Visiting the Heart of Darkness: Hitler’s Bunker

ANZAC day – 25 April – I spent on a pilgrimage to Wolf’s Lair. For the benefit of those who, like me, have never heard of this place, this is where Hitler spent a total of 800 days of World War II, plotting world domination. For those who, also like me, may be more familiar with Tom Cruise than the finer details of WWII history, it was also the place where the most nearly successful assassination attempt on Hitler took place in 1944, immortalised in the film Valkyrie.

I would love to say that it was planned that way, that we decided to spend the day when Australians and New Zealanders remember those who’ve died in wars, at the place from where the biggest war of all was planned and directed. In fact, as with many things in life, it just turned out that way. But still, it seemed a highly appropriate way to spend the day; a weekend trip with some Americans to the place where Hitler spent much of his war.

Wolf’s Lair is situated in a part of Poland called the Mazury. A region of big, freshwater lakes, dotted through forests of silver birch, fir and pine. The sort of place with cute little rustic inns advertising ‘fresh fish straight from the pan’. Where Poles, Germans and the odd stray Belorussian might go for a week in summer with the family, swimming and fishing, or spend a few days in autumn looking for mushrooms along forest trails. Right now, in early spring, the wildflowers carpet the forest floors with dainty little white and yellow petals. Above all, after a decade in drought ravaged Canberra, it seemed incredibly, indelibly green.

I tell this to make the point that this is a very, very pretty place. Which makes it hard to reconcile these surroundings with what went on here. Because, while Hitler had a number of headquarters, this was the one he spent the most time in. This location was chosen because it was close to the Russian front, and Hitler was confident he could mount an assault on Russia next. Being far in the east of occupied Poland, it was too far from England for Allied planes to be able to make it to drop bombs on it. So perhaps it should consider a sister-city arrangement with Canberra. They could bond over what seems to us, now, a quaint inability to foresee the kinds of weapons human beings would manage to develop.

I’d been warned by my guidebook that the ruins were pretty run down, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting very much. Given this, I was surprised to find how extensive the remains were, in terms of both number and diversity. You could see where there had been storage facilities for food and other supplies. Garages for the cars and tanks. Offices where stenographers and communications personnel worked. A large dam for water. Huge meeting rooms and auditoriums. And perhaps most surprisingly, not just one but two casinos. I would love to offer something by way of explanation on this point. But I got nothing.

It’s true that all that was left of some was a few foundation stones. But the remains of many of the individual buildings were enormous. These huge – HUGE – piles of concrete, just rising right up out of the jungle. The biggest would easily have been the size of a two story building. With walls and ceilings at least 10 metres thick, all constructed with reinforced concrete. Which of course they had to be, given that they were housed the nerve centre of the Nazi war effort, and hence were designed to withstand massive bombardments. So the finer aspects of design took a back seat to functionality, and the place was principally constructed entirely of enormous slabs of reinforced concrete.

With, I just add, one exception: One building was decorated in the finest style of the day, entirely covered in beautifully crafted ceramic tiles, with large open windows, spacious rooms, a central fireplace – even underfloor heating. Its purpose? To keep morale up by showing Hitler’s officers how they would all be living when they had won the war.

A train line went straight to the complex. It was along this line that Hitler would come and go, in his own personal train. Hitler had originally called this train The America, named when he thought that the US might still join with him as an ally. When it became clear they were firmly on the other side, he renamed it The Brandenburg.

The whole thing had been completely covered by huge camouflage nets. These blanketed not only the buildings, but also the pathways between them, allowing people to walk freely around the complex. The camouflage nets were even changed as the different seasons came around – gold for autumn, white for the winter snows. Sometimes, you just can’t help thinking that if we, as humans, had put as much effort into achieving peace as we have into being at war, the world would be a better place. But they did the trick: the complex was never found.

We walked through quite a number of the ruins. There’s not much left on the inside, so you have to use your imagination a bit. But the overwhelming memory I took away was of cold. On the outside, it was a pleasant spring day. In the heart of these concrete bunkers, it was freezingly, bitingly cold. As though the sun and wind had never, in 60 years, penetrated them. Or maybe just as though the buildings were still holding on to the knowledge of what happened as a result of the decisions that were taken here. And that had made them incapable of being warm.

Most of the reason that the place is fairly run down now has to do with the fact that, when Hitler realised the end of the war was nigh, he gave the order to evacuate and blow up the complex. This posed a slight engineering problem: how do you blow up something that was specifically built to withstand being blown up? As it turned out, the answer involved a heck of a lot of dynamite – 6 tonnes per building, according to one source. Enough to blow the 10 metre thick reinforced concrete rooves off some of the buildings, and leave them standing, vertically, as if they’d always been walls. Just in case, the Nazis also left something like 50,000 mines surrounding the complex. It would take Polish deminers the next 10 years to clear them.

The thing I’ve seen that most resembles what this place was like was Angkor Wat, the ancient Khmer temples in the Cambodian jungles. These were ‘lost’ for a millenia or two until being ‘discovered’ by some French explorers. (Exactly how you ‘lose’ a massive temple complex has always been a bit of a mystery to me, but it’s that or aliens, I guess). Anyway, so they’ve restored most of the temples, but one they left. Just as it was. Mostly reclaimed by the jungle. With trees growing up in, through and out of it, massive roots crawling through and around its statues, frescos and friezes.

That’s sort of what this was like. Trees growing up and through the concrete slabs, slowly reclaiming their territory. Birds nesting in the crevices in the old concrete structures. It was very far from the slick, touristy experience of the Warsaw Uprising Museum or the Auschwitz commemorative site, which is absolutely not to take anything away from these places. But simply by way of contrast, I felt here as though I might almost have been the first one to stumble on this place. By and large, you are free to wander round and simply make what you will of it. On the one hand, it seemed strange that such a place could have been presented in such a neutral manner. On the other, I sort of felt like the guardians had felt they could take what had happened as a given, and simply leave the place to speak for itself.

And actually, I quite liked this aspect of it. It meant we each ended up with our own, quite personal impressions. But one thing that struck all of us was the incongruity between the peace and tranquility of the surroundings and what happened here. The lives of countless millions of people ended as a result of plans made here. My guidebook tells me that, had the assassination attempt here been successful and the war brought to an end a year earlier, something like five million lives could have been saved. And had the bomb been planted a few feet either side of where it was, it could have succeeded. And today, we walk around this place, and the birds are singing, wildflowers blooming, and our dogs can run around, chasing sticks. It’s hard to believe that only 60 years have passed.

That night, our American friends joined with us in a toast to the ANZACs on our day of remembrance.

Lest we forget.

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