The New Life of a Soviet Base in Germany – Ribnitz-Damgarten

Most Soviet bases in the former territory of the German Democratic Republic met with oblivion following the departure of their Red Army tenants back to mainland Russia, in the early 1990s.

Most locations – including full scale airbases (see here, here or here), infantry academies and shooting ranges (see here) and nuclear warhead bunkers (see here) – have been returned to nature, demolished or converted into something else. Much on this website documents this hidden part of the Cold War heritage in Germany.

However, there exist exceptions, like the airbase of Grossenhain with its preserved Granit-type bunker (see here), or the central Soviet headquarters of Wünsdorf (see here).

Another notable exception is that of the former Third Reich, and later Soviet, airbase of Ribnitz-Damgarten. Following an exploration in a day of closure in 2016 (documented here), the site was visited again legit, this time accessing the unique Museum of Technology of Pütnitz. The museum collection is very nice in itself, covering both civil and military vehicles from the DDR age, as well as heavy Soviet military vehicles, and even a few boats and aircraft from the Eastern bloc.

The museum is hosted in a complex of hangars dating from the years of the Third Reich, when the airbase of Ribnitz was active for experimenting with seaplanes, and busy with a facility of the Heinkel aircraft manufacturing company. These concrete hangars are still standing today, undoubtedly an example of German engineering excellence.

The Soviets made good use of this facility, and Ribnitz-Damgarten became a very active base on the Baltic coast for the full span of the Cold War – until the withdrawal of the then-Russian troops, who used this airport as the springboard for their final hop to their new home in Russia.

A further reason to pay a visit to Ribnitz-Damgarten is the chance to assist to the one-of-a-kind reunion and live exhibition of preserved vehicles from the Soviet bloc. Held in the summer, this ‘Treffen’ (i.e. reunion) is really worth the effort of setting up a trip, even when visiting from abroad. It is a multi-day event, and possibly the largest meeting of aficionados of cars, motorcycles and trucks from the communist world, with the chance to see all this good old technology at work, i.e. spitting and thick-smoking, all around the base. Chance is that you will drive on the original Soviet runway to reach the event parking!

Besides this yearly event, the museum offers live demonstrations of military vehicles on a more regular schedule.

The present post and photographs cover a visit to the Technology Museum of Pütnitz in occasion of the reunion of Eastern Europe vehicles held in late August 2021.

Sights

Museum of Technology of Pütnitz

The museum of Pütnitz has taken over the hangars of the old Third Reich base to the west of the airfield of Ribnitz-Damgarten. These hangars are pretty interesting from an architectural standpoint. By using large and curved concrete frames, the inside volume is extremely big for the time. As a matter of fact, they were kept in use for decades, since they could match the size of larger aircraft and vehicles of the Cold War.

These hangars are just a handful, but complemented by smaller (regular size…) hangars they provide for a very large display area, wisely adopted by the museum for its exhibits.

One of the hangars is dedicated to the NVA, i.e. of the Armed Forces of the former GDR. Among the many artifacts on display, are a MiG-21 fighter, the skeleton of an Antonov An-2 transport, and a Mil-8 helicopter. The latter has been placed in a suspended position, with a mechanism to rotate its rotors!

In the same hangar you can find a pretty extensive collection of light armored vehicles, technical amphibious vehicles as well as full-scale tanks formerly in use with the NVA in different stages of the Cold War.

A smaller area is dedicated to a display of NVA uniforms, GDR emblems and medals, uniforms of youth organizations within the GDR, as well as detailed scale models of war material in the arsenal of the USSR or the GDR over the years.

A second smaller hangar hosts trucks of Soviet make, formerly used by – presumably – the NVA. Some are especially interesting, since they were used as missile transports, and are on display with their original trailers and… payload! Also trucks transporting Soviet-made radar antennas, for air target capture or anti-aircraft missile guidance, are on display.

To the back of the same hangar, a super-interesting collection of material connected with nuclear warfare is on display. In particular, field instrumentation for measuring radiation levels, dosimeters, anti-radiation suits and masks, specific medical kits are part of this rich and uncommon exhibition.

Some of the measurement equipment is still working, with old-fashioned, low-light electronic displays still lit – really an evoking sight from the Cold War era!

Yet in another hangar, a huge collection of GDR cars and motorcycles is on display. Most of these now vintage cars and vehicles used to be a rather common sight in the GDR. The now iconic Trabant was a product of the GDR. However, many other car manufacturers existed in the Eastern Bloc, and in the USSR as well, and their products were often exported to other Countries in the bloc.

Stately cars for the top-ranking communist leadership were usually Soviet-made. You can find a small gallery of these Cold War icons in a corner of the same hangar, ahead of giant portraits of the SED (the ruling party of the GDR) leaders – Ulbricht, Honecker, Krenz.

To the back of the hangar, classic motorcycles from the Eastern Bloc are on display. They include MZ motorcycles in use with the Völkspolizei, the police of the GDR. A sizable collection of cameras is also on display.

In the same hangar are a reconstruction of a gas station, as well as a crop-dusting propeller aircraft.

Notably, you can spot fading writings in Russian on the walls of this hangar, an heritage of the Soviet tenancy of the airbase.

Some museum items are on display outside. Some of the military vehicles in the collection are still in working conditions. Live demonstrations of tanks and armored transports are regularly planned, and make for a nice sight and a thrilling experience!

Soviet Relics

Despite having being taken over by the museum and other commercial activities, the premises of the old Soviet airbase of Ribnitz-Damgarten betray the long decades of Soviet use. Besides the relics you can find scattered around in the airfield (see here for a previous exploration), very close to the museum hangars you can spot several technical buildings belonging to the base, and now basically abandoned.

On the side facade of one of those, a colossal Soviet emblem can still be seen, albeit now fading.

Signs written in Russian can be spotted here and there, as well as an original, very interesting full scheme of the base (in Russian too), a typical sight in any Soviet base.

Now-rotting buildings for the base staff can be found emerging from the overgrown vegetation to the north of the hangars.

Finally, the runway is still in a good shape, albeit cut to the east to make room to yet another solar power plant – with a really questionable function, considering the rainy weather physiologically insisting on the region most of the year. The original centerline and other markings can be clearly seen still today.

The airport is closed, but since the runway has not been taken away, perhaps some hope remains for a future with at least general aviation activities, like in Rechlin or Finow.

International Reunion of Vehicles of the Eastern Bloc

Perhaps among the busiest days of the museum in Pütnitz, those of the ‘Internationales Ostblock-Fahrzeugtreffen’ (which translates into the title of this paragraph) make for one of the most exciting occasions for a visit. Usually taking three days, this colossal reunion hosts roughly 2.000 vehicles, from cars to trucks, from farm tractors to motorcycles, from side-cars to firefighting vehicles, and from 4×4 military transports to camping trailers – all made on the communist side of the Iron Curtain!

The reunion is international, and many come from beyond the near border with Poland. In 2021 the reunion hit its 20th edition.

All vehicles are parked in virtually any lot of flat land between and around the hangars of the museum, including the original taxiways and any grassy areas around.

Furthermore, besides some official movements and parade, you will see vehicles moving around at any time, with their very characteristic good old piston engine crackling sound, as well as much spitting and thick-smoking!

Besides the countless Trabants, built in several different versions you will come to discover, chance is to see massive Soviet GAZ military trucks, or even Hungary-built Ikarus buses!

The ‘Treffen’ of 2021 was especially unlucky with the weather, which on the plus side allowed many vehicles to show their all-weather capability!

To better appreciate the noise and smoke, have a look to these three videos!

Visiting

The Museum of Technology in Pütnitz allows you to access the otherwise inaccessible base of Ribnitz-Damgarten. Access is recommended by car. The entrance is to the northeast of the airfield, through the original gate of the airbase. The museum has a website here.

Visiting in normal conditions, i.e. out of any special event, may take about 1 hour, more for a piston-power-minded subject, or for military/vehicles enthusiasts. In occasion of the vehicle reunion, planning a half-day visit at least is recommended, since the display of vehicles is really huge and worth a careful glance. A talk with many nice owners and enthusiasts may be a further plus in this occasion.

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 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. Plans for reopening it as a convention center are apparently consolidated in 2022, but renovation works are going on still at very low pace.

Most recently, a small but well-designed, mainly pictorial exhibition has been located in the old terminal building, retracing with beautiful historical pictures, technical schemes and essential explanations the history of Tempelhof Airport.

Pictures from the year 2015 – but luckily not much had changed in 2022, the date of my latest visit – 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. Most recently, a branch of the Allied Museum in Berlin has taken responsibility for a preservation effort, and 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.