After having hiked up and down all the green hills around Bad Münstereifel, I wanted to hitchhike for a change. No matter where. But in this goal-oriented society, where a plan counts for more than aimless roaming, you’re left standing at the side of the road if you tell people that you don’t mind where they are going. Thus, I consult the map and pick a random medium-range destination: the Urft Dam.
The artificial lake created by the Urft Dam invites me to take a relaxing walk while admiring the dam, which was built between 1900 and 1905. A marvel of technology that is still appreciated by many recipients of electricity every day, while ironing, watching TV or microwaving.
Less appreciated, apparently, is the ride-sharing bench in Bad Münstereifel, which – in keeping with the Belgian model – is painted blue and is meant to entice motorists to stop for waiting hitchhikers.
But I am standing there for a full fifteen minutes before the first driver decides not to ignore this ecologically useful facility, taking me to Pesch, two villages further. Close by, in the forest, there is a beautiful Roman temple complex, but more about that in another article, because, the headline has already revealed as much, this article will already be overloaded with enough history.
Today, however, I stay on the road and get to Zingsheim with the next driver after waiting a mere few minutes. There, I position myself at the traffic circle to the north, in the direction of Kall, Schleiden or Gemünd. I don’t care about the exact route as long as the direction is right.
The third driver, who has come to the Eifel to assess water damages, doesn’t care about the exact route either, because he has his first appointment at 10 a.m. and still has plenty of time until then. And that’s despite the fact that he’s fully booked after last weekend’s storm. (This was before the deadly floods in July 2021.) He has received 181 calls about water damages, with about 20 a day being normal. But even without storms, he says cheerfully, he’s not running out of work because people build so quickly and cheaply nowadays. After 10 or 20 years, they receive the payback.
He actually has to go to Hellenthal, but he is kind enough to drive me all the way to Gemünd. “Then I can visit my sister for a coffee, she is living somewhere around there,” he says relaxed. When I tell him that Gemünd is a great starting point for my hike because I can still get something to eat there, he even takes me straight to a bakery.
“If you need more water damage, I can sabotage the Urft Dam for you,” I offer as a farewell. “That would be something!” he says enthusiastically, and so I feel under obligation to repeat Operation Chastise. (A month or so later, when I see the region hit by terrible flooding, I feel quite bad about this.)
In Gemünd, I discover a small river called Urft flowing through the town. Logically, it must flow to the Urft Reservoir, otherwise it would hardly have any right to that name. So I decide to hike along the little watercourse. Rivers are great for orientation if you want to get to a lake or to the sea. You can’t really get lost. (Except for the beginners who confuse the Red Nile and the White Nile. But then, sooner or later, the New York Herald dispatches a traveling reporter to find you. At least when editors still had courage, patience and money for expenses. Oh, what could have become of me if I had been born in the good old days…)
“10 km to the Urft Dam” a sign confirms my sense of orientation, strengthened by roaming around the world. And a largely shaded path under a green canopy of leaves confirms my decision for walking the rest of the way.
But what is that, peeking out from behind the trees on the left bank of the river?
After just a few more kilometers, there is indeed a bridge, allowing me to cross the river which has grown quite wide. The path to the mysterious tower in the woods is steep, arduous and long. Again and again I have to pause, drink all my cola supplies, eat all the bakery products.
“Oh, f***,” I exclaim, not controlling my language for a moment. Not because I’m exhausted, but because there is a torchbearer in the middle of the forest. In broad daylight. But from the dark ages, as you can tell from the design and from the inscription: “You are the torchbearers of the nation. In the fight for Adolf Hitler, you are carrying the light of the spirit.”
Ehm. I don’t feel drawn to heed that call at all. Instead, I hasten to run away, wanting to get out of the Teutonic forest as quickly as possible. But when it clears, the next surprise awaits: a sports field, obviously not in use for a long time, at the foot of a monstrous complex.
Somehow, but maybe I’m being overly sensitive, all of this makes a slightly fascistic impression. I will need hours to explore everything. But because I know that patience is not your strong point, I’ll already grant you the bird’s eye view.
This, my esteemed readers, is Ordensburg Vogelsang, a monumental structure that embodies both a claim to power and megalomania. With an area of 100 hectares, it is the second largest architectural legacy of National Socialism after Nuremberg. Impressive and oppressive at the same time.
“So-called Ordensburg,” corrects Jürgen Spekl, the guide who is leading a group around the site, for the first time after an eight-month break due to the Corona virus. “It was neither a castle [‘Burg’ in German], nor did the young men belong to a religious order [‘Orden’ in German]. It’s a word from the linguistic kitchen of National Socialism, and we shouldn’t use these words without reflection.” He will put a “so-called” before many more words: Ordensjunker [knights of the order], Burgkommandant [castle commander], Burgschänke [castle tavern], Elite, Herrenmenschen [master race].
You can tell that he has been missing the contact with visitors. Engaged and eloquent, he guides the group around the grounds and skillfully uses each specific site to introduce various aspects of National Socialism – from the reference to the Teutonic Knights, the propaganda of job creation by deliberately foregoing the use of machinery during construction, to the religious references and the whole “theatrics, masquerade and hocus-pocus”.
It begins with the fact that the Führer state was not as monolithic as it liked to present itself. A self-portrayal that was readily adopted after 1945, and not only for reasons of simplicity. But within the National Socialist organizations, a tug-of-war over competencies was fought from day one. Under the supervision of the Reich Ministry of Education, the National Political Institutes of Education (Napola) came into being from 1933 onward, and with the beginning of the war they increasingly came under the influence of the SS. In addition, the Hitler Youth had its own HY regional leader schools. The SS, too, wanted to train the next generation of National Socialists and established SS leadership schools, which were later renamed SS Junker Schools (again the reference to medieval knights). Since 1931, the SA had already operated the Reichsführer School in Munich and later the National Socialist High School at Lake Starnberg.
In addition, however, Robert Ley, Reich Organizational Leader of the NSDAP, i.e. something like a general secretary of the party, since 1932, also wanted to gain control over the training of the next generation. His idea were the so-called Ordensburgen and later the Adolf Hitler Schools. From 1933, Ley also became leader of the German Labor Front, which had taken over the assets of the crushed or banned trade unions. With money come grand plans and, as you know from the nouveaux riches among your relatives, often poor architectural taste. Or should we say poor architeutonic taste.
Incidentally, the high-school dropout Führer didn’t care about the conflicting ideas regarding the education of young men, as long as they were ready to step on mines or otherwise die in his name. Therefore, none of the concepts prevailed over the others, and all continued to compete with each other.
The Ordensburgen were neither state nor military institutions, but party schools (not that type of party), if that makes much difference in a one-party state. There were three of them, and in the three years of training, one year was to be spent in each of the “castles”. The first cohort served to receive the “old guard,” that is, as Mr. Spekl says, “the men who had punched their way through the beer halls and streets during the Weimar Republic.” And among them, only those who had not made it elsewhere, i.e. who had not found a place in the government departments, the military or any other Nazi organization.
Among the approximately 2200 young men who were trained at Vogelsang from 1936 to 1939, most were simple laborers, craftsmen or unemployed. Some were probably functionally illiterate. “Broken lives” the guide calls them. The requirements were: taller than 1.60 meters, no glasses, no hereditary diseases in the family, Aryan ancestry dating back to 1 January 1800 and party membership prior to 1933. At the end, there was the personal appraisal by Robert Ley, who claimed to be able to determine at a glance whether someone was ‘a real man’. School or professional certificates were explicitly not required.
And then the boys came to such a castle, even if it was a fake castle, and were treated like the elite. As one of the former “knights” once said on a later visit: “Here, for the first time in my life, I had a bed of my own.” Given that, sharing a dormitory with 19 comrades didn’t bother him.
Of the three years of training, each had its own motto. At Ordensburg Krössinsee, the focus was on sports.
The second part of the training in Vogelsang was focused on ideological education, although there are still suspiciously many sports facilities, race tracks and swimming pools. Apparently, the so-called elite could not be expected to put up with too much theory. The third training phase in Sonthofen had the motto “readiness for sacrifice”.
Krössinsee and Sonthofen are still used as barracks by the Polish Armed Forces and the German Armed Forces, respectively, making Vogelsang the only freely accessible former Nazi Ordensburg. But even that only since 2006; when it was vacated by the Belgian Army.
As oversized as the Vogelsang complex may seem and as much as it overwhelms the visitor with its power and monstrosity: What we see here is only 30% of what was actually planned. Missing are the 2000-bed hotel, the largest sports stadium in Europe (that would make UEFA happy), an equestrian stadium, an airfield, and a 100-meter-high library called the House of Knowledge, paved with black marble so that visitors would have the feeling of floating through the corridors.
The architect was Clemens Klotz, whose last name is now used as a verb in German [‘klotzen’ = doing things with maximum investment and aiming to make the greatest possible impact]. (He was also the architect of the Prora seaside resort.) After 1945, he built a few more residential and commercial buildings, but never again got his hands on as much concrete as he did on his major projects.
Willy Meller, on the other hand, the sculptor who designed the torchbearer along with other Nazi art, was able to adapt quickly, like so many Germans. For Palais Schaumburg, the office of the West German Chancellor in Bonn, he reworked his imperial eagle into the federal eagle. He also suddenly built memorials to the victims of World War II as well as to the resistance against the Nazi dictatorship. As Max Czollek writes: If there is one example of successful integration in the Federal Republic of Germany, it is the integration of the former Nazis into postwar society.
Because the grounds are freely accessible, the torchbearer is still a meeting point for neo-Nazis, who regularly leave gifts, grave lamps and other grisly goods.
These late admirers of the Ordensburgen probably don’t even know that this is a story of complete failure of lofty plans. Not only did the curriculum, goal and function of the training always remain vague and undefined. After Vogelsang took in its first men in 1936, the gates were closed again in 1939. Not a single trainee went through the entire program as planned. The men were needed for the war, where so-called Ordensjunker were involved in some 300,000 acts of murder. The building material was needed for the Siegfried Line.
Only a few of them were held accountable. In the exhibition and in the guided tour, some “careers” are presented as examples. The eagerness to suppress the past on the part of society and the judiciary in post-war Germany and Austria is obvious. Robert Ley, who could tell at a glance who was a tough German man, hung himself from the toilet tank in Nuremberg.
Mr. Spekl apologizes for overrunning the tour by 30 minutes, yet none of the participants has complained about it. I could listen for hours more, and after the group disperses, I am roaming the grounds alone. So long that I forget to watch the time, because when I am thinking of hitchhiking back home, I realize that I am the last person on the grounds. Nobody will come past here anymore, at least not tonight. The gas station seems to have closed long ago, too.
That’s a pity. I would have liked to ride in one of the old cars, no matter where to. Fortunately, I still catch the last bus.
Back in Bad Münstereifel, exhausted physically and mentally, my head full of information, thoughts and questions, all I want is a currywurst. While I wait for it to be prepared, my eyes wander to the surrounding stores – and can’t believe what they see: A fashion store named after Robert Ley. Unconcerned, the customers leave with shopping bags bearing the name of the high-ranking Nazi.
- The Vogelsang complex is so huge (and megalomaniac), that you should plan at least half a day for it.
- The walk from Gemünd takes about two hours. With the exception of the steep ascent at the end, it’s a rather leisurely stroll.
- If you don’t want to walk, you can hitchhike, drive or take bus no. 82 from Gemünd or no. 63 from Aachen via Simmerath.
- As you have probably noticed, I highly recommend the 90-minute tour around the grounds. Before or after, you can also walk around freely.
- The website of Vogelsang.
- The complex is part of Eifel National Park.
- More history, especially about World War II.
- You will be surprised about all the things one discovers while hiking or hitchhiking.
- As always: If this has helped you to plan a trip or if you can use it for a school project, I would be grateful for any support for this labor-intensive blog.