Letters From The Field

Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.

‘Post-nuclear’ excursion: A town forgotten in the woods

A letter from Germany. In which is explored an abandoned military complex and presented a hardly known Cold War episode.

Germany, spring of 2011

dear

today I’m writing to tell you of a most surreal excursion! Almost some kind of a trip ‘through time’, but I’m actually not quite sure whether to ideologized past or a post-apocalyptic future …

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Somewhere at a forest edge about 100 kilometres north of Berlin there is a dirt track leading deeper into the woods. The nearby small village’s name Vogelsang translates as “birdsong” but it is dead silent as we set off to follow that path, taking a 3-kilometre march through the woods. Soon tree-shadows were swallowing us completely; the sunny spring midmorning fades as we entered a place seemingly detached from the rest of the world. The only other living creatures we encounter on our way are hordes of mosquitoes swarming out from a breathing morass – conceivably trying to rout out any possible intruder. Squat pines lurking in the shadows, apparently guarding a skew iron gate they’re only barely hiding.

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As we carefully pushed through the wide open gate, no sentinel emerges from the nearby guard-house, stopping us inquiring to know where we’re headed. This post was long abandoned, the building fallen into disrepair. As was the rest of the site now opening ahead of us. Concrete roads, cracked and beaten, are alluring us to come closer, to risk a look at these derelict houses peeping out of the scrub. And there are more buildings among the trees in a distance, open plazas underneath the undergrowth, yet more roads and tracks. There is a whole town in these woods. An abandoned town. This is the other Vogelsang. The one with a sinister story to tell. And we were about to keep track of it.

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Let me tell you about this ‘town in the woods’ which once started out as rather small barracks in the course of stationing allied troops in defeated Germany after World War II, but it soon became one of the largest Red Army garrisons outside of the Soviet Union. Up to 15,000 people once lived here in Soviet Фогелзанг hidden in the woods – a completely autarkic Russian small town; can you imagine? Among the eerily silent ruins soon we were stumbling upon the remains of everyday-life long gone.

There was the mandatory culture centre and theatre. Shrubby pines clinging to crumbling stairs, trying in vain to bar access. Fruitless, of course, as we found our way into the gloomy lobby with its magnificent curved stairs; the stage, however, dusty and dull looking down into a taciturn auditorium.

Deserted.

Garbage and shattered coffeehouse mementos were gathered behind blind and smashed windows of a former café around the next corner which was – of all things! – flanked by a concrete mural depicting Lenin and Red Army tanks (setting the scene right there). A nearby cinema was barely a shadow of its former glory: Half of the roof collapsed into the hall, the screen long vanished and what’s remaining fluttering in tatters, seating rows buried underneath rubble and debris.

Monuments of a past era.

We were passing a Magasin, the Russian equivalent of your neighbourhood supermarket – cleared long ago, of course. A gymnasium’s parquet flooring was cracking, its wall paint and paintings fading; a basketball hoop broken and left behind useless.

Telling of bygone glory.

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There was a colourful kindergarten and in the nearby school (our steps echoing in empty dark hallways; doors slamming on the upper floor – quite an eery atmosphere, I can tell you), wall charts in a classroom still teach the Cyrillic alphabet – if one would care to take the time.

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But most of the buildings and building complexes we came upon during this excursion through a ghost town clearly seem to have been billets once – soldiers’ quarters of all kind: timber houses with tiled stoves for higher officers; large dormitories, shared lavatories, and potbelly stoves for rankers (metal-grilled windows delivering a certainly clear message). Administration offices in brick buildings. Empty garages and plant floors. The civilian part of town with facilities suited for families could hardly hide the fact that this was indeed a military complex.

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I looked up some of it’s history and guess, you’ll find it as interesting as I did, my friend. Military staff of Red Army’s 25th tank division and several armed service branches were stationed there at Vogelsang; among them motorized infantry and – of peculiar interest to this whole story – tactical missile troops. You probably already get the picture … Bunkers covered in sand and concrete platforms in the woods surrounding the whole complex are adding to a peculiar chapter in Cold War’s history. One even East German officials were not informed about back then. Between 1959 and 1960 (and thus years prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis!), Soviet Union for the first time ever deployed nuclear warheads including launch vehicles outside its own state frontiers. Nuclear warheads! There, in Vogelsang. These missiles with a range of 1,200 kilometres could easily reach western urban centres (the distance to London, for instance, would have been just about 1,000 kilometres; I’m having a look at the map right now) as well as NATO facilities. However, according to military records, these weapons were withdrawn only a few months later in a hurry – for political reasons, as is said. Yet rumour has it that in 1961 newer nuclear missiles, now capable of covering the distance of 2,000 kilometres (!) were stationed there again.

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I’m pretty sure, the both of us are not the only ones rather glad that the chapter on Cold War is closed in history books these days. In 1994 – after almost 40 years of Russian presence in (East) Germany – troops were pulled out from Vogelsang just as the other bases there. Garrisons were left, military complexes abandoned, and buildings decaying. Cold War military history is more and more fading into the background. Nature is slowly retrieving substance and territory. Where soldiers once marched, now deer, boars, and raccoons are roaming. But at least in Vogelsang, well – the other Фогелзанг, you know what I mean – this eerie silence and deep slumber is interrupted by the noise of heavy demolition machinery and workers nowadays. That ‘town in the woods’ is being torn down slowly. But Vogelsang was was quite huge, so it might take some time to make it vanish and all forgotten completely …

sincerely

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12 comments on “‘Post-nuclear’ excursion: A town forgotten in the woods

  1. Crystal M. Trulove
    February 9, 2015

    Wow. What a story you walked through. You really brought this place to me. Thank you.

    • J.N.
      February 9, 2015

      And I thank your for your nice comment! Glad you enjoyed following us through this forgotten ‘town in the woods’.

  2. 6 Grad Ost
    February 10, 2015

    Spannend! Ich liebe verlassene Orte, bin aber meist zu ängstlich, allein auf Erkundungstour zu gehen und “partner in crime” gibt es hier für solche Vorhaben leider nicht!

    • J.N.
      February 11, 2015

      Oh ja, diese aufgegebenen Orte haben in der Tat immer eine ganz eigene, geradezu ‘post-apokalyptisch’ anmutende Atmosphäre. Wie rasch da der menschliche Einfluss in den Hintergrund tritt, finde ich vor allem auch aus archäologischer Perspektive immer wieder auf’s Neue faszinierend. Allein losziehen solltest Du da allerdings besser wirklich nicht. Gib’ Bescheid, wenn Du mal in der Nähe bist. ;-I

      • Jutta
        February 11, 2015

        Mache ich : )

  3. franziskasplinter
    March 9, 2015

    Wirklich ein faszinierender Ort! Als kleines Kind war ich hier in der Nähe (Hessen) auf einem aufgegebenen Nato-Gelände mit der Familie spazieren. Leere riesige Bunker, unterirdische Tanks, überwucherte Gebäudeteile. Noch heute habe ich eine Gänsehaut beim Gedanken daran! Leider wurde das Gelände zur Erddeponie umgewidmet.

    Danke, dass du mit deinem Text und den Bildern dieses Umfeld “festgehalten hast”!
    Franziska

    • J.N.
      March 9, 2015

      Ich danke Dir für Deinen Kommentar. Solche alten aufgelassenen Orte sind auch für mich immer wieder spannend. Zum einen weil sie natürlich stets eine ganz eigene Geschichte erzählen (schon deren Recherche birgt manche Erkenntnis und Überraschung), und zum anderen ist es jedes Mal auf’s Neue überaus faszinierend, zu sehen wie rasch und in welcher Form die Natur sich einst mühsam von Menschen bewohnbar gemachtes Territorium zurückerobert. Zeigt es doch, wie flüchtig der menschliche ‘Fußabdruck’ letztlich ist. in naturhistorischen Dimensionen gedacht.

  4. dykewriter
    August 1, 2015

    Reblogged this on dyke writer.

  5. Juli
    May 3, 2016

    wow! that was a great piece of history, a piece of a lifetime told by yourself, who would have done it otherwise. I enjoyed reading it as history was my main loved subjects at school, and until today, history is still the love of my life. I would go way to find out what happened in the beginning of time, if needed to. Well done and you nailed it well in black and white.

    A piece of the world wasted!

    • Jens
      May 3, 2016

      Thanks. Yes, and particularly from an archaeologist’s point of view it is quite interesting to not only delve into this kind of history but also to notice how much places like this change over time after they are abandoned completely.

  6. vassukanni
    September 4, 2016

    A city is abandoned… Then nature starts to take what it had given. Was this the process for Troy and Persepolis? For lost cities in Cambodia and South America? This is like catching a place in the middle of an “ancientalization” (is there such a word? :) ) process. Of course a “time expert” will imagine this better than I do. :)

    • Jens
      September 4, 2016

      Thanks again for your great comment and thoughts! Yes, that was exactly what I was considering upon roaming these ‘forgotten’ ruins. This is actually indeed some very interesting illustrative material for the archaeologist to think about the processes involved with what you called ‘ancientalization’ (great term you made up here, I like it).

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This entry was posted on February 8, 2015 by in Exploring and tagged , , , , , .
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