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Loibl Tunnel

and concentration camp 

  
   - darkometer rating:  7 -
  
The sites of two satellite camps of Mauthausen concentration camp at the Loibl Tunnel that connects Slovenia and Austria. The tunnel was constructed using forced labourers from these camps that were specifically set up for that purpose.
  
Today there is a large memorial on the Slovenian side where there are also some well-marked relics of the original southern camp. On the northern side, in Austria, the commodification is considerably slimmer.    
More background info: This is a truly historic spot, not just in dark terms. Long before there was a tunnel, a mountain pass had been in use at least since Roman times. Later it became a salient part of a trade route between the port of Trieste and the economic centres north of what today is Slovenia, such as nearby Klagenfurt but also Vienna
  
In the 16th century the Loibl Pass across the Karavanke Alps was extended and even a first shorter tunnel was dug (at a much higher elevation than today's tunnel). However, this tunnel was soon abandoned as it was in danger of collapse. More road works were ordered after a visit by the Habsburg emperor Charles VI in the early 18th century. This established the role of the Loibl Pass further. 
 
However, with the advent of modern motorized transport, the mountain pass became unsuitable for any heavier traffic. So when Nazi Germany occupied these parts of today's Slovenia from 1941, the idea of a tunnel at a lower elevation to enable easier access to the occupied lands was revived. 
  
The tunnel was to be dug from both sides at the same time, so to house the workers camps were set up both north and south of the tunnel entrances. The workforce consisted largely of forced labourers: inmates from the main Austrian concentration camp of Mauthausen. The majority were from France, but other nationalities were also represented (including Poland, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union). 
  
Though administratively run by the SS as subcamps, or 'satellite camps' of Mauthausen, the two camps, Loibl Nord (North) and Loibl Süd (South) were significant in size in their own right, at about 1300 inmates. 
  
They toiled for about 20 months, many succumbing to the inhumane living and working conditions. An unknown number of prisoners too weak and/or sick to continue their work were also murdered, either at the Loibl camps themselves, or they were sent back to Mauthausen only to be murdered there.  
  
The tunnel was finally opened at the end of 1944, and by early 1945 it became a significant part of the retreat route from the Balkans for the German forces as defeat in WWII drew closer. 
  
The Loibl North camp was dissolved in April 1945 and the prisoners moved to Loibl South. The latter was liberated in early May … though exactly how is a bit unclear. Some sources say the remaining ca. 950 prisoners liberated themselves, taking the SS guards captive, others say they were liberated by partisans; or maybe it was a combination of the two. 
  
The tunnel was closed after the war, but reopened as a border crossing point between Austria and Yugoslavia in the 1950s. In the 1960s it was expanded to two lanes and the old high mountain pass that the tunnel replaced was finally closed for good to all vehicle traffic in 1967 (but it can still be used by hikers and cyclists). The tunnel has a length of just over a mile (1566 metres to be precise). 
  
The tunnel at Loibl Pass remained one of the most significant border crossing points between the two countries until 1991, when Slovenia became independent. As a result of the opening – also in 1991 – of the nearby Karavanke Tunnel, which connects the motorway networks of Austria and Slovenia and as such has a much higher traffic capacity, the role of the old Loibl route diminished. It is now only a minor road for local traffic and those seeking a more scenic (and free) alternative to the motorway toll road and tunnel. 
  
The Loibl concentration camps as such were largely demolished soon after the war. On the Austrian side the land was then given over to local forestry, so what little traces may remain are now completely overgrown, while on the Slovenian side the grounds of the camp were abandoned and only ruins remained. 
  
Commemoration of the camps and their victims was at best half-hearted on the Austrian side after the war (as usual – cf. also Ebensee and Gusen). A modest memorial plaque was eventually installed at the tunnel's northern entrance, but only those specifically looking for it would ever see it, most motorists would have passed by without taking any note of it in its rather hidden location. 
  
The Austrian Mauthausen Committee that campaigned against the story of the Loibl North camp being forgotten finally succeeded in having the two large information panels erected at the site in 1995, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the camp's liberation. 
   
Apparently the campaigners for the commemoration of Loibl North (led especially by a professor at the university of Klagenfurt) also occasionally guide groups around the site and to traces of the camp and organize special commemorative events. But these are one-offs and are not aimed at tourists (dark or otherwise). 
  
On the Slovenian side of the pass, in contrast, a large “international” monument was created as early as 1954. It was expanded (with the multilingual plaques) in 1972, and in 1985 the crematorium of the former Loibl South camp became a memorial in its own right. The present information panels all over the former grounds of the camp were installed much later. 
  
I had also read (e.g. on gedenkstaetten-uebersicht(dot)de) about a museum exhibition having been established in one of the former barracks of the Loibl South camp in the year 2000. But when I visited the place (in May 2016) I couldn't find any indication of this. If anybody could enlighten me about whether such an exhibition really exists (or existed) and if so about its whereabouts, I would be much obliged (contact me!). 
  
  
What there is to see: There is more on the Slovenian side, so let's start there. 
  
There are two separate but almost adjacent sites here: one is the fairly large and dramatic monument by the road just over a mile from the tunnel's southern entrance. This consists of five stone-wall elements together forming a star footprint and each stone element being roughly trapezoid in shape (they uncannily reminded me vaguely of the similarly trapezium measuring towers at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, the Polygon!).  
  
In the centre, on a separate round plinth, stands a metal sculpture of a skeleton, painted black, throwing its arms into the air as if in mourning or despair – which is quite a powerful sight to behold! Wreaths and flowers are usually placed at the feet of this sculpture.
  
Plaques in a variety of languages mounted onto the stone elements spell out the nationalities of the camp inmates who suffered and died here between 1943 and 1945.
  
The only authentic relics of the Loibl South camp are to be found across the road. The whole area of the former camp is these days encircled by a hedge. There is one little gap by the road. Outside the hedge it is marked by a stone that says something in Slovenian and spells out in large letters “Mauthausen”. If you know the history of the place then this will be obvious enough, But otherwise it might be a little confusing. The authentic camp area could actually be quite easy to miss if you don't know what you're looking for. There is no indication of it by the large monument and the car park, at least as far as I could tell.  
  
One larger information panel just inside the former camp area gives some general historical background information. Smaller signs dotted around the former camp area label what the ruins and foundations would once have been: barracks, latrines, bath houses, laundry, kitchens, etc. 
  
Inside one of the largest ruins, formerly a kitchen and storage building, there are several plaques with the names of other concentration camps on them. Most of the familiar names are there, including the camps in other parts of former Yugoslavia (see Jasenovac, Rab and Sajmiste), but also some names that I had not been familiar with before, such as Cairo Montenotte in Italy
  
At the south-eastern end a path leads down to a stream where the crematorium would have been. All that's left to see here is a large metal grille above a hollow in the ground. So it looks like there were no actual ovens here, but just a makeshift pyre kind of “crematorium”. 
  
The rest of the former camp area is largely empty except for a few concrete steps and foundations dotted around the grassy slope. Compared to the better known former concentration camp memorial sites elsewhere this may not be all that much, but it is still a lot more than what I had expected. 
  
In contrast to this, there is hardly anything at all to see at the other end of the tunnel at the former site of the Loibl North camp on the Austrian side of the border.
  
For many years all there was to see was a rather plain memorial plaque right at the tunnel entrance – this is the official Austrian one. It is in German only and briefly acknowledges in six lines the fate of the forced labourers (and that they were mostly French) who suffered and died during the construction of the tunnel. In addition there are two more later plaques mounted on the adjacent wall, one very brief one in French and a larger one from 2005 in Polish and German that specifies the names and ages of a dozen Polish victims.  
  
By the car park next to the former border and customs checkpoint, there are two large white panels, one of which at least provides a little information about the camp (in four languages: German, English, French and Slovenian) while the other shows a map of the camp's layout on the one side and on the other a drawing which gives an impression of what the Loibl North camp would roughly have looked like. 
  
In addition there is an art installation made of rocks called “Die Rückkehr der Steine” ('the return of the stones') including a rough-hewn headless human shape. This art installation was added in 2014. 
  
  
Location: on the border between Slovenia and Austria, some 13 miles (21 km) south of the Austrian city of Klagenfurt as the crow flies (but ca. twice the distance by road), and a good 30 miles (50 km) north-west of Slovenia's capital Ljubljana.
  
Google maps locators: 
  
Loibl South camp remains: [46.4299, 14.2677]
  
Loibl South memorial monument: [46.4303, 14.2688]
  
Loibl North plaques: [46.444983, 14.253555]
  
Loibl North info panels: [46.445437, 14.252824]
  
  
Access and costs: a bit off the beaten track but not too difficult to reach by car; free. 
  
Details: to get to the Loibl Tunnel and the camp memorials on both sides you have to have your own vehicle. Theoretically you can also get to both via the old mountain pass on foot or (mountain) bike, but only if you come with the prerequisite fitness and have plenty of time on your hands. 
  
From the south, the 101 road/E652 leads to the tunnel. It branches off from the main E61 trunk road at exit 6 between Ljubljana and Bled. From the north it is the B91 road (Loiblpass Straße) leading south from Klagenfurt that will get you there. If you come from the A2 motorway, take the Südring bypass to avoid Klagenfurt city centre. 
  
There is a car park directly adjacent to the monument at the Loibl South location. The monument is clearly visible from the road, a good mile (1.7 km) – and two switchbacks downhill – from the southern tunnel entrance and its Slovenian service station. To get to the camp remains you have to cross the road opposite the car park/monument. There's a marker stone saying “Mauthausen” by the path leading there. 
  
On the northern side you have to park off the main road by the old border crossing and customs checkpoint. This used to be abandoned after Slovenia joined the Schengen Area of the EU in 2007, but when I was there in May 2016, Austria had reintroduced border checks by the police (in the wake of the refugee crisis of 2015/16), so I had to ask the Austrian policemen where to park. There are a few spaces just to the west of the border checkpoint. From there you have to walk to the plaques right at the tunnel entrance.
  
Slight physical complications aside, all these sites are freely accessible at all times.  
  
  
Time required: The memorial plaques and monuments take only a few minutes' time each, but a walk around the relics of the former Loibl South camp requires between 20 and 30 minutes' time.  
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: Nothing in the immediate vicinity, but the other dark sites of Slovenia are within fairly easy reach by car from here, at least those in Ljubljana. Outside the winter season when even higher mountain passes are open, you can also get to Kobarid from here along the Vršič Pass. 
   
The nearest dark site on the Austrian side would be the Pasterze shrinking glacier (at least as long as there is some of it still left). But thematically this is completely unrelated and at over 130 miles (200 km) away not exactly around the corner. 
  
The dark site most directly linked with Loibl thematically would be Mauthausen, the main concentration camp within Austria, but that is even further away near Linz, some 200 miles (300 km) to the north.   
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The setting of this dark site is stunningly beautiful Alpine scenery so it comes naturally with a non-dark combination in itself. And there's plenty more of that not too far away, including in particular what is regarded by many as the most beautiful spot in the whole country: Lake Bled. See under Slovenia for more. 
  
On the other side of the border, in Austria, another famous lake draws large numbers of visitors: the Wörthersee just west of Carinthia's capital Klagenfurt. 
 
  
  
   
  • Loibl 01 - main monumentLoibl 01 - main monument
  • Loibl 02 - drastic sculptureLoibl 02 - drastic sculpture
  • Loibl 03 - path to the former grounds of the campLoibl 03 - path to the former grounds of the camp
  • Loibl 04 - info panelLoibl 04 - info panel
  • Loibl 05 - relics of the campLoibl 05 - relics of the camp
  • Loibl 06 - labels in four languagesLoibl 06 - labels in four languages
  • Loibl 07 - largest relicLoibl 07 - largest relic
  • Loibl 08 - with memorial plaquesLoibl 08 - with memorial plaques
  • Loibl 09 - names of other former campsLoibl 09 - names of other former camps
  • Loibl 10 - crematorium siteLoibl 10 - crematorium site
  • Loibl 11 - crematorium relicLoibl 11 - crematorium relic
  • Loibl 12 - bathhouse relicLoibl 12 - bathhouse relic
  • Loibl 13 - insideLoibl 13 - inside
  • Loibl 14 - top part of the groundsLoibl 14 - top part of the grounds
  • Loibl 15 - view downLoibl 15 - view down
  • Loibl 16 - view up the KaravanksLoibl 16 - view up the Karavanks
  • Loibl 17 - north end of the tunnel with small Austrian plaqueLoibl 17 - north end of the tunnel with small Austrian plaque
  • Loibl 18 - extra French and Polish plaquesLoibl 18 - extra French and Polish plaques
  • Loibl 19 - extra commodificationLoibl 19 - extra commodification
  • Loibl 20 - and stony artworkLoibl 20 - and stony artwork
  • Loibl 21 - border post at the north end of the tunnelLoibl 21 - border post at the north end of the tunnel
  
  
  
  
  
  
 
 
 
 

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