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Peenemünde

  
  - darkometer rating:  6 -
 
The legendary birth place of the V2 rocket and thus of both modern missile-based warfare and the space age. During WWII it was the Nazis' main research and testing facility in Germany for such modern weaponry, and was led by none other than Wernher von Braun of the USA's Apollo moon landings fame. The historical site was long out of bounds in the GDR era, but is now accessible to the general public and is still being developed further.
 
This is an absolute must-see place for anybody interested in either the history of the space age/rocket technology and the dark sides of the V1 / V2 weapons of WWII – which in the production included forced labour by concentration camp inmates.
A site totally unique in its multifaceted nature and ambivalence. 
More background info: At the large-scale former research complex of Peenemünde in this remote pocket of Germany, on the Baltic Sea island of Usedom, significant scientific/technological breakthroughs were achieved under the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. His A4 rocket (= V2) was the first object in history to be shot into space – it later formed the basis of the subsequent space programmes of both the USSR and the USA, the most famous obviously being the Apollo moon landing programme.
 
Like most rocket developments, though, the very first one at Peenemünde was also primarily planned for military use as a missile. The V2 was to carry a one-ton warhead into enemy territory.  
 
Propagandistically dubbed V2 (for "Vergeltungswaffe" – 'vengeance weapon') by the Nazis, these rockets were fired e.g. from Pas de Calais in the direction of London and other cities. Being hopelessly inaccurate, they were used as sheer terror weapons – some 8000 civilians lost their lives through them, especially in Great Britain (but also e.g. Antwerp in Belgium).
 
This is, however, not the only double-edged sword aspect about it: even more lives were lost in the production of the weapon, esp. at underground plants such as the one at Mittelbau-Dora, where concentration camp inmates had to assemble the weapons in forced labour conditions of the worst kind. Some 20,000 are believed to have died producing these weapons (more than were ever killed by the use of these weapons).
 
In Peenemünde itself a forced labour workforce was used too. When Peenemünde was bombed by the Allies (the reason for production being moved underground later) from summer 1943, it was additionally tragic that it was rather the camp housing the forced labourers that was hit first. A small memorial at nearby Karlshagen commemorates the concentration camp victims of Peenemünde; of the camp itself hardly anything remains today (see below).
 
The deadly legacy of Peenemünde and the V2 production conditions and its use as a terror weapon didn't stop the newly emerging superpowers from using the German scientists for their own purposes, of course. Quite on the contrary. The Germans were even aware themselves what assets they would be to their captors, so von Braun and his colleagues actively sought capture by the Americans towards the end of WWII.
 
The testing complex at Peenemünde was taken by the Red Army and used by the Soviet Navy and Air Force for a few years before being handed over to the GDR's military (the NVA). Only after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, together the Warsaw Pact military alliance, was Peenemünde opened to the public bit by bit and more and more of it was developed for tourism. There are still large areas that remain inaccessible, and much has disappeared altogether save for very faint traces. But those bits that are commodified for tourists still make it worth the journey. Very much so, in fact.
 
The newly expanded Historical Technical Museum at the former power station in Peenemünde was recently awarded the "European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award 2013"! Need we say more? It's a must-see destination!
 
 
What there is to see: quite a lot – though maybe somewhat less than some may expect. Little remains of the former rocket development and production plant or of the actual testing launch pads, much of all this is in ruins and only partially accessible. But some big traces are still there and some are well-developed for visitors these days. And they are quite stunning.
  
Personally I found it one of the highlights of my dark travels around Germany. There's an extra reason for this, I suppose: apart from being a dark tourist I'm also very much into industrial archaeology (see also London, and cf. why this interest). Peenemünde caters extremely well for both simultaneously, so I absolutely loved it here!!! But let's go through it from the top.
 
The heart of the whole complex today is the largest surviving structure of it all, the power station, which served the rocket development facility and had even remained in use in the GDR until 1990. It is now home to the Peenemünde Historical Technical Museum.
 
The museum has three parts: a) an introductory one in a former ancillary building, which is also where the ticket counter and the museum shop are located, b) the main museum and c) the new exhibition that has recently been added inside the boiler house of the old power station (as part of award-winning restoration work).
 
First of all, however, there's the impressively massive architecture of the former power station itself that one has to take in. In addition there's the old coal loading bridge with its huge crane, and underneath it the coal crusher. Towards the harbour quay is yet another side building, a former 'screening house', with all manner of old technical machinery and relics. Industrial archaeologists will be in their element.
 
The single most impressive industrial heritage component of the whole ensemble is the restored boiler hall of the old power station. It's massive – it makes you feel small – and it is just awesome. Apart from the enormously cavernous dimensions of the boiler hall as such, there's also an opened turbine to be seen, as well as all manner of rusty old machinery and equipment. Several new information panels with (bilingual) texts and photos provide additional historical background. They cover various aspects such as the power plant's construction, its operation, the damage it sustained in the Allied bombing raids, the subsequent continued use of the power station in the GDR era, its closure in 1990, and finally its restoration and integration into today's museum landscape of Peenemünde. Ultimately, however, it is the gigantic rusty hall as such that is the main exhibit here. Fantastic.  
 
However, it is the wing next to the boiler hall that houses the main museum exhibitions. This is therefore the place that provides the most in terms of information about the whole history of Peenemünde and its impact on world history.
 
As you enter the foyer to the staircase you are greeted by a pair of V2 rocket tips, one intact, the other crushed and somewhat mangled – very symbolic, of course, of the whole ambivalence of the place … The exhibitions as such are spread out over three floors. Thematically the different sections jointly cover a lot of ground, such as:
 
The development of rocket technology at Peenemünde, the glory of success in this, especially with the V2 launch into space, but also the very dark sides of the use of forced labourers from concentration camps and, of course, the use of the V-weapons against civilian targets in WWII.
 
The Allies' post-war rush to get their hands on the new technology – and the scientists involved! Not only the Americans and the Soviets, apparently the British and French too tried to play a role in this game. As we know, however, Peenemünde's biggest catch, Wernher von Braun made sure he was "captured" by the USA, where he subsequently had a momentous career as the "father" of the Apollo moon landings (after first developing his rocket technology for the US military, of course).
 
The legacy of the groundbreaking rocket technology pioneered at Peenemünde in the less glamorous subsequent Cold War history is not left out either. The precarious dance on the volcano of a possible nuclear Armageddon brought on by thousands of ICBMs, which was the core of the M.A.D. strategy of that time, is grimly illustrated. One particularly poignant exhibit, I thought, was a chessboard with all the figures represented by different types of missiles … Another to-the-point installation had a tiny Earth globe hanging on a wire from the ceiling with massive rockets pointing at it from three sides.
 
But then there are also the positive aspects of rocket technology as the main thing that opened up the whole utopia – and to some degree reality – of the space age. It would have been unthinkable without Peenemünde's pioneering rocket science.
 
Out in the corridor a detailed timeline of the developments in each of the years of WWII complements the main exhibition sections.
 
All explanatory texts in the permanent sections of the museum, including the new exhibition in the adjacent boiler house are bilingual, in German and English. The few interactive stations that present audio-visual material, such as interviews with witnesses/victims, are even available in yet more languages (including Polish and French). Of course the authentic documents, such as period newspapers or propaganda posters, are mostly in German only (except for some British and US counterparts). But still, the museum is generally well positioned for receiving international visitors. This does not necessarily go without saying in these parts of eastern Germany (cf. e.g. Prora). So it's highly commendable.
 
At the time of my visit (September 2012) there was a separate exhibition on the top floor that presented the proposals by a project group at Cottbus university about a potential development of the Peenemünde area. It was in particular concerned with the inclusion of the ruined and neglected sites where the actual rocket launches took place. This was presumably just a temporary exhibition (and it was all in German only). I also doubt that the ambitious suggestions made in the project will ever see the light of day … it would certainly be too expensive, and no indication as to where such funding should come from is given. So it will most likely remain just a dream – intriguing as it would be, for sure.  
 
In another building a number of documentary films are shown in a cinema room throughout the day, the first one beginning at 10:30 a.m. and the last one at 4:30 p.m., with ca. half-hour breaks in between. The films have a running time of between 25 and 90 minutes. Your ticket entitles you to watch all these films for free – if you have the time. You'd have to spend practically the whole day on just that, though, and I'm sure most people won't want to do that. Fortunately, some of the films can also be purchased in the museum shop. This is also well-stocked with printed material and various souvenirs – definitely worth a look.  
 
There are a few outdoor exhibits too, namely a replica V2 and a V1 together with its launch ramp as well as an old passenger train that was apparently used back in the day to cart personnel to and from the plant. But it looks just like any old metro carriage.
 
There used to be a collection of mostly Soviet military aircraft displayed outside in the space alongside the coal loading bridge (when I last looked, you could still clearly make them out on google maps). But do note that these are no longer there! One of the old military planes, a MiG-21, has now been moved to near the airport, where sightseeing flights over the whole complex are also offered (not in the MiG, though – see below). Another plane (a MiG-27) has allegedly been moved to a different museum (in Rechlin), but I know nothing about the whereabouts of the remainder. One large seagoing vessel is still in situ, though:
 
Moored at the harbour next to the power station building is a former GDR Navy missile-armed speedboat that you can explore. At the time of my visit (September 2012) that only meant on deck, the interior was closed. Since May 2013 parts of the inside of the boat have been made accessible again, according to the museum's website. You can see the officers' mess, the galley and the engine room.
 
Incidentally, for those with a maritime inclination: further down the quay is an old Soviet submarine that can be visited too, though separately from the main museum (see under combinations for details).
 
A walking/cycling trail leads through the wider areas of the site and passes various points of interest, e.g. ruins of other former buildings of the rocket testing complex as well as of the associated concentration camp Karlshagen. It's all not much to look at these days, just bits of rubble and bunker fragments, overgrown and hardly dramatic to behold. There are a few information panels (in German only) dotted around that provide some minimal historical context.
 
To get more out of the area you'd need a guide to bring the historical context of all these relics to life a little more. Such guided tours are offered locally, albeit only in German as far as I can tell. One tour by minibus that I saw advertised starts at the old airport of the former military area (now in civilian use) and nominally departs three times a day at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. – I haven't yet been on any such tour and thus can't say what they're like (or what the costs are).
 
Also from the airport, sightseeing flights by small planes, helicopters, and super-light aircraft are offered and that for comparatively reasonable prices between 40 and 80 EUR per person.
 
Right by the airport car park, you can see one of those old Soviet fighter jets that was once used in the GDR airforce (a MiG-21). It's one of those objects that used to stand outside the Peenemünde museum. It's quite faded and dilapidated, but still impressive … an even more faded Soviet-built flying bomb/cruise missile from the 1950s is also on display here.
 
One large ruin that is quite a bit more impressive than all those minor bunker relics etc. is the massive shell of the former oxygen plant right by the street as you enter Peenemünde village. You can't go inside (not legally at least) but even just stopping for a bit and looking in gives you a cool impression of the intriguing ruin. There are proposals to do something with this major sight as well, like make it safe to enter and develop it for tourist visits too. At the time of my visit in September 2012 there were no signs at all that anything like that had been begun, however. It just stood there in its gloriously ruined state. There was merely another one of those information panels that are dotted around the area. But on the museum's website (peenemuende.de – under 'the museum') you can watch a video animation of what could become of this site – there's also a version with an English voice-over, albeit in a very noticeable German accent.) The potential of this, the second-largest relic at Peenemünde after the power station, is certainly immense.
 
All in all: Peenemünde combines the dark and the cool in a way that few other places on Earth can match. As such it is also somewhat challenging to visit, but enormously rewarding in many respects. There's a lot to take in, both in volume and sheer size. I found it one of the most engrossing sites I've ever been to within Germany. Highly recommended!
 
 
Location: in the north-easternmost corner of Germany on the Baltic Sea coast, more precisely: on the island of Usedom, which has the border with Poland run right through it. Peenemünde is at the western end of the island, and it's some 140 miles (220 km) north of Berlin. The nearest larger town is Greifswald ca. 18 miles (30 km) to the west … as the crow flies – on the road it's more like 30 miles (50 km).
 
Google maps locator: [54.138,13.769]
  
  
Access and costs: a bit remote, requiring time (and/or effort) to get to, but quite doable if you have your own means of transport; mostly not too expensive.   

Details: To get to Peenemünde you should ideally have your own means of transport. By car it's easy, if a bit time-consuming, to drive it from the mainland, thanks to the bride at Wolgast. To get to Wolgast from the A20 main north-eastern motorway or the B109 route east of Greifswald, you need to get the B111 overland route towards Wolgast/Usedom/Zinnowitz. A few miles after crossing the bridge a small road, the L264, branches off to the left and takes you all the way to Karlshagen and Peenemünde. It's signposted. In Peenemünde, going straight on the Hauptstraße (main street) will take you past the ruined former oxygen plant and to the harbour, where the submarine is moored (see below). There are some parking spaces there. But for parking closer to the entrance of the museum(s), take the Bahnhofstraße turn-off to the right before getting into Peenemünde village and then turn left into Museumsstraße. Continuing on Bahnhofstraße you will get to the Flughafenring street which loops round past the airport and eventually back into Karlshagen, passing various relics of the ex-military area and the associated former concentration camp Karlshagen.
 
You can also get to Peenemünde by train – but it's a convoluted journey: you'd first have to get a regular train to Züssow (south of Greifswald – on the line that goes to Berlin), from there take the regional UBB train to Zinnowitz and change to the separate train to Peenemünde. The latter trains are not very frequent (hourly in summer), but at least they're not too expensive (check on UBB-online.de – if you can, the site is in German or Polish, but there's no English). Still it will require a lot of extra time getting there by train – and you'd have to walk a lot once there if you want to see parts of the area that are not at the main museum. Many people use bicycles to cover the distances involved …
 
Parts of the outdoor areas of the former military site could theoretically be accessible (on foot or by bike) at all times and for free – although some parts are fenced off and out of bounds (for safety reasons mainly), including the old oxygen plant. For the main museum, the following details apply:
 
Opening times: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily in summer (April to September), in winter only to 4 p.m. and closed on Mondays;
 
Admission: 8 EUR (various concessions apply).
 
Parking can be an issue here … there are various parking lots that charge different fees for varying lengths of time. I found it all very confusing and ended up paying more for a limited period than I could have elsewhere for unlimited (but I only spotted that on the way out). To get free parking you'd have to leave your car further away and walk.
  
If you want to really make the most of Peenemünde, see everything, watch the films, explore the bunker relics, take a tour/flight etc. – then you'll need more than a day (probably more like three days) and thus will require accommodation in the area. Fortunately that's no problem at all. Thanks to the holiday resort of Karlshagen just east of Peenmünde, there's a wide range of options available, from reasonably comfortable hotels to cheap pensions and self-catering holiday apartments. Budget accommodation is even available on a more limited basis in Peenemünde itself too, including a reasonably priced hotel and a pension/holiday flats near the harbour and further self-catering holiday accommodation right by the airport.
 
 
Time required: quite possibly more than you would expect. The museum alone can take up more than two hours, the new exhibition in the power station another 30-40 minutes and the rest of the area can eat up as much as half a day too. So to see/do it all you'd really need a full day at least – and another day if you want to watch all those films screened in the museum's cinema. Alternatively you'd have to be quite ruthlessly selective, in which case I recommend concentrating on the museum's main exhibition and the power station's boiler hall only.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Just a couple of hundred yards further down the harbour quay from the southern edge of the Peenemünde museum complex, there's an ex-Soviet missile attack submarine U461 (Juliett class, from the 1960s), now permanently moored to serve as a "maritime museum". It's really just that sub, so that designation is a bit over the top. There's yet more unjustified hyperbole in that the submarine is even marketed as the "largest U-Boat Museum in the world". That's simply not true. The Le Redoutable nuclear submarine, which is part of the Cherbourg maritime museum in France, is a lot bigger. But this old Soviet relic is still a very worthy addition to the rest of Peenemünde all the same.
 
Inside you see the cramped accommodation, the officers' mess, the "bridge", engine, the galley, the torpedo room and such like. It's all narrow and requires a lot of clambering about – also not recommended for people suffering from claustrophobia! But I found it cool, especially the old "Soviet-ness" of it all. The sub is "manned" with various dummies in different functions: playing cards, preparing food, lying injured in the sickbay, or sitting on the loo. You'll only need 15-30 minutes to see all this though.   
 
The U461 museum submarine is run privately and independently of the main Peenemünde Museum, so a separate admission fee is payable to go inside: 6.50 EUR, slight discounts for groups of 2 people or more (still I found it a little expensive for what you get); another euro is charged for a photo permit. Opening times: daily, year-round, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in summer (ca. July to mid-September), 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from April to the end of June as well as from mid-September to the end of October, and only to 4 p.m. in winter.
 
Further afield, the memorial cemetery at Karlshagen forms part of the historic topography of Peenemünde's darkest era. There isn't much to see as such, just a field of simple graves and a monument in vaguely socialist realist style in front on an empty square … You'll drive past it on your way to Peenemünde: it's by the road just south of the village of Karlshagen.
 
You can also go on boat trips from the harbour of Peenemünde. This includes excursions to the little island of Ruden just north of Usedom. Here an old observation tower can be seen which once formed part of the rocket testing facilities of Peenemünde and during the GDR era was used as a watchtower by the border security forces. It now contains a small extra museum exhibition. (But since I've not yet been there I can't say what it's like.)
 
Yet further afield, the eastern part of Usedom island is across the border with Poland. In fact this border is part of the Oder-Neisse-Line that was made Poland's western border at the end of WWII. Today the border is quite easily penetrable … you can just saunter across really. And many do, including a lot in search of trade in cheap wares.
 
Usedom's north-western neighbour is the island of Rügen, and this holds another quite unique relic from the Nazi era: Prora.
 
For more see under Germany in general.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Those (presumably few) who like both dark tourism and traditional provincial beach holidays will be right in their element as Usedom east of Peenemünde is mainly that: a very traditional beach holiday area – it was in fact the main such area in the former GDR and as such a top national holiday destination. The location benefits from an above-average amount of sunshine for Germany, but temperature-wise it will rarely appeal to those more after the tropical type of beaches. What Usedom is really like as such a holiday destination I cannot say, as one who hates even setting foot on a beach. But I do know that some of the old resort towns of the island, in particular Heringsdorf and Ahlbeck, are supposed to be very pretty, with decorative architecture and sea piers that look like they have been teleported over from Brighton or some such British beach town.
 
 
  
  • Peenemünde 01 - the museum complex from a distancePeenemünde 01 - the museum complex from a distance
  • Peenemünde 02 - power station and coal bridgePeenemünde 02 - power station and coal bridge
  • Peenemünde 03 - a V2, V1 and old train still therePeenemünde 03 - a V2, V1 and old train still there
  • Peenemünde 04 - a V2 rocketPeenemünde 04 - a V2 rocket
  • Peenemünde 05 - emblem on the V2Peenemünde 05 - emblem on the V2
  • Peenemünde 06 - a V1Peenemünde 06 - a V1
  • Peenemünde 07 - V1 launch rampPeenemünde 07 - V1 launch ramp
  • Peenemünde 08 - exhibition about space-flight utopiaPeenemünde 08 - exhibition about space-flight utopia
  • Peenemünde 09 - images of a V2 launch - and of the consequencesPeenemünde 09 - images of a V2 launch - and of the consequences
  • Peenemünde 10 - model of a V2 launch padPeenemünde 10 - model of a V2 launch pad
  • Peenemünde 11 - the dark side of the site - forced labourPeenemünde 11 - the dark side of the site - forced labour
  • Peenemünde 12 - relics from the associated concentration campPeenemünde 12 - relics from the associated concentration camp
  • Peenemünde 13 - after WWII the Allies were all keen to get their hands on the technologyPeenemünde 13 - after WWII the Allies were all keen to get their hands on the technology
  • Peenemünde 14 - the old power stationPeenemünde 14 - the old power station
  • Peenemünde 15 - inside the power stationPeenemünde 15 - inside the power station
  • Peenemünde 16 - old turbinePeenemünde 16 - old turbine
  • Peenemünde 17 - service many decades overduePeenemünde 17 - service many decades overdue
  • Peenemünde 18 - coal crusherPeenemünde 18 - coal crusher
  • Peenemünde 19 - crane bridge and crusher housePeenemünde 19 - crane bridge and crusher house
  • Peenemünde 20 - GDR-era Navy missile speedboatPeenemünde 20 - GDR-era Navy missile speedboat
  • Peenemünde 21 - further up the quaysidePeenemünde 21 - further up the quayside
  • Peenemünde 22 - Soviet submarinePeenemünde 22 - Soviet submarine
  • Peenemünde 23 - inside the submarinePeenemünde 23 - inside the submarine
  • Peenemünde 24 - narrowPeenemünde 24 - narrow
  • Peenemünde 25 - submariner dummies playing cardsPeenemünde 25 - submariner dummies playing cards
  • Peenemünde 26 - injured submariner dummyPeenemünde 26 - injured submariner dummy
  • Peenemünde 27 - dummy submariner on the looPeenemünde 27 - dummy submariner on the loo
  • Peenemünde 28 - torpedo roomPeenemünde 28 - torpedo room
  • Peenemünde 29 - missile launcherPeenemünde 29 - missile launcher
  • Peenemünde 30 - early Cold War missile submarinePeenemünde 30 - early Cold War missile submarine
  • Peenemünde 31 - at the airportPeenemünde 31 - at the airport
  • Peenemünde 32 - cockpit of Soviet-built fighter jetPeenemünde 32 - cockpit of Soviet-built fighter jet
  • Peenemünde 33 - today more harmless aircraft offer sightseeing flightsPeenemünde 33 - today more harmless aircraft offer sightseeing flights
  • Peenemünde 34 - the oxygen plantPeenemünde 34 - the oxygen plant
  • Peenemünde 35 - in ruinsPeenemünde 35 - in ruins
  • Peenemünde 36 - ruin of the oxygen plantPeenemünde 36 - ruin of the oxygen plant
  • Peenemünde 37 - remnants of the concentration campPeenemünde 37 - remnants of the concentration camp
  • Peenemünde 38 - memorial in KarlshagenPeenemünde 38 - memorial in Karlshagen
  • Peenemünde 39 - the long shadows of a unique historic sitePeenemünde 39 - the long shadows of a unique historic site
  

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