Berlin, a metropolis of four million, thins out at its periphery, eventually giving way to wilderness. Surrounded by a vast hinterland of oak forests, swampy bog and natural lakes, Berlin enjoys a remoteness unique among European capitals. This is Junker country, the old stomping ground of Bismarck and his Prussian ilk. Here they rode horseback through the fields and woodland, hunting the native geese, deer and boars.
The landscape has changed remarkably little since the days of Bismarck. Today, oak-lined country roads lead out from the capital, into the golden, thinly populated Brandenburg countryside. There is little in the way of human settlement, just the occasional village, centred around farming and agriculture. In these somewhat ramshackled villages, chopped wood is readily burnt during the cold winter months, not surprisingly given the abundance of timber. A smell, smoky and ancient, lingers in the air. Life is simple here and its pace is slow.
Vogelsang – on the surface – is a village pretty typical of the region, small and isolated as it is. Just over a hundred people live in Vogelsang, and the next village along is a ten kilometre hike through forest. Berlin is about 65 kilometres to the south, with hourly train connections to Potsdamer Platz on a slow, little used regional train. Remoteness abounds. Little seems out of the ordinary.
Vogelsang, though, is not all that typical and not all that ordinary. For the nearby forest contains one of the Cold War’s great secrets. Hidden about three kilometres deep into this thick, oak forest, was once one of the largest and most secretive Soviet military bases. Active from 1951 until 1994, this clandestine town in the forest was home to over 15,000 Russian troops, their hundreds of tanks and their large assortment of various missiles.
Most of the Soviet military bases in East Germany were bases that had once belonged to the Nazis. Vogelsang was different. Vogelsang was built from scratch. It is not clear exactly why this patch of forest was chosen as a location for such a large and such an important base, but it is rumoured it was built to plans seized from the disbanded Nazis. In any case, with the Cold War heating up, the construction had to be quick. In total, 500 buildings were built, spread across 5,800 hectares of land in the forest. All the infrastructure necessary to keep a town of 15,000 people running had to be built, and built quickly. This included barracks to house the various ranks of soldiers; schools both primary and secondary; sports halls and gyms; theatres; supermarkets; and hundreds of garages to house the tanks of the Red Army’s 25th Tank Division.
All of the goings on at Vogelsang were highly secretive, with not even the governing officials of the German Democratic Republic informed or aware of what was really happening here. The principal reason, perhaps, for Vogelsang’s covert, forested existence was the fact that long-range nuclear missiles were stored there. They arrived in 1959, under the cover of darkness. First they were transported from Moscow to Wünsdorf, the Soviet’s headquarters in Germany. They then travelled – via back roads and at the dead of night to avoid detection – to Vogelsang. At Vogelsang, they were kept in huge, steel bunkers, camouflaged with grass to avoid detection from the air.
Four of the nuclear weapons at Vogelsang were trained on the United Kingdom. Specifically, they were for use on the United States Air Force and British Royal Air force bases in Norfolk and Lincolnshire that housed PGM-17 Thor nuclear missiles – missiles that, from the UK, were capable of striking Moscow. The other missiles on site were – in the event of a nuclear confrontation – designed to strike the three capitals of London, Paris and Bonn, as well as the vast industrial Ruhr conurbation.
All manoeuvring of the missiles about the site was done at night, thwarting reconnaissance planes from uncovering their presence. The friendly regime in Berlin was completely unaware of the existence of these missiles, and it is assumed (although not clear) that the governments in Washington, London, Paris and Bonn were also unaware. At 20 metres long and 30 tonnes in weight, these missiles were not subtle. And at 20 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War, and capable of striking a target over 1,200 kilometres away, nor were they anything less than annihilative.
Despite Vogelsang housing missiles with the potential to annihilate the capital cities of Western Europe, killing tens of millions of civilians in the process, the quarters where the soldiers once lived are striking in their humbleness and humanity. For example, the walls in the old barracks – as at all the other Red Army bases – are plastered with old, Russian newspaper cuttings. The floral wallpaper has peeled, exposing pages from the Komsomolskaya Pravda that were used to line the walls prior to decoration. The dates on the newspapers are varied, with some published as early as the 1950’s, and others published later in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Their headlines, however, relate almost exclusively to the apocalyptic nature of the Cold War. These modest rooms, though, plastered in old newspaper, speak nothing of the global and threatening nuclear standoff of which was their very raison d'etre.
It is now 22 years since the Red Army left Vogelsang, and in that time the unforgiving Brandenburg winters have taken their toll. Many of the quickly and poorly built buildings are starting to crumble, with roofs collapsing and floors rotting. Nature has reasserted itself, with the forest now home to megafauna such as boars, wild sheep and even wolves. Despite all this, Vogelsang is still unmistakably Soviet. Soviet Realism artwork is everywhere, mainly in the form of murals on internal and external walls. Vivid primary colours and straight honest lines are used to depict scenes of military strength and emphasise communist values. There are murals of emancipated proletarians working the land and Olympians with exaggerated vitality and muscularity.
A four metre Lenin statue stands outside an abandoned school. The red paint has started to fade and peel, but Lenin looks as assured of the overthrow of capitalism as he ever did. Soviet Communism, though, has long since died, and the forest in which he stands is no longer a part of a communist state, but a NATO member, free market capitalist state. The statue of Lenin, along with the rest of Vogelsang, will soon be demolished. The Brandenburg forest will quickly cover over the patches of bare land left behind after the demolition, and Vogelsang will once again become nothing more than a nondescript farming village an hour north of Berlin.