Clinker brick architecture, sheer and severe. Grandeur permitted, references to the past permissible, but first and foremost: form before function. From social housing blocks in inner cities to industrial factories, this was the Nazi approach to pragmatic, interwar architecture. Albert Speer may have planned to rebuild Berlin as Welthauptstadt Germania, but war, reality and the marshy sands of Berlin prevented him from being able to do so. That one imperial folly was scuppered, but the Third Reich did deliver on many of its other more practical architectural undertakings. Distinctive in the sense that they were simple yet overbearing, hundreds of these interwar buildings dot the country, and remain highly distinguishable today due to their totalitarian air.
In Bernau, a small town that lies just outside Berlin’s northernmost extremity, stands a large clinker brick factory complex. Passers-by on the Schwanebecker Chaussee thoroughfare may notice its looming presence, despite overgrown pine trees blocking and obscuring a clear view. Yet few would guess that it was anything other than a basic 1930’s factory complex. But look closely, and from above the uppermost windows on the main facade, hangs a five-pointed red star. The red star may be the sole reminder, but the Red Army were once here. Here in their thousands!
Before the Red Army, though, were the Nazis. This factory in Bernau – known as the Heeresbekleidungsamt Bernau – was built especially to manufacture and repair military uniforms, and to do so on an enormous scale. Hitler’s plan to remilitarise Germany, led to the increased need for military uniforms. The expectation of war made the demand even greater. A large, centralised factory was required, one that could service the insatiable needs of the Wehrmacht as efficiently as possible. Plans were swiftly drawn up for a vast factory complex made up of interconnecting buildings; subsequently, building work on the Heeresbekleidungsamt began in 1936, with construction taking seven years in total.
By the time the factory complex opened in 1942, Germany was already at war. The Wehrmacht, at this point over six and a half million men strong, required millions upon millions of uniforms. It was the responsibility of the 1,300 workers here to manufacture, clean and to repair them. The need was constant. Given how much pride the Nazis placed upon appearances, this was not a trivial function, but a central part of the war effort. They took their job seriously and for two faithful years kept the Wehrmacht looking dignified and proper.
But for all their style and refinement, the well-dressed Wehrmacht could not hold back the tide of the scruffy Red Army. They were overrun and defeated. The Red Army captured Berlin on the 2nd of May, 1945, and proceeded to take over all facilities suitable for housing an occupying army. The large factory complex in Bernau, just outside of Berlin, was considered a suitable location, and the Red Army’s 90th Guards Tank Division duly moved in.
Russia had suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis. Millions had been killed and many towns and cities were left as bombed out shells. The Soviets felt it fair and proper that they should be allowed to extract as much from Berlin in the form of reparations as they wished. This meant, mostly, industrial equipment. And because of the railway facilities at the back of the Heeresbekleidungsamt Bernau factory, it was here where much of that equipment was processed and stored, before being exported to Russia via the railway.
The cleaning facilities at Heeresbekleidungsamt Bernau factory survived exportation, and instead came to be used by the Soviets themselves. They, after all, were a large army, and they too needed to clean and repair their military uniforms. But as well as continuing to function as a garment cleaning factory, it also housed various tank, motor rifle, and artillery regiments.
There were no theatres or casinos on site at Bernau, not like there were at other Soviet bases. Instead, for leisure, the Red Army played basketball, the most American of sports. The basketball courts were hidden away, up in the attics, rather unlikely and hazardous locations for sports halls. One of the attics even housed a discotheque, where under the exposed rafters, Red Army soldiers presumably danced many nights away. Thousands of kilometres from home, these were ordinary soldiers of the Red Army, sitting the Cold War out, waiting for something to happen.
In January, 1968, something did happen. A man named Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Upon election, he set about reducing the travel and free speech restrictions faced by Czechoslovak citizens. The media was to be partially liberated and the economy decentralised. This liberalisation became known as the Prague Spring. It was an unsuccessful liberation however, crushed as it was by Soviet tanks. Those tanks, and the soldiers operating them, came in part from the Heeresbekleidungsamt Bernau factory, from where they were stationed.
It would be 32 years before the citizens of Czechoslovakia got another chance at liberalisation and democracy. First came Glasnost and Perestroika, then the fall of the Berlin Wall. After half a century, Eastern Europe was free from Communism and Soviet control. The Cold War was over. For the Soviet troops stationed in Germany, it was time to return home.
At the Heeresbekleidungsamt in Bernau, the inside of the factory was gutted and stripped bare. There were just empty rooms left, large and deserted. The decamping Russians carved messages into the walls, which are now all that remains of their once commanding presence. That, and the brittle, shrivelled newspaper sheets that cling to the walls, reminding us of the humbleness of the conditions the soldiers once endured.