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

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.”

Blond, Blue-Eyed Applicants

Surprisingly little is known about the students who attended Vogelsang because records were lost or destroyed after the war. They were called "Junker," a medieval term best translated as "squires" which was intended to evoke their elite position and supposedly ancient heritage.

They were male, aged between 25 and 30, and had been nominated to attend the college by local Nazi party organizations. They had to be athletic -- people with glasses weren’t taken -- and able to prove their pure Aryan roots.

"Many of them came from lower-middle class backgrounds, sons of low-ranking white-collar workers, men who had no proper job training and who had been uprooted by the depression of the late 1920s,” Ring said.

Academic qualifications weren’t necessary, and were deliberately ignored. Married applicants were preferred. Robert Ley, Hitler’s head of organization in the Nazi party who set up Vogelsang and two other such colleges, judged that a man who wasn’t married by 25 was too indecisive to become a top Nazi official.

The final selection came at a ceremony at which Ley looked each candidate in the eye to judge whether he was what he called a “real man.”

Some 400 “real men” were picked for the three-year degree program and the first course started in 1937. The aim of Vogelsang and the two other “castles” -- one in Bavaria and the other in what is now Poland, both still used as army barracks to this day -- was to overcome a severe shortage of Nazi party staff for top government and administrative jobs.

So it may seem surprising that they spent much of their time learning fencing, riding and even flying airplanes. They were meant to feel like a chosen elite, and were treated to bus tours to the opera in nearby Cologne and trips to the North Sea coast. The communal halls were feudal and elaborately decorated while the barrack-like sleeping quarters were spartan -- all part of the Nazis’ emphasis of the communal over the individual.

But there were classes, too. Lectures in the morning and smaller tutorials in the afternoon, with the emphasis on geopolitics and race ideology.

“We Want to Free Ourselves of Compassion”

In one lecture, one of four recorded in 1937, the later headmaster of the school, Hans Dietel, conveyed Nazi thinking on the need for racial purity and the survival of the fittest:

“We have to confront the sick with the healthy ... We have to stamp out compassion with the force of self-assertion. We have to replace servility with lordship and push aside anyone who stands in our way,” said Dietel.

“God did not create man to wither and become servile, but to do what every plant and every animal does constantly, to strive for harmony and completeness ... in this striving we want to free ourselves of compassion ... we know God is with us in this struggle ... With us and with our struggle truly lies the eternal creative force of the universe. With us and with our struggle lies God. Heil Hitler!”

The Holocaust, the euthanasia program, even the invasion of Eastern Europe and Russia ring out in those words. The lecturers were drafted in from universities, high schools and from within the Nazi party.

Although the college had a huge library filled with respected scientific works that refuted all the ideology the students were being taught, no one seems to have read them. Many of the students didn’t even have enough education to follow the classes.

New Lessons from Hitler

“An internal party review found that the education standards of these students were far too low for these lectures,” said Ring. “There are records of complaints that many students couldn’t understand the lectures and questions were asked about whether the course made any sense.”

In the end, it was irrelevant. None of the students finished the degree and only two course years were completed. At the outbreak of war in 1939, most of them left to join the army and some are believed to have committed war crimes. Some 70 percent of Vogelsang's students are thought to have died in the war, said Ring.

Some 140,000 people visited Vogelsang last year, of which 50,000 joined guided tours explaining its history, and Ring expects a similar number in 2007. It already has a small visitor center which offers basic information on the site and the surrounding Eifel national park.

It will take several more years before the museum, or “documentation center,” is built. Architects are being invited to submit designs. There are also vague plans for a youth hostel and a separate academy to encourage broader debate on the lessons of the Nazi period.

“It can’t be enough to just inform people about the past, we want to show that racism didn’t die out in 1945, and that it remains a global phenomenon,” said Ring.

Keeping out Neo-Nazis

Having a museum on the site should also help keep out neo-Nazis, of whom around 100 visited Vogelsang last year in four groups. Vogelsang's management reserves the right to evict anyone wearing far-right clothing or symbols and banned one of the groups last year, said Ring.

“If you want to attract Nazis to a site, put barbed wire around it and board it up, then they’ll get interested and think they can find secrets there,” said Dahm.

“You have to open it, make it transparent, return modern and normal life there and reflect its history with a serious museum, then the place becomes uninteresting to neo-Nazis because it desecrates it in their eyes.”

On the Obersalzberg, for example, the number of neo-Nazi visitors has gone down drastically since the museum opened in 1999, Dahm said.

But anonymous worshippers still occasionally place candles around the few remaining ruins of Hitler’s nearby chalet, the "Berghof," especially around his birthday on April 20.

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