Napoleon was here. Here in the village of Dennewitz, just outside the historical Slavic town of Jüterbog. It was the 6th September, 1813, and Napoleon and 60,000 men of his Grande Armée had gathered on the marshy Prussian field. Their sights were set on the capital of Berlin, 40 kilometres to the north.
Facing Napoleon was a coalition army of Swedish, Prussian and Russian soldiers, led by the generals Bülow and Tauentzien. Together this coalition – along with the armies of Austria, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom, not present on this occasion – was named the Sixth Coalition. This Sixth Coalition's aim was nothing less than the toppling of Napoleon from power. Napoleon, in return, was seeking to defeat them, and do so by knocking them out of the war one by one. On this occasion, it was Prussia he wanted to defeat. Take Berlin, and Prussia would be forced out of the war. That was his plan.
He failed. He failed like he had failed in Moscow a year earlier, and was forced to retreat. Two years later, and 720 kilometres to the west, Napoleon failed one final time (his Waterloo) in the small Belgium village of Waterloo. The First French Empire fell and the Bourbon Monarchy was restored.
Napoleon was stranded and impotent on the remote, volcanic island of Saint Helena, nearly 8,000 kilometres away. Yet his legacy in Europe was continuing to shape events. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna was convened with the goal of resizing the existing states within Europe, and – should things go to plan – establishing a more equal balance of power on the continent. The Kingdom of Prussia would expand, taking within its borders the town of Jüterbog, where 9,000 men had lost their lives fighting Napoleon's Grande Armée a year previous.
Prussia – now larger, now emboldened – started to expand its military. And it was in the town of Jüterbog where many of the military's soldiers would end up based. Originally, the Prussian army had bought a small patch of land in Jüterbog to practice shooting and manoeuvring only. But, bit by bit, barracks by barracks, the military presence in and around Jüterbog grew. The military pushed on outwards, establishing itself also at the newly – and specially created – town of Wünsdorf.
All this military expansion was done for a purpose: namely German unification. Led by Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian soldiers based at Jüterbog would eventually invade France, with Bismarck's slight of hand making it look as if France was the aggressor. The smaller German states were driven away from the supposed aggressor and into the protective arms of the Kingdom of Prussia. The German Empire was created, with Prussia the largest and most important state within it.
Following the unification of Germany in 1871, Jüterbog continued to maintain its role as an important garrison town, slowly but surely expanding as the years went by. However, it was with the arrival to power of the Nazi party in 1933, when the fresh and rapid expansion of the military barracks really began. An airport was built, railway lines and train stations were added, as were several new barracks complexes (including the Adolf Hitler barracks pictured here). The SS moved in and, by as early as 1934, the Jüterbog area was the largest military complex in Germany. The military expansion continued, right up until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, where thousands of the soldiers based in the barracks in Jüterbog were sent off to invade Poland.
Following the defeat of Nazi Germany and the country's subsequent division and occupation, soldiers of the Red Army moved into the many various barracks in Jüterbog. They, too, saw about its expansion, and started to add their own barracks among the old Nazi buildings. For 50 years, during the entire course of the Cold War, there were more than 40,000 Soviet soldiers based in the barracks complexes around the town of Jüterbog – a town whose civilian population was only 10,000.
Today, Jüterbog is once again a town of just 10,000. All the Soviet troops had left by 1994, and the town returned to how it was prior to militarisation: quaint and unassuming. Unbeknown to most, the surrounding forests contain the abandoned barracks that had once housed thousands of soldiers – Prussian, Nazi and Soviet. Hidden, scattered and empty, the military complexes will almost certainly be demolished in the coming years. Hundreds of years of history, starting with Napoleon and ending with Soviet occupation, will be wiped from the face of the earth.