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Ordensburg Vogelsang – a field trip

Posted by Denny Koch on April 17, 2011

The eagles of the "Adlerplatz", Ordensburg Vogelsang

One sunny weekend in April, we decided to make a field trip to the NS Ordensburg (“Order Castle”) Vogelsang, located in the western Eifel region of Germany, close to the Ardennes, Huertgen Forest and the Belgian border.

Castle Vogelsang was built by the National Socialists in 1936 in order to serve as an elite educational center for future leaders. It is the second largest relic of National Socialist architecture after the Reichsparteitag in Nürnberg. After World War II, the castle served as Belgium barracks and NATO training area. It was handed back to Germany for civil use in 2006. Since then, it is open to the public and still under transformation into a documentary center.

Location

An old photograph of Burg Vogelsang

Ordensburg Vogelsang is located near the small town of Gmünd in the district of Schleiden, high above the Urft dam in the National Park Eifel. The area of the landmarked buildings is 50,000 square metres, but only 20% of what was planned was eventually finished before the outbreak of World War II, which marked the end of the educational program.

Some minor parts of the castle were destroyed in WWII, but large parts of the castle survived the bombardments (which were mainly directed against the nearby Urft and Schwammenauel dams). The Ordensburg was hastily erected within two years by 1,500 workers. It looks ancient and rustic because the buildings appears to be made of quarry stones from the region, but in fact the buildings were made of concrete and steel frames which were  only hidden under the seemingly massive stones.

The place for the roll-call

Since the educational center was meant to resemble an Order Castle of the Deutscher Orden (Order of the Teutonic Knights), it needed a high tower which actually was a water tower (it never worked as planned, so it wasn’t used). In addition, there are several other buildings, for example community houses, a Thing place, a stadium, a gym, swimming pool, comradeship houses, a place for roll call etc..

Monuments showing the “ideal human” (who was meant to be educated here) can be found all over the place.

The main building next to the tower was destroyed in WWII and rebuilt in the original style later. Today, it contains the National Park Eifel tourist information, an educational center, a museum shop, and a small exhibition.

There is no entrance fee to visit the Ordensburg, but it is highly recommended that you participate in a guided tour which costs moderate 5 Euros. The tour guides are highly motivated honorary volunteers who lead you around the area in small groups of 15 people. A guided tour takes between 90 minutes and 2 hours. You can also climb up the tower which is 48 meters (157 feet) high, which costs 3 Euro and is also accompanied by a guide.

If you want to explore the area on your own, you can follow one of the three round tours which are very well signposted with information boards in German, English, Dutch, and French.

The distant ghost town Wollseifen

Close to the Ordensburg is the ghost town of Wollseifen. After WWII, the British forced the population to leave the town because they wanted to use it as a training area for city fights. Over the years, the original city was destroyed and fake buildings were erected. The training ground was later used by NATO forces, preparing for missions in former Yugoslavia, and by the Red Cross and other organizations.

Today, you can visit the deserted fake town (you have to walk there by foot and you are not allowed to leave the marked path when you go there), but it is planned to tear most of the buildings down and leave only the church (which is still the original one, minus the roof which was destroyed and replaced), which should then contain a documentary center about the buildings and life in the old village Wollseifen.

History

Junkers at the roll-call place

In 1933, Adolf Hitler declared that he planned to erect educational camps in order to educate new leaders. He was in desperate need of loyal people with leading qualities who should replace the old cadres who often had a different political opinion. Hastily, three educational camps were built: Ordensburg Vogelsang in the Eifel region, Crössinsee in Pomerania, and Sonthofen in the Allgäu Alps. These locations were chosen with care because they are all located within impressive and beautiful German landscapes – which should help to convince the leadership candidates of the beauty of their German homeland – and the need to expanse it.

Vogelsang was built on a hill above the very popular Urft reservoir which was a local recreation area with hotels and boats. It was also planned to build a gigantic “Kraft durch Freude (KdF) hotel” (“Strength through joy”) by the state-controlled leisure organization of the German Labour Front. The hotel was never built, though. Vogelsang was financed by the confiscated capital of the abolished labor unions and employer’s organizations.

The educational centers were soon dubbed “NS-Ordensburgen” (Order Castles) to emphasize the historical connection with the Teutonic Knights and their crusades into Eastern Europe. Vogelsang was planned by the Cologne architect Clemens Klotz who had also built the colossal KdF building in Prora on the island of Rügen, which is a 4,5 km (=2,8 miles) long concrete building along the coast line.

The panorama view from the tower is magnificent

Within two years, the main parts of Vogelsang were finished and education could begin. More buildings, for example a gigantic “House of Knowledge” or a sports stadium which was even larger than the Olympia Stadium in Berlin were planned, but never finished. Construction was halted with the outbreak of WWII.

View from the tower

In April 1936, Vogelsang was officially handed over to Adolf Hitler. The first 500 hand-picked “Junkers” moved into Vogelsang. They were personally chosen by Reichsorganisationsleiter of the NSDAP, Robert Ley.

The term “Junker” was also derived from old German feudal traditions, where they described members of the nobility. Junkers were not chosen upon their background, family, education, or job. On the contrary, the backgrounds of each candidate were never a subject to discussion and certificates were ignored. Other qualities were of greater importance: arian appearance, perfect physical health, proof of arian descent, proof of military service, engagement for the community, and they had to be married. Most were in their mid-twenties and some were even overtaxed by the intellectual indoctrination program, so the major focus in Vogelsang was shifted to sports and physical activities. Education mainly composed of the topics race science and geopolitics as well as good manners.

Adlerplatz without Adler (=eagles)

Because of the harsh regiment and drill, many Junkers quit and searched for easier ways to make money and a career. Payment also wasn’t very high; while their families were adequately supplied, they only got a few Reichsmark per day, just enough to buy a beer at the local tavern. 80% of the graduates later died in the war at the various fronts because they fanatically volunteered for the Wehrmacht, despite the fact that they were offered higher positions in the government. Some, of course, became administrators of occupied regions where they often were strongly involved into war crimes.

Despite the fact that the Junkers were supposed to become “the elite” who should later occupy key positions within the Reich, their accommodations were far from being luxurious. On the contrary, they lived and slept in so-called “Hundertschafthäusern” (“houses of the one hundred”) where they slept in large dormitories with about 50 men, side to side. The only other furniture besides rows of beds were lockers.

The day began early at 6.00 AM with morning exercises. 7.00 AM mustering at the roll-call place, followed by lectures, classes, and group work. After lunch, afternoon sports exercises. 5 PM-6.30 PM: more lectures and group work. 10 PM: rest.

The Thing place where ceremonies and festivities were held

Because of the isolated location deep in the Eifel region, the Junkers didn’t have much opportunity to spend their spare leisure time outside the castle walls. Instead, they were sent to various events, celebrations, and Nazi stagings all over Germany as “audience” in order to provide for a large, cheering crowd. The Ordensburg maintained a large motor pool just for moving Junkers around from one event to the next, even to the Reichsparteitag (Nürnberg Rallys) to ensure that there were always loyal, cheering masses in the public who would inspire other visitors and common people.

With the beginning of WWII, the junker program was halted and the castle was handed over to the Wehrmacht which used it as a staging area for large-scale operations, for example the Ardennes offensive in 1944 and the Western campaign in 1940, and as a field hospital.

At the end of WWII, the castle fell into British hands, who soon handed it over to the Belgium military authorities. The Belgians erected the Van Dooren barracks (named after the first Belgium casuality in WWII), and the castle was used as a training ground for NATO troops. NS symbols like swastikas were removed and many monuments were damaged (mainly by using them for target practice), but the buildings remained unharmed. The new barracks were even built-in the original architectural style. Some monuments remained intact, especially a large relief in the swimming bath, and some “torch bearers”.

In 2006, the castle was handed over to the German Government and was opened for the public. Today, a non-profit association is tasked with researching and documenting the history of the castle as well as making new plans for the future. A youth hostel is currently under construction, as well as a “Center for the Youth & Europe” where young people from all over Europe come together for common projects about nature and NS history.

Visiting Vogelsang

All information is available in German, English, Dutch, and French

We went to Vogelsang by car (you can also reach it with public transport, but the castle is located deep in the Eifel, so getting there is somewhat adventurous). If you take a route trough the Eifel hills and forests and small villages, you will get a good impression of the difficult terrain the Allied forces faced in the Ardennes and Huertgen forest.

Vogelsang has a large parking lot. From there, you have a good view across a valley to the ghost town of Wollseifen. From the parking lot, you have to walk about 500 meters (0.3 miles) to the main castle with the tourist information, some restaurants, museum shop, and exhibition.

Guided tours take place daily at 2 pm and you have to buy your ticket at the information. You are then assigned to one of the several tour guides. Vogelsang is highly frequented by tourists from all over Germany, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Belgium, or France. The castle is visited by about 200,000 visitors per year, most of them on spring and summer weekends.

We arrived at 1 pm, so we had one hour left until the guided tour. We went to the roll-call place and enjoyed the magnificent view over the Eifel hills, the Urft reservoir and dam and visited a small exhibition about “Organized vacations in the Third Reich”. The exhibition was interesting, it showcased many original KdF posters and explained the Third Reich philosophy of sending workers and people of all classes on recreational trips, sponsored by the Labor Movement and full of “community-building” activities (in other words: propaganda).

High above the Urft reservoir

Besides information about Ordensburg Vogelsang, the tourist forum also informs about the Nationalpark Eifel which is an important wildlife sanctuary and also interesting because of the geological past (the Eifel is a vulcanic region) and historical locations (military locations like the Westwall, but also ancient Roman and Medieval sites).

At 2 PM, we met with our tour guide. With a group of 15 people, we were then led through the vast castle area. The tour was very interesting, the tour guide was a local who lives in a nearby village. His mother had been a child when Vogelsang was still a Ordensburg and he remembered interesting stories about how the local children had to line up along the road to the castle when Hitler came for a visit.

He also took some large images with him where he showed us how a certain place, monument or building had looked when the castle was still in use. Amazingly, today most of the buildings still look like they did then. Only some of the monuments are severely damaged, for example the sportsmen monument. It was interesting to see how it had originally looked like before the Belgians used it for target practice, especially by shooting at the faces and genitals of the statues.

Taking a guided tour is a must

The guide allowed us to enter one of the houses where the Junkers slept in groups of 50. The beds and lockers had been removed, of course, because the buildings were used by the Belgians and others over the last 60 years. You could still see how hastily the castle was erected and it was quite disillusioning to see the concrete walls within the seemingly ancient and massive “quarry stone” buildings.

You are not allowed to enter the other buildings (besides the main building) on your own and they are usually locked, so if you want to see one from the inside, you have to participate in a guided tour.

Our guide then explained the Thingplatz to us where festivities were held on Summer Solstice or Hitler’s birthday. This place was built along the slope from the castle down to the Urft reservoir in a somewhat amphitheater-like style. Participants sat on over-sized stairs while fires were lit all along the slope and on giant statues like the torch-bearer (which must have been a quite impressive sight, but Nazis were famous for staging impressive events).

We learned a lot about life and education in Vogelsang and the guide was very engaged and open to questions without moralizing or displaying the common “I would not have joined in, I would have been in the resistance since day 1” attitude you often meet in German historical sites dealing with National Socialism. On the contrary, he compared Nazi Germany and the propaganda and brainwashing machine to today’s North Korea and pointed out the similarities between the marching masses in both countries. Since you were manipulated 24 hours a day while being offered work, a simple solution for all your problems, and adventure, fun and comradeship in the Nazi youth organizations, he didn’t reject the possibility that he would have been attracted to the Hitler youth as a teenager or to becoming a Junker where you were constantly told that you were the elite and the best of the best, meant to rule the Reich. This was a very interesting and quite uncommon point of view, and we were really surprised about his open words.

In the end, the tour took almost 2 hours.

A "Hundertschafthaus" from the outside...

Inside the Hundertschaftshaus where 50 Junker slept

The tower as seen from the Thing place

The Thing place

Over-sized stairs

The tower

After the tour we decided to climb the tower. You are not allowed to climb the tower on your own, the spiral staircase is very tight and you need to be free from vertigo or claustrophobia if you want to climb up the 172 stairs. Only 15 people are allowed in the tower at a time, but we were only 3, so we had another guide (this time a trainee girl) almost for our own.

The view from the tower was great, you could see all over the Urft reservoir and dam, over the castle area, and up to several Eifel towns with their wind power turbines, and last but not least, the ghost town of Wollseifen. The guide showed us the most remarkable landmarks and explained them to us, and afterwards we could enjoy the view for a few more minutes. Climbing the tower and enjoying the view took about half an hour. There are many castle buildings spread all over the hill, and it’s hard to imagine that they only comprise about 20% of what was originally planned. If the Nazis had had enough time to finish their plans, the size of the entire complex would have been beyond imagination.

The "Fackelträger" (torch-bearer)

We also visited the “Fackelträger” (Torch bearer) monument, which in fact was a giant torch. During ceremonies, the basin on top of the monument was filled with oil and then ignited, so that the entire statue was lit by a giant flame which could be seen even at the Urft dam.

The swimming bath is open to the public and used by the locals from the nearby villages. Amazingly, the relief of three “ideal” humans is still intact and can be seen through a small window, if you don’t want to swim. We went across the Thingplatz, visited the damaged sportsmen, and finally moved back to the Adler place. This huge place was named after the two eagle statues which had been there, but today, the damaged eagles are removed from their podiums and placed next to a wall.

The weather was great, sunny without a single cloud with a fresh wind and modest 20 C (68F) and since it was early April, the location wasn’t too crowded with tourists either. If you are in the Eifel or Ardennes region or visiting Belgium or the Netherlands, you should visit this interesting location – it is well worth a visit!

The size of the Fackelträger compared to a human...

The swimming bath relief is still intact

...while the sportsmen relief was used for target practice

The original sportsmen

If you are interested, visit the official Ordensburg website at: www.vogelsang-ip.de. Information is available in German, English, Dutch, and French. You can get there by car or by train (there is a National Park bus shuttle service from Kall railway station, only on weekends). As mentioned above, there is no entrance fee. The area is open from 8 AM – 8 PM, the forum and restaurants are open from 10 AM – 5 PM.

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Speyer – visiting the 2000 year old Imperial City

Posted by Denny Koch on September 25, 2010

The famous Imperial Cathedral

In July 2010, we visited one of the oldest cities in Germany: Speyer, the 2000 years old Imperial city of Roman origin, next to the river Rhine. It is located in the Palatinate region, surrounded by the low mountain ranges of the Palatinate forest and the Odenwald.

Historical overview

Speyer is a very interesting city with a rich history. Before the arrival of the Romans, it was a very lively German settlement, located on one of the most important ancient traffic routes because of its close proximity to the Rhine and the river Neckar (which eventually leads into the Danube). The oldest archeological finds are from the Neolithic, the Bronze Age, and Hallstatt culture. Certainly the most famous and most important archeological discovery was the Golden Hat of Schifferstadt, dating back to 1,500 B.C. This hat can be admired in the Historical Museum of the Palatinate in Speyer – which we did.

Speyer has a rich Roman history, as you will learn in the Historical Museum of the Palatinate

Pre-Roman Speyer was settled by the Teutonic tribe of the Nemetes and by Celts. Around 10 BC, the Romans (who had just conquered the Gauls) erected a military garrison which was intended to protect the Rhine and  to serve as a base for further conquests on the east side of the Rhine during the reorganization after the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest. After a while, the settlement began to flourish and became the Roman city of Civitas Nemetum.

The Historical Museum of the Palatinate has a very large and impressing exhibition of Roman, German, and Celtic finds from the region and we really enjoyed our visit in the Museum. Actually, it is one of the most enjoyable historical museums we ever visited and the exhibition items are well-arranged and presented in a very modern and lively fashion.

In 346 AD, Speyer became a diocesan town and in the 969, Emperor Otto the Great granted the bishops immunity and special privileges, so that Speyer actually was controlled and ruled by the bishops. With the election of the Salian king Konrad II who became King of Germany, Speyer became the Imperial city from which the Emperors ruled over the country for centuries.

The Romanic cathedral was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1981

In 1061, one of the most famous Romanic cathedrals in Germany, the Speyer Cathedral, was consecrated. Today, the cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site and certainly worth a visit. In the crypt, the tombs of the old German emperors can still be visited today.

The "Altpörtel" is one of the oldest and most important city gates in Germany

During the Middle Ages and under the rule of several Emperors, many important historical events took place in Speyer: Henry IV departed for Canossa in 1071 and Bernard of Clervaux went here at the beginning of the Second Crusade in 1141. In 1143, Richard the Lionheart was extradited to Henry VI.

Later, Speyer suffered heavy destruction during several wars (the Thirty Years War, War of the Palatine Succession), when the city was occupied by Spanish, Swedish, French, and Imperial troops. At the end of the 17th century, Speyer was put to the torch, so that over 700 houses were destroyed.

Under Napoleon, Speyer fell to France but was returned to Germany later. Under the Nazi regime, the famous Speyer synagogue was destroyed in the Reichskristallnacht which marked an end to the rich Jewish life for which Speyer was famous since the 11th century. During World War II, fortunately the city wasn’t destroyed, only 2 allied bombs hit the town and the Rhine bridge was destroyed by retreating German forces. The city was then liberated by US troops and became part of the French occupation zone later.

In 1990, Speyer celebrated the 2000-years-anniversary. With the Cathedral, the fantastic museums (Historical Museum and the Technology Museum which is one of the largest in Europe and famous for the Russian Space Shuttle Buran), many buildings from the Middle Ages, one of the largest Medieval city gates (called “the Altpörtel”), lots of Biergartens, and amazingly friendly and open-hearted locals, Speyer is certainly worth a visit and a tourist attraction you shouldn’t miss if you happen to come to Germany.

HFC on tour: travelogue

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We arrived in Speyer by train on one of the hottest days this summer (close to 40 C / 104 F). You should know that Germany is famous for NOT having air condition in buildings, especially not in old historical towns (except from big stores and supermarkets…), so places for cooling down were rare.

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Visiting battlefields: The Bridge of Remagen – a field trip

Posted by Denny Koch on July 5, 2010

The Erpeler Ley and Ludendorff Bridge

Andreas and I used a prolonged weekend to visit the Bridge of Remagen which is located in western Germany, about 50 km (=31 miles) south of Cologne in the Federal State of Rhineland-Palatinate. The Bridge across the Rhine river was destroyed in World War II on March 17th, 1945 after 10 days of heavy fighting between German and US troops.

After the destruction, the Ludendorff Bridge was never rebuilt but remained ruined as a memorial. Today, the bridge towers at Remagen (on the left bank of the Rhine) house a famous war museum, telling the story of the Remagen bridge. On the opposite bank, high above the medieval town Erpel, the volcanic basaltic rock “Erpeler Ley” offers a great overview of the Rhine valley, the bridge and the Eifel region. This mountain was called “Flak Hill” by the advancing US forces due to its strategic position and flak emplacements.

Denny at Remagen station

We went to Remagen by train. The town was founded by the Romans 2000 years ago (celtic name: Rigomagos, latin: Rigomagus). First, we visited the town and went to the tourist information. Remagen was partly destroyed during the War, so the town consists of the typical ugly mix of medieval townhouses and modern eyesores, mainly built in the 50s, supplemented by modern ambitious and less ambitious buildings.

Nevertheless, there are some places of interest besides the bridge, such as a Roman museum, the infamous POW camp “Golden Mile”, and the Apollinaris Abbey located on an old Roman sanctuary. This church, located on the Apollinaris hill, was unaffected by the war.

After a short stroll through Remagen we went down to the Rhine promenade. The weather was good, mostly sunny, sometimes cloudy but no rain. The remains of the Ludendorff bridge are widely visible because the black towers are quite high. The bridge is a famous tourist feature and quite popular among US and British tourists as well as other foreign and German tourists visiting the Rhine valley.

The Towers of the Remagen bridge, containing the museum

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