Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the historical gems of the former East Germany have gradually become more accessible to visitors from the West. Until then travel in to the German Democratic Republic (DDR) from western countries had been far from easy. In the past twenty years tourist numbers to fascinating and well advertised destinations such as the former East Berlin, Potsdam or Dresden have been increasing significantly. There is one name however which has an immediate significance for us in the UK. Its very mention at one time gave rise to emotions of fear and trepidation. Until quite recently it appeared to lie hidden and inaccessible. Now open to the public, it is one venue which should be on everyone’s itinerary – Colditz Castle!
The town of Colditz lies some half an hour’s drive to the south east of Leipzig in the valley of the Mulda in Saxony. A castle has dominated the valley since medieval times. Over the centuries the castle has played a significant rôle in the history of this part of Saxony and the site has witnessed battles, fire – deliberate and accidental, rebuilding and changes in architectural style. Since the early nineteenth century it has been a workhouse, a mental hospital and a sanitorium. Post World War II it has been used as a nursing home and a hospital. Even today a significant part has been adapted for use as a Youth Hostel – but it is the part that it played in the days of the Third Reich (1939-1945) that fascinates visitors today.
In 1933 the Nazis put the castle to use as a political prison, incarcerating those “Antifaschisten” who by birth or political persuasion did not fit in with their ideology. By the early days of the Second World War in 1939 it had become the setting for the accounts written by Pat Reid and the subsequent films and television series – Oflag IV-C, the prisoner of war camp, run by the Wehrmacht for allied officers from Great Britain, the Commonwealth, France, Belgium, Poland and Holland. It was considered to be “ausbruchsicher” – no escape was deemed to be possible – and so a highly suitable location to house those who had already proved to be troublesome to the Reich.
The claim that the castle was “escape proof” – together with the proof that this was an exaggerated claim – has passed in to folk lore. Our visit in September 2012 could not have been more timely. Between making the arrangements for our visit to Germany and leaving home, we had seen the television programme concerning the re-constructed glider and the experiment as to its ability to fly. Not only did we have an initial overall familiarity with the buildings themselves, we had points of reference which helped us to orientate ourselves. Whilst it is possible to wander round the buildings by oneself, our very strong recommendation would be – firstly to visit the Museum with its fascinating array of artefacts and then to take a guided tour, if possible the extended version. Our guide for the extended tour in English was Steffi Schubert who must count as one of the best in her field we have ever come across. Her command of English was impressive, her love for her subject was apparent, her knowledge deep and well researched. Her respect for the prisoners ran through her commentary, as was her even handedness towards the guards. Human anecdotes ran through her commentary, such as her delight in telling how the original Kommandant, very “old school”, would allow the most senior officers among the prisoners to visit the local hostelries in the evenings on condition that they “gave their word as officers and gentlemen” that they would not try to escape. The arrangement was honoured by both sides, although, hardly surprisingly, the prisoner officers used the local knowledge they gained to support the escape plans of their colleagues!
Considerable thought had clearly been given to the route our visit was to follow. As can be seen from the plan (click on the image to enlarge) the castle is constructed around two courtyards, with the prisoners’ quarters centering on the smaller left hand courtyard. Rather than simply visit one room after another, we followed the routes of successful escapees such as Airey Neave and Pat Reid – as well as following a number that did not succeed. In this way, the story of the inmates and their guards came alive and our understanding of the way the camp was run and the conditions the prisoners experienced grew as we scrambled through cellars, peered up in to escape hatches and inspected remains of tunnels and hiding places, including the exercise area at the rear of the castle.
Our visit to the Museum before the visit had already introduced us to the ingenuity of the prisoners. Exhibits there included the home made sewing machine – approved by the Germans for the making of stage costumes but which came in to its own in the creation of fake uniforms – and such clever devices as the light switch, used in the illumination of the tunnels as they were excavated, disguised as a mouse trap. Reference to many of the devices used appeared throughout our guide’s narrative – having seen them previously heightened our interest, understanding and admiration!
Those who have seen the film “The Colditz Story” will perhaps understand the feelings of excitement and dread as we found ourselves in the theatre, like so much of this part of the castle still virtually as it had been left when liberated by the American forces in April 1945. We could envisage the tension of the scene in January 1942 when, under the noses of the audience which included high ranking Nazi officers, on two consecutive nights two escapees, an Englishman and a Dutchman in each case, slipped through a hole under the stage in to the space underneath and made their way disguised as German officers through the garrison quarters and over a wall out of the castle. The first pair, the Englishman Airey Neave and his Dutch companion Lutejn made it to freedom. The hole through which they made their escape from the theatre is still apparent.
The Germans were keen to ensure that lessons were learned from the various escape attempts and photographs were taken of escapees whose attempts failed but whose ingenuity could easily have been rewarded had it not been for unfortunate slips or a lack of knowledge. To illustrate the point, in the prisoners’ courtyard life size photographs are displayed of a number of examples. These include determined escapees such as Mike Sinclair, who made seven attempts in all and in one of which was disguised as a German officer nicknamed “Franz Josef” because of his uncanny resemblance to the former Austrian Emperor. Sinclair is the only prisoner who died as a result of an escape attempt, a bullet ricocheting off his elbow in to his heart – he was buried with full military honours. Another photograph shows two men who could be identical twins. In fact they are a local electrician Willy Pöhnert and a Frenchman by the name of Perodeau. The latter had very accurately imitated the electrician who came to work in the camp but his escape attempt failed when challenged – he did not respond when a farewell greeting was made -and made to show his identity card. This was spotted as a forgery as the letter “h” was missing in the name!
Whilst so much of the Colditz story is grim and depressing, it is hard not to make comparisons with aspects of life in the English Public School system of the pre-war era: keeping up morale, maintaining a stiff upper lip, a strong sense of camaraderie and a sense of humour. This latter aspect was not restricted to the English. In July 1941 the Frenchman Mairesse-Lebrun who made his escape by scaling the wall in the exercise area, left a written note behind for the guards: “Should my escape prove successful, I would be delighted if my personal effects could be forwarded to my home address”. His escape succeeded, his request was fulfilled!
Whilst much of the prisoners’ part of the castle remains untouched – or as in the part of the chapel, is undergoing restoration – there is one major change since the war. The castle must have looked grim and foreboding in the war years, grey in appearance and covered with ivy in some places. Some six years ago the outer walls were repainted to reflect its former pre-war appearance and as a result, on a sunny September day, it gave off an aura of magnificence rather than austerity and gloom.
Our parting memory again reflects a sense of humour, this time by our guide. We had not noticed how time had passed. Scheduled to take two hours, we were amazed to find that our visit had overrun by nearly half an hour. Standing on the terrace overlooking the town, Steffi Schubert finished her comments, paused and then, with a smile on her face and in an exaggerated accent stated: “For you English, ze tour iz over!” We enjoyed the joke!
This is a most memorable tour and we cannot recommend it highly enough! It deserves a very wide public.
Related Internet Links
- The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer – Ian Mortimer - March 6, 2013
- Das Museum in der Runden Ecke - January 28, 2013
- Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall – Anna Funder - January 16, 2013