Germans feud over fate of countryside barracks used to brainwash Hitler's elite

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The Independent Online

The vast, barracks-like complex is set in rolling countryside close to Germany's border with Belgium and bears the innocuous name Vogelsang, or birdsong. Yet during the 1930s it turned 1,000 members of the Nazi elite into true "apostles of National Socialism".

Adolf Hitler stayed there twice and Hermann Goering visited frequently to hunt deer in the surrounding forests.

The hundreds of senior Nazi party members indoctrinated at the school enjoyed an in-house cinema, swimming pool, a beer and wine cellar and even a bowling alley. "Race theory" and "total obedience" were among the subjects taught at Vogelsang. Today murals inside depict the muscular Aryan "supermen" idealised by the party.

For more than 50 years, Vogelsang's dark past remained largely forgotten because the buildings and the surrounding country were a Nato military training ground for the Belgian army. But last week the whole area, which lies in the idyllic Eifel region, was formally designated a national park. The Belgian army will withdraw by the end of next year, leaving Vogelsang open to tourists.

The complex and all its grim associations have suddenly started a bitter controversy.

Fears that the site will rapidly turn into a "shrine" for neo-Nazis throughout Europe have prompted Paul Spiegel, the president of Germany's Central Council of Jews to demand that the entire complex be left to decay. "This is the only appropriate way to deal with a site with a history like this," he said. MPs including Burkhard Hirsch, a veteran liberal Free Democrat, have complained that any attempt to develop the complex with public funding would be morally indefensible.

But Eifel politicians say leaving Vogelsang to rot is not feasible because it is in the centre of a national park. They also point out that demolishing the complex would cost millions because most of its concrete walls are 6ft thick.

The regional state government of North Rhine Westphalia is discussing plans to turn the complex into a national park tourist centre, complete with a youth hostel. Other proposals include building a decorative lighthouse on the building and turning part of the complex into a golf course.

Yet historians and local councillors warn that these suggestions fail to deal with the issues raised by Vogelsang's Nazi past. "Any new plan for the complex has to take account of its history in a appropriate way," Guenter Rosenke, a councillor in the region, said.

Inspired by historians at other former Nazi sites in Germany, such as the Nuremberg Rally complex where there is a museum on the Nazi era, some politicians in the region want Vogelsang to follow suit.

Michael Vesper, North Rhine Westphalia's Culture minister, unveiled a plan last week under which Vogelsang would be used to house an exhibition, Crimes of the Wehrmacht, which documents atrocities committed by the German army during the Second World War. Yet even this proposal seems destined to cause argument. Crimes of the Wehrmacht has provoked demonstrations by militant neo-Nazis in nearly every German city it has been shown in.