Before 1870, Altes Lager didn’t exist. Where today there’s a town, before there was only forest. The forest was purchased by the Prussian military, cleared and a barracks built in its place. Otto von Bismarck was the Minister President of Prussia, and he was expanding the military with one aim in mind: German unification. A year after the barracks were built, he achieved that aim. He sought, and successfully managed, to provoke Napoleon III’s France into declaring war against Prussia; a war he correctly predicted would drive the smaller German states into the protective arms of Prussia.
The war was won and Germany was unified. The dream of German nationalists had finally been realised, their long-sought after goal at last attained. The decisive factor in the unification was the strength of the Prussian military coupled with the tactical prowess of Bismarck. In the creation of the German Empire, the role played by the soldiers based at the Altes Lager barracks was highly significant.
Originally, the barracks were known not as Altes Lager, but as Lager 1. They were renamed following the construction of another nearby barracks. Lager 1 became Altes Lager, and the new barracks were named Neues Lager – respectively, in English, Old Camp and New Camp. Clearly German unification was not going to halt the militarisation of this forested part of Brandenburg.
Jüterborg, roughly 90 kilometres south of Berlin, was the heart of this militarised area. The nearby towns of Wünsdorf, Altes Lager and Neues Lager, all grew due to their proximity and connectivity to the Jüterbog site, becoming themselves garrison towns – in some cases exclusively so. Following German unification, Jüterborg retained its pre-eminence, right into the 20th century.
For Altes Lager, this meant the construction of two large Zeppelin hangars in 1916. Hangars that included hydrogen producing facilities and additional barracks buildings. Altes Lager was also used as a testing ground for the newly developed ‘Big Bertha’, one of the largest howitzer artillery guns ever developed, and one that would play a significant role in the German offensive during the First World War.
After the First World War, the Allies demanded that the barracks at the airfield in Altes Lager be abandoned. They duly were. Briefly. But during the early Nazi period they were not only remilitarised but expanded. Between 1933 and 1935, an airfield and a complimentary nearby military complex was built. The airfield was to house the expanding Luftwaffe, while the neighbouring complex was to house technical staff. The military complex was named the Fliegerschüle, and was built in a grand, neoclassical style, complete with curved wings, ornamental pillars and a large, central parade ground.
The purpose of the Fliegerschüle was to both train pilots and act as a research facility for the Luftwaffe. Here new aircraft capabilities were sought. The technical school contained its own wind tunnel, as well as a large workshop and a laboratory. The development and experimentation of new aviation parts used by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War was done here.
But it was a war they lost. The Nazis lost in the east and lost in the west. From both sides came conquering armies. Less than 74 years since Bismarck had brought about the unification of Germany, Germany was once again divided. Divided and occupied. The barracks that had once housed Bismarck’s Prussian troops, now became home to soldiers of the Red Army. A red star was painted above the Fliegerscüle entrance, and large Soviet realism artworks were painted on the internal walls of the buildings. The old Nazi Fliegerschüle was now officially Soviet.
The Fliegerschüle came to house units from both the Soviet’s air force and army. In order to differentiate between the two, the buildings to the right of the parade ground were painted a bright yellow and housed the air force, while the buildings to the left were painted a charcoal grey and housed the army. The airfield continued to operate as before, only now it was resident to Russian MIGs rather than Luftwaffe Junkers.
Access to Altes Lager and the Fliegerschüle was restricted to Russian military personnel only. Wünsdorf, the Red Army's headquarters in Germany, lay around 40 kilometers northeast of Altes Lager, and was connected via a railway line that the Prussians had built. A whole area that had grown to become an interconnected web of Prussian military garrison towns, was now the exclusive preserve of the Russian Red Army.
That was the case until 1994, when the Red Army troops vacated Altes Lager and returned home. The Fliegerschüle now stands abandoned and derelict. Along with the other military sites at Wündorf and Jüterbog, this part of Brandenburg has since taken on an eerie feeling of forgottenness. The site that was so important for the original unification of Germany, has become a victim of its eventual reunification.