Just a few kilometers outside of the city limits of Berlin, in the city of Rüdersdorf lie the ruins of the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf – a former cement turned phosphate chemical factory – with a history dating back over a hundred years. Since its closure in the year 2000, it’s become a hotspot for Hollywood films, graffiti artists, vandals and lost place photographers alike.
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Rüdersdorf – 700 years of limestone history
The village of Rüdersdorf (officially Rüdersdorf bei Berlin) traces its foundation back to the year 1235, when the Order of Cistercians (a group of catholic monks) – based at the Kloster Zinna – founded 10 villages in the area. It was around this time that the newly settled farmers encountered large chunks of limestone when they tried plowing their fields. Little did the farmers know that they stumbled upon the resource which would be used to build the grandeur of Berlin for centuries to come.
While buildings around the time of the 13th century were predominantly made out of wood, the use of limestone from Rüdersdorf saw rapid adoption with the Dominican Monastery in Strausberg being constructed with it in the year 1254. Around the year 1571, the Monks realized that the limestone from Rüdersdorf also had another use. If you burnt the limestone and doused it with water (greatly oversimplifying the process), you could create calcium oxide – otherwise known as Quicklime, used in making cement and mortar. By 1579, Rüdersdorf had begun operating Limekilns to mass produce said quicklime.
Berlins hunger for quicklime couldn’t be satiated though, as by 1701 the city – now the capital of Prussia – had swelled to a size of 100,000 inhabitants. The city needed mortar to expand the Berliner Schloß, to build more houses and military barracks as well as whole assortment of fancy representative buildings. The high demand for quicklime from Rüdersdorf led to a massive deforestation of the area as a fully loaded kiln required 75 cubic meters of wood. With production continuing at this pace, the quicklime production would have had to cease by the end of the 18th century as they would have run out of wood for the kilns.
King Friedrich II stepped in and demanded that the people reduce their wood consumption, which interestingly enough lead the development of the “Berliner” Kachelofen – a modernised tile oven which is still very popular to this day.
Just to emphasize the impact and importance that the Limestone from Rüdersdorf had on Berlin: the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Berliner Dom, Sanssouci and the Berlin Olympic Stadium (any many more) were all constructed with limestone from Rüdersdorf.
While a new domestic oven design didn’t save the forest of Brandenburg, an invention by the Count of Rumford – Benjamin Thompson – did. The Count invented a new continuous lime burning kiln which was fuelled by peat and later on coal. Rüdersdorf adopted the new technology by 1802, and then began to rapidly expand its production capabilities. By 1871, Rüdersdorf was producing 28,000 tons of quicklime.
The Englishman John Smeaton pioneered the process of hydraulic lime in 1769 (a stronger version of quicklime which could also set in water), but it was the Chemist and Doctor Johann Friedrich John from Berlin who figured out process and came to the conclusion that the special binding power of the cement stems from the addition of silica and alumina to the lime. Ultimately the patent for so called “Portland cement” was granted to another Englishman named Joseph Aspdin in 1824.
Just like limestone in the 13th century, the usage of cement exploded. Yet again, the limestone in Rüdersdorf proved to be a valuable resource and by 1884 the first cement factory – Guthmann & Jeserich -began its production run, with a second plant opening 13 years later.
Between 1914 and 1916, one of the open cast limestone quarries was flooded (on purpose) to create an artificial lake called the Heinitz See. It became a very popular outing, even for Berliners – who enjoyed the bizarre landscape and idyllic scenery. The lake also became a popular backdrop for the German movie industry in the 1920s and 1930s, with several films such as the „Das indische Grabmal“, „Der Tiger von Eschnapur“, „Wasser für Canitoga“, „Harakiri“ and „Das fliegende Auto“ being filmed there.
Zementwerkt Rüdersdorf from 1900 until the Nazis
What is known as the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf today had its origins in the year 1900, when the C.O. Wegener Company built its first cement factory in Rüdersdorf. By 1925, the company was listed on the stock market as the “C. O. Wegener Rüdersdorfer Portland-Cementwerk – Hennickendorfer Dampfziegeleien Vertriebs-Aktiengesellschaft”. The cement factory in Rüdersdorf produced cement with its ultra-modern rotary kilns under the name of C.O. Wegener until 1939, when it was bought up by the Preussag.
The Preussag (Preußische Bergwerks- und Hütten-Aktiengesellschaft – Prussian mining and smelter company) was founded in 1923 through the conversion of the Prussian state ownership of mines, smelters, salt works and amber factories, as well as their subsidiary companies, into a public limited company, employing roughly 31,000 people. In 1933, the Nazis immediately took over control of Preussag, replacing its board with party members. The Preussag experienced rapid growth from 1933 onwards thanks to the Nazi rearmament programs and its limestone and cement industries immensely profited from the increased construction activity (building the Reichsautobahn, Air raid shelters and fortresses).
During the years of Nazi terror, over 2000 forced laborer’s had to work in the lime quarries and cement works of the Preussag, as did Italian, French and Soviet prisoners of war (who were held in a concentration camp nearby). The Preussag established laboratories dedicated to researching new types of cement to cope with the increased demand for lime and cement – as enormous quantities of both were being used for the construction of the Autobahn and Speers gigantic projects.
By 1938, the Preussag had established the most modern cement plan in all of Europe. But it wouldn’t last long. The Cement factory in Rüdersdorf continued producing cement under the Preussag until 1944, when it switched over to producing artificial / synthetic bauxite. Bauxite is used to create Aluminum (to this day, 90% of Bauxite is used for Aluminum production) – and the German war industry was hungry for it, seizing half of the French Production in 1943, and importing 90% of Hungary’s Bauxite production.
After the war, the Preussag lost most of its infrastructure, including mines and quarries as they were located in territories that either the Soviet Union had taken over (like Königsberg) or been given to Poland. After acquiring the shipping company Hapag-Lloyd and the British Thomson Travel Group in 1997 and 2000, the Preussag rebranded itself as TUI in the year 2002 and is now the world largest travel and tourism company.
Soviet Dismantling and East German Production
Rüdersdorf bei Berlin capitulated to the Soviets on the 21st of April, 1945. While the forced laborer’s and foreign prisoners of war were liberated – the Soviets erected a new Prisoner of war camp in May 1945 on the grounds of the cement factory. The Soviet Camp had a camp within the camp reserved for high ranking Nazis, Concentration Camp Commanders and personnel.
All in all over 30,000 prisoners were held captive in the former cement factory. Under orders of the Soviets, the prisoners dismantled the factory (including the doors, windows and gutters), so it could be shipped back to the Soviet Union as war reparations, leaving only the rotary kilns behind. The majority of the buildings that are left standing today trace their origins back to the construction phase of 1940-1942.
The Soviet Military Administration issued the Order 106 on the 25th of August 1949, which sought to repurpose the empty plant and convert it into a fertilizer producer. And thus, the VEB Glühphosphatwerk Rüdersdorf was born. Now producing magnesium phosphate, the chemical factory in Rüdersdorf was producing 21,000 tons magnesium phosphate by 1959.
Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf – New Name, New product
From 1972 onwards, the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf tried to use the same technology it was using for its magnesium phosphate production, to produce calcium sodium phosphate for the industrial livestock production – though the results were less than satisfactory as the rotary kilns were too short.
The GDR investment a huge sum to and modernized the plant with two 100 meter tall rotary kilns, along with building new facilities that dealt with cleaning and filtering the exhaust, as well as grinding and shipping the product. Around this time, the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf was merged into a new VEB, this time the VEB Chemiewerk Coswig and received the new (and long) name VEB Chemiewerk Coswig Betriebsteil Rüdersdorf.
That wouldn’t be the last name change though as the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf – known officially as the VEB Chemiewerk Coswig Betriebsteil Rüdersdorf, was integrated again in a newly formed VEB in 1979, and was officially called VEB Kombinat Agrochemie Piesteritz Betriebsteil Coswig. Yes, that makes a lot of sense.
With a snazzy new name, and some modern production facilities, the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf began producing high quality feed phosphate under the brand name Rükana. The quality of Rükana was so good that the GDR used it to sell it abroad to western markets to get some cold hard and much needed western cash.
Nazi Tunnels, Soviet Command Post and National Security Council Bunker
Unbeknownst to many, the Limestone quarry next to the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf and the (artificial) Heinitzsee had a “little” secret. During the early 1940s the Nazis built a U-Verlagerung (Untergrund Verlagerung – an underground factory) with the codename “Labrador”. A series of 4 reinforced steel concrete tunnels were constructed, housing a ball bearing production facility as well as serving as a depot for a large portion of the mineral collection of the Museum für Naturkunde (Berlins Natural History Museum).
After the end of the Second World War, the Red Army (and then the Group of Soviet Occupation Forces in Germany) took over the tunnels, expanded them and converted them into a command post which was used until the Soviets moved into Wünsdorf. The Soviets handed over the Command Post to the East German Government in 1962, which had swelled to a size of 8100 m² with roughly 154 rooms.
The Tunnels now served as the Central Command Post for the National Defense Council of East Germany under the Codename “Traube” (Grape). The defense council continued to expand the tunnels with the help of the Ministry for State Security with the intention of housing roughly a thousand of the most important East German officials in case of an imminent attack.
Ironically, the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf and the other factories drained the artificial Heinitzsee by 1974 to access the limestone underneath – putting the secret East German bunker in imminent danger of being excavated. The East German officials soon realized that their chosen location wasn’t ideal, and it didn’t help that despite having been massively fortified, the bunker would not withstand an atomic blast/fallout or an attack by ballistic missiles.
New atomic bunkers were built around Brandenburg and in 1979 the NVA secretly began moving out everything of the tunnels. The area was then handed over to Cement factories in Rüdersdorf in 1980. Heres a nice gallery of photos with what was left of the tunnels a few years ago before they vanished.
The end of the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf
As was so often the case, German reunification did not bring any good fortunes to the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf. The Rüdersdorf Chemical Factory did manage to continue production through the first years of German reunification but it was slow death. Rebranded as the Rüdersdorfer Futterphosphat GmbH, production capabilities and personnel were scaled down to such an extent that one could assume that the new owners and investors were deliberately running the company into the ground.
By 1999, the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf shut down production. After all assets were sold off, and all that remained were the empty production halls from the 1940s. With the factory closed, all business around the Rüdersdorf Chemical Factory closed as well. Abandoned Pubs and Restaurants dot the area – the most prominent example being the Gasthof zum Schwarzen Adler – an abandoned Inn directly at the gates of the factory.
A large swath of East German industry suffered a similar fate, either being sold off to the lowest bidder or being shuttered due to health and safety risks – like the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald – east Germanys largest nuclear powerplant. It was closed down in 1995 as its outdated Soviet technology posed a large enough security risk.
A year later, quite possibly the worst environmental scandal in Brandenburg was uncovered at the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf. Roughly 80 Barrels of Oil (each holding up to 100 liters of Oil) were found illegally stored or dumped on the ground of the Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf. The chemical laboratories were smashed up and the remaining substances – amongst other pleasant chemicals like nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and hydrochloric acid were spread around. The oil barrels leaked their toxic substances directly into the earth, poisoning the ground and ground water.
The Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf Today (2020)
The Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf has been granted a 4th lease of life, as big Hollywood productions such as Enemy at the Gates, Monuments Men, The Hunger Games and Homeland and others have used the location to film (both the Kaserne Krampnitz and Heilstätte Grabowsee were also used for some of these films). Even local German productions have seized on the opportunity to film here – with the Band Ramstein filming one of their videos here. Seems like everything’s come full circle at this point with the area seeing a revival of its cinematic popularity from the 1920’s.
The Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf has also become a hotspot for the local Urbex scene, thanks to its closeness to Berlin as well as the fact that the property is virtually unguarded. A local film scout had mentioned that the property is simply too large to effectively guard – so security is only really employed when film crews are present.
While the Chemical Factory in Rüdersdorf has been virtually gutted and smashed up since it closed in 1999, it’s not changed much over the past years – the reason being there’s nothing left to break. This has led to weird situation that despite being abandoned and empty, the buildings remain in a consistent “state”. Let’s hope that it stays that way for another couple of years.
Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf Address
15562 Rüdersdorf bei Berlin