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Soviet Ghosts in Germany
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For war historians and urban explorers Wünsdorf does not need any further presentation – a central place in the military history of the 20th century, famous for the many abandoned military buildings, from stately headquarters to interred bunkers. The name of this small town appears even in the very modern and interesting Military Museum of Dresden, where it is easy to find an original sign – in double alphabet – from the time when Wünsdorf hosted the Soviet military headquarters in the communist German Democratic Republic.
This report is based on photographs I took in spring 2017 in Zossen and Wünsdorf during a customized visit to the place I arranged with a local guide. For visiting information scroll down to the bottom of the page.
History – in brief
The small town of Wünsdorf, about 15 miles south of Berlin, has a serious military tradition, dating back at least to the beginning of the 20th century. At that time a large military complex with many barracks was set up by the order of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II – a central player in WWI – in the neighbor town of Zossen.
To this ‘Belle Époque’ era belongs part of the housing still in place today, as well as some of the largest and most aesthetically pleasant buildings in town. Among them, a former training camp for athletes of the army, and some big command buildings.
Following the dawn of the Nazi era, the place gained further relevance, with the institution of the German Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, also known as ‘Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’, or ‘OKW’ in brief. This was presided by general Wilhelm Keitel for all the duration of WWII, and represented the ‘top of the pyramid’ in terms of military decisions, as general Keitel reported directly to Hitler.
The staff of the OKW could be accommodated in purpose-built bunkers here, designed to withstand severe air bombing action, as well as to be disguised as normal country houses from above. These were known as the ‘Maybach bunkers’.
Besides bunkers for housing military personnel, a large communication bunker, known as ‘Zeppelin bunker’, was built to the purpose of connecting the brain of all military operations with the various divisions scattered over Europe and fighting on more war fronts.
When WWII finally came to an end, the Soviets captured the region, and that was the onset of a full new chapter in the history of the town. The reference name ‘Zossen’ was dropped in favor of ‘Wünsdorf’. The area of the two villages was totally cut-off by a 17 km wall, guarded with a top security level. Inside, housing for around 40,000 staff was prepared in subsequent stages, adding many purely Soviet-style residential buildings to what was still in place from before and during the Nazi era.
The supreme command of all Soviet forces in the occupied territory of Germany – to become the German Democratic Republic, or ‘GDR’, in 1949 – was installed here. All four branches of the Soviet armed forces had their respective headquarters in a corresponding sector of the ‘prohibited citadel’, with inner walls dividing the four areas. These headquarters controlled more than 200,000 troops stationed in the GDR until the early Nineties.
The Soviets tried to blow up the Maybach bunkers, with some success, and also the Zeppelin bunker, with no success. They developed it into an nuclear-proof installation, and added two further bunkers, for controlling military operations – including all air patrolling ones – in real time over the territory of the GDR, and along the crucial border with the Federal Republic and the Western world. Similarly to WWII, once again Wünsdorf was the main stage of crucial decisions for the full span of the Cold War.
The year 1989 marked the beginning of the end for this military town, with the reunification of the GDR with the Federal Republic and the end of the Cold War. All Soviet forces stationed in Germany – about 500,000 people, including troops and their families -, soon to become Russian forces in 1993 with the collapse of the communist regime in the USSR, began a well-coordinated retreat back to their mother Country, leaving Wünsdorf in September 1994.
Since then, the huge housing is largely uninhabited – the current population having dropped to about 4,000 – and the stately buildings built by the order of the Kaiser are deserted. Nonetheless, differently from other former military bases left to nature or converted into something else, the regional government of Brandenburg has formally taken over the property, which is not totally abandoned, nor in an irreversible state of disrepair, with the aim of selling it or transforming it into a museum.
Up to now, the place is still in the hands of the regional government, and specialized tours can be arranged with a local society of enthusiasts.
This site is really huge, with countless remains and interesting places to see. My visit took just about 5.5 hours, I think you would really need 1 day – and possibly more – to cover all features with enough time to both learn about the history and take good pictures of everything interesting! Here I will present a mainly pictorial description of the part of the complex I had the chance to visit this time. I think another day I will need to go back and complete the visit!
You may get an impression of the town from above, from this report based on aerial pictures taken during a dedicated flight over the region.
This is probably the most famous non-bunker building in the complex. It dates back to the early 20th century – the place was the headquarter of a sports training ground established by the Kaiser’s army before WWI. In the Thirties, German athletes were trained here for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. During WWII this became a command building for the OKW, while in Soviet times it was actually transformed into a house for higher ranking staff of the supreme Soviet command, with living rooms and entertainment facilities.
The main building faces an almost square park, where a huge statue of Lenin was installed and is still standing.
Inside the main building it is possible to find clear traces of the original ‘Belle Époque’ architecture.
The inside of the building was spoiled of all furniture – the Russians reportedly tried to sell everything to the German government when they left, but the offer gained little interest. Only little part of the furniture, clearly from the age of the Kaiser, can be still spotted. Among the highlights of the bottom floor, there are two murals, in a typically Soviet naïve style, and a sculptured wall. Somebody is trying to put together Soviet memorabilia in a small museum, but all presented stuff is not original from here.
On the first floor, a very interesting industry-themed mural and a 20-ft long curved view of Moscow can be found in a corridor. In a completely dark room on the same floor, where once a small memorial museum about the Great Patriotic War – WWII for the Russians – was standing, the retreating Russian forces left one of the few remaining written messages, concerned with the atrocities of the Nazi regime – for the guide this was possibly a subliminal memento for the German People… In the same totally dark room it is possible to find a big, finely sculptured wall.
To the back of the main building it is possible to find a modern addition by the Soviets, a cylindrical building once hosting a diorama of the battle of Berlin. The diorama was transferred in the village of Zhukovo, halfway between Kaluga and Moscow, in the westernmost part of Russia, when the Russians left.
The two wings to the back of the Officers’ House host two highlights of the show. In the southern wing it is possible to find an empty swimming pool, dating from the days when the place was a sports training ground, with little changes, which include the showers and the diving board, built by the Soviets. The construction technique was very good, and the pool was operated until 1993-94 reportedly with little updates.
In the northern wing it is possible to find a theatre. This is a bit creepy, for it is totally dark – electric power was cut off years ago – but everything, including the curtain over the stage, is in place like a performance was about to begin! The Soviet past of the place is clear here thanks to the decoration of the medallion over the stage, resembling the monument of the Soviet Soldier in Treptower Park, Berlin. In the roomy foyer it is possible to see the numbered hangers still in place!
The White House
Across the road from the Officers’ House it is possible to see another early 20th century building, used as a command building by the Soviets during the Cold War, and affectionately called ‘The White House’, both for its primary role in imparting orders and for the colonnade gracing the front façade. The building is inaccessible, and still property of the regional government.
Nearby, a former house for officers dating from before WWII is now operated as a local city hall.
Today, some of the many immigrants coming from Africa to Europe are being hosted in a building close to the White House by the German Government.
Soviet Railway Station, Bread Factory and Soviet Housing
Due to its great strategic relevance in the Cold War era, the prohibited town of Wünsdorf was daily connected two-ways with Moscow. The last train to Moscow left in September 1994. The railway station of Wünsdorf-Waldstadt today operates on a local railway, with trains mainly to and from downtown Berlin. The old Soviet terminal and some warehouses nearby have been abandoned and are in a state of total disrepair.
Close by the station, it is possible to find an abandoned and unattractive small factory with a tall chimney. This is where literally tons of bread were produced every single day since the Nazi era and up to 1994 – reaching 25 tons per day when the place was most crowded in Soviet times. The building was considered a strategic asset by the Nazi, who built it with a 60 cm reinforced concrete roof able to withstand air bombing.
Whilst not very crowded, today some houses from the early days in the village of Zossen have been nicely restored to their original conditions. Unfortunately, they still share the roadside with some abandoned or not refurbished Soviet buildings, keeping the typical ‘Soviet ghost’ aura alive in the town.
Two complexes of peculiar bunkers were built in the Thirties – Maybach I and II – for housing staff of the OKW. From the distance and from above, these half-interred bunkers had the appearance of large farm houses. In reality, they were designed to be bomb-proof, and when they were blown-up by the Soviets after WWII they did not collapse completely.
One of the two Maybach complexes is very close to the fenced area where the Soviets had their three interred bunkers.
This communication bunker was built under the Nazi more than 60 feet deep into the terrain. It was made of layers of land and concrete, making it extremely durable and difficult to destroy. As a matter of fact, the Soviets tried to blow it up after the Potsdam conference in summer 1945, but they didn’t succeed at all. They decided to re-use it, sealing part of it to withstand a nuclear attack – including airlocks, reinforced doors, showers for decontamination, and sleeping quarters for troops trapped in by radioactive fallout. When leaving in the Nineties, Russian troops took home all technical rigs, stripping the bunker almost completely of any technical hardware.
Among the highlights in the Zeppelin bunker there are the sealed main entrance built by the Soviets and the decontamination facilities.
Going down it is possible to appreciate the size of the German design, with tens of rooms, long and roomy corridors and staircases. A small exhibition is dedicated to communication hardware from the Nazi and Soviet times. Copies of the Nazi schemes of the communication network from here to the Eastern front allow to understand the proportions of the system.
One of two long tunnels – the longest is about 600 ft! – was turned into a sleeping quarter for troops isolated in case of nuclear attack, and original berths are still visible today. Another corridor was so long it was used as a rifle range!
The bunker was powered by diesel engines – originally submarine engines under German ownership. These are gone today, but the smell of diesel fuel is still very marked in their room. It’s hard to imagine how noisy this place had to be! Some of the Soviet fuel tanks and air conditioning piping are still there, with original technical schemes.
A lift was added by the Soviets – it’s not working any more. On the bottom level there are water pumps and other supply systems. Normally this area cannot be toured, also due to water flooding problems.
In a small wing of the bunker it is possible to see the effect of the Soviet attempt to blow-up the bunker. The dynamics of the attempt are not clear – what explosive was used and where it was positioned. A pierce in the steel/concrete armored ceiling and a cracked reinforced concrete pillar are the only visible results. The size of the crater in the ceiling suggests much explosive was used, but the damage around is fairly limited and very localized. A feature of many military buildings occupied by the Soviets, signatures and graffitis in cyrillic alphabet can be found on some concrete walls of the bunker.
Soviet Half-Interred Bunkers
Really close to the entrance of the Zeppelin bunker, it is possible to find the way into two other less visible facilities.
One of them is a small communication bunker of simple construction. This is basically straight, with a round shaped cross-section. The corridor leading to the main part of the building is rather narrow and pointing down to the underground. The main part is much roomier, with curved steel frames making the walls and ceiling. This was used also as a training facility. This bunker was totally stripped by the retreating Russian troops.
The second bunker is much more articulated. It was codenamed ‘Nickel’, and the Soviet construction type is UK-20. This was a communication and control bunker for military operations, in particular for air operations. Even though this bunker was stripped similarly to the other two, some technical rigs and tons of paperwork can be spotted in the semi-dark environment of this installation.
Technical plants include the original water pumping system and several high voltage cabinets.
The room where the air control center was is lighted. It is very big, and copies of the original schemes help to understand how the setup was. Everything there was taken back to Russia by retreating Russian army.
Other interesting items include propaganda posters from Soviet times – they always look very exotic!
Garrison Museum & Red Army Museum
In the old pre-WWI stables two really unmissable small museums have been prepared. I would recommend visiting them after the site itself, to better understand the relevance and usefulness of the exhibition.
The first is centered on the history of the garrison in Zossen from the years when the barracks were built, and it documents the history of the Officers’ House and all other pre-Soviet buildings around. A focus is given also to the Nazi period, with many photographs and memorabilia. All panels are unfortunately in German only, but the pictures speak for themselves.
The second collection is dedicated to the Soviet period. Here you can find memorabilia from all stages of the Cold War era, including both museum items already preserved by the Soviets in a museum previously existing in Berlin-Karlshorst, but also everyday items and stuff from Wünsdorf.
Among the many panels, a small insight dedicated to the huge nuclear base in Vogelsang, covered in this other post of mine.
Headquarters of the Soviet Air Force
Besides the building of the society running the guided tours of the place, it is possible to find the abandoned headquarters of the Soviet Air Force. A modern statue of a pilot is standing ahead of an Asian restaurant, whereas the main building is inaccessible. A statue of Lenin – not easily visible from the street – can be found in the vegetation, ahead of the main façade. To the side of the building it is possible to find a typical Soviet memorial.
Among the other uncommon things you can find around in Wünsdorf, there are some Winkel-type air raid shelters, 19 of which were built in the Nazi period for military staff. Most of them were blown by the Soviets, and some of the 7 (?) remaining ones are preserved today.
As reported, this ensemble is huge and well looked after. Technically speaking, it is not abandoned – at least the most interesting parts of it. Parts – like the Officers’ House – are awaiting for somebody to own them, parts are destined to remain tourist attractions – like the bunkers and museums. For these reasons, to make your visit practical and enjoyable, and for making the best of your time, I strongly suggest contacting a guide.
Actually the local society also in charge of the nice and interesting book selling activity, for which ‘Bücherstadt Wünsdorf’ – ‘Wünsdorf the Town of Books’ – is famous, runs guided tours on a regular schedule. Full information also in English from their website here. Besides the pre-scheduled tours, some longer special-themed tours can be booked in advance. If you are visiting – like me – from abroad, then I suggest taking contact with the guide before going there.
When I visited, I arranged with the guide a ‘double-tour’ in English just for me, asking to merge two of the tours offered with pre-booking. This was not a cheap alternative – I had to pay alone the price intended for two group tours, but all in all that was worth the financial effort! – but above all I must say I regret not having had more time!
The guide is nice and extremely knowledgeable, he speaks a perfect English and Russian as well. He knows anything from the history of the place, including interesting anecdotes and technical notions. He will take you to all places of interest with a minivan, and of course he will give you all the time for taking pictures, including some with a tripod in especially dark conditions – he has two portable lights for helping in the task! So the guided tour will not be boring at all.
After that, you may like to go back to have a look to the exterior of some buildings you had not the time to check out during the guided visit.
The towns of Wünsdorf and Zossen are basically a single entity, but possibly not on your nav. In case you get confused when driving to the building where you should meet the guide, just follow the signs for the book selling activities – the building is the same.
I mentioned there is a railway station, and of course you may choose to come in by train and move by bicycle – walking would be too time consuming in my view, due to the distance between points of interests. Coming by car is also very practical if you are not moving by train on your trip, and there is room for parking almost everywhere.