Vogelsang – Soviet Nuclear Base in the GDR

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‘The lost city of Vogelsang’ – this is the complete name often attributed to this former Soviet installation built under Stalin’s rule in 1952, located about 35 miles north of Berlin in the former territory of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR, or DDR in German). Actually, the base was among the first three of the kind in size, housing about 15.000 Soviet troops of tank and artillery divisions, service staff and their families – much more residents than the majority of ‘normal’ cities in the region.

In the case of Vogelsang, two facts add to the usual grim aura of a deserted Soviet base.

Firstly, it was never much publicized among the locals, being large enough to contain all services needed by the troops and their families – it was basically a ‘secret base’. The trees now invading all free areas between the skeletons of the remaining buildings were not there until the early Nineties, when Russian troops left the former territory of the GDR – during 1994. Yet even when it was active, the place was hidden from the eyes of those passing by, thanks to the very rich vegetation. Its very location, pretty far away from everything, surely helped in shrouding it into secrecy.

Secondarily, at least in one instance in recent history, in the years of Khrushchev, of the latest Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, this place was used for the deployment of an arsenal of strategic missiles pointing to European targets, reportedly in core Europe and Britain. Much confusion exists about dates and many details are missing – the deployment was so secret that even the government of the GDR didn’t know about it, so the existence of the base and its role are a somewhat ‘inconvenient reminder’ of the recent past for Germany. Today this base is still really hard to spot.

Anyway, I visited the site several times between 2016 and 2020, and I took the following photographs. While from the sequence of my visits it is apparent that the installation is quickly decaying, thanks to the combined action of the government and of ignorant writers, both showing a bothering null respect for history, there is still something left to see. I give also some basic info for getting to this site on your own.

Getting there and moving around

The village of Vogelsang can be reached by car from downtown Berlin in about 1 h 30 min – the road distance is about 40 miles, but a substantial part of the itinerary follows local roads, resulting in a pretty long time needed. Be careful when pointing your nav, for there are several towns named ‘Vogelsang’ in Germany. This one is in Brandenburg, located north of Berlin, along the road 109. The closest major town is Zehdenick, a few miles to the south of Vogelsang on the same road 109.

As usual with military bases, there is a railway track reaching Vogelsang, and getting there by train is of course possible. During my stay I heard the whistle of various trains passing there – even though I noticed only a very small station and nobody around, so possibly there’s no ticketing service. I noticed the scheduled time for arriving by train from Berlin is identical to that needed moving with a car. If you don’t want to be forced to stick to timetables, I suggest going by car.

Once there, I parked my car on the grass close to the only crossroad in town – where the 109 is crossed by Burgwaller Strasse. I parked behind the info table – there is obviously no info on the base, just about ‘regular’ nature trails in the area. Nobody complained about me parking there, and I found my car intact about six hours later…

Burgwaller Strasse crosses the railway and heads straight into the ‘zone’. Please note that soon after crossing the railway a) the road is not paved any more, b) there are prohibition signs about vehicle traffic, so you can’t go further with a car.

For moving around you will need an electronic map and possibly a GPS, cause the site is huge, and the area is covered with trees and vegetation, and many former roads are not visible any more, so getting lost is pretty easy. Moreover, from Google maps you can’t spot much from above, because of the trees. This makes a GPS + map of the site very important for the particular case of this site, differently from other bases.

I used my iPhone and it worked perfectly. Just install the free Ulmon (aka CityMaps2Go) app (app website here) and download the offline Brandenburg map – this provides an incredible detail. Furthermore, there is a strong Internet signal over most of the base – strangely enough, the area is well covered.

Anyway, if you don’t want to depend on the Internet once there, you can pinpoint the places you are more interested in on the offline Ulmon map before going – I did also this as a backup, cause I didn’t know whether Internet would be working.

I suggest not to overlook this point. Thinking back, I would have hardly made it without a cell phone with a GPS + map. You have to walk in the trees quite a bit before reaching any buildings. The trees hide everything and you can easily get disoriented – wasting much time moving around. Everything is solved with a GPS and a good map.

Over five visits, I spent almost 20 hours touring the place. During my first visit (lasting about 6 hours), I just concentrated on the southernmost part of it, which is of course the richest in remains, electing not to reach the launch pads closer to the village of Beutel (see this chapter). On that first visit, I walked approximately 11 miles standing to my iPhone, so be ready to walk. Even though there are no great physical barriers for moving around, the place is really abandoned and vegetation is wild. Probably you will need to walk in nettles and brambles at some point, so choose your clothes and shoes carefully.

On the plus side, you will see much wildlife!

Many interesting sights are outdoor, some are indoor. As usual, all abandoned buildings, except perhaps the nuclear storage bunkers that are very sturdy, must be considered dangerous. You should observe through the windows or enter at your own risk.

Sights

Missile Launch Pad

This is the southernmost, isolated launch pad on the site. You can see a concrete platform at the level of the ground about 20 feet long, with metal holding points. It was used to anchor missile-carrying trucks before tilting the missile canister vertical and preparing for launch. It is highly probable that the missile system intended to be installed here was the R5 ‘Pobeda’, NATO codename SS-3 ‘Shyster’. The relatively small range of this missile is in support of a deployment in a region so close to the border with european NATO Countries (see this chapter also for a general map of the missile installations in this area).

The road leading to the missile pad and from there to the main complex of the base today is barely visible. Traces of a barbed wire fence, delimiting the external perimeter of the base, can be found here, together with a network of trenches and dips once needed for the missile launch system (which included technical trailers with generators, control system panels, …).

The territory of the base is scattered with tokens from their former owners, from mugs to batteries, to military material of all sorts.

Southeastern Inner Access Post

Walking along the barbed wire fence from the missile launch pads to the core of the base, you will come across a long concrete wall. Soviet bases are often divided into sealed sectors. Access to the ‘service part’ of the base, with living quarters, schools, … was past this wall. The gate has disappeared, but you can find traces of it where the wall is interrupted and a concrete-paved road points into it. A cage for watchdogs can be found close to this checkpoint.

In a first building for the guards, with window railings, look for Russian writings even on the ground.

Buildings by the entrance post include a garage with writings in Cyrillic, with an apron for maneuvering trucks or cars. On the cranes inside the garage, you can find inscriptions by the Soviet troops occupying the base. Leaving this type of ‘autograph’ was typical for Soviet troops (see for instance the traces left in the theater of bases in Poland, here).

Nearby the entrance, a clubhouse, visitor center, or something alike can be found, with a pleasant architecture – large windows and a bar.

Entertainment Quarters

Two main buildings here, a movie theater and a clubhouse.

The theater is still in good shape. Some of the original lights and traces of the performance program board can be seen outside.

The road leading to the front entrance is still visible, but the façade is not imposing any more, for trees are now hiding it.

Signs and propaganda posters in Cyrillic alphabet and with photos can be spotted here and all around the base.

The café, with an original banner in Cyrillic, can be spotted to the left of the theater, close by a small warehouse with a loading platform.

Some kitchen furniture and gear can be still spotted around.

Between the theater and café buildings, you can find an incredible Soviet sculpture. The most striking feature you can see in the pics is a portrait of Lenin!

The Lenin panel was moved in 2017 to a Soviet-themed museum in Wünsdorf (see this dedicated chapter about this incredible place and its museum). The rest of the mural was there as of 2019, still reasonably resisting to the weather and spoilers.

Mural monuments are among the most interesting features of Vogelsang. Not far from this base, you can find another example of these Soviet creations described in this chapter.

Children School

This is rather creepy – even the curtains are still in place on some windows…! On the ground floor you can access a small gym.

Much of the heating system – made in Germany – is still in place.

On the first floor some very interesting murals can be easily spotted, together with traces of a small theater and special classrooms for language teaching and other purposes.

Soldiers Sports Ground

This has been turned into a corn field. Something of the original tribunes still stay, with original decoration made from parts of machinery I guess.

Water/Heating Plant

A small water pumping/heating plant occupies a building nearby the gym (see next section). Traces of the original hardware can be found, with writing in Russian.

Also a small living room, likely belonging to a technician looking after plant, is part of this small construction. Traces of the original curtains are still there! Unofficial writing in Cyrillic can be found on the concrete wall making for a small backyard to the plant.

Soldiers Gym

Very creepy! Gym apparel, subscription forms, record boards and gym gear still around…

To the back you can spot a former Turkish bath with no roof and trees in it.

Soldiers Barracks

There are pretty many buildings of the same kind aligned along a still visible concrete paved road between the school and the training center. Many of these buildings look like being close to collapsing. Some interesting halls and various items can be found in some of them.

Soldiers Canteens & Training Center

There are various canteens and entertainment centers scattered over the territory of the base.

Some nice murals in pure Russian naïve style can be found in some of the buildings. Some of the halls are very very large.

Among the most notable features in Vogelsang, a peculiar tank simulator and a small but very deep pool, for training purposes, can still be found in a dedicated training building.

Unfortunately the door appears to be blocked by a collapsed roof or something, but you can reach or at least see the features of interest through broken windows.

Base Headquarter

The headquarter of the soviet base in Vogelsang sit in a two-levels building with an imposing facade. Today you can see the remnants of a porter’s office, giving access to the main staircase.

Climbing to the upper floor, you reach a hall with a wooden canopy. Two corridors leading to the offices of the military staff depart from there.

From a 2020 visit, this building has taken a particularly rotting appearance, and maybe it is not going to last for long.

Mural of Soviet Triumphs & Soviet Soldier, plus Buildings Nearby

This is an incredible mural, about 60 feet long, with various symbolic scenes – army power, technology and agriculture, family and helpful society and housing for everybody.

A collection of Soviet emblems follows. This mural contributes greatly to the uniqueness of Vogelsang in the panorama of Soviet bases!

Turning your head 90 degrees to the right from this mural, you will see an artistically pleasant giant head of soldier, embossed on the side of a building. Differently from the mural nearby, this is of some artistic value. The head was still there during my next visits, even though writers have attacked the base of the wall where it is standing, and the plaster is starting to fail. Who knows how long this old guardian will stand, recalling the past splendor of Soviet Vogelsang with his sad expression?

Close by, it is possible to find scant remains of other propaganda gears, like a three-steps stand for speaking, a bigger one in the shape of a Red Banner flag made in concrete and bricks, and an adjoining painted mural with planes, ships and soldiers. Unique!

In this area you can find also some service buildings in a relatively good shape. Among other things, there is a (likely) central laundry, with (possibly) ironing machines still in place.

Still in the area, some buildings appear to host small apartments. As usual in Soviet bases, Pravda and other news adorn the walls – they were used to hang wallpaper, but this has largely gone today, and old news have faced again. Just reading the publication dates and titles, or looking at the pics, can be really intriguing.

Some of the buildings hosted nearby the mural hosted technical services, like boilers for centralized hot water supply, or similar. You may spend some time exploring this area, finding some curious rooms – and even a well preserved sauna!

Underground Cellar with Mural

An interesting sight for braver – maybe crazier – explorers can be found in the underground cellar, in the basement of a canteen building, among the service buildings just described.

There a big plaster (?) mural can be found, painted in bright colors, with missiles, soldiers, the Kremlin in Moscow and a huge red banner with hammer and sickle! The state of conservation is exceptionally good.

Also very interesting are the inscriptions left by troops stationed at Vogelsang, apparently coming from districts like Kishinev (now Chisinau, Moldova), Chelyabinsk (Russia), Krim (Crimea), Yakkabag (Uzbekistan), Donbass (Ukraine) – all around the USSR! The years reported range between 1989 and 1990. The mural might date from just little earlier, hence it may be relatively new, justifying its still good condition.

It is not a long walk from the surface, you just need to descend a short flight of stairs. The only thing is that the cellar is flooded, so you will need to explore it moving around in a kind of pool of clean but cold water, reaching up to your crotch! A good torchlight is mandatory. Other adjoining rooms display further inscriptions in Cyrillic.

Mirage Mural & Most Peripheral Buildings

A painted portrait of a Mirage 2000 was made on the back of a fence wall not far north from the mural of the Soviet triumphs, close to a watchtower. A data sheet in cyrillic alphabet is painted besides, and another aircraft is visible on another part of the wall.

Pretty curious about the choice of the Mirage, among all ‘enemy aircraft’ of Western powers. May be this was just the beginning of a gallery of portraits? As of 2019, I could not find this any more, maybe it is now gone.

As a matter of fact, this corner of the base is now close to an area to the north end of the base, where demolition works have stricken hard, flattening huge lots once occupied by many more buildings.

On the border of the surviving group of buildings, you can find some interesting items, including a garage, and another 3D monument, on the side of a secluded flat area now invaded by vegetation, which might have been a square or a small outdoor sporting facility.

Northeastern Gate Area and Defense Bunker

On the northeastern corner of this major remaining part of the base, just north of the school and theater you can find traces of a kind of park, with a network of walkways sided with hedges. Today, the plants used for hedging are overgrown, but you can still clearly recognize the original patterns. Furthermore, there are street lamps still standing an showing the way!

On the northern end of this once pleasant area, you can find a half-interred bunker. The entrances are bricked up, so you can’t get in. Considering the position, close to service buildings for everyone in the base, like canteens, gym, school, etc., this bunker might have been a defense bunker for the people of the base, in case of an attack.

A lonely gate and fragments of the wall surrounding this sector of the base can be found not far from here, a rather evoking sight.

Bunkers for Nuclear Warheads

These are located to the south-west of the base, pretty far from the living quarters and training centers, and closer to the limit fence of the and to the road and railway. A long concrete-paved road connects these two sections of the base.

Two bunkers can still be seen. They are very large and covered with land and vegetation. They have security gates at both ends. On one end, there are cranes probably for moving the nuclear warheads between trucks and the bunker. On the other end there is a small service building, attached to the side of the bunker.

The ventilation system is huge, with large openings, valves and extensive piping.

At the time of my first visit one of the two bunkers could be entered with no difficulty by the back gate. The thickness of the gate is impressive. Inside there are multiple interconnected cellars running along the main axis of the bunker, separated by walls and gates. Approaching the other end, where the entry gate to the crane area is blocked closed, there are rooms and ventilation control gears.

The inside of the bunker is very dark, but surprisingly it is far less wet than expected. Probably at least the construction layers for climate control are still working properly.

Since 2017, both bunkers are closed, but as you can see from the pics below, the exterior is still basically intact. Writings in Russian can be found on the gates of the bunkers.

Scattered around the bunkers are some guard turrets overseeing the area, walls enclosing it in a perimeter, as well as protected entrances to some subterranean passages. In front of the blocked entrance of the bunker you can walk in, there is a mystery wall of ceramic brick, whose function I can’t guess.

Warning: in the area between the two bunkers I almost stepped on much dangerous debris, like pieces of rusty barbed wire and similar items. Carefully watch your step.

North of the bunkers a large garage for trucks can be found. The bunkers just described were for warheads only. The missiles used to be stored in dedicated bunkers, once located besides the trucks depot (trucks were used to take the trailers carrying the missiles to the launch pad).

These missile storage buildings have been partly demolished, leaving some concrete slabs once making for a pavement. Some further bunkers have been interred (filled with land). I took some pics from the top of these old halls, by letting the camera down a loophole on the rooftop.

Cutting from the bunkers directly south to the road going back to the village, you cross the former perimeter of the base. From the inside you cross a wall, two lines of poles with traces of barbed wire, and a ditch. Thinking back, mines might have been buried between the two lines of barbed wire…

Southeastern Corner and Carved Graffiti

An incredible testimony of the people once occupying the base came as a surprise during a short detour in the trees from one of the major roads crossing the base, approaching the southeastern corner of its large premises. A group of graffiti carved in the trees by the presumably young Soviet soldiers stationed there, totally in Cyrillic with names and year, left a vivid trace of archaeological value in this region of Germany. Some inscriptions date back to the 1960s!

Approaching the railway track an unusual parking can be spotted, where only the lights are still in place. Totally disproportioned to the size of the town, it was probably connected with the military base, and is now deserted. A now dead railway crossing can be found too.

Final Comments

You can’t see anything unusual at a glance when passing by the very small village of Vogelsang. To say it all, you can hardly spot todays village itself – a handful of small houses along the main road.

This would be good for urban explorers and war historians, as it should protect what remains from writers and other spoilers. Paradoxically, it is not protecting the site from disappearing at a quick pace, as the German government is reportedly promoting reforestation in the area, and buildings are being demolished little by little.

It is a pity, for this former base is rich of examples of Soviet ‘art’ and of other very rare artifacts, which after all are now part of history, and perhaps should deserve more consideration.

Since my first visit some years ago, some buildings to the north have been demolished, and the bunkers closed forever. Ignorant writers and spoilers are taking their toll, too. In 2020 there were huge construction trucks and teams with heavy machinery working in the northwestern part of the base. Recent updates from fellow explorers reported that not much remains of the northwestern part of the base. Remarkably, the mural with the Soviet soldier has been demolished, and so the painted underground cellar, between 2020 and 2022.

This was partly expected, but as of 2022 it looks like we are getting close to the point when the present chapter will be a memento of what used to be in Vogelsang. There is still something left to check out there, but possibly not even such to justify a specific tour and the inconvenience of reaching this wild destination.

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.

Except for the wall, the above description applies with slight variants to all the length of the Inner Border.

The net used for the fences was very stiff and conceived to avoid fingers passing through, this way making climbing very difficult.

A peculiar aspect of the wall in Modlareuth is a small door in it. That was a service door for border patrols, used to access the area between the border line in the middle of the creek and the wall itself, for servicing or arresting Westerners. This happened more than once, not only here – as a matter of fact, walking past the border from the West was as easy as walking past the little creek where the border line passed. This was in all respects entering the GDR, even though the fortification line was about 30 feet further into the East. When this happened you could expect to be rapidly arrested and kept for interrogation before eventually being released in most cases. Servicing, like cutting trees and so on, in the strip between the wall and the real border was reportedly a task for very enthusiastic Communist troops, as escaping to the West from there was again as easy as a leaping past a narrow creek…

The road crossing the border in Mödlareuth is not active any more and is part of the open air exhibition. Actually the former customs house hosts the ticket office. Along the former road it is possible to observe an example of car stopping devices and original ‘stop’ and ‘no-trespassing’ signs.

The area was dominated by watchtowers. There are two in Mödlareuth, one original and inaccessible, the other probably cut in height. Both are of a relatively recent model, with a distinctive round section.

Going to the two main buildings of the museum it is possible to find other interesting items, including models of the site, and pieces of hardware like a