Not Berlin but the Wolf’s Lair was the real capital of the Third Reich

"It was here that the fate of Warsaw was decided; that the message came stating there were no more bullets for the further Massacre of Wola; here was where the orders to liquidate the ghettos, blockade Leningrad and starve its inhabitants were given. From here, Hitler managed his empire and waged war, yet he did not like this place, because it was also here that he experienced the defeats of his troops on the Eastern Front," says Wojciech Kozioł, a tourism and education expert at the Srokowo Forest District of the State Forests Regional Directorate in Olsztyn.

TVP WEEKLY: What does the Srokowo Forest District have to do with the Wolf's Lair in Gierłoż?

WOJCIECH KOZIOŁ: Wolfsschanze [i.e. the Wolf’s Liar in German], the former war headquarters of Adolf Hitler, covers 250 hectares, while the area of the entire forest is 800 hectares. The Srokowo Forest District has been managing the area where the almost mythical site of Wolf's Lair is located since 2017...

Yes, the order of pop culture-stimulating myths and legends of World War II covers the Amber Chamber, the Golden Train, the Wolf's Lair. Let us talk about the facts and myths about Hitler’s headquarters – since your task is to create a place of historical education there.

Indeed, there are a lot of myths about this place. At first, Hitler was very enthusiastic about the Wolf's Lair project but later his enthusiasm gradually faded. This comes as a shock since, allowing for breaks to visit Berlin, Munich and his other HQ in Berkhof in the Salzburg Alps, he spent a total of 836 days in Wolf's Lair, managing his empire and waging World War II. It rather than Berlin was practically the capital of the Third Reich.

This Masurian place was chosen mainly so that the Leader could be close by when the German blitzkrieg brought the Soviet Union to its knees. June 22, 1941 marked the beginning of Barbarossa, the most important and largest military operation undertaken by the German army. It ended in failure, and was largely responsible for Germany losing World War II.

Hitler was convinced that the Germans lost World War I primarily because the commanders-in-chief were distanced from the frontline trenches and were disinterested in the fate of their soldiers. He sought to have everything under control, to directly command operations at the front. He wanted to be as close as possible to the unfolding events of the war. He assumed that half a year was the most he would need in order to defeat the USSR. The Blitzkrieg failed, the situation on the front became more complicated and the war was being prolonged. Therefore, the cantonment, initially meant to be temporary (wooden barracks, small middle-class shelters), was subject to constant expansion for four years.

Construction began in the fall of 1940. By the end of Wolfsschanze's existence, some 200 structures of varying size and purpose had been built, resulting in a perfectly functioning town where about 2,500 people faithfully served Hitler and lacked nothing. Despite failures on the front, Adolf Hitler received important guests here, organized social gatherings and entertained their participants with his boring stories. It was in the Wolf's Lair that his health deteriorated significantly -- when he left East Prussia on November 20, 1944, he looked like a sick old man with a trembling left hand that he tried to hide behind his back, a very different figure than the great Leader of the Third Reich from a few years earlier.
Hitler left the Wolf's Lair on November 20, 1944, as the front became dangerously close. All documentation and important equipment was then taken away from the headquarters. In the photo from Wolfsschanze from the left: Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, Karl-Jesko von Puttkamer, unknown, Adolf Hitler, Wilhelm Keitel, July 15, 1944. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1984-079-02 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Wikimedia
[In 1945] the Russian army was unable to find any intact buildings here, just ruins. How was this possible?

Hitler left his HQ when the Red Army was about 100 kilometers away, which had made staying at the Wolf's Lair risky. Two days after Hitler's departure, Wilhelm Keitel, who was later to sign Germany's unconditional surrender, executed the leader's order, codenamed "Blowing Up the Island", to completely destroy the complex. Hitler could not let the place from where he had intended to oversee the defeat of the USSR fall into Soviet hands. Immediately after his departure from Wolf's Lair, preparations were made to destroy the facilities by placing huge amounts of explosives inside them. Destroying a heavy-duty shelter, required the use of 8-to-11 tons of TNT! Incredibly, all three zones of the Wolf's Lair were destroyed in the space of two days between January 24 and 25, 1945. Just two days later, when Red Army soldiers entered the complex on January 27, they found nobody and did not have to fire a single shot.

     The force of the detonations and the ensuing shock waves were enormous. The trees [surrounding the Wolf’s Liar] suffered as a result of the blast and were damaged by fragments of steel and concrete. Today, we regularly inspect these ancient trees because it is important to ensure the safety of tourists. We can still see remnants of the original camouflage nets on many trees. One large-sized net was found in Zone One in 2017 when cleaning up the space after we took over. It hangs over one of the paths. Unfortunately, tourists keep snipping off bits of it as a souvenir so it's quite likely that this material testimony to the past history may soon disappear.

Had Wolf's Lair been bombed before? Did the Russians and British know the location of this headquarters?

Both sides had the technical ability and reach. Keep in mind that Königsberg was bombed. However, we have conflicting accounts. The headquarters was built in secret, under the guise of a chemical plant called "Ascania", as indicated by plaques placed within a radius stretching several kilometers from Wolf's Lair. Initially, local people believed this to be the case. However, by 1942 it had become common knowledge in the area just who the main tenant of this place was. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that the well-functioning Soviet intelligence was unaware as who it was in the Gierłoż forest.

The fact that there was no bombing can be explained by the fact that neither the Russians nor the Allies wanted to kill Hitler. The British had their own Operation Foxley, a plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler that was supervised by Winston Churchill himself. He finally ordered the operation to be abandoned, believing Hitler to be an incorrigible megalomaniac, one who considered himself an infallible genius while making numerous mistakes that caused the German army to suffer defeat after defeat. There was a fear that after the Führer's death, power would be taken over by officers capable of changing the course of the war so it was thought better that Hitler should remain alive and in command.

Some time ago, however, I came across fragments of reports by General Viktor Abakumov, a close associate of Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the NKVD [the Soviet secret police agency], which suggested that the Soviet soldiers in January 1945 had no idea what they had found. It is worth noting that reaching the Wolf's Lair and taking it was not easy anyway. The site was well camouflaged and surrounded by vast minefields which took the lives of many Soviet soldiers as they tried to reach the headquarters complex. It was not until after Abakumov arrived there in person, on February 14, 1945, that they realized that this was where Hitler had been staying much of the time. Of course, we try to be as close to the facts as possible, but this information cannot be fully reconciled and may explain why there are so many myths about Wolf’s Lair.
Hitler's bunker in the Wolf's Lair. Photo: Adam Jones from Kelowna, Canada - CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia

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Or perhaps they [the Allies] were simply aware of how the Lair had been built and realised that it couldn't be bombed effectively?

The structure was indeed supposed to withstand air bombardment and artillery fire. The bunker shelters were built not merely for Hitler himself, but for all his closest collaborators as well. That is with the notable exception of Himmler, whose Hochwald (High Forest) headquarters were located between Giżycko and Węgorzewo, in Pozezdrze. As commander of the Luftwaafe, Hermann Göring had his own personal bunker and an L-shaped house in the Lair, the latter lavishly furnished despite Hitler's insistence on standard finishing of wood panelling and parquet, as well as very simple furniture. Everyone was aware that Göring loved luxury and an affluent lifestyle, and that valuable works of art stolen for him throughout Europe were transported to his Carinhall estate. He never spent a single night in the Lair, going there only for meetings or as the need arose. He chose to live in the wooden hunting manor of Emperor Wilhelm II in the Romincka Forest, where he was able to pursue his great passion for hunting.

There are many stories about what else Göring loved to do in company and about his unusual hobbies and desires...

(Laughter). Returning to the Wolf's Lair, today we only see the ruins of these bunkers and shelters, but they stimulate our imagination because we can see cross-sections of walls (4-6 meters thick) and ceilings (from 6-to-10 meters). Everything was built of the best quality cement in Europe, imported especially from the Italian Dolomites, and reinforced steel, which to this day, despite the passage of time and exposure to all kinds of weather conditions, remains impossible to break or even bend.

The Wolf's Lair headquarters complex included three security zones, (the strictest security prevailed in the first, where Hitler stayed with his closest, trusted associates; the other two were located behind the main road and the railway crossing, respectively). Less stringent security rules applied to the army representative offices, headquarters administration, casinos, officers' hotels, soldier barracks, and garages, which were located further away.

So not all of the shelters were of such extraordinary strength that they could withstand being penetrated by the bombs that existed then?

Of course not. In heavy shelters, with such thick walls and ceilings, it was possible to hide in case of danger – and every dignitary had his own bunker. Right next to it, lighter structures with windows (i.e. brick and reinforced concrete barracks) were built. This is where these people and their staffs lived and worked on a daily basis. Of course, the heavy shelters were also designed for normal living and functioning: there were bedrooms, bathrooms, and living rooms. The buildings were heated with coke fuel and briquettes from TROLL company, and the radiators -- not at all different in appearance from those found in old tenement houses -- can be seen today in our exhibition, which also features items belonging to the inhabitants ranging from toothbrushes and razors to lighters, pipes, combs, and various personal items, as well as items from the technical rooms.

Treasure hunters probably have something to look for here. Adolf's toothbrush would be something important and expensive for collectors of "souvenirs from the Third Reich".

For over three years now, as a Forest District, we have been cooperating with the "Latebra" Foundation for Lost Works of Art from Gdańsk. They have been exploring this area, and we are showing the results of their work at our exhibitions. As for the Führer's toothbrush, I don't think we would ever find it because although he was a pedant, according to many of his colleagues, he did not care about his teeth at all. He had five of his own teeth intact in his jaw and being in close proximity to him was trying because of his unbearable bad breath. As I mentioned, with the exception of Göring's "palace", the remaining rooms were very modest. Everyone ate using similar tableware and cutlery featuring Third Reich motifs. Tiles and fittings were the same everywhere. Fragments of the floor of one of such residential buildings can be seen on display in a tour exhibition.
People like to visit fortifications, even when they are in ruins. However, were it not for the assassination attempt on Hitler in the Wolf's Lair, it's unlikely that 300,000 tourists would be coming here every year. And probably no one would have been telling pupils at schools about this place.

The history of the attempt gives this place a special character and makes it a must-see venue. It is important to show how long and carefully the attempt was planned and prepared for. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg faced all sorts of difficulties in trying to to kill Hitler and then escape from the Wolf's Lair. In order to protect his loved ones from the terrible consequences of the failed attack, he had to prepare his family for a potential failure. There was the cruelty with which the conspirators were treated -- executed either by being decapitated by guillotine or by hanging from butcher's hooks and with thick piano wire strings. However, let us not delude ourselves into thinking that Stauffenberg was a man who wanted to kill Hitler in order to stop this madness and save human lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Stauffenberg was a staunch Nazi who, like the other conspirators, had the good and future of the Third Reich in mind.

The place for the attack was perfect, but they didn't succeed...

It didn't work. Hitler often said that he was the chosen one, watched over by providence and that he had a mission to fulfill from God himself, and that therefore he had the right to say as much. Indeed, providence did not disabuse him of his error. In total, some 40 assassination attempts on Hitler were planned. Thirteen took place. Yet, inexplicably, something always happened to thwart the assassins, and the Führer always emerged alive and intact. It proved to be the same that day at Wolf's Lair – a series of coincidences that resulted in Hitler escaping with his life.

Stauffenberg shows up at the Wolf's Lair and goes to the meeting with a briefcase in which he has a bomb. Pretending to have damaged hearing, he asks to get as close to the leader as possible. The meeting is very short. Claiming the need to make an important phone call to Berlin, Stauffenberg leaves the room, first informing Colonel Heinz Brandt about it and leaving his briefcase under the table, as close to Hitler as possible. Colonel Brandt kicks the briefcase twice with his foot, bends down to pick it up and moves it to the other side of the thick table support. This is coincidence number 1.

Coincidence number 2 is that the time of the meeting is changed from from 1pm to 12.30pm because Benito Mussolini is due to visit Wolf's Lair the same afternoon. Stauffenberg could not have known about it in advance. He found out only when he was at the briefing in Wilhelm Keitel's shelter. As a result, he realized that he would not be able to arm both of the prepared bombs in the short time he had left since he required about 22 minutes for each. He was an invalid with no right hand, missing two fingers on the left hand and without his left eye. This was not his first attempt to assassinate Hitler, so he determines to go ahead despite the unfavorable circumstances. Using the pretext of needing to freshen up and change his shirt, he goes to the Wehrmacht building, where he arms the explosive, while his aide guards the door. The conspirators manage to arm one bomb and Stauffenberg takes it [to the meeting with Hitler]. The second unarmed bomb is taken by the adjutant. The officers, clearly under great stress, do not realise that they could put both bombs in the briefcase supposed to go under the table. The unarmed bomb would have self-detonated, [when the armed one would explode] which would have given a good chance of killing the Führer.

Coincidence number 3 is the open windows in the brick and reinforced concrete barracks where the meeting is held. That day the temperature reached 35 degrees Celsius. Had the meeting taken place in a heavy shelter, no one would probably have survived the explosion.

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Hitler survives the attempt suffering only a wounded hand. Do we know for sure in which building the attack was carried out? Which ruins are these?

Yes, because we try to convey the history very faithfully here. Although tourists sometimes point to a completely different place. Some of them also tell stories about the underground railway, U-boats that were supposed to depart from here through an underground channel towards the Baltic Sea, or about the people who built the shelters and were prisoners of the camps, mass murdered in the Masurian forests. Today, we present historical facts very scrupulously and faithfully, although there will certainly be some minor mistakes because none of us witnessed these events. However, I can say with full responsibility that there were no underground channels in the Wolf's Lair through which U-Boats left, no underground railway or underground passages between the headquarters and Kętrzyn or Mamerki. The people who built the headquarters of the leader of the Third Reich were German workers associated with the Todt Organization. It was established in 1938 by Fritz Todt, the Minister of Armaments Industry, the man responsible for the construction of Wolf's Lair, who was to die tragically on February 8, 1942 at the nearby Wilamów airport, the principal airport for Hitler's headquarters.

Since Hitler and his entourage stayed longer in Wolf's Lair than anywhere else, the most terrible ideas of the Nazi madness and World War II started by the Germans must surely have been born here. Decisions that were murderous for the whole of Europe were made here...

I often think about this while walking through this forest, and I would like the tourists who visit us to think about it too. That's why this place is important. It was here that the fate of Warsaw and its inhabitants was decided. This is where the message came that there were no more bullets for the further Massacre of Wola. This is where the orders to capture Moscow, blockade Leningrad and starve its inhabitants, or liquidate ghettos in occupied Europe were issued. Here is where decisions about virtually every aspect of the German war since 1942, so completely contrary to humanity, were taken.

Sometimes tourists ask us why we created an exhibition about the Warsaw Uprising in the Wolf's Lair, described in Polish and German. The answer is simple: "Every inhabitant should be killed. No prisoners allowed. Warsaw is to be razed to the ground and thus an example is to be created for the whole of Europe". This was the order given by Adolf Hitler in the Wolf's Lair on the evening of August 1, 1944, when he was informed about the Uprising. This is where its fate was decided. And we inform visitors about this and about the 180,000 innocent victims and the annihilation of the capital of Poland on a special wall before they enter this exhibition. As in every dictatorship, in Hitler's Germany decisions were made at the highest level, and therefore necessarily here, where Hitler stayed almost continuously for almost three years.

In September, we opened the multimedia exhibition "Time of Terror 1939-1945", which talks about Nazism from its birth, through the horrors of war, to its fall. The aim is to ensure that people who come here become deeply aware of this message: "Never again”! Today, the Wolf's Lair is the Historical and Natural Education Center. We have a special offer for schools so that generations of young people never forget what war is, what it brings, and the enormity of the victims of these terrible times. We host approximately 2,500 students from local schools annually.
I would like to emphasize that by creating exhibitions and telling the history of this place, we do not glorify Nazism in any way. Nor do we present Stauffenberg as a hero. In one of the barracks there is an exhibition hall summarizing the German anti-fascist movement and he is not particularly exposed there, unlike, for example, the White Rose organization. It is clear that he was a Nazi through and through, an anti-Semite. He hated and despised Poles, as it is written in his diaries... He wanted to kill Hitler to prevent the military defeat of Germany under his leadership, i.e. he wanted Germany to win this war while it was still possible... His aim was not to make the gas chambers stop smoking. He was a war criminal and not a convert at all. It was a fight for power and an attempt to save their own skin and property, undertaken by the group of General Henig von Trescov, known to Polish historians for the murders committed by his subordinates of Polish civilians in September 1939. We are not telling a pseudo-history here, like in a movie with handsome Tom Cruise. We rely on facts.

I visited the museum this summer…

The Wolf's Lair is not a museum -- neither state, social, regional nor private. Nor is it entered in the register of monuments. The facility has only been included in the list of monuments, which does not give conservation authorities the right to interfere with the owner's rights.

This area was transferred to the management of the State Forests at the turn of 1954/1955. However, for many years, the facility was in the hands of various external entities. Between 1992 and 2012, it was handled by the "Wilcze Gniazdo" company but unfortunately the commitment lacked heart and there were numerous shortcomings as a result. The facility became seriously run down. It was in a deplorable condition. Nevertheless, in 2012, when the lease agreement ended, the company again won the tender to handle Wolf's Lair for 20 years. The new agreement, in addition to the "lease rent", called for much needed repairs and maintenance, ensuring the safety of visitors, plus tidying up the area, etc. Unfortunately, the company did not fulfill its obligations, and failed to meet the deadlines for necessary work. Since the problem could not be resolved amicably, the company's contract was terminated on March 31, 2015. On April 4, 2017, after a long and stormy battle, as a result of a court judgment, the Srokowo Forest District took over care of the venue, establishing the above-mentioned Historical and Natural Education Center "Wilczy Szaniec" [Wolf’s Liar].

I can't believe this mismanagement that lasted for decades. Today, there is order, temporary and permanent exhibitions, a large parking lot, and even a drive-thru ticket office. There is also a shop with interesting souvenirs and books, as well as audio guides in many languages and a smartphone application. There is a place to eat, a place to freshen up…

Yes, both the structures and the area were tidied up. In addition to the tourist zone, a museum zone was created. We try to ensure that our guests (so far this season, there has been over 300,000 visitors) remember their stay fondly and experience a living history lesson here. Taking into account the infrastructure and ongoing works, including conservation I can confidently say that the Wolf's Lair is today a facility worthy of the 21st century.

With the onset of the pandemic and then the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, we were full of concerns about the operation of the facility. Our guests are mostly foreign tourists. As we know, the state border was closed, and later the ongoing war made foreigners scared or nervous about visiting Masuria. Fears of an extension of the conflict meant foreign travel agencies cancelled many reservations. However, Polish tourists helped us. Today, we attach great importance to education, and each of our guests has a part in the development of this place, because investments are made from ticket sales.

So it is possible to carry a great historical education project in Poland without any subsidies -- neither central nor local -- and without being either a monument or a museum but just a forest district. You just need passion, ideas and commitment.

In fact, it was a huge challenge for us, but we coped with it. And what proves this? Satisfied tourists.

– Magdalena Kawalec-Segond

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy

Wojciech Kozioł – a teacher by education, a passionate tourist guide, a promoter of sustainable management of the forest and its gifts, and a nature educator. By profession, he is a tourism promotion and education expert in the Srokowo Forest District (Regional Directorate of State Forests in Olsztyn), where he is responsible for organizing mass events, including: International Forest Planting (#sadziMY, #sprzątaMY), sculpture workshops, picnics and historical reconstructions. Promoter of the "Dobre z Lasu" brand. Originator and co-creator of exhibitions located at the "Wilczy Szaniec" Historical and Natural Education Center. Creator of recreation areas and information and nature boards, disseminating knowledge about the forest among hundreds of thousands of people who visit the "Wolf's Lair" every year.
Main photo: Hitler's bunker in the Wolf's Lair. Photo: Adam Jones from Kelowna, Canada - CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia
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