Touring the Horrible A Guide to Germany's Darkest Places

Beer, bratwurst and lederhosen are an undeniable part of German culture. But so too is the country's brutal 20th century history. SPIEGEL ONLINE takes you to 11 of the country's most unsettling sites.


The Vogelsang Fortress -- Ideology Cast in Stone

Bundestrasse 266, starting at the German town of Gemünd not far from the border with Belgium, winds out of the town and up onto a high plateau. Before long, past a small town called Morsbach, you will come to an inconspicuous turnoff. The drive takes you through beautiful woodland past bright blue lakes. But it is a beauty that lies in direct contrast with the journey's endpoint: Vogelsang Castle, one of the Nazis' elite training schools.

Open to the public only since January 2006, the complex is sprawling and confusing, the fortification full of nooks and crannies. Indeed, most opt for a guide to point out the most important sights.

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Photo Gallery: Germany's Darkest Places
Under the direction of Robert Ley's German Workers Front (DAF), one of three elite training centers took shape on the Eifel Ridge beginning in 1934. It was designed as an investment in the Nazi party's future, where the next generation of Hitlers was to be formed. Sport formed an important part of the curriculum, as did racial theory and geo-politics.

The 500 students -- a number which eventually grew to 1,000 -- were known as "NS-Junkers", and were housed in sparsely furnished barracks. The complex was taken over by the armed forces at the outbreak of war and subsequently used to accommodate the troops during the Ardennes Offensive and the push into France.

The differing national attitudes towards a place that is connected with National Socialism is rarely as obvious as here. While the English, say tour guides, are most concerned with understanding the complex from a pragmatic viewpoint, and the Americans are the first to ask how often the "German Führer" visited Vogelsang, the Germans on the other hand feel duty bound to find a politically correct justification for their own curiosity.

They say they feel "committed to the past," hope to "act against forgetting" and are openly disgusted by "the megalomania and the image of humanity of that era." This could perhaps make sense if it were the case of one or two instances; it however does not explain the stampede of almost 600,000 who have visited Vogelsang since its opening on Jan. 1, 2006. Hardly any of the German visitors admit that part of the appeal is that the site has changed little since the Third Reich.

Björn Troll, the press spokesman of the company that operates the tours, has a more relaxed attitude towards the issue. "When I started my job at Vogelsang at the beginning of 2009, I was asked how I could justify working in these buildings. I feel good about my job: After all I'm here instead of the National Socialists!"

Before its opening, many feared Vogelsang would become a Mecca for right-wing extremists but that has not come to pass. "Our house rules include how best to respond to neo-Nazis" says Troll. In addition, they are "well connected with the state security and the regional police."

Visitors to this historically significant site have largely the Belgian army to thank for its well-preserved condition. After a short takeover by the British, the Belgians moved into the region in 1950 and the complex was maintained under the name of Camp Vogelsang ("Birdsong") until their departure in 2005. With the exception of a few damaged statues, the removal of the swastikas and some amended lettering, the grounds have survived 60 years unscathed, just like a time capsule.

Vogelsang is a difficult place that does not easily open itself up to visitors. The images in one's head of concentration camp conditions and Nazi party rallies do not apply here. Vogelsang is best described as a symbol for Nazi ideology.

No place makes this clearer than the clearing surrounded by woods on the edge of the complex that is the location for the "torch-bearer." The sculpture, five meters (16 feet) tall, apparently was used for target practice. An übermensch carved out of stone, with every muscle sharply defined, the left hand clenched into a fist, the right clasped around a torch: an example for the "master race," whose seed was once to be planted at Vogelsang.

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