An hour south of Berlin lay the ruins of the Adolf Hitler Lager – a sprawling military complex known more commonly as Forst Zinna. Between the 1930s and the early 1990s, thousands of Nazis, East Germans and Soviets absolved their military and political training in-between the Brandenburg Towns of Luckenwalde and Jüterbog – until first the Third Reich and then later the Soviet Union collapsed.
The origins of Jüterbog
Before getting into the details surrounding the Adolf-Hitler Lager, it’s worth quickly delving into the history of Jüterbog. Jüterbog was first mentioned in the year 1007 in the text of Thietmar of Merseburg, a chronicler of Archbishop Tagino of Magdeburg. Jüterbog suffered throughout the ages, with fire causing devastating damage in 1478, the plague (twice, in 1637 and 1639) and a resulting famine decimating the population. The 30 years’ war also left its marks, and by 1648 the village had almost completely fallen into obscurity. The 7 years’ war (from 1756 to 1763) brought destruction again upon the people- The neighbouring town of Luckenwalde had a better fate, as it quickly turned itself into an industrial hub, which resulted in many laborer’s leaving Jüterbog for good.
Looking for a way to turn things around, the citizens – in 1824 – asked for soldiers to be deployed in the area as means to supply and support the community. It took until 1832 for the request to be fulfilled when parts of the Prussian 3rd Artillery Brigade were deployed to the area. By 1841, Jüterbog was connected to the Berlin-Anhaltischen Eisenbahn, which helped cement the towns importance (the railway route would be one of the most important railway lines in Germany up until the end of the second world war).
Altes Lager and Neues Lager
From 1864, the artillery stationed in Jüterbog had established its own shooting range in the Birkheide, north of Jüterbog. On the 7th of October, 1870, the Prussian military bought 20 hectares land from the Dorf Zinna, to construct two barrack camps. The Prussian military brought 9000 French prisoners of war (from the German-French War) and used them as forced laborers to expand the Schießplatz Jüterbog. After the construction of a second barrack camp for the Jüterbog Artillerieschule (Jüterbog Artillery School), the area was originally referred to as Lager I (Camp I). As time passed, the terms “Altes Lager” (Old Camp) and “Neues Lager” (New Camp) became common references for the two military settlements.
As with other “Truppenübungsplätze” in Germany, Jüterbog expanded and was modernized, around the turn of the century. By 1916, an airfield was established at the Altes Lager, along with a chemical factory and aircraft hangars. Many of the facilities were dismantled and demolished after the end of the war, but the majority of the military facilities continued operating in some form.
Adolf Hitler Lager
As part of the (not so) secret German rearmament in the late 1920’s – early 1930’s, another troop camp was established on the edge of the Jüterbog military training area in 1934. Following the original naming order of Lager 1, or Altes Lager / Neues Lager, the new military installation received the rather uncreative name “Lager III”. Like many lager military barracks, the Lager III had many different unofficial names such as Waldlager Jüterbog Forst Zinna, or Waldlager Forst Zinna bei Jüterbog (today some people call it Panzerkaserne Forst Zinna), but it was officially named Adolf Hitler Lager not long after it opened.
Aside from the usual buildings such as living quarters and mess halls, the Adolf Hitler Lager offered a Cinema, Swimming Pool, Officers Casino, Officers Living Quarters and its own Waterworks. In addition to the actual military camp, a separate provisions warehouse was built, and by 1937 the Adolf Hitler Lager had its own train station.
Although all written documents have since gone missing, the first troops stationed at the Waldlager Forst Zinna / Adolf Hitler Lager were the SS. The Artillery School Jüterbog used the Lager to set up observation divisions for the artillery units from 1935 onwards. From 1939, the Adolf Hitler Lager was home to the “Lehrstab T” which was in charge of training tracked vehicle drivers (which makes sense for a Panzerkaserne). Around the same time, a new department for the Sturmgeschütz-Waffe (which was developed in Jüterbog) was set up at the Lager.
In the last weeks of the war, the RAD Division Nr. 2 “Friedrich Ludwig Jahn” was stationed here. The division was founded on the 31 of March 1945, and consisted mainly of the remnants of the 251. Infantry Division which had been pulled back from Western Prussia, as well as roughly 7500 RAD members (Reich Labour Service). The division saw combat against the Red Army to the south of Berlin under the Armeegruppe Spree (Itself set up in April 1945) in April.
The Division managed to break through the soviet encirclement of Potsdam and fought its way (together with the 12. Army in the XX. Army Corps) westward to avoid being captured (or surrendering to the Russians). The Friedrich Ludwig Jahn Division ended up surrendering in May 1945 in Ferchland to the Americans, but were handed over to Soviets as prisoners of war.
DP Camp and Administrative Academy
Immediately after the end of the Second World War, the occupying Soviets operated a camp for displaced persons in Forst Zinna. Citizens of different countries were gathered here – often against their will – and then deported to their countries of origin in collective transports. The Soviets did something similar with the abandoned Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf, but instead of displaced persons, they turned it into a camp for Nazis.
The Socialist Unity Party of Germany founded the Deutsche Verwaltungsakademie in 1947 and used the former Wehrmacht Kaserne in Forst Zinna. The DVA, later renamed to Deutsche Verwaltungsakademie “Walter Ulbricht” functioned as an educational institution for senior staff in the state apparatus, in administration and in the diplomatic service of the GDR. It was both a scientific institution, a university with the right to award doctorates, and an institution for training and further education.
The institution’s task was to train the political elites for the gradual self-government of the Soviet Occupation Zone and eventually that of the GDR, when it was founded in 1949.
Talented artists were roped in to the help with the design of the representative furniture and interior, as well as with the expansion of the academy. The Yugoslavian architect Selman Selmanagić (1905–1986), a representative of the Dessau Bauhaus, designed the furniture for the administrative academy in Forst Zinna in 1947.
The painter Lothar Zitzmann (1924-1977), known for his representative paintings of the socialist realism of the GDR, which once decorated the entrance hall of the Palace of the Republic, had received a government order in 1952 to create a mural for the Academy in Forst Zinna. When the contract was awarded, the GDR politicians themselves did not yet know that the Soviet army would soon claim the Forst Zinna Barracks for themselves in order to accommodate an army staff.
In February 1953, the Administrative Academy then had to move to Potsdam-Babelsberg, where it was merged with the existing German University of Justice to form the German Academy for Political Science and Law “Walter Ulbricht”.
The Soviets move in to Forst Zinna
The Soviets booted out the East Germans from the former Adolf Hitler Lager in Forst Zinna in 1953 and moved in their own troops. The first soviet troops to move in was the Staff of the 18th Guards Tank Army – renamed in 1972 to Staff of the 3rd. Guards Mechanised Army. Again, makes sense to move Tank units to a former Panzerkaserne. They did the same with the Panzerkaserne in Bernau as well.
As well as the Mechanised Army, the 118th Tank training regiment was stationed in the Forst Zinna Kaserne. In the 1970s, the Soviets decided to expand the former Nazi Barracks for a Construction Battalion. By now the former Adolf Hitler Lager consisted – amongst other things – of several administration buildings, supply buildings, a cinema / theater, the obligatory swimming pool, and apparently even a Zoo.
An interesting aspect of the Panzerkaserne in Forst Zinna was that it had a HO Store (HO being the “Handelsorganisation” – the national retail chain of East Germany). From the 1980s on, the HO enabled the soliders and their families to supply themselves with everything they needed. The HO was also open citizens of the GDR, who relished at the opportunity to shop at the (dubbed) “Russian Supermarket”.
Forst Zinna Train Accident
On January 19, 1988, one of the worst railway accidents in the GDR occured in Forst Zinna.
A 19-year-old Kazakh was being trained to drive a 36 ton T-64A tank (it was actually his first time ever driving the vehicle. The driving instructor, only 20 years old himself, sat behind and above the driver. With the engine running, the two could only communicate via the intercom. It was speculated that the Kazak and the Russian had sever communication problems – not because of the intercom – but because the instructor only spoke Russian, while the trainee had difficulties with Russian.
The driving instructor ordered to put the vehicle in first gear and to take a right turn where a bridge led to the nearby practice area. However, the driver got into second gear and drove straight on. The driving instructor knew that they almost off the permitter of the barracks and operated an emergency switch to turn off the engine. At this point the tank had already parked on the railway tracks. The soldiers heard the train coming and fled the vehicle. The approaching D-716 express train, travelling at a speed of 120 kilometers an hour and with 450 people on board crashed into the tank at full speed.
The force of the impact flipped the 80 ton locomotive and ended up pushing the soviet tank 130 meters down the track. The two train drivers died immediately. 6 passengers were killed, and 33 severely injured. The tank crew was interrogated by the East German Volkspolizei that same night, where the language problems between the two soldiers became clear.
While (fatal) accidents between civilians and the soviet military were not uncommon, these incidents were usually concealed from the public. The train accident on the other hand received an unusual amount of reporting through the media of the German Democratic Republic. This was most likely due to the heightened tensions between Erich Honecker and Mikhail Gorbachev, due to the laters policies of glasnost and perestroika (which the GDR elite did not agree with).
The GDR and the Soviet military agreed that the two persons responsible for the accident should answer before a Soviet military court. What punishments they received there was not disclosed. What happened to them is unknown: they were returned to the Soviet Union within 48 hours. Their fate remains unknown – though it was rumoured at the time they there were shot.
After clearing up the scene of the accident, the Reichsbahn sent a bill of 13 Million Mark to the Soviet Army – which remains unpaid to this day.
The Soviets move out
With the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and a looming German reunification, the Soviets started packing up their things and moving on home. Many troops had actually started heading back to the Soviet Union in 1989, seeing the sign of the times coming thanks to Gorbatschows Perestroika. The Soviet Troops stationed at the former Adolf Hitler Lager officially handed over the keys to the newly unified Germany on the 1st of January, 1991.
The Germans had little military use for Forst Zinna, so the now former soviet military site was handed over to the infamous Treuhand. Years passed with the soviet military barracks laying abandoned – that is until it was decided to tear the whole place down and renaturalize it in 2007. The Soviet garrison in Jüterbog avoided a similar fate – as it was largely bought up by a property developer from Hannover called “Dolphin Trust”. They are now decontaminating the area and preparing to convert it into living quarters, Kitas and supermarkets. The same developer has shown an interest in the Forst Zinna area, but as of late, only the demolition trucks have been rumbling through.
Adolf Hitler Lager today
As mentioned above, the whole area around the Panzerkaserne Forst Zinna has been slated for demolition – and the demolition process has been going on for years now. Despite this, a large portion of the buildings still stand to this day – though most of them have have started falling apart and crumbling to bits on their own. We first visited Forst Zinna in 2015 (albeit we didn’t get a chance to look around too much), and then a second time in 2017.
Theres still a whole bunch to explore, though the area around the garages and the Tank Pool were difficult to access because of the heavy construction work and loads of trucks passing on by. The latest images i’ve seen were from mid 2018 and show the exact same state as the photos from 2017. If one would like to see the remnants of this abandoned Soviet Military base, its probably best to hurry as its probably not going to be around for much longer.
Adolf Hitler Lager – Forst Zinna Address
Kloster Zinna, Jüterbog