Jüterbog: War games and Ozymandias' shattered visage

Filed 5/11/2016 |
Scattered haphazardly all around, like bones in a bombed-out graveyard, Jüterbog’s ruins reluctantly await their fate. Betrayed by circumstance and resigned to rejection, they yearn for yesteryear, days when they played host to men of ambition and drive, men emboldened by guns, men going places.
They know they should never have trusted men in uniform but like everyone else they couldn’t help but get caught up in it all, the frenzy of development, the unbridled enthusiasm and elation that comes with preparing for war and the spoils it brings. They just weren’t expecting those spoils; it didn’t occur to them, didn’t occur to anyone.
Now the buildings – so many of them! – are devoid of life, holding nothing but scars and hollow emptiness, like tortoiseshells without tortoises or cat-insides. Memory barely lingers, blown by the thoughtless wind through broken windows and unseen gaps, carried far away by veterans in Moscow and across the former Soviet Union. Only faint residues remain in German nursing homes where dwindling numbers share the buildings’ fate.
The last Soviet soldier left in 1994 but Jüterbog’s history begins long before, with the Big Bang or possibly even earlier. Something must have happened before the Big Bang, unless you consider that the beginning of time itself. But time by its very nature cannot have a beginning nor an end. It stretches across infinity, filling its nooks and crannies with nothing at all. Time is a circle, or a smooth ball, smoother than German guys with three-day stubble on Tinder, ever present but never there, and the day we understand it our heads will explode and it won’t exist any more. Not that it exists at all, of course; it’s just a notion. Reality is a perception of existence. There are many realities, except the one you choose.
For now, to preserve sanity while it’s too late, we shall leave aside questions of existence, time and reality, and limit ourselves to the story of Jüterbog’s military dalliances.
They began a long time ago, fadó fadó, before Germany even existed (there’s that word again, maybe it never existed), when the Prussian army bought some 250 acres in Jüterbog for shooting and maneuver practice around 1860. The shootings began straight away on a range 650 x 850 meters and the construction of the first buildings commenced a few years later, presumably during a break in the shooting.
The army’s plot thickened, as it were, and grew larger with the acquisition of land from neighboring villages. Maybe the stray bullets flying around the place helped convince them to sell. Another 40 acres was added in 1870.
These were heady times with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War that same year. They weren’t practicing for nothing.
Of course the war ended with the Prussian-led German states’ victory over France. Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck used the war to draw the remaining German states – Bavaria, Baden, Württemberg and Hesse-Darmstadt – to his North German Confederation, paving the way for German unification. He was a cute hoor, as they’d say in Kerry. The German Empire was proclaimed on Jan. 18, 1871 at the Palace of Versailles.
During the war around 9,000 French prisoners were interned in Jüterbog and put to work there, extending the site. Many died and were buried there.
The first shooting range was called Altes Lager (Old Camp) after it was decided in 1889 to construct another so the field artillery could be separated from the foot artillery. Maybe they smelled bad.
Whatever the reason, the military treasury snapped up more land to the south of the existing site and construction on the Neues Lager began the following year.
The Dicke Bertha (Big Bertha) monster 42-cm howitzer was tested here before the First World War, shot at targets in Jüterbog from more than 10 kilometers away. The neighbors must have been driven nuts!
Apparently Kummersdorf-Schießplatz chief Erich Steinert was none too happy when a one-ton missile didn’t land 500 meters south of him as planned, but 500 meters north. If it had been only half as awry “the projectile would have hit us,” he reckoned, not unreasonably.
Meanwhile the military training area kept growing to around 5,000 hectares. A new barracks was built for the infantry – despite their bad feet – before the war, and kept growing during it. A hospital was added to the infantry’s new Fuchsberg-Kaserne toward the war’s end, perhaps not a coincidence.
After the war, of course, there were no more military shenanigans. Well, not at first. It started discreetly, with a drop in soldier numbers… until 1930 when things picked up again.
A military airfield (Flugplatz Altes Lager) developed in Jüterbog in 1933, the year from which all of Germany’s subsequent misdemeanors can be blamed on those evil Nazis who descended from space, most likely landing on that very same airfield.
Another military camp, the unfortunately named Adolf-Hitler-Lager (I’m sure it seemed a great idea at the time) was built in the Zinna Forest around seven kilometers to the north of Jüterbog. It was also known as Lager III or Waldlager (forest camp). SS members were the first to sample its holistic delights.
By 1934, Jüterbog’s military areas comprised the biggest troop-training center in Germany. And the expansion continued. Inhabitants of neighboring villages had to leave as the total military site was extended to more than 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres).
The Adolf-Hitler-Lager had its own train station by 1937 as it kept growing. More! More! More! There was no end to the development. At least in those days they weren’t solely building for investors. They even started building an internal rail line before that was stopped in its tracks by the war.
Of course that war didn’t go too well either. The Fuchsberg-Kaserne and Adolf-Hitler-Lager were hit in bombing raids on April 18, 1945. Twelve days later, the latter lost its namesake.
The Red Army took over everything after that. The Soviets turned Jüterbog into one of their most important military bases in the DDR, with an estimated 40,000 soldiers dwarfing the local population of 15,000.
Life was hard for the lowly soldiers – little to eat, strenuous drills, abuse from their superiors – but good for the superiors – loads to eat, no drills, plenty of inferiors to abuse. The officers lived mostly with their families and were paid 1,000 times more then their underlings.
“The officers couldn’t spend their money,” Jüterbog historian Henrik Schulze told the Märkische Allgemeine in 2013. “I knew one once who simply wanted to drink it extravagantly in the Berlin Fernsehturm. He didn’t manage it.”
The Soviets continued using Flugplatz Altes Lager as a Flugplatz, with the 833rd fighter aviation regiment based here from 1953 to 1992. There were helicopters buzzing in and out to get on local residents’ nerves, and Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 supersonic jet fighter planes were a common sight before they were replaced with MiG-23s in 1979. One can only assume the new planes were better, faster, lighter, perhaps with touch bars of colorful lights to distract bored pilots when they’re bombing Syrian civilians.
Yeah, they’ve other priorities now. None of the Russians hung around too long after Mauerfall and the end of that Cold War. The area’s military days were over.
“I never thought I would ever see the Soviets’ withdrawal from the GDR in my lifetime,” Schulze said of their departure in 1994.
Some of the buildings have found use once again as residential homes or sports clubs or whatever, others are being destroyed to make way for the forest, while others continue to wallow in the despair of abandonment – puppies living in a perpetual post-Christmas.
There’s almost too much to explore. I found an upside-down well, stretching up to the heavens like a chimney. It might have been a chimney but in my mind it was a well. I climbed in at the bottom, looked up at the pinpoint of light outlining my only escape, pondered my predicaments and those of mankind, decided we’re all doomed, and climbed out the other escape.
Nothing stays the same. It’s the one thing that’s constant.

What
Jüterbog and its military camps, namely Altes Lager, Flugplatz Altes Lager, Neues Lager and Adolf-Hitler-Lager, aka Forst Zinna. The area played host to soldiers’ charades, men playing with guns, for around 130 years before the last ones left in 1994.

Where

Jüterbog and around it. There are abandoned buildings scattered all around the town itself. You can’t help but notice them. Otherwise you have Flugplatz Altes Lager over to the west and Altes Lager a little bit further north. Neues Lager is more central but it’s mostly developed, and Forst Zinna is around seven kilometers north toward Luckenwalde.

How to get there
Hop on a regional train to Jüterbog, under an hour from Berlin, and bring your bike to save your legs from unnecessary walking. Point the bike in the direction you want to go and cycle. Here are Altes Lager, Flugplatz Altes Lager, Neues Lager and Forst Zinna on maps.
Check the Abandoned Berlin map for all the places featured on the site, zoom toward Jüterbog and print off that section so you’ve something to look at if you get lost. Or bring a book. Reading will distract you from your predicament. Books allow you escape into someone else’s madness.

Getting in
Too many places to get into how to get into each one. Use your wits and be careful.

When to go
Daytime is best so you can find your way around and see things.

Difficulty rating
7/10. Getting here and finding the places is the main difficulty. Anything that you can explore is easy enough to get into, though you will need to look out for security. See “dangers” below.

Who to bring
A like-minded intrepid explorer who doesn’t mind cycling with no end in sight and who has plenty of time on their hands. That’s if you believe in time, of course.

What to bring

The usual stuff for a long excursion – beer, food, more beer and maybe more food. Don’t forget your camera, a good torch, a decent jacket now the weather’s getting chillier and some money for beers on the way back.

Dangers
There are the usual dangers associated with exploring abandoned buildings – holes in the ground, dodgy roofs waiting to collapse on your head, probably asbestos and other nasty things. Security guards are keeping an eye on Forst Zinna, presumably in case the Russians come back. There were four or five vans parked together when I passed by on my rusty old bike, their big-bellied masters all discussing something, most probably lunch. I went around the other side (which is quite dangerous, with high grass and hidden holes including one full of water that an animal had fallen into) but I didn’t meet security when I was in the camp. Be vigilant and very, very careful.


Many thanks as always to Mark Rodden for proofreading and reining in the philosophizing, to Pablo Arboleda for the pleasure of his company on the first visit, and to Marcela and Felipe of Fotostrasse for their assistance yesterday!
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7 comments

Great article and amazing photos! I'm a big fan of Jüterbog: I went there a few times searching for the Lenin relief you photographed in Forst Zinna and for the wall painting in the old military hospital. You can find more info about those two items in my web "Lenin is still around":
Forst Zinna: https://leninisstillaround.com/2016/09/17/lenin-in-forst-zinna-eng/
Hospital: https://leninisstillaround.com/2016/07/03/at-the-abandoned-military-hospital/

Best greatings, Carlos

Interesting report as always! Looking forward to the next update :)

Great read! When I went there with my friend, the door on photo 10 was removed. The pilot school is especially nice to visit. Did you enter the theater?
And was there any security there?

Hello, I entered the theatre in the pilot's school of Niedergörsdorf in late August 2016. The theatre was quite a discover, I did not expect to find such a remain! No security, nobody around even during the day and in plain sunlight. Yet there are prohibition signs on the outer gate, so you'd better be careful. Also there are sporting facilities to the west of the installation which are still in use today.
You can see a little report on this blog of mine http://www.sightraider.com/juterbogniedergorsdorf-abandoned-flight-academy-in-the-gdr/.

I wont stop laughing if you ever gets hurt. Irish idiot. Thank you for destroying so many german places.

I wont stop laughing if you ever gets hurt. Irish idiot. Thank you for destroying so many german places.

That's not very nice now, is it? What makes it even more lamentable (beyond the predictable grammar mistakes) is the fact you feel your ill wishes so strongly you take the time out of your life to write them, twice. Maybe you don't have much going on in your life, making it more lamentable still. But I do hope you find other sources of amusement. Laughing at others' misfortune inevitably comes back to bite you on the arse.

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