Soviet and East German Relics North of Berlin

For the full span of the Cold War, the communist German Democratic Republic has been a highly militarized region.

Due to its position right on the European border between NATO countries and the USSR-led eastern bloc, this relatively small state was kept in high consideration by the Soviet military staff in Moscow. In the re-organization of Soviet forces following the end of the Great Patriotic War (i.e. WWII), of the four Soviet groups of forces stationed in all satellite countries outside the Soviet border, one was specifically named ‘Group of Soviet Forces in Germany’. This group was headquartered in Wünsdorf, the former location of the German OKW south of Berlin (see this post), and had under its command a force of some hundred thousands troops, divided in two tank armies, an entire air army, three mixed armies and a supplementary artillery division. Supplies were in no shortage either, with some tens of fully operational airbases/tank polygons, academies and housing for all the troops and respective families.

Despite the very significant Soviet presence, the GDR invested a huge capital of its own in the development of a full-scale military strength. The East-German National People’s Army (NVA) received top-tier technology from the USSR, and did of course manufacture military supply of all sorts. Sustaining this army, together with the enormous para-military organization of the internal Ministry of Security – the ill-famed STASI – and other governmental organizations, military expenses undoubtedly contributed to the economical crisis hitting the GDR in the 1980s, setting the scene for its final demise.

The region north of Berlin was particularly rich in military and governmental installations, some of them highly classified, their history shrouded into mystery. You can find some information in dedicated posts on this website (see this post, also here and here).

In this chapter, some more items of interest are featured. Four of them are abandoned tokens from Soviet occupation. A nice belle-epoque villa on the shore of the Röblingsee in Fürstenberg, where the headquarters of the 2nd Guard Tank Army was headquartered since Stalin’s era to the withdrawal of Soviet forces in the 1990s, is the first of them. The second is a unique, forgotten Soviet monument, to be found less than two miles south of Fürstenberg. Two more are memorials and cemeteries, for Soviet troops who perished in the last stage of the Great Patriotic War (WWII) around Berlin.

Other three points of interest are instead GDR-related. The first is the former academy for future leaders of the communist party, established in Wandlitz in the years of Stalin, and initially led by Erich Honecker, later to become the omnipotent leader of the GDR for two decades. In the same area north of Berlin – and precisely in Waldsiedlung, today a nice clinical campus in the countryside – are the former private houses of the members of the central committee of the communist party of the DDR – personalities like Walter Ulbricht, Erich Honecker, Erich Mielke and Egon Krenz lived here with their families. Finally, you will find a glimpse from the so-called ‘Honecker bunker’ in Prenden. This big and highly classified installation was prepared in case of war, to protect the leadership of the GDR and ensure safe communication with Moscow.

Photographs were taken in summer 2019 and 2021.

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Sights

Soviet 2nd Guard Tank Army Headquarters, Fürstenberg/Havel

Among the Soviet forces permanently stationed in the GDR in case of war, there used to be two entire tank armies, the 1st and 2nd. The former was headquartered in Dresden, whereas the 2nd – named ‘Red Banner’ – in Fürstenberg/Havel.

The headquarter in Fürstenberg is basically an old villa, possibly dating to the late 19th century or a slightly more recent time. The villa is somewhat unusual in the panorama of todays Fürstenberg. This is a nice and lively touristic town, where many Berliners come to find a retreat in nature, less than 1 hour driving from home. Thanks to tourism-related activities, the area has got rid of the Soviet/East German grayness, and is now a typical village in the German countryside, graced with a creek and a small lake, where canoes and small boats are always roaming around.

In stark contrast with this, the villa is today completely abandoned, with overgrown vegetation almost hiding it from the main road. Access to the premises is easier from the back, where you first meet a typical Soviet prefabricated wall, and service buildings with evidence of a communist design – the usual yellow paint and railings on the windows with the stylized ‘radiant dawn of communist revolution’.

Getting closer to the house, you meet an access door, possibly going to a bunkerized area underneath. The house is in a really bad shape, with rotting walls, plants growing on the balconies and roof. The inside has been made completely inaccessible. A typical East German light is still hanging from the back wall.

To the front, a temple-like decoration contours the main door. It is difficult to say whether this decoration was there since the beginning, since it appears rather different in style from the rest of the villa.

A highlight of this site is the statue of Lenin still standing ahead of the front facade. The statue is in a relatively good shape. It looks like the man was portrayed during a discussion.

The concrete sculpture was accurately made, as witnessed by the facial expression and details in the embroidery of the tie.

On the front side, the villa used to be reachable with a large flight of steps climbing uphill, with Lenin on top. Today this perspective is gone, for vegetation has totally invaded the steps, and the front of the house is not visible from the street.

Getting there and moving around

The villa is located in central Fürstenberg on Steinförder Strasse (possibly) 44, on the southern side of the road. The house and its large garden estate are abandoned, but all other houses around are not. Getting closer without being spotted is easier from the backstreet. Technically speaking, the latter is accessible for residents only, so you may park somewhere else and come closer by foot. Visiting may take about 30 minutes with time for the pictures, for the house is not accessible inside.

It should be remarked that this site is probably not public, and at an unpredictable time it may be either restored or demolished – so checking it out may be not possible for long.

Soviet Monument, Fürstenberg/Havel

A rare example of Soviet commemoration monument can be found very close to Fürstenberg. Apart from the monumental sites in Berlin (see here), a number of smaller Soviet monuments are to be found around the GDR – impressive ghosts of a bygone era.

Among the best preserved are that in the former tank base of Zeithain (see this post), and this one in Fürstenberg.

The monument is composed of two parts, basically two concrete curtains facing each other on the sides of a small apron.

The smaller panel to the south is the most intriguing. It is apparently a celebration of an economic plan of the Soviet Union. It is all about the growth in production in several areas of industry and farming, likely resulting from careful planning by the top of the Soviet government.

Between a citation from Lenin and a stylized image of the Kremlin, several panels cite one by one the increases in production of anything from oil to weapons, from milk to corn.

To the back of the monument, the only remaining feature is a remarkable head of Lenin, with yet another citation. It is likely that other features have been removed by vandals, as empty frames can be seen aligned along this face of the monument.

The larger panel to the north is a celebration of the march to Berlin during the Great Patriotic War, likely related to specific actions of the Guard Tank Armies. The central slab features an image of the Soviet monument in Treptower Park, Berlin – one the most famous commemorative monuments in the Soviet Union, as witnessed by numerous images to be found still today in many museums in the former USSR (see for instance here).

Close by, reproductions of decorations and captions of what happened on some days of 1944 and 1945 are reported.

On the left panel you can see a reproduction of the march to Berlin, from the battlegrounds in the USSR, through central Europe and Germany. It is likely that some metal parts of the monument once used to connect the ‘points of interest’, but these have disappeared due to vandalism.

On the right wing of the monument the names of Heroes of the Soviet Union possibly from the Guard Tank Armies are cited one by one. Close by, the image of the ‘Soviet Motherland Calling’, pretty usual in Soviet war iconography, can be found together with other typical emblems.

Getting there and moving around

This monument is not maintained nor protected. It is open air, unfenced and freely accessible. It will be hopefully restored or moved to a museum, as the weather and vandals are taking their tolls. It can be reached along the road 96 about 1 mile south of Fürstenberg, immediately to the west of the road. A small unofficial parking area can be found ahead of it, making a quick visit really easy.

Soviet Memorial and Cemetery, Rathenow

The Soviet memorial in Rathenow is one of a number of smaller military cemeteries for Soviet troops in the region around Berlin. Soviet soldiers perished in the area in the thousands in the final stage of WWII (1945), when the Red Army entered the northeastern part of todays Germany from Poland, pushing towards Berlin and fighting against the agonizing but still fierce German Wehrmacht.

Apart from the gigantic and formal monuments in Berlin (see this chapter), more modest shrines are scattered around the German capital city, all built roughly in the same period, between the end of the war in Europe and 1950, in the years of Stalin.

The Rathenow site is a small town cemetery, a proportionate, down-scaled version of its larger counterparts in Berlin – especially Schönholzer Heide (see here) – and can be found in the center of the sleepy town of Rathenow. A central obelisk with a commemoration plaque is topped by a golden five-pointed star, the symbol of the Red Army.

A number of soberly designed grave stones for as many Soviet troops are aligned in rows, creating an elegant perspective. Most of the graves bear complete names, as well as the birth and death years. Similar to the war cemeteries dating also from WWI (see for instance here and here), the very young age of most of the troops in the final struggle around Berlin is readily apparent.

Despite being fenced and of course not left in a state of disrepair, the green areas immediately outside of the perimeter of the monument in Rathenow are somewhat neglected, perhaps reflecting a fading interest for this monument.

Getting there and moving around

The Soviet monument in Rathenow can be reached at the crossing of Ferdinand Lassalle Str. with Friedrich Ebert Ring, in central Rathenow. The monument is very compact and can be toured in a few minutes.

Soviet Memorial and Cemetery, Blumberg

The monument in Blumberg, in the northern outskirts of Berlin and really close to town, is smaller than the one in Rathenow (see above), but shares the general arrangement with it.

A central pillar with a commemoration slab is surmounted in this case by a statue of a Soviet soldier, holding a Red Banner flag.

Ahead and around the pillar, gravestones put flat on the ground are aligned in a perspective. However, the overgrown vegetation is basically hiding these lines of tombs, so that even from a small distance the central monument appears as an isolated item, put in the middle of a grassy area.

Actually, the major difference with other monuments of the kind lies in the rather remoteness of the one in Blumberg. It is a listed historical landmark, and therefore at least minimally cared for, but on the other hand, it is located relatively far from todays nearest settlement, hidden in the trees, and out of sight for anybody except people going there specifically for it. This makes it rather mysterious, a silent memento of old memories.

Getting there and moving around

The monument is conveniently located just out of the A10 highway (the external ring of Berlin), in the settlement of Ahrensfelde. You may reach Chausseedreieck and drive to its western dead end, where you can conveniently park. From there a grassy path points south into the trees, and in less than 150 yards you will find the monument. The size of the monument is small, hence no further walking is needed. A mosquito repellent is highly recommended in the warm season.

Free German Youth Academy & Joseph Goebbels Manor, Wandlitz

Deep in the countryside about 25 miles north of Berlin, about 3 miles from the small touristic village of Wandlitz, you can find a couple of highlights from the troublesome past of Germany, sitting side by side, close to the small Bogensee lake.

The first is the country estate of Joseph Goebbels, the famous minister for education and propaganda in the years of the Nazi dictatorship. This villa has been built in the war years, and often used by its owner, also for receiving guests. Goebbels obtained the estate as a birthday present from the Nazi Party.

Incredibly, the manor, built in a typical German country style, was not demolished after the war – so unlike other residences belonging to Hitler or his fellows, it is still there to see. It survived denazification, Soviet occupation and 40 years in the GDR as part of a school (see below).

The outside is the only part you can see. The appearance is sober, with simple lines and not much vertical elevation – it nicely integrates in the natural setting.

Access to the courtyard is from a small road, now part of the inner network of the larger complex surrounding the manor.

This complex is actually the other peculiar item you can find in Wandlitz. This enormous academy was built in 1951, on behalf of the Free German Youth (FDJ), a youth-training organization founded and originally run by Erich Honecker, later to become the general secretary of the communist party of the GDR in the 1970s and 1980s.

The academy was designed by Hermann Henselmann the same architect who designed Karl-Marx-Allee in the Soviet sector of Berlin – one of the most iconic ‘Stalin’s-style’ perspectives in the world. The complex is composed of two large opposing buildings, on the short sides of an internal courtyard. These hosted common areas, lecture rooms and a theater.

Along the longer sides of the courtyard are buildings with bedrooms and services for around 500 students.

The academy was for the future staff of the communist party, and in later years of the Cold War it was attended also by international students from communism-leaning nations, or sometimes even from NATO countries.

Following the collapse of the GDR, the building went on hosting educational institutions until the early 2000s, owned by the regional government. It was then mostly shut off, with some ancillary buildings still hosting institutions connected with the administration of the natural preserve around. It was put up for sale, for a while, but all potential customers failed to present satisfactory conversion plans. An expensive and inconvenient ghost from a forgotten era, as of 2019 its fate has not been sealed yet.

Today the place is not completely abandoned. Basic preservation works are being carried out, thus avoiding the roof to collapse or the walls to rotten. The names of the blocks are likely not from the GDR years. Similarly, a board with notices and maps dating from later than 1989 can still be seen, a witness of the post-GDR activity.

The garden is not growing totally wild, and some architectural addition must have been tried in a recent past – like a small modern fountain ahead of the common building to the southwest of the complex. The buildings are still supplied with electrical power – there are lit lights above some doors – and it is discretely guarded to avoid vandalism.

Getting there and moving around

Accessing the area is possible following the L29 from Wandlitz. About 1 mile from the village, the road changes its name to Wandlitzer Strasse. There is a local road with limited access taking to the east. You may park there, and proceed along the road by foot for about .5 miles to reach the heart of the complex. This is surrounded by private houses. There is no fence, but there are proximity sensors which trigger an inspection. I was reached by a warden on a car soon after my arrival. He spotted me, but did not come close, likely noticing I was just taking pictures outside.

The site is rather mysterious and well worth a quick visit for interested subjects. Touring the site will not take more than 45 minutes, taking all the pictures.

Private Homes of the Members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the GDR, Waldsiedlung

Similar to other top-ranking figures in the Soviet chain of command – like Stalin and others in his communist entourage, who did not spend much of their time in public or close to crowded places in central Moscow – the masters of the communist party in the GDR had their homes in the trees north of Berlin, relatively far from the city center and from the governmental buildings.

Actually, many of them lived together in a rather compact residential district, called Waldsiedlung. Access to the area was obviously controlled, but once inside the place was somewhat similar to a holiday settlement, with smaller single or two-family houses located along quiet alleys in a rural setting. The architecture is far from lavish – all houses are very similar to one another, and are designed in a plain typically East-German style from the post-WWII era.

Today, the settlement in Waldsiedlung has been converted into a campus for clinical studies. However, the original architecture of the place has been left mostly untouched, and explanatory panels telling quick information about the history of the residence have been planted ahead of most of the housing once occupied by old communist big brasses.

The office by the gate, and the metal gate itself, are totally original, as can be seen from historical pictures.

Among the first buildings past the gate is a former congress center/clubhouse/gathering facility for the inhabitants of the residence.

Moving on to the northern part of the settlement, the modest house of Erich Honecker and his wife Margot can be easily found. The two-storey construction has a patio on the backyard. A mystery wooden hut can be found next to the latter.

The Honeckers were forced to leave this house in the turmoil following the collapse of the wall and the starting of the reunification process. Honecker fled to the Soviet Union in seek for protection, quickly departing from the Soviet base in Sperenberg (see here). He was trialed in absentia, in connection to the order issued to the GDR border guards to used deadly force against people trying to pass the ‘anti-fascist wall’, and the ensuing deaths. He remained in the USSR until also that dictatorship collapsed, and he was forced to escape to South America, where he died soon after.

To the far end of the same alley is the house of Walter Ulbricht and his wife Lotte. Somewhat larger than Honecker’s house, it is however not much more evolved in adornments or architectural fantasy.

On another alley, parallel to the previous one, is also the house of Erich Mielke, the uncontested head of the ill-famed STASI, since its early years to the end.

The man was captured and trialed for an old case of homicide, after the shut-off of the STASI monstrous machine. He died soon after.

Today even these smaller buildings have been converted for a new function in the clinical campus. Therefore, they cannot be toured inside. However, strolling in this inconspicuous, quiet village where a huge concentration of power used to be seated, provides a strange feeling.

Getting there and moving around

The Brandenburg Clinic, which has now taken over the Waldsiedlung residence for the members of the GDR government, is on the road N.273, between Bernau and Wandlitz. The clinic in Waldsiedlung is rather busy, and the parking ahead of it may be crowded. However, since the place is guarded and access regulated, that is the only credible parking option also for a historically-themed visit. You can access the area by foot undisturbed, and take photographs of the exteriors. There are explanatory panels ahead of many of the former residential homes.

Honecker Bunker, Prenden

Geographically very close to the academy in Wandlitz (see above) – less than 1 straight mile away – the bunker in Prenden is the central piece of a network of bunkers and military hardware, designed an built on behalf of the National Defense Council (NVR) of the GDR from 1973 onward, and named ‘komplex 5000’. The purpose was protection of the leadership of the GDR in case of a crisis or attack from the West.

The bunker is Prenden, technically listed as ’17/5001′, was a control center of incredible sophistication, designed to withstand nuclear blasts, and with direct communication with other sub-nodes of a larger communication network, thus granting safe communication and broadcasting ability, allowing to lead the country in case of a crisis. The bunker was intended to host the general secretary of the communist party, i.e. Erich Honecker, when the bunker was commissioned in 1983 – hence the unofficial name ‘Honecker bunker’.

The premises of Prenden are now largely in private hands, but some parts are apparently publicly accessible – the original fence has been completely torn down. The bunker itself is sealed, and can be accessed only on a few days per year with a guide.

The official entrance to the area is through the original GDR-made gate. This is closed however, for it is now the entrance to a small private industrial complex.

Traces of the original fence, as well as piping and vents for underground rooms, can be found around the hill on top of which the installation is standing.

Some service buildings in typical communist style can be still found, despite demolition works having taken place. Proximity sensors and signs delimit the private property area.

The three-storey building on the southwestern corner of the complex used to be the ‘front office’ of the bunker. Today, it is in a really bad shape.

Inside, traces of the original furniture and services can still be found, albeit much deteriorated.

Access to the bunker is on the underground floor. You may notice the prison-like railings ahead of the access stairs. A feature that might make you jump when you are exploring alone – if walking in a forgotten communist government building, deep in the silent German countryside, was not enough… – is the lit bulb hanging over the entrance to the bunker – really unexpected!

Besides the building, a shelter-garage for trucks and cars is still in a relatively good shape.

Getting there and moving around

The Prenden bunker is not publicized, but it can be neared easily with a car, about 1 mile south of the small village of Prenden, along Utzdorfer Strasse. The gate can be clearly spotted, but it will be likely closed, and there are obvious ‘no trespassing’ signs and labels of private companies. You may park outside and proceed along the side of the property to the back of it, where the abandoned building mentioned above can be found. Whether this is still on private land or not is not very clear. There are proximity sensors between the abandoned building and the rest of the complex, likely to trigger inspection if you get too close to the (surely) private part of the complex.

Venturing in the building is definitely not safe, and the bunker entrance is usually closed. Official visits to the bunker are possible on guided tours arranged irregularly about once per month (please browse the internet for more info on visiting, cause I could not find an official site of the place to link here).