40 kilometres south of Berlin, hidden deep in the marshy forests of Brandenburg, lies the town of Wünsdorf. Just over 6,000 people live in Wünsdorf today, but for much of the half-century prior, the town boasted a healthy population of around 75,000. This population was exclusively Russian! For here was the Red Army's German headquarters. Here was their largest base located outside the Soviet Union itself.
The Red Army arrived in Wünsdorf on the 20th April, 1945, led by the infamous general Georgy Zhukov. It was just four days since the Red Army had entered Berlin. But unlike Berlin, Wünsdorf was captured easily, without any resistance.
For reasons of convenience, Wünsdorf quickly became home to thousands of Soviet rooms and before long was made the Red Army’s German headquarters. As Wünsdorf had always been a military town, all the infrastructure necessary to house an army was already existing and in place.
In fact, Wünsdorf had only ever existed as a garrison town. Its creation dates back to the formation of the German Empire in 1871, a period of military and technological expansion in Prussia. The construction of a railway line between the two military towns of Jüterborg and Kummersdorf – which dissected the area that would become Wünsdorf – was the impetus behind the building of the first living quarters in the then forest.
Wünsdorf proceeded to grow gradually over the following 40 years, with additional barracks being built when necessary. In 1910, though, a rapid expansion occurred, leading to the ballooning complex becoming the Reichswehr’s headquarters. At the outbreak of the First World War, Wünsdorf had grown to become the largest military base in Europe.
Following the First World War, and due to the demilitarisation terms imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, Wünsdorf lay mostly empty with just 1,200 residents. This was to change in the early 1930’s, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party seized power and dismissed the Treaty of Versailles as illegitimate.
In 1936, three years after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Berlin was to hold the Summer Olympics. The honour had been bestowed upon Berlin in 1931, long before Hitler’s rise to power. But, as Chancellor, he saw the arrival of the Olympics in the Nazi capital as the perfect opportunity to globally disseminate National Socialist propaganda.
Not wanting to waste the occasion, Hitler threw away the original plans for the Olympics, deeming them mediocre. Instead, he ordered that a vast sports complex and Olympic village be built. At its centre, would be the Olympiastadion, a building designed by the architect Werner March, whose purpose would be to project power and invoke awe.
The Olympic Village in Elstal, built close to the Olympic venue, was to house and provide training facilities for the competing athletes from all over the world. The German Olympians, though, did not live and train in the Olympic Village. Instead, they were located at the former Prussian barracks in Wünsdorf. Their task was not a trivial one: they were to demonstrate to the world – on behalf of Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler, and his governing National Socialist party – the racial supremacy of the Aryan race. A grand Prussian garrison town seemed entirely the right location to be based while preparing for this job. The German team went on to win the Summer Olympics with 89 medals, 33 more than the United States, their nearest competitor.
Three years after the end of the triumphant Olympics, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the Second World War began. Hitler had remilitarised Germany, with Wünsdorf becoming a centre and training ground for fast deployment troops. Many of the troops that had been stationed at Wünsdorf were involved in the invasion of Poland.
Because of its military size and might, Wünsdorf was targeted during the war by the American Air Force. A raid, in late 1944, killed 120 people and damaged several of the many buildings. Surprisingly though, Wünsdorf survived the war relatively unscathed, perhaps because the main military buildings were built in a country house style, so as to avoid detection from the air.
In 1945, when the Soviets moved in, little on the surface had changed at Wünsdorf. The ‘Haus der Offiziere’, remained the central, beating heart of town during the Soviet period. The buildings here are grand and palace like, decorated with ornamental extravagances and rendered in a deep, imperial yellow. They date back to the 1910’s - 20’s when the barracks were Prussain, and only a few (although notable) modifications were made by the Soviets.
To the rear of the main building of the Haus der Offiziere, a large round extension was added. Clashing in style with the original building, the extension is a modernist, circular edifice. Large panels face outwards, depicting scenes of the Red Army entering and conquering Berlin in 1945. The artwork is in the typical Soviet realism style, and in complete contrast to the Prussian architecture of the surrounding buildings.
A proud statue of Lenin was added to the front of the main building. It was 28 years after the Germans had sent Lenin to Moscow on the infamous sealed train, and the Communist revolution that he had instigated in Russia had spread westwards back into Germany itself. That was not how the Germans had hoped things would pan out. But they had no choice now but to accept the presence of tens of thousands of Soviet troops on their defeated territory. The statues of Lenin were also compulsory.
Prussia was no more. Wünsdorf may well lie 1,800 kilometres to the west of Moscow, but now it was Russian property. For the entire Cold War, there were direct, daily trains to and from the Russian capital. Wünsdorf became known colloquially as ‘little Moscow’, except to the East Germans who were strictly prohibited from entering. To them it was the Verbotene Stadt, or the Forbidden City.
For 49 years the Soviets remained stationed at Wünsdorf. They crushed the uprising in Berlin in June of 1953, and otherwise kept the order in East Germany the way that Moscow wanted it keeping. But the collapse of the Berlin Wall was a defeat for communism and the Soviet Union soon disintegrated. In 1994, following that disintegration, the Soviet troops left Wünsdorf and returned to Russia. The town was once again abandoned, and Little Moscow was no more.
The German authorities were left with the unenviable task of clearing up thousands of pieces of munitions spread over 260 hectares. This took several years, but after the clean-up, German citizens started to move into Wünsdorf, attracted by the cheap property prices. The town was rebranded as a ‘book and bunker city’, and is now open to tourists wishing to explore the old Soviet bunker system. But whether the permanent population in Wünsdorf will increase much beyond the current 6,000, and thus become a viable civilian town, remains to be seen. The long term fate of the empty barracks in Wünsdorf is unknown.