Hitler in the Wolfsschanze

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“Hitler in the bunker” said would-be assassin Claus von Stauffenberg, “that’s the real Hitler”.  He was right.  Reinforced concrete seemed to follow Hitler like a Wagnerian leitmotiv; his Reich was not only the largest builder of bunkers in history, it also perfected its art constructing shelters for its Führer, with almost all of his various residences and headquarters – from Wolfsschlucht II at Margival in eastern France, to Wehrwolf near Vinnistya in Ukraine – being generously equipped in that regard.  The most famous of his field headquarters was the elaborate complex of bunkers, briefing rooms and blockhouses known as the Wolfsschanze, or ‘Wolf’s Lair’, near Rastenburg in East Prussia.  The Wolfsschanze would become Hitler’s home from home; the headquarters that he would frequent more than any other during the war, spending more than 800 days there over the three years of its existence. With the exception of the Berghof above Berchtesgaden, no other location is so closely associated with Adolf Hitler.

The Wolfsschanze began life in the autumn of 1940, when Hitler asked his head of construction, Fritz Todt, to find a selection of sites from which he could oversee the invasion of the Soviet Union, planned for the following summer.  Todt came back with a number of possibilities, but the most suitable location was near Görlitz, just to the east of the town of Rastenburg, in the German province of East Prussia.  It was certainly a strategically well-chosen site.  The region of Masuria in which it lay was sparsely populated with a landscape of gently rolling hills and dense, mixed forests.  It was both ‘out of the way’ and well-connected, with good local roads and a branch rail line providing an easy link to the mainline to Berlin.  Also, mindful of a possible land attack from the east, the site at Görlitz was very well-protected, being directly to the west of a network of lakes and waterways, which would doubtless frustrate any Red Army advance.

Given the go-ahead, the site was swiftly developed and by the time that Hitler arrived to move in – two days after the attack on the Soviet Union – on 24 June 1941, it already boasted a number of substantial buildings, including garages, barrack blocks and an officers’ mess.  It was Hitler himself who christened it the Wolfsschanze, explaining to one of his secretaries that, in common with many of his headquarters, it utilised the pseudonym ‘Wolf’ that he had used during the political upheavals of the 1920s.

In the months and years that followed, the Wolfsschanze would scarcely stop growing and developing, with a programme of building continuing almost without interruption until the site was finally abandoned at the end of 1944.  Existing installations would be constantly revamped and modernised, and new, improved designs constructed.  As General Walter Warlimont noted: “over the course of three years ‘Wolfsschanze’ was turned into a fortress; the barbed-wire fences and the minefields became thicker and the concrete blocks stuck up like the superstructures of old-style cruisers.”  In fact, through the period of its occupation, the site consumed nearly 175,000 cubic metres of concrete; mixed, poured and shaped by a permanent workforce of around 4,600 labourers.

By the time that its final iteration was completed in the summer of 1944, Wolfsschanze was a virtual village, tucked away out of sight in the East Prussian forest.  Almost completely self-sufficient, with its own electricity and water supply, sewers and heating plants, it contained around 200 buildings, including a communications bunker, sick bay, sauna, mess, cinema, tea-house and assorted other quarters, work rooms and shelters for its resident personnel.  At its heart, of course, was the complex of bunkers and barrack blocks that made up Hitler’s private quarters and those of his acolytes.  The briefing rooms, often erroneously described in post-war literature as ‘wooden huts’, were solid brick-built structures often measuring over 30 metres in length.  The bunkers, too, were enormous, especially after being revamped early in 1944.  Constructed of reinforced concrete, they generally consisted of an inner core measuring around 6 metres in height containing a narrow corridor, off which a handful of small rooms could be accessed.  Around that core, a massive concrete outer shell was added taking to total height up to 12 metres, with walls 6 metres thick and an additional 7 metres of foundations below ground.  The result was accurately, if unflatteringly, described by Albert Speer: “From the outside”, he recalled, “it looked like an ancient Egyptian tomb.  It was actually nothing but a great windowless block of concrete, without direct ventilation, in cross section a building whose masses of concrete far exceeded the usable cubic feet of space.”  Working to this pattern, a few of the bunkers boasted additional features: Hitler’s, for instance, had a single-storey kitchen appended to its western side, whilst Göring’s sported an anti-aircraft gun on its roof.  The interiors were Spartan and functional, but nonetheless homely.  Hitler’s Secretary Christa Schroeder described her quarters in a letter:

“our dormitory bunker is the size of a railway compartment and has light-coloured wood panelling.  There is a discreet washbasin, above it a mirror, a small Siemens radio with a wide choice of stations.  The bunker even has electric heating, not yet connected up, eye-catching wall lamps and a narrow hard mattress filled with eel-grass.  The room is narrow but all in all it will have a nice look once I have hung a few pictures.”

The entire complex was given state-of-the-art camouflage, with artificial trees, landscaping and camouflage netting to hide the roads and pathways.  Some of the larger bunkers also had moss and other greenery planted on the roofs to complete the illusion.  Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft were even sent up periodically to check that nothing of the site was visible from above.  It was evidently effective, as the location of the Wolfsschanze was never discovered by the Allies.

Naturally, security was tight.  The entire site, measuring 2.5km by 2 km, was divided into three concentric security zones, or Sperrkreise.  The outer perimeter consisted of minefields and 5-metre wide barbed-wire entanglements, with machine gun nests located approximately every 150 metres.  The second zone contained additional flak batteries, watch towers and anti-tank gun emplacements.  In all, approximately 2,000 personnel were employed at the site.  Of these, the vast majority provided security, yet few of them would ever catch a glimpse of the man that they were charged to guard.

Access to the complex was controlled by a system of passes, which could be issued solely by the HQ commandant.  Each of the three Sperrkreise had its own checkpoints, fences and security details, so any visitor would have to pass through a minimum of three security checks, and only those with the correct pass – barely 200 individuals – would be permitted to enter the inner security zone.  Such thorough precautions could prove oppressive.  Christa Schroeder complained about them to a friend already in August 1941, after barely two months at the site: “here we are always coming across sentries and having to show our identity cards”.  It gave her, she said, “the feeling of being locked in.”  For some, the security could be more immediately threatening.  Officially at least, those found inside the Wolfsschanze without a pass would be liable to arrest and interrogation.  The reality could be rather more brutal.  In the summer of 1942, when a Polish labourer inadvertently strayed inside the outer perimeter whilst seeking a short-cut home, he was unceremoniously shot.  On another occasion, a German guard was shot and seriously injured because he contrived to give the wrong password when approaching a checkpoint at night.

However, for those that successfully negotiated the guards and the checkpoints and gained access to the heart of the complex, life was not immediately uncomfortable.  Many of those that worked in Hitler’s household testified to the beauty of the surrounding area, for instance: Christa Schroeder wrote of “horses and cattle in corrals…hills of red and white clover, simply fabulous in the morning sun”.  The novelties of camp life also seemed to take a little while to fade; secretary Traudl Junge recalled a “positive mood” at the Wolfsschanze, with time passing “at a peaceful, regular pace, and a convivial atmosphere developing amongst Hitler’s personnel.”

But the peculiarities of living with Hitler’s daily routine would put paid to any such tentative enthusiasm.  Hitler generally rose late, appearing around midday for the first situation conference.  He would eat lunch, usually with his secretaries or visiting dignitaries, punctually at two in the afternoon, allowing up to two hours at the table.  Then, at around five, he would summon his secretaries once again for the German social institution of Kaffee und Kuchen ‘Coffee and Cakes’, bestowing special praise on the lady who managed to eat the most.  A second situation conference followed at 6pm, after which supper was served at around 7.30.  The seating arrangement never varied: Hitler was placed at the head of the table, flanked by General Jodl and Press Chief Dr Dietrich, with Bormann and any visitors seated opposite.  As one participant noted, the mood could be surprisingly relaxed: “the atmosphere at table was free and unforced”, Nicolaus von Below recalled, “conversation was spontaneous and there was no kind of compulsion about what could be discussed.”

The evenings, however, were much less structured, consisting mainly of a prolonged monologue from Hitler on some subject or other, which regularly lasted well into the small hours.  Often Hitler shied away from his current travails, preferring to reminisce about the Party’s formative years in Munich, or give forth on such diverse subjects as dog breeding, architecture or racial hygiene.  His mood also deteriorated as his military fortunes faltered.  Where he had once been avuncular and affectionate towards his secretaries, for instance, from 1943 he was increasingly distant and taciturn, and no longer able, it seems, to find pleasure in his old habits of listening to music or watching films.  He also complained bitterly about the Wolfsschanze itself, bemoaning the hot humid summers and their attendant infestations of mosquitoes, even threatening at one point to call in the Luftwaffe to solve the problem.  He concluded angrily that his planners had chosen for him “the most swampy, midge-infested and climatically unfavourable area possible.”  Strangely, he even protested that he, too, felt trapped.  “Here in the Wolfsschanze”, he said in February 1942, “I feel like a prisoner in these dug-outs, and my spirit can’t escape.”  “Space lends wings to my imagination”, he added.

For his entourage, of course, Hitler’s mood swings and pontifications could be sorely trying.  Photographer Heinrich Hoffmann complained that life in the inner circle was “both boring and exhausting”, because their talks “took place for the most part in the middle of the night, and often, by the time I left the Führer’s dug-out, the sun was already high in the heavens.”  Christa Schroeder would have concurred, describing life in the Wolfsschanze as an endless cycle of; “eat, drink, sleep, now and again write something and be sociable for hours on end.”  It was, she said, “a mad existence.”

Part of the problem, of course, was that the Wolfsschanze was a largely closed society, with only occasional outside visitors able to inject a new element, or even a fresh subject for conversation.  Christa Schroeder was especially affected by the resulting boredom: “life has become rather monotonous”, she complained to a friend, “little work, often nothing to do all day, always the same faces, the same conversations.”  Sometimes, however, even the ‘new faces’ were less than complimentary. Italian foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano visited the Wolfsschanze shortly before Christmas 1942 and recorded his impressions in his diary: “The atmosphere is heavy” he wrote, “to the bad news there should perhaps be added the sadness of that humid forest and the boredom of collective living in the barracks of command.  There isn’t a spot of colour, not one vivid note. Waiting rooms of people smoking, eating, chatting.  Kitchen odour, smell of uniforms, of boots.”  He described it as “a troglodyte life”.

Worse still, despite the efforts of those like Ciano, the closed society at the Wolfsschanze insulated its inhabitants from the harsh realities of the outside world.  Bad news rarely penetrated the barbed-wire and the sentry posts, and those who dared to bring it were all too easily dismissed as ‘lacking a global perspective’ or, worse still, ‘defeatist’.  Traudl Junge put it well: “No rumours reached us, we heard no broadcasts from enemy transmitters, we knew of no other attitudes, no opposition.  Just one opinion and one belief ruled here; it sometimes seemed to me as if all these people were using exactly the same words and expressing themselves in the same way.”

This isolation would have consequences far beyond mere social tedium.  Indeed, in many ways, it was root of the political problem that the Wolfsschanze both engendered and symbolized.  To a large degree, of course, Hitler actively chose the isolation that the Wolf’s Lair gave him.  As the war had progressed, he had become increasingly reclusive, hidden away at the Berghof or the Wolfsschanze or elsewhere, eschewing almost all public appearances and only rarely addressing even closed, Party gatherings.  He never visited a bombsite, never consoled the bombed out, never comforted refugees.  Indeed, it had been Goebbels who had taken on those tasks and had in the process become the ‘public face’ of the Third Reich in wartime.  Sure, Hitler would have argued that the pressures and necessities of command prevented him from attending to such ‘soft’ aspects of leadership, but in truth he was most likely reacting to a hostile outside world by simply shutting himself away.

This was a problem that was recognised, at least in part, by contemporaries.  General Walter Warlimont, who had been a regular visitor to the Wolfsschanze, was unsparing in his later criticism, stating that the disadvantages of the site far outweighed the advantages, and suggesting that the headquarters should have been moved back to Berlin at the earliest opportunity, so as to force Hitler and his advisors “to deal with the realities of the overall situation.”  Whilst Hitler was tucked away “in a little corner […] in East Prussia” he went on, “neither he nor his immediate entourage got any direct impression either of the severity of the struggle…or of the blazing effects of the air war on German cities.”  The result, Warlimont argued, was that the isolation of the Wolfsschanze itself was a “distorting factor” that was “not without influence in prolonging the war”.  Speer, as ever, would go further, claiming in his memoir that the bunker walls that surrounded Hitler at the Wolfsschanze “separated him from the outside world in a figurative as well as a literal sense, and locked him up inside his delusions.”  “If ever a building can be considered the symbol of a situation”, he concluded, “this bunker was it.”

It is telling, then, that the only serious attempt to topple Hitler from within German ranks took place at the Wolfsschanze and, ironically, it was the comparative isolation of the site that was influential.  The revolt that Stauffenberg spearheaded in July 1944 had many motivating factors, but was fired in part by revulsion at Hitler’s self-imposed isolation from events, and his resulting inability – as the plotters saw it – to see reason and extricate Germany from a disastrous war; the remoteness from reality that the Wolfsschanze appeared to symbolise.  But, the Wolfsschanze was also decisive in that that very remoteness offered the plotters a crucial tactical advantage.  If they could make their assassination attempt coincide with a communications blackout from the site, they could temporarily render the entire leadership of the Third Reich lame, giving them the opportunity they needed to seize power in Berlin.  Isolation, it seemed, could cut both ways.

In the event, of course, Stauffenberg would fail in his attempt on Hitler’s life.  His bomb exploded, killing 4 of those present at the lunchtime situation conference, but Hitler was only lightly injured, shielded by circumstances and uncanny good fortune.  Though Stauffenberg hurried to Berlin to galvanise the plotters and spur on the coup, his efforts were fatally undermined when news of Hitler’s survival filtered through to the capital.

The supreme irony of that day, however, was that Stauffenberg was denied the chance to place his bomb alongside ‘Hitler in the bunker’.  Hot July sunshine had meant that the conference location was moved to a wood and brick briefing hut, which could be ventilated more easily, and consequently the blast from Stauffenberg’s bomb dissipated, vastly reducing its destructive power.  But for this change of location, there is very little chance that Hitler would have survived the blast at all.  Hitler’s life was saved that day by his not being in the Wolfsschanze bunker.

Wolfsschanze, which stood as a symbol of Hitler’s power, his paranoia and his political isolation, was abandoned to the mercies of a Wehrmacht demolition team exactly four months later, in November 1944.  It still stands today, blasted and broken, slowly sinking back into the forest from whence it came.

Roger Moorhouse is the author of Wolf’s Lair and First to Fight.