Hitler's Forgotten Castle: Finishing School for Nazis to Become Museum

By in Vogelsang, western Germany

A forgotten monument to Hitler's ideology has emerged from a 70-year time warp -- a castle built in the 1930s to train a new Nazi elite. Vacated by the Belgian army last year, it sheds light on the systematic brainwashing that churned out a generation of fanatics. Now it's being spruced up to teach visitors about the perils of indoctrination.

Deep in the Eifel region of western Germany, a stone-clad reminder of Hitler’s racist ideology towers above the surrounding wooded hills -- the remains of a training college for aspiring Nazi leaders that was built in the style of a medieval castle.

"NS-Ordensburg Vogelsang" (Vogelsang National Socialist Castle) is a dour arrangement of barracks, community halls and sports arenas hugging a steep slope down to a scenic reservoir. It was built between 1934 and 1936 to give selected Nazi party members aged between 25 and 30 a solid grounding in the superiority of the German race and its need for “Lebensraum” in the east.

Vogelsang, which means “Birdsong,” was off limits to the public until last year when it was handed back to the German government by the Belgian army, which had used it as a barracks and training area for almost 50 years after World War II.

The handover has confronted the German government with the difficult question of how to handle a sprawling 50,000 square meter site filled with an embarrassing wealth of more or less intact Nazi symbols, murals and statues including a monstrous five-meter high Germanic “Torch Bearer.”

The whole place is Nazi ideology hewn into stone. It shows how the Nazis stole from ancient Greek and Roman styles, Christian symbols and Germanic legends and mixed them up with modern functional designs. The result was an architectural mishmash that was as ludicrous as the pseudo-religious philosophy it was supposed to represent.

Swastika, Germanic Horsemen

A large brick swastika is laid into the floor of a tall, narrow “Cult Chamber” inside the tall medieval-style tower of the college. Two entrance towers on either side of an oversized four-lane driveway into the college each bear a mural of a Germanic knight -- a medieval one coming from the east and a modern one heading there.

Vast enlargements were planned, including a “House of Knowledge” with a giant cathedral-like “Hall of Honor,” but the war stopped all building work. The college shut down with the outbreak of war in 1939 and became a German army barracks and hospital. The British army took it over after the war and passed it on to the Belgians in 1950.

It survived in a kind of time warp because the generations of soldiers that used it after the war didn't change it much. They didn't need to, because its layout is so militaristic. Alterations were largely cosmetic -- a sports mat was placed on the floor swastika, some of the more strident Nazi slogans were plastered over and the Torch Bearer had his genitals shot off.

An amphitheater was roofed over and turned into a cinema; walls were added here and there to make the place more comfortable. Apart from that, it has survived intact. Swimmers still use the pool under the watchful eyes of giant Germanic athletes staring down from a mural.

Locals complain that regional and federal authorities have been slow to decide Vogelsang’s future, and six years after the Belgians first announced they were leaving, no final agreement has been reached on the financing of a €20 million ($27.5 million) plan to refurbish the area.

Last of the Nazi Monuments

Despite the delay, Germany can draw comfort from the knowledge that this is likely to be the last major Nazi monument it will have to deal with.

After years of debate, successful formats were found for exhibiting other locations such as Hitler’s mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg in Bavaria, the site of his party rallies in Nürnberg, and Gestapo secret police headquarters in Berlin.

Calls by Germany’s Central Council of Jews and some regional politicians to let Vogelsang fall into ruin have been rejected, as have a variety of suggestions ranging from turning it into an old folk’s home, a luxury hotel or a even a leisure park with a go-cart race track.

Most of the buildings have been placed under monument protection. The public company overseeing Vogelsang last month pledged to deal with its history responsibly under a plan that includes a museum about the site and about the Nazi system of education and indoctrination, a subject historians say hasn’t been sufficiently researched. The SS organization had its own network of schools, as did the Hitler Youth.

Klaus Ring, a historian involved in planning the regeneration of Vogelsang, said maintaining some key Nazi locations was as important as keeping up the sites dedicated to their victims such as memorials and concentration camps.

“We’re the nation that perpetrated the Holocaust and as the real eyewitnesses are dying out, it’s increasingly important that we have museums in places where the Nazis were active,” Ring told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

“In places like this we can analyze and explain the Nazi dictatorship more rationally than in, say, concentration camps where respect for the dead requires one to focus on the suffering of the victims. We do not ignore the victims here. We are saying that what was taught here led to the ramp at Auschwitz.”

Volker Dahm, who designed the Obersalzberg museum and heads a board of advisors on the Vogelsang project, said: “Many people are afraid to visit concentration camps but are less afraid to go to a place like Obersalzberg, and are prepared to be informed when they’re there."

"You need a mix of victims’ and perpetrators’ sites to be able to build a historically accurate culture of remembrance.”

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