons of other incredible items. This shows once more that many technologies later become widespread had been tested here much before they started to be massively used. Also preserved are some parts of aircraft downed during the raids of 1943.

Maybe after finishing with the tour it is interesting to have a brief look to the airport, where the control tower possibly from the Nazi era and some aircraft shelters are still standing. The place can’t be walked freely for it’s still an active GA airport, but part of the former base is being used as a testing track for sport cars and can be approached safely.

My tour lasted more than 3 hours, but at the time of booking my English tour I was offered also shorter options.

K-24 Juliett-class Soviet submarine
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This submarine is moored in the port of Peenemünde, a five minutes walk from the entrance to the power plant. This is reportedly the only Juliett class submarine existing today, so visiting is an absolute ‘must-do’ for the committed tourist (website here).

Furthermore, the condition of this unit is still very good, making for an interesting and unusual visit – a unusal fact is that all is written in Cyrillic alphabet, with many ‘CCCP’ factory signs on the labels of the gauges and of the technical stuff. Juliett submarines were designed in the Fifties and operated till the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early Nineties, with a capability for launching cruise missiles with tactical nuclear warheads directed to target ships or coastal targets, from a distance of some hundred miles. They were conventionally powered with large diesel electric-units.

Having been designed after WWII, they are much roomier than German U-Boots from the Nazi era, hence the visit is ok also for claustrophobic people. You can see two launch tubes in a deployed position to the back of the ship.

Visiting may take between five minutes and 1 hour depending on the level of your interest.

Note

A visit of these three items at a reasonable pace but without running may easily fill a day schedule. I know there is much to explore and see on your own in the area of the former complex, but I could only dedicate one day to this site during my trip. I would recommend doing at least the same for an interested person.

In any case, the island with its Baltic shores and light is nice and relaxing, so I would recommend planning a day for Usedom also in case you are not interested only in military history.

Getting there and moving around

The island of Usedom is much larger than the area of the former research complex, which once occupied the northernmost extremity. The island can be approached by car with two bridges in Anklam and Wolgast from mainland Germany, or from Poland. It is very easy to get there by car.

Once in the village of Peenemünde, it’s easy to spot the massive building of the power plant. K-24 can be reached with a five minutes walk from the entrance of the power plant. The place is very popular, so there is a large parking just besides these two attractions.

The pick-up point for the guided tour of the former research center is by the small airport, which is located north of the village, a 1.5 miles drive from Peenemünde. Free parking besides the small office building.

I couldn’t imagine a more convenient way than having a car for moving around, but the island is reportedly very crowded in summer. A train can be used to reach some of the villages on Usedom, so you may consider also this alternative.