Stepping back into East Prussia
On my return to the Baltic States, I thoroughly debated on whether I needed to take a second visit to Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair. The drive south to Kętrzyn, Poland is a good three plus hours of twisting, turning country roads from where I was staying in Kaunas, Lithuania. On my last visit to Poland, I spent hours wandering around the Masurian lakes district after my GPS refused to work forcing me to ask for directions from locals in my scant Polish. Just the thought of reliving this frustrating experience made me think twice about repeating it, but I am not one to turn down a good adventure, and the call to ply the roads of what was once East Prussia was too enticing to not heed. I also knew I’d be returning to Lithuania near the end of my trip so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to spend the day in Poland visiting the Wolf’ Lair and see more of Lithuania later.
Before heading south, I checked the GPS on my phone and my wife’s then carefully studied the map just to make sure I didn’t accidently end up in Warsaw or Kaliningrad. Visions of my wife rolling her eyes at me while I attempted to explain to Russian boarder guards why I had accidently crossed into their enclave was certainly enough for me to make sure I knew where I was going this time.
As we drove south though the wide expanses of green Lithuanian farm land and into Poland, the land began to change. The bucolic pastures and fields gave way to thick birch and pine forests where wild boar and European Bison still lurk. After passing through the town of Suwałki, we entered what had once been East Prussia. Prior to 1945, East Prussia had been a part of Germany, and home to some 2 million German inhabitance. It’s boarders stretched along the Baltic coast from the city of Memel, (today Klaipeda, Lithuania) to Danzig (Gdansk, Poland). With the Soviet victory in 1945, East Prussia was ethnically cleansed of it’s German inhabitance and the land divided up between Poland, Russia, and the Lithuanian SSR.
An odd feeling of stepping back into history washed over me while crossing this imaginary old boarder. There is something haunting about traveling this area. The spectral presence of the many Germans who once called this land their own can be felt here. While somethings have changed since the Germans were forced to cede this part of their country to Poland, many of the homes and other buildings have stayed virtually the same. Decaying barns, German style farmhouses, and cobblestone streets are all silent reminders of a not too distant German past. As I drove by a large manor house set back from the road, I could not help but wonder what had become of the original owners. Did they manage to get out before the Red Army overran the area in 1945? Did they survive the journey through the snow in the freezing winter of 1945? Did they try to stay as many had only to became victims of the brutality the Soviets mercilessly meted out as they tore bloody swaths across the Reich? The answers did not come.
Somewhere along these roads my Grandmother’s aunt, uncle and cousins walked through the snow in the winter of 1945 fleeing the approaching Red Army. As a boy, I remember listening to my Grandmother’s cousin, Waldemar, in thick German accented English describe those dark days of friends and family members who became lost along the way. I was too young to appreciate the history behind those stories; yet, as I traveled through this land that some of my ancestors had once called home, I could feel their presence. Memories of Waldemar’s tear stained face, holding yellowed photographs of family members in his trembling hand, uttering the phrase, “They died, too,” came to my mind as I traveled through the countryside.
The drive south passed quickly and we soon found ourselves in the small town of Kętrzyn which in German days was known as Rastenburg. The name changed in 1947 as the new Communist Polish government sought to remove the last vestiges of Germanic heritage. Despite the name change, this small town still retains much of it’s German character. The Teutonic castle of Schloss Rastenburg still stands as a silent if not resolute reminder of a not too distant German past. During the Great War, the Imperial Russian army clashed in a titanic battle against the Kaiser’s men in the woods around Rastenburg. The Battle of Tannenberg and the subsequent battles of the Masurian lakes destroyed Imperial Russia’s 2nd army and marked the end to Russia’s hopes of a quick end to the war. Russian troops were pushed back across their boarder never to return to German soil until the final months of the next World War. Certainly this land held a special meaning for Germans of the era as it represented a triumph against their Russian enemy.
Entering the Wolf’s Lair
Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters are tucked away deep into the woods surrounding Rastenburg. The woods are thick and dark. They seem to take on an almost sinister appearance. A series of fetid swamps skirt the road that leads up to the compound. In the post war years, Hitler’s personal bodyguard, Rochus Misch, complained constantly about the incessant mosquito nuisance he dealt with while serving at the Wolf’s Lair. It’s not hard to see why with all the stagnant water. It is clear even to this day that this location was chosen for its remoteness.
While driving into the compound, I found it almost impossible to not think about Hitler’s would be assassin, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, and his ill fated journey here in the summer of 1944. When we drove past the airfield in Kętrzyn which has changed very little since 1944, I was able to picture the resolute Von Stauffenberg in his stiff Wehrmacht officer’s uniform walking across that tarmac with his leather briefcase tucked under his arm to the vehicle which would take him to the same location I was now traveling towards.
Today the Wolf’s Lair has become somewhat of a tourist destination. A small parking lot has been build for those wishing to explore the ruins. Upon exiting the car, an elderly Polish gentlemen immediately approached me and asked me in rapid Polish if I wished to hire a guide. His presence made me smile because it is the same man who had approached me two summers ago on my last visit. I wondered briefly if he remembered me. This time though I am ready for his questions and I retorted, “Tak, przewodnik angielski proszę”. He smiled at my pathetic Polish and turned and waved his hand at three bored looking guides who were sitting under an awning and said, “Angielski.” One of the guides is dressed in traditional Bavarian hunting clothing and sported an Edwardian handlebar mustache. He sits back in his chair and calmly smokes a wood pipe. Nothing like getting into character, I suppose. I hoped he would be our guide, as he appeared to be a bit of an eccentric. The Bavarian didn’t come forward though; maybe he only spoke German. A moment passed and another one of the guides stepped forward, a heavy set man with a graying mustache wearing a red baseball cap and a cold war era Polish camouflage parka. He warmly greeted us in English introducing himself as Waldemar. The name surprised me a bit as, it was shared by my Grandmother’s cousin. I told our new guide this fact and he smiled and said, “My mother gave me this name. She was a Lithuanian so it is an American name too?” I told him it is not an American name, but some members of my family were Baltic Germans. This detail make Waldemar laugh and brought the response, “Germans often return to this part of Poland. Thirty percent of the visitors to the Wolf’s Lair are German.” This didn’t surprise me as the notion of East Prussia still looms in the consciousness of many Germans. On my last visit to Lithuania, I met an elderly German man in Kaunas who heard my American accented English and asked me what part of America I came from. After responding, I asked him what brought him to Lithuania. He sternly told me he was on his way to Memel to see what the Lithuanians had done with his old home. As it turned out, our guide’s family had resettled in Kętrzyn in the early post-war era. Waldemar himself worked as a history teacher in town, but changed careers in the 1980s when he began working as a guide at the Wolf’s Lair. With a grin he tells us that he has been giving tours for so long at the Wolf’s Lair that his wife has begun saying that he in fact works for Hitler.
Exploring the Ruins
The Wolf’s Lair today is in ruins. Walking around the dilapidated skeletal remains of what was once a modern engineering marvel, it is easy to think that this place was once the scene of a great battle or the victim of an Allied bombing run. In fact, neither are true. On January 25th of 1945, Hitler ordered that the complex should be destroyed with TNT to prevent it from being utilized by the oncoming Red Army. It was none too soon, as the Red Army arrived a mere 48 hours later.
The name for the Wolf’s Lair came from Hitler’s self imposed pre-war nickname of Herr Wolf. The complex was vast in its day, housing at least 2,000 people at the peak of operation. Hitler spent at least 800 days at the Lair during WWII. This was an important location to the Nazi regime where many the significant decisions of WWII were made at the Lair. The complex also played host to numerous important figures from not just the Nazi regime but also from other Axis nations-. Italy’s Mussolini, Vichy France’s Laval, Hungary’s Miklós Horthy, and Finland’s Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim all visited Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair.
As we entered the remains of the complex, I paused at the quiet and peaceful nature of the location. Aside from the chirping of the birds and a gentle breeze rustling the trees, there is little commotion. It is a very peaceful spot in the Polish woods, and it is hard to picture that this was the place that some of histories most evil villains spent their time. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Goring, and Bormann all walked the paths I was walking on. As we reached a crossroad, Waldemar withdrew a photograph from a small binder he carried in his hand. The photo was of Hitler and his German Shepard, and our guide tells us that we are standing in the very location this photo was taken.
We continued further down the path until we came upon a small monument. The stone monument was placed there by the German government in 1996 to mark the exact spot where Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg placed the briefcase carrying an explosive devise meant to kill Hitler. The assassination attempt failed. It seems like everything that could have gone wrong for von Stauffenberg did that July day. It had been unusually hot and humid that day. Due to the heat, the initial location for Hitler’s briefing where von Stauffenberg had intended to plant the bomb was moved at the last moment from the reinforced concrete Führerbunker to Albert Speer’s wooden hut. The change of venue was bad enough, but while von Stauffenberg attempted to arm the bomb, a guard unexpectedly interrupted the procedure urging von Stauffenberg to hurry because the briefing was about to begin. The guard didn’t see what von Stauffenberg was doing, but the damage was done and only one of the two bombs was armed. Colonel von Stauffenberg placed the briefcase carrying the bomb as close as he dared to Hitler and excused himself; however, a Colonel noticed the unattended briefcase so he picked it up and moved it away from Hitler. Moments later an explosion ripped through the wooded building. A few men were killed but Hitler himself was shielded by the conference room’s oak table.
There are a lot of questions that are raised about this event. Most often the question is, had the briefing not been moved at the last moment would things have gone differently? Or what if the guard had not interrupted von Stauffenberg and he was able to arm both bombs would it have killed Hitler? What might have happened had the briefcase not been moved? In seems entirely unlikely anyone could have survived a massive explosion inside a room surrounded by uncommonly thick concrete walls which would have kept the force of the explosion entirely contained. The real question that should be asked is what would have been the outcome? If the July plotters had succeeded in killing Hitler and his fellow ministers and managed to set up a provisional government, what would have actually happened? In July of 1944 the German armed forces were struggling on all fronts. The Allies had already landed a month before at Normandy, and the Soviet juggernaut continued to rip the guts out of the Wehrmacht on the Russian front. Had the provisional government reached out to the Allies at that point, would they have been willing to deal with Germany at all even with the Nazi regime out of power? Even in the event that the Allies were willing to come to the table, a lot of Allied blood at been split and it is entirely likely they would have insisted on punishing Germany to the fullest extent. A president already exists for such a scenario with the Treaty of Versailles. In 1918, the vengeful Allied powers punished Germany with land seizures, and saddling them with debt they could never hope to pay down. At the very least, with Stalin’s forces rapidly advancing on the eastern front and the Soviet Union’s desire for revenge, it seemed unlikely the Soviets would have been willing to stop.
Whatever the outcome might have been, the July plot failed taking with it any hopes of removing the Nazi regime prematurely. Germany would be forced to drink it’s bitter cup to the dregs. In the end what might be the most important lesson from this failed exploit was that a group of Germans attempted to stand up to Hitler’s regime and tried to stop it and that is worth remembering.
After leaving the monument we followed our guide deeper into the complex. We came upon the remains of one of the massive air raid bunkers. One can not help but notice how thick the concrete wall were. Some walls were seven feet thick. As we stopped to examine the bunker, Waldemar took the opportunity to brief us on the building of the bunker. He was quick to point out with what seemed some pride that no slave labor was used in the construction. This is in fact the truth. While the Nazi regime had no qualms about exploiting the labor of people they conquered, in the case of the Wolf’s Lair this wasn’t done. The complex was constructed by Organization Todt, the Third Reich civil and military engineering group.
The thick concrete walls seem to reflect much of Hitler’s mind set, and perhaps his decent into paranoia as the war continued. Hitler arrived at the Wolf’s Lair on June 23rd of 1941, the day after his forces crossed the Soviet frontier. From that point on construction continued on the bunkers to further reinforce them making them all but impregnable to Allied bombs. The work would never be completed; in fact, construction was still ongoing when Hitler ordered it destroyed. Layer after layer of reinforced concrete would continue to be added. Great effort was even taken to keep the Wolf’s Lair hidden from any Allied reconnaissance flight.
The tops of the bunkers were turned into giant planters where pine and birch trees were planted making the colossal structure appear as part of the forest from above. To further hide the location, a giant series of nets were hung over the complex with bits of green colored bakelite scrim. If you know where to look, you can still find pieces of the bakelite scrim in and around the forest. Our guide showed us a handful he had found while exploring.
According to Hitler’s private secretary, Traudl Junge (one of the few women known to have worked at the Wolf’s Lair), Hitler repeatedly expressed concerns that the Western Allies would bomb the Lair. In her memoirs, Junge quoted Hitler as saying,”They know exactly where we are, and sometime they’re going to destroy everything here with carefully aimed bombs. I expect them to attack any day.”
What the Western Allies actually knew about the Wolf’s Lair and what went on there is still unknown. The Soviets were in the dark as well and didn’t learn of the Lair’s existence until they over ran the ruin in 1945. Whatever was known by the Allied Powers, the Lair was never attacked.
We explored the dark tunnels and passageways of the various bunkers. While walking though the cavernous remains of what had been Herman Goring bunker, we looked down to see the remains of his bathroom tile. It seemed an odd reminder that one of history’s fiends once spent his time here.
As we crept through one of the dark passages, Waldemar reminded us that bats are known to congregate inside darker recesses of the passageways. With a laugh he stated, “But Batman doesn’t live here.” After exiting Martin Bormann’s bunker, Waldemar asked me if I would like to climb to the top of one of the bunkers to see the remains of one of the machine gun nests. My wife quickly declined the offer, but I couldn’t wait. He pointed put the iron rungs that ran up the length of the bunker some 20 feet.I made it to the top unscathed. From this vantage point, I could imagine that this was where members of the Führerbegleitbrigade (Führer escort brigade) men drawn from Großdeutschland Infantry Regiment once sat manning MG42s in protection of Hitler. It had to be dull work. I could picture those men ever watchful, perhaps smoking endless cigarettes out of boredom, maybe reading and re-reading letters from home. It may have been dull work, but each of those men knew how good their lives were compared to any of their fellow soldiers battling the Red Army in the hell known as the Russian front.
After climbing down from off the bunker roof which as it turns out was harder than going up, we walked over to what had once been Adolph Hitler’s bunker. When the bunker was destroyed, the explosion literally blew the roof off. Today it barely resembles what it once was.
After spending a bit of time viewing the twisted remains of what had been Hitler’s bunker, Waldemar took us to see one last thing. Under the overhang of one of the massive collapsing bunker walls a tradition is on display. According to the Lair’s guides, if those who visit the Wolf’s layer jam a stick under this wall, they will return to Poland. Perhaps there is some truth to this tradition. On my last visit to the Wolf’s Lair, I placed a stick under the wall, and I have in fact returned to Poland. So I figured I needed to try it out again, and hopefully I will be back soon.
After saying our goodbyes to Waldemar, we walked out past what had been a garage used by the SS and headed out to our car. It had been an enjoyable visit. I had seen a few new things I had missed on my last visit, and once again had the opportunity to see the site where many of fateful decisions were made regarding the Second Would War. Now it was time to make the long drive back to Kaunas.