- darkometer rating: 10 -
Of all the large memorial sites of former Nazi concentration camps
, Mittelbau-Dora stands out in a number of ways: the camp was the last one to be set up during the latter phase of WWII
. It was also one of the deadliest.
The forced labour here took place mostly in underground tunnels – where V1 and V2
missiles were assembled – and a stretch of these old tunnels has been made accessible to visitors. This adds to the historically dark theme of a concentration camp a literally dark underground
component which is pretty much unique. This makes Mittelbau-Dora a top-notch dark tourism destination
in more than one sense.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: Mittelbau-Dora is sometimes also called Dora-Mittelbau ... the two variants seem to be more or less freely interchangeable – even at the memorial site itself you encounter both! – but the one preferred here is somewhat more frequently used.
The place started out originally as a satellite camp of the large Buchenwald concentration camp
from summer 1943. Later, from October 1944, Mittelbau-Dora became a concentration camp
in its own right, i.e. with its own independent administration and its own satellite camps (40 of them in total).
The purpose of the camp was to have forced labourers dig out deep tunnels in the Kohnstein mountain, in an effort to move arms production underground to shelter it from the increasingly crippling air raids that Germany
became subjected to as the fortunes in WWII
turned against the Third Reich
Mittelbau-Dora then became the main production factory for the infamous "V1" and "V2"
('retaliation weapon') flying bombs and rockets, with which Hitler
hoped (in vain) to be able to turn things around in WWII. Concentration camp inmates also had to work in that factory.
Because of the harsh conditions, Mittelbau-Dora had one of the highest mortality rates of any concentration camp within Germany, esp. in the early phases, when labour was particularly hard and inmates were often housed inside the cold, damp tunnels without daylight or adequate sanitation for long periods of time. When the factory became fully functional, a "proper" camp with rows of barracks outside the tunnel system was built.
Resistance at Mittelbau-Dora, which built on already forming underground resistance groups at Buchenwald
, also took the form of sabotage, which delayed or otherwise hampered the V2 production.
Still, Mittelbau-Dora, in its comparatively short period of operation, became one of the deadliest such sites of them all. About a third of the inmates that passed through the "hell of Mittelbau" perished here, some 20,000 of 60,000 prisoners from many European countries.
Following the evacuation and subsequent liberation of the camp in April 1945, the tunnels to the underground production complex were blown up by the Soviets
in 1948. Most of the former camp structures were demolished, except the crematorium building, which became a minor memorial and exhibition during the period that the site was on the territory of the GDR
. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc
and German reunification, the Mittelbau-Dora memorial complex, like its larger counterpart Buchenwald
(both are under the same administration), underwent some restructuring, updating and expansion.
Most significantly, an access tunnel to the old underground caverns of the Mittelwerk factory was dug and opened in 1995, so that parts of the inside can now be visited, albeit on guided tours only. See also Ebensee
, where a smaller underground tunnel of the former concentration camp
there has been made accessible too.
Since 2006, an all-new museum in a specially constructed new building replaced the previous exhibition in the former crematorium. Of the outdoor remains of the camp, only the crematorium and a reconstructed inmates' barrack (now used for temporary exhibitions) are noteworthy, the rest is little more than ruins of foundations, some of them hidden and partly overgrown in a forest.
What there is to see:
Even though the open-air parts of the memorial are freely accessible at any time during daylight hours, it does make sense to start at the new museum. This is also the point where you can hire audio-guides if you wish to use one. I did not, and thus can't comment on what they are like. If you don't know any German it is probably a good idea to hire such a device. Alternatively, you can also borrow or purchase a booklet which provides English translations of the German-only text panels inside the exhibition. Otherwise there are only the odd short snippets of labelling translated into English.
The new exhibition (opened 2006) is, as you would expect, very modern in design, with artefacts, texts and photos enhanced by multimedia elements. As you step into the anteroom a single screen dominates everything – here a short video clip runs in a loop showing parts of that infamous speech in 1943 by Josef Goebbels in which he asked his people 'Do you want total war?' ("Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?") – a cleverly "choreographed" rhetorical question followed by the obligatory cheers of "yes!!!" and the national anthem.
Some visitors, as evidenced in the guest book, appear to have misunderstood the playing of this video, with the anthem at the end, as pro-Nazi, or playing down the horrors of the time. But the very opposite is of course intended, obviously enough, as I find. I was more concerned about the poor museum staff who have to hear this loop all day long dozens and dozens of times, day in day out. I'd go crazy.
For the visitor, it serves as a fitting introduction to what brought Mittelbau-Dora into existence in the first place – as a quintessential element of the industrial effort of the 'total war'.
The exhibition is not particularly large, but well-made. Apart from the predictable outline of the history and how the site worked, there is also a notable element of "individualization". This includes not only biographies of victims but also of perpetrators in their various capacities.
One notable person to pick out in this context is Wernher von Braun – yes that one: the "father" of the USA
's rocket development including the Apollo missions to the moon! During WWII
he was the key figure in Nazi Germany
's development of the V2
intermediate-range missile at the test site and (later) production facility in Peenemünde
. In that capacity he also visited Mittelbau-Dora when production was moved to such underground facilities, of which the so-called "Mittelwerk" was the largest and most significant. He thus must have been more than aware of the slave labour and inhumane living conditions of the prisoners. Apparently he himself selected labourers from Buchenwald
concentration camp on at least one occasion in 1944. As the Third Reich
collapsed, he fled from Nordhausen and gave himself up to the American Army, together with a few colleagues. Shortly afterwards they were moved to the USA
and started their work for their former enemy and new superpower. None were ever held accountable for their roles in Nazi Germany in general and Mittelbau-Dora in particular.
The exhibition relies mostly on text and images and is a little short on artefacts, though there are a few notable objects here too, including a quarry cart, a camp inmate's striped dress, and a wardrobe with a Nazi uniform and cap.
There is also a screen on which eyewitness reports are played – in the original languages with English subtitles (including some parts in Russian, which monolingual German visitors will thus not be able to understand).
At the back of the room the exhibition is complemented by three computer workstations for more in-depth study. As they were occupied by other visitors the whole time I was there I was unable to check for myself what these stations offered.
On demand, there's also a 30-minute introductory film that can be shown in an adjacent screening room (in German/English/French) – I was not aware of this at the time of my visit and thus did not see it either, though.
The outdoor area of the former camp can be visited freely, enhanced with an audio-guide – and then there are the regular guided tours. They are an absolute must. Mainly because it is only on such guided tours that visitors get the chance to see the underground tunnels. And these are the most unique and totally incredibly component of the memorial site of Mittelbau-Dora!
After a general introduction by a scale model of the whole complex outside the museum, the group then moves to the area that was the camp's role-call square back then. Today, there's a stylized gate and a smaller memorial from GDR
times with a rostrum and flagpoles next to a metal bas relief piece of a socialist-realist
style depiction of the dreadful conditions at the camp.
There are two rusty pieces of the tunnel railway, including a small steam locomotive in front of a small bunker-like building under what appears to be a kind of watchtower. During the GDR era it was assumed that this bunker was a cell for punishment of inmates, but the current understanding is that it was simply a shelter for SS
guards – hence the discrepancies between the old and new text plaques here.
Eventually, the group is led into the tunnels
, i.e. the former underground production factory for V1 and V2
missiles. And this is without a doubt the "dark highlight" (if that's not a contradiction) of the tour!
Access is through a newly dug tunnel bypassing the original entrances that were blown up by the Soviets in 1948. The new access was begun in the late 1980s, but work got delayed during the period of the collapse of the GDR
and German reunification, so it wasn't until 1995 that the present access tunnel was opened to the public.
Some 200 yards (180m) into the mountain it joins the original eastern main tunnel ("Fahrstollen" – i.e. it would have had railway tracks going through it). This first section has been "museum-ized" – with explanatory text panels along the walls and a large model of the tunnel system made of metal. Using a control panel to make little LEDs light up the guide then points out different sections of the tunnel system.
At a total length of ca. 12-14 miles (20 km) the extensive grid of tunnels was and still is one of the world's largest such underground sites. However, only about 3% of it can be accessed by visitors today. But it's still impressive. Going beyond the section fitted out with a safe walkway would be more akin to a caving adventure. It has been attempted by specialists on a couple of occasions to salvage artefacts and to take pictures, but it's absolutely out of bounds for ordinary visitors. Much of the tunnel system deeper in the mountain is flooded by groundwater anyway.
At the end of the main tunnel you would have faced the original entrance, now just a slope of rubble – in fact this would have been the back exit rather, the one used by the concentration camp inmates and their guards as well as civilian technicians and workers. The original older entrances to the tunnel system were at the other end, now no longer accessible, where other underground production facilities were located. Hence the numbering of the galleries you get to see is in reverse and in higher numbers (46 to 44 plus a section of the main tunnel A).
Behind a railing stands the most prized artefact salvaged from deeper within the tunnel: a whole V2
-thrust engine complete with support frame for the main missile body as well as parts of the fuel pump system. It's rusty and furry and very, very eerie indeed!
After the guide's talk at the model, visitors are given some time to look around for themselves, and read the extra info panels if they want, before the tour continues deeper into the tunnels.
At the other end of the first section steps lead up to a metal walkway with railings taking visitors on a safe path above all the debris strewn all over the floor of the tunnel. When the tunnel was opened again it was decided to leave everything in the state it was found in as much as possible. Only a few items were removed, the ceilings above the walkway secured with nets and sprayed concrete, and lights installed. The latter, however, are quite dim, so the dark eerie atmosphere remains.
As you proceed along the walkway deeper into the dank galleries you can see twisted rusty steel girders, machine parts, and pieces of V1-body and other missile parts, including fuel tanks, pumps and gyrostat compass parts.
There are two rooms branching off to the right in which you can see washing facilities and toilet seats. These were later installations – before full-scale missile production moved in, the concentration camp inmates housed here had no more than a few tin barrels with sharp edges to use as "toilets". The proper loos were only built for the German staff once the factory became operational.
At the end of the accessible part of the main Tunnel A you can see huge concrete support pillars – these are not original but were erected after the open-cast mine on the northern face of the Kohnstein mountain encroached too far on the tunnel, making the tunnel beyond the pillars collapse and requiring stabilization of the tunnel ceiling.
The present walkway thus turns left and proceeds along a connection gallery before turning right again to go further into the mountain. You can peek into a side gallery that used to house sleeping quarters – i.e. the cavern was stacked high with bunks for inmates, who were cold, hungry, ill and desperate. The hell of Dora. Today, only more pieces of metal V1 debris are lying about here – as these galleries were used for the production of these "flying bomb" crude cruise missiles once the camp inmates had been moved aboveground to barracks in the Dora camp outside the tunnels.
At the far end of the accessible part of the tunnels you get to a chamber that was dug a floor level or two deeper to make it possible to put complete V2-missiles upright for testing. The lower level is now flooded but the mid-level steel crossbeams still poke out just above the waterline. In the water only eerie shapes can be made out in the dark blue. It's creepy. And it is very cool. Yes: cool.
I'm using the word "cool" with caution here, but deliberately. Obviously, it's not an expression that is normally appropriate in the context of Nazi concentration camps. But this is somewhat different. You don't see anything at all any more that would serve as a visual reminder of the inhumane living and working conditions that the camp inmates had to endure here – and of which they all too often died. It's important knowledge that it is was so, yes. But it remains totally abstract at the underground site today.
Much more overwhelming is the brooding presence of all that missile debris and the rusty remains of the infrastructure. If it wasn't for the Nazi connection this would be prime industrial archaeology coupled with the thrill of a caving adventure. I caught myself several times having to remind myself of the historical context. Because without it what you see really is just incredibly cool indeed. Ultimately, I don't see too much wrong with experiencing it like this. As long as one does remember the darker significance of the historical context, I think it's OK for a few moments to allow oneself to just take in the cavernous brooding aura of this underground space just as it is today.
In any case, you have enough time to contemplate it all soberly on your way out – and of course afterwards. By the way: in the museum bookshop there are a few publications that are extremely valuable for getting an idea of what the place looked like in 1944/45: first there are a few surviving stills of a propaganda film the Nazis
made here to "document" V2
-production. They are kind-of staged in that you can't see any SS
guards and the camp inmates in the pictures all look in comparatively good shape. But the images are still priceless. Similarly, there are the photos (b&w) that the Americans took when they discovered the site, as well as pictures taken later on proper caving explorations deeper in the system. One issue of the British periodical "After the Battle" (issue 101, 1998) is dedicated to Mittelbau-Dora and includes many such images. There's also a (German language) photo book that originally accompanied an exhibition of the Nazi colour images that were shown at La Coupole (cf. Atlantic Wall
) in France
Back to Mittelbau-Dora today. After emerging from the tunnels into the daylight outside, the final stop of the guided tour is by the old railway sidings of the former camp opposite the tunnel entrance.
Afterwards you are free to explore the other remains of the camp further. Mostly, there are only a few foundations, though. And without the text panels enlightening visitors about the former functions of the buildings that used to stand here, you would have no clue at all. Some remains are in the open area beyond the former roll-call square, others are deeper in the forest. There are marked paths and more information panels.
At the time of my visit, the site of the former prison block of the camp was undergoing some archaeological work – and I presume the site will become fully accessible at some point too.
The only complete original building of the camp that is still there is the former crematorium, which now serves as a special memorial space. Inside is a bare anteroom with just two skeletal old stretchers, next door are the two ovens. These are of a different design to those seen at many other camps. Unlike those brick structures, the main oven parts here at Mittelbau-Dora are made completely of metal. Outside the crematorium building is a modest modern sculpture group and a memorial plaque.
Further down the hillside just above the central square stands a wooden barrack of the sort that would once have housed camp inmates. This is a reconstruction, though. Inside, temporary exhibitions are shown (at the time of my visit it was about trade unions during, and in the run-up to, the Nazi era).
The shop by the museum is well stocked and well worth a look (although it can't quite compete with the even larger shop of the sister institution at Buchenwald
All in all: the tunnels alone make Mittelbau-Dora an outstanding site. The remains of the camp outside are negligible in comparison. But the new museum does a good job of providing the necessary information to bring the place to life more – as do the tours. Without question, though, it is those tunnels that warrant the top-ranking darkometer rating
given to this site here. An absolute must-do on any dark tourism trip to Germany
! Highly recommended!
a good 3 miles (almost 5 km) north of the town of Nordhausen in Thuringia, Germany
Google maps locator:[51.535,10.75
Access and costs: fairly easy by car, less so by public transport/on foot; free; tunnels only accessible on guided tours.
To get there by car from Nordhausen, take the B4 overland route north, at the suburb Krimderode turn left into Freiheitsstraße, which makes a right turn just behind the railway line and becomes Kohnsteinweg – an old railway car (as used for deportations) marks the outer perimeter of the former camp area. Carry on further on this road, however, until you come to the memorial site as such. It's all clearly signposted too (look out for the brown tourist and white memorial signs). You can't park by the museum, but have to use a loop road that goes up the slope on the opposite hillside and reconnects with the main access road near the tunnel entrance.
You can also get near to the site by train – first get to Nordhausen. North of the town's main station is another station, that of the narrow gauge private line "Harzer Schmalspurbahn". Take this for two stops and get off at Krimderode, cross to the left-hand side of the tracks and walk up Goetheweg until you get to Kohnsteinweg – which leads all the way up to the memorial site (ca. 20 minutes' walk).
In theory there's also a bus connection (line G going between Salza/Karl-Liebknecht-Platz and Rüdigsdorf, passing through Krimderode/Kohnsteinweg) but this only goes a couple of times a day and only by prior arrangement for groups of five or more (phone: 03631/639215 or +49 (0)1805/99 20 05). In short, you can more or less forget this and rather walk from Krimderode. You'll need to walk a lot at the site in any case. And if you have mobility problems then you'll most likely arrange private transport anyway (note that the tunnel is only wheelchair accessible up to the first hall, but not deeper inside!).
The outdoor remains of the camp can be visited freely at any time until nightfall. The exhibitions are open: Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. between 1 April and 30 September (only to 4 p.m. in winter). Closed Mondays!
The tunnel is only accessible as part of a guided tour. 90-minute tours of the grounds, and including a tour of the tunnel, are offered for individuals (from 10 persons) usually at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and additionally at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. at weekends (and an extra tour at 4 p.m. during the summer) every day except Mondays.
More comprehensive tours (three or five hours, even several-day programmes) are also available for groups. For more info and confirmation of tour times phone +49-(0)3631/4958-20.
; general guided tours (including the tunnel) are also free; audio-visual guides (running time ca. 90 minutes) can be hired at the museum for 3 EUR (available also in English and French), a second set of headphones costs an extra 1 EUR. You will have to leave an ID as a deposit.
Pre-arranged group guided tours cost 26 EUR (half price for students, disabled or senior citizens).
Note that the inside of the tunnels is cold all year round (a constant 8 degrees Celsius – quite chilly!), so when visiting in warm weather make sure you have sufficient extra layers of clothing to put on. Otherwise you will get very cold during the 45 minutes or so down there.
Nominally, the site, and in particular the tunnel, is not recommended for visitors younger than 12 years old. But when I went there were a few kids who clearly were younger than that … so it's not strictly enforced.
Inside the tunnel, no photography
is allowed! That's so as to not impair the visitors' experience down here through endless flash snapshots (and indeed this seems to be required since most people appear to be unable to switch the flash off on their camera – see photography
). Some in my group did take pictures (including with flash) regardless and weren't even told off for it. But it really is annoying. At least most people did not break the rules so it was OK. And before you ask: the pictures in the photo gallery below were taken on a special appointment I had made following the guided tour (during the tour, it would hardly have been possible to take any pictures with the required longer exposure times because of the vibrations of the many feet on the metal gangways inside the deeper parts of the tunnels).
the guided tours of part of the grounds and, especially, into the tunnel, nominally last ca. 90 minutes, but often run over; add to this at least another 2 hours for exploring the site and going through the exhibitions in detail (with the help of the 90-minute multi-media/audio guide). To also walk all the paths through the remains of the camp that lie further in the forest you may well need yet more time. In short: it takes the better part of a whole day to "do" Mittelbau-Dora exhaustively.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Thematically, a combination of a visit to Mittelbau-Dora with one to Buchenwald
is the most obvious choice, given the historical links between the two places. The latter on its own requires a whole day, though.
Geographically closer are a few of the many border museums along the former Iron Curtain
that sliced through Germany
during the Cold War
. The very closest is in Bad Sachsa
, which could at a push even be combined with Mittelbau-Dora in a single day (if you go early to be at Bad Sachsa for 10 a.m. on a Sunday). Further away and requiring more time on a separate day are also Eichsfeld
Closest to Mittelbau-Dora there's the nearby town of Nordhausen, and this too has a few (less major) points of interest for the dark tourist. Some are related to the concentration camp (including satellite camps and production facilities), others to the heavy aerial bombing that Nordhausen suffered, not least because of its proximity to the rocket assembly facilities at Mittelbau. You can pick up leaflets and other information material about Nordhausen and other nearby historical sites at the memorial museum.
On the other side of the Kohnstein mountain is an open-cast anhydrite mine, which is a mineral mainly used in building materials. This has actually been encroaching on the tunnel system inside the mountain, as you can tell from the big suport columns later added at the far end of the main visitor tunnel. This open-cast mine may also be worth a quick look above ground, from a distance, when driving round the northern side of the mountain and Nordhausen.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Nordhausen and Mittelbau-Dora are located at the southern edge of the Harz, Germany
's highest central uplands, which is a major holiday area of central Germany, with a plethora of places that are well developed for tourism. Attractions include hiking, climbing and nature and wildlife viewing (lynx live in the forests of the Harz!). Fans of industrial heritage sites are also well catered for, with several show mines and mining museums chronicling the area's rich history in this respect too. The narrow gauge railway trains (especially with their steam engines) that go from Nordhausen into the Harz are probably an attraction for some as well.
Nordhausen itself, though it suffered severely from aerial bombardment in WWII
, still has a few prototypically old-style buildings (half-timbered and all).
- Mittelbau-Dora 01 - also called Dora-Mittelbau
- Mittelbau-Dora 02 - new museum
- Mittelbau-Dora 03 - ante-room of new museum with Goebbels film
- Mittelbau-Dora 04 - living in hell
- Mittelbau-Dora 05 - living and dying conditions
- Mittelbau-Dora 06 - rocket man Wernher von Braun was involved too
- Mittelbau-Dora 07 - still the man later made it big in the US
- Mittelbau-Dora 08 - typical inmates dress
- Mittelbau-Dora 09 - guard wardrobe
- Mittelbau-Dora 10 - complete with Nazi insignia
- Mittelbau-Dora 11 - pit cart
- Mittelbau-Dora 12 - individualized
- Mittelbau-Dora 13 - exhibition
- Mittelbau-Dora 14 - exit through death
- Mittelbau-Dora 15 - main square of the memorial site
- Mittelbau-Dora 16 - rusty old steam train
- Mittelbau-Dora 17 - former SS bunker
- Mittelbau-Dora 18 - into the mountain
- Mittelbau-Dora 19 - where the old and new tunnels meet
- Mittelbau-Dora 20 - model of the tunnel system
- Mittelbau-Dora 21 - old V2-engine salvaged from the tunnels
- Mittelbau-Dora 22 - view from the access steps to the tunnel
- Mittelbau-Dora 23 - bent metal and creepy shadow
- Mittelbau-Dora 24 - later installed loos
- Mittelbau-Dora 25 - deeper into the tunnels
- Mittelbau-Dora 26 - lots of metal debris strewn about
- Mittelbau-Dora 27 - with metal colums for a former upper level
- Mittelbau-Dora 28 - note the V1 body remains
- Mittelbau-Dora 29 - various V1 parts
- Mittelbau-Dora 30 - more rusty missile parts
- Mittelbau-Dora 31 - water in the end of the tunnel
- Mittelbau-Dora 32 - back at the main camp square outside
- Mittelbau-Dora 33 - GDR-era memorial
- Mittelbau-Dora 34 - more is hidden in the woods
- Mittelbau-Dora 35 - reconstructed wooden barrack
- Mittelbau-Dora 36 - crematorium
- Mittelbau-Dora 37 - crematorium ovens
- Mittelbau-Dora 38 - mostly just very basic remains
- Mittelbau-Dora 39 - foundations forlorn in the forest
- Mittelbau-Dora 40 - left-over wash basin of inmates barrack
- Mittelbau-Dora 41 - cattle carriage at the end of the access road