Poland: East of Berlin, west of Stalingrad: Europe's killing forest

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The Independent Online
This week, plans were announced to turn Hitler's alpine retreat above Berchtesgaden into an exhibition centre. But the Fuhrer's main war- time HQ is already a tourist attraction. In 1941, a tranquil patch of eastern Poland became centre stage for the theatre of war. Simon Calder walked through the woods where the Fuhrer lived and almost died.

A maple leaf, the colour of rust, is plucked by the cool, westerly breeze and wafts to earth a few feet nearer Russia. While sunlight dances through slender trees, a delicious trace of woodsmoke drifts by. Under a clear, bright sky, an autumn walk through the Ketrzyn woods of eastern Poland is an exercise in serenity.

Yet as you amble further, in the general direction of Moscow, gross and ghostly shapes begin to rise out of the terrain.

Half a century ago, this fair forest concealed die Wolfsschanze - the Wolf's Lair, as the Fuhrer's headquarters was known. During World War 2 Adolf Hitler spent longer in this obscure corner of (then) East Prussia than in any other location, and it was here that he came closest to dying, before taking his own life amid a disintegrating Berlin.

You wouldn't come here by accident. Your destination is so remote that it doesn't feature in the Thomas Cook European Timetable. Board a bus before dawn in the port city of Gdansk, and after more than five hours of meandering along the cheerier side of the Russian border, you arrive in a small country town. Even in the sparse text of eastern Europe, Ketrzyn feels like barely a comma. Once, you reflect, this town was known as Rastenburg and echoed with German voices.

It takes only a few moments to leave behind the assortment of dwellings strewn around the tired old station. A field annexed from the lazily rolling countryside is being ploughed by a horse, the only manifestation of energy to impinge upon a placid picture. As you wander onwards and eastwards, a single-track railway converges with the road.

This line brought Adolf Hitler from Berlin to his lair in the woods. In 1940, prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union, 3,000 Germans created a Fuhrerhauptquartiere in an East Prussian wilderness. On 24 June 1941, soon after the war against the USSR began, the Fuhrer arrived. The Wolf's Lair moved centre stage in the theatre of war.

Today, the sight that awaits you is as startling as it is chilling. Huge shapes, twisted at vicious angles, conspire to block the pale sun. In a gentler world - the jungle of central America, say - you would assume you had stumbled upon some lost Mayan city that had fallen victim to an earthquake. The sole purpose of this conurbation, however, was to direct the Third Reich's struggle for world domination. When all was lost, the destruction turned in on itself. But that was later.

In the early Forties, an over-eager estate agent might have pointed to the range of amenities available to new arrivals at the Wolf's Lair: a subterranean sauna, a cinema and even a casino were created to entertain the warriors between bouts of moving troops along the Eastern Front and consigning Jews to concentration camps and near-certain death.

The residents were not the sort of people anyone would have wanted as neighbours. Besides Hitler and his Alsatian dog Blondi, Hermann Goring and Martin Boorman had personal bunkers - as did Ribbentrop, who had connived with the USSR to carve up Poland in 1939. At its height, the Wolf's Lair was home to more than 2,000 people, many of them detailed to protect the Fuhrer.

Elaborate precautions were taken to conceal the lair from prying Allied eyes. Besides the natural covering afforded by mixed woodland, nets were strung across the bunkers. These were covered with vegetation appropriate for the season, to make the lair indistinguishable from the endless forest. The site was never attacked from outside while the Nazis were in residence.

The wreckage you witness was administered by the fleeing German military in January 1945, three days before the Red Army arrived. After Soviet troops triumphed at Stalingrad in 1943, the Eastern Front began to shift west. To prevent the USSR making use of the site, the Nazis set about a well-rehearsed programme of blowing up the bunkers. As further deterrence, 10,000 land-mines were laid; it later took 11 years to clear them. The best-preserved structure was Goring's territory, where ladders allow visitors a closer look. Remnants of daily life, such as the echoing tea house, are scattered around a forest whose innocence was brutally violated.

Relative to its size, Poland suffered more than any other country in the Second World War. At the end of the conflict it regained its identity and lands, including the woods of Gorlitz (the pre-war Prussian name). The town and forest were renamed after a local hero, and the site preserved for tourists. If the attendance last weekend is typical, almost all the visitors are German.

As tourist attractions go, the facilities are excellent. In the restaurant that has risen from the foundations of the old SS barracks, you can eat "Wolf Ragout" - broth infiltrated by meatballs (beef, not wolf) or tuck into a beetroot/sauerkraut/potato combination that Hitler, a vegetarian, would have favoured. REM's "Shiny Happy People" wafts insensitively out of a radio shoved into a refurbished corner.

Knowing the history of the place, I was shocked to walk in and encounter a room full of uniforms. It turned out to be a prizegiving ceremony for Polish Army reservists. The Nazis' self-destruction had failed, I reflected; the victors had found a military use for the wreckage of the lair.

As with any self-respecting tourist venue, a map marks out the highlights. From a distance, it seems comfortably similar to the map of facilities at Center Parcs. It reads, though, like a guide to a nightmarish theme park: "12 - Flak Bunker ... 27 - Fuhrer escort battalion barracks ... 21 - teleprinter exchange (reinforced 1944) ..."

As you tour the Wolf's Lair, such clinical detail makes you try to comprehend the collective insanity that created and then destroyed the place. Architecture - if slamming vast slabs of reinforced concrete together to create fearsome monoliths can be so described - born from violence has itself been brutalised.

The menacing collage of concrete remains much as it was when, one harsh winter's morning in 1945, a sequence of explosions tore through it - with two exceptions. One is that the forest is taking reprisals for its desecration: elegant, twisting roots are slowly strangling the monstrous foundations, while a canopy of birch, fir and maple casts shadows on the scene of wickedness. The other is a bronze plaque placed at the entrance to one particularly badly wrecked building. It was placed here five years ago by the children of a German officer who nearly became a hero.

After the Soviet counter-attack and the success of the Allies in the Normandy landings, the German Resistance became desperate. Throughout the war the anti-Hitler movement had included some high-ranking officers, but attempts at decisive action had always faltered in a muddle of betrayals.

A crushing defeat seemed inevitable, despite Germany's supremacy in rocket technology and progress on atomic weapons. Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill had already agreed the dissection of Germany when they met at Casablanca in 1943. To keep the nation's soul alive, many patriots concluded, the Fuhrer must die.

The only way to penetrate Hitler's personal escort battalion was for a trusted officer to carry out the assassination. The obvious candidate to carry out the tyrannicide was Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg. A war hero, who lost his right hand and left eye in North Africa, he was appointed chief of staff for a new reservist force. This role gave him direct access to Hitler. On 20 July 1944, he was to attend a meeting with the Fuhrer in the "General Situations" bunker.

Von Stauffenberg arrived with two bombs, each weighing about two pounds. He slipped out to an accomplice's quarters to prime the bombs, but owing to an interruption he carried only one of them into the meeting-room.

As you clamber over the ruins, your feet seeking a sure grip on wreckage now invaded by some mischievous mushrooms, you try to imagine the drama played out within these walls. Von Stauffenberg's bomb was placed beneath the heavy table, crucially with a massive table leg separating it from Hitler.

The colonel left the room, ostensibly to take a prearranged telephone call, and fled from the bunker. At 12.40pm, the bomb exploded. Von Stauffenberg climbed into a car that was waiting to take him south through the woodland to Wolfsschanze's own landing-strip. He paused long enough to see a body covered by the Fuhrer's cloak being carried out of the building, and concluded that he had changed the course of history.

The definitive account of the events of 20 July is by Joachim Fest, himself a wartime soldier. He reports the colonel's non-fatal flaw in unemotional language: "The inclusion of the second charge, even without a second detonator, would have magnified the power of the blast not twofold but many times, killing everyone in the room outright."

At the moment when the briefcase exploded, it was in such a position that the full force of the blast was deflected away from the Fuhrer. Four people at the meeting died, but Hitler received only minor wounds.

You can trace von Stauffenberg's journey, and ponder upon the point when he believed his mission to have succeeded. By the time the dust had settled, his aircraft had departed for Berlin and a well-organised coup was seemingly under way. But before the plan to install a replacement military command could be properly implemented, the Fuhrer himself was speaking on German radio.

Von Stauffenberg was executed by firing squad a few hours later. Over the next few months, 5,000 others were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy.

Had Hitler been killed, the war could have been curtailed and millions of lives saved - notably, those of Poles (both Jews and gentiles) who perished in concentration camps and the Warsaw Uprising. The post-war political map of Europe might have looked different; Poland, for example, might having avoided close on half a century of Soviet domination. And the Wolf's Lair might have been preserved intact as a monument to madness.

The Fuhrer survived to spend another five months in the bunker, which was marked with a single identification number: 13. Signs warn against venturing into the ruins, but plenty of visitors risk the dangerous, jagged masonry to explore the place where some of the world's darkest deeds were perpetrated.

To visualise the scale, imagine a medium-sized aircraft hangar constructed out of 6-ft-thick slabs of concrete. After what looks like some gigantic geological calamity, the warren of living quarters and offices is barely identifiable beneath tomb-like slabs. The lifeless grey tones of the wretched concrete are transcended by light idling through the trees, highlighting leaves that range from deep green to fierce gold.

Each autumn's gentle scattering of maple detritus conceals a little more of the horror, and nurtures new growths. Woodland stripped of its purity is reasserting the supremacy of nature.

The Fuhrer is dead; long live the forest.

Simon Calder bought a return flight from London to Warsaw on the Polish airline LOT for pounds 185, through Fregata (0171-451 7000). He travelled by train to Gdansk (about pounds 5), then by bus (pounds 3) to Ketrzyn. From the town you can walk to the Wolf's Lair in 90 minutes, or take one of the half- dozen buses each day (fare 20 pence).

Admission to the Wolf's Lair costs pounds 1. You can stay in a hotel on the site of the former SS barracks for around pounds 7 per night.

`Plotting Hitler's Death' is the English translation of Joachim Fest's `Staatsstreich: Der Lange Weg zum 20 Juli'. It is published in paperback by Phoenix, price pounds 7.99.

The Polish National Tourist Office, First Floor, Remo House, 310-312 Regent Street, London W1R 5AJ (0171-580 8811) can supply useful maps and other material.