What a sight it must have been back in 1936. The Olympic village for the Berlin games was open and home to athletes from all over the world. Just across the way, tens of vast and imperial looking buildings were being converted into barracks for the Wehrmacht. Elstal had never before known such importance. Previously, it was nothing but a nondescript village 30 kilometres west of Berlin. Now, thanks to the Nazi party and their desire to project an image of gravitas to the world, it was a small town of prestige and status.
Today the barren moorland and harsh scrubland in Elstal is scattered with ammunition and gun cartridges. The once proud, grand buildings are mostly hidden behind the forest that has proceeded to engulf them. Thousands of people pass through Elstal each day, travelling on the Bundesstrasse 5 – a dual carriageway way that stretches from the Danish border, right through the north of Germany to the Polish border. Some may catch a glimpse of the old barracks on their way through, but few would suspect anything of great importance had once been based here. Elstal’s fall from grace has been complete.
The history of the barracks in Elstal is a familiar one. The Nazi party wanted Germany to stand tall in the world again. They wanted an army of stature and pomp. They were rearming, and doing so quickly. They needed barracks, buildings to house the ballooning Wehrmacht. The large buildings in Elstal, that had formed a prison complex housing up to 30,000 inmates, were deemed suitable. Conversion to turn them into military quarters began in 1935.
The Löwen and Adler barracks opened in 1936, and together they formed one large military complex. Their names – in English, lion barracks and eagle barracks – demanded Imposing stone statues of both a lion and an eagle at their entrances. The buildings themselves had been built with high ceilings, with imperial archways leading through to large courtyards. Everything here was grand and proper.
The Panzerkorps was formed at the Löwen and Adler barracks, with the scrubby nearby land proving to be the perfect terrain upon which to practice tank manoeuvres. The land was also used to test other heavy and light weaponry, leaving the ground inundated with spent ammunition.
As the Second World War broke out, the barracks continued to expand. Their use was as a training ground for infantry units, pilots and parachute regiments. Thousands of soldiers were stationed and trained here. But, perhaps, the most significant and well known contribution that the soldiers at the Löwen and Adler barracks made to the war effort, was actually on the side of the Allies, rather than on the side of the Nazi party, who they were supposed to be serving. There were over 22 assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler during the time he was Reich Chancellor and Führer, the most famous of which was the 20th July plot. Soldiers stationed at the Löwen and Adler barracks were intimately involved in the plot.
It was a plot not simply to assassinate Hitler, but to demonstrate to the world that not all Germans supported the Nazi Party and their war aims. The plotters wanted to topple the Nazi administration, and bring a new regime to power that would make peace with the Allies in as short a time as possible. For over a year, the Germans had been struggling on the Eastern Front, and things were beginning to turn on the Western Front too. Many members of the Wehrmacht, several of them high ranking, were starting to feel jitters and doubted whether Germany could win the war. By the summer of 1944, time was running out.
So it came to pass, and on the 20th of July at Hitler’s Wolf's Lair field headquarters, Claus von Stauffenberg – an army officer and member of the German nobility – set off a briefcase bomb. It was a bomb designed to kill Adolf Hitler himself. Simultaneously, a wider coup d'état against the Nazi party was launched.
As part of the July 20th plot, soldiers from a regiment stationed at the Löwen-Adler barracks in Elstal, broke into and occupied two separate radio broadcasting stations. One was in Berlin, the other was in Nauen, in Brandenburg. They planned to take over the broadcasting, and disseminate anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi party propaganda. But, their attempt to do so failed, as did the broader assassination plot.
Over 7,000 people were subsequently arrested by the Gestapo, with 4,980 of them then put to death. Hitler survived. The Nazi regime survived. And the war continued; continued for another eleven bloody months. Where Claus von Stauffenberg and the other plotters failed, the Allies succeeded. From the east came the Soviets, from the west came the British and Americans. Germany was defeated.
Defeat meant occupation. The old barracks in Elstal came to house 20,000 soldiers of the Red Army, following a brief two year period where they housed war time refugees. The Cold War necessitated that the Soviets maintain a large military presence in and around Berlin. But, while the Russians were stationed at the barracks, they also made use of the extensive grounds to test their own weaponry.
When the Soviets handed the barracks over to the German authorities in 1992, they did so in good faith. The buildings were, overall, in an excellent condition, and for the few areas in need of treatment and repair, a list was provided documenting where such attention was needed. The Bundeswehr planned to take the place of the Red Army, and take up home in Elstal. However, because the surrounding grounds were so heavily polluted and littered with ammunition from training exercises (both Nazi and Soviet), those plans were abandoned. The barracks were stripped bare, down to just their skeletons. Then they were sealed. The windows and doors boarded up with wooden panelling. They have remained in this abandoned state ever since.
Much of the surrounding grounds have been granted nature conservation status. Not that nature here needs any encouragement. The once imperial courtyards are now entirely overgrown with trees and weeds, while the marshy surroundings are infested with geese.