Colditz

  
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Possibly the most famous German POW prison of WWII, thanks to the legend of high-profile escapes that have been celebrated in books and films, especially in Britain. To cater for this special interest, extended tours in English are offered that concentrate on this part of the history of the place. And they're pretty good too.   
More background info: Out of the countless places that have some dark association, many only become (dark) tourist destinations through modern media influence – and Colditz is a prime example of this!
 
Colditz Castle in the town of the same name, located in Saxony, Germany, served as a special POW prison, where the Nazis detained captured enemy officers, many of them British, during WWII. The prison's official designation was "Oflag IV-C" (for "Offiziers-Lager" – 'officer camp'). It was deemed impossible to escape from here, given the castle's hilltop location with sheer cliffs on three sides and a double courtyard with easy to guard gates. Still, some prisoners tried, and a few even with success – see below.
 
The treatment of the captured officers at this prison was not so bad, however, and in full accordance with the Geneva conventions. As such these prisoners had it much easier than those millions incarcerated in the Nazis' concentration camps and other regular POW camps all over Germany and in the occupied territories (especially Poland!). At Colditz the prisoners never had to work, and they enjoyed various privileges: they could do sports, engage in learning, perform theatre plays, and so forth … compare that to the appalling conditions that especially Soviet POWs had to endure under the Nazis! Colditz is thus not a particularly dark place, but a significant site all the same.
 
Colditz became probably the best-known name, at least in Britain, of all POW camps the Nazis had. This is mainly due to the stories told about it after the war, in books, films, television series, etc. in which the various escape attempts were described or depicted (and much glorified!).
 
Indeed some of the prisoners did attempt to escape from Colditz with great ingenuity and as much bravery as bravado. Most attempts failed but these well-organized prisoners never stopped trying. It was almost a matter of honour to carry on stubbornly, even if chances of success were low.
 
But it was only thanks to the book "The Colditz Story" by Pat Reid, one of the few successful escapees from Colditz, that the name Colditz became such a hallmark in public consciousness of WWII. The 1955 movie based on the book, only consolidated the fame and legend of the place, which from the British perspective is seen to stand for a heroic "spirit" in the face of the Nazi adversary.
 
Apart from Pat Reid's story there were many other daring escapes or escape attempts, the most famous one would have been by a glider plane made in secret under the roof. The glider never actually made it to flight back then, but many years later a replica was put to the test at the site, and it proved that it could possibly have worked! Also under the roof, a whole secret radio station was discovered, and even now new discoveries are being made, such as tunnels dug laboriously under the floors.
 
Some prisoners tried to trick the German guards by dressing up as and imitating German guards or officers. One even attempted to escape in drag, i.e. dressed as a woman! There are good photographic records of these types of escape attempts because the Nazi guards took pictures of the captured escapees in their costumes. It is assumed that some of the opposing protagonists even developed a lot of respect for each other thanks to this ongoing game of "escapology".
 
Of course, escaping from the castle was one thing, but once they did manage to break out they then had to get out of Nazi Germany too – and that was at least as tall an order as escaping from the prison. Some did manage to get all the way to neutral Switzerland and then either held out there or returned home (if that home wasn't itself occupied by the Nazis). But the number of such "home-run" success stories was rather limited.   
 
After WWII, Colditz was located beyond, i.e. east of the Iron Curtain on the territory of the former GDR, where it was converted (back) into a hospital. The legend of the place was kept alive almost entirely in the West only, especially in Britain. It was only a few years after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc that the Colditz hospital was closed (in 1996) and the site slowly became more easily accessible to tourists. Today, despite its remote location, it is even marketed as a tourist attraction – with special emphasis on its WWII-era POW prison legacy.
 
Military history tour specialists offer organized package tours to Colditz, or include Colditz as part of longer WWII-themed itineraries. But you can also visit it independently.
 
The administration of Colditz Castle itself offers tours in English. In addition to the normal general tours covering the castle's history, which is of course much richer than just that short period during WWII, there are also special extended tours that concentrate specifically on the POW camp history and the various escape attempts. It seems to be a service aimed especially at English-speaking visitors, mainly from Great Britain, while the regular tours are more for the German visitors. This is quite remarkable for the location – in the far south-east of Germany that once was the most cut-off corner of the GDR (cf. Dresden).
 
 
What there is to see: The castle as such is imposing enough, but does not give away its story as such. For that you have to go on a tour and/or see the small museum inside.
 
Note that parts of the castle are used as a youth hostel, so don't be surprised if you suddenly bump into large groups of boisterous youths in the courtyards or outside the gate.
 
Once you've made it to the ticket counter and shop it's decision time as to what type of visit you want. I can wholeheartedly recommend going on the most expensive but also most comprehensive tour, the one that is specifically tailored to foreign (in particular British) tourist interest in the POW history of the place. Better plan this ahead, though – and check the times below. The price for the tours includes admission to the museum, so you could have a quick look there before the tour if there's time. But it's probably better to leave the museum until after the tour – as the exhibits will speak to you much more after having heard the various stories told by the guide.
 
The tour I went on (in September 2012) was very entertaining and well delivered by an engaging and often really funny female guide called Steffi, who first gave us a general briefing about the history of the castle but then immediately launched into the many outrageous escape stories of Colditz. Some of it assumed a bit of previous knowledge, especially of the famous film, but I'm sure that if you lack certain bits of background information you could just ask.
 
We went to see various original locations of escapes, starting with the storage cellar that Pat Reid himself made his way out from … namely through a tiny air vent in the wall leading out to the castle forecourt. A literally narrow escape that was!
 
The tour also took us outside of the castle proper and down to the meadow between the castle and the forest beyond. Here an old hatch over a hiding place can be seen (made by some Dutch prisoners) – and also the outer wall of the premises that several prisoners aimed to climb over.
 
Back by the castle wall, an only recently discovered outer end of the longest escape tunnel dug at Colditz, namely by French POWs, was shown to us.
 
Inside the castle we were taken to the old theatre, the stage of which was used by the prisoners for putting on shows for their prison community's entertainment – while Pat Reid discovered that from under the stage a possible escape route offered the chance of bypassing the courtyard gate!
 
We were also shown the other end of that long French escape tunnel, namely under the castle's chapel. A team of archaeologists were at work here at the time … even inside the tunnel. The site is still a "work in progress" in archaeological terms then! We were also shown recent finds unearthed in the process. Cool. It certainly heightened the whole sense of authenticity of the place.
 
In the courtyard, by the museum entrance and at various other points, a number of almost life-size cardboard photo cut-outs are dotted around. They're of various escapee POWs, including those in drag or other forms of "camouflage", thus "populating" the place in style. There are also a number of information panels in German and English – but if you're on the guided tour you'll hardly need to take note of them as all the information will also be delivered verbally.
 
Finally there's of course the museum. This too is mostly about the POWs and their escape stories. Exhibits include a rope used by one escapee to get out in that classic style, then there are various Nazi insignia, caps and uniforms forged by the prisoners to make clothes for escape attempts, a model of the famous Colditz glider plane hangs from the ceiling, and you can also see the whole secret radio station discovered after the war under the roof.
 
Some display cabinets contained various tins of more or less familiar foodstuffs that the prisoners had in their supplies, some of the brands are still around today. The most recent find displayed here is a surreptitious compass belonging to a French prisoner, which was found under some floorboards only a year earlier! Again proof that this is very much still an active modern archaeological site of sorts.
 
The descriptive texts and exhibit labels in the museum are all in German, but with a few shorter English labels given too.
 
In the shop you can find all manner of souvenirs of the usual and not so usual form, from T-shirts, caps and postcards to special "Escape from Colditz" board games. Amongst the publications, one that is particularly noteworthy is a special edition of the "After the Battle" magazine series, namely No. 63, which is almost entirely about Colditz. It has very detailed descriptions, good-quality black-and-white photos and extensive first-hand accounts of the escapes.
 
Overall, a visit to Colditz is not the pinnacle of dark tourism, it isn't even that dark at all really, since it's all rather about the positive aspects here, but it is still a pretty unique experience all the same, especially the extended special guided tour. This also covers a lot more intriguing stories than this short account could convey – and I also didn't want to give too much away …
 
I've not been on the shorter regular tour, so I can't really compare, but I cannot imagine it being anywhere near as riveting, since it also covers all that older historical stuff that dark tourists are generally not so interested in, so it can't go as deep into the POW stories.
 
The museum alone is quite cute, but only really comes to life when you've been on the POW-themed tour before.
 
So, I can honestly recommended a trip to Colditz, at least for the relevant special interest clientele. But it might appeal to others too. It's good fun, only slightly dark, and full of highly entertaining stories.  
 
 
Location: Towering over the small town of Colditz, the castle itself cannot be overlooked. The town is located roughly 30 miles (50 km) south-east of Leipzig, and about 25 miles (40 km) north of Chemnitz, in south-eastern Germany.
 
Google maps locator:[51.1303,12.8076]
  
 
Access and costs: quite remote and not easy to get to other than by private car; not too expensive for what you get.
 
Details: Getting to Colditz is easiest by car – from Leipzig or Dresden via the A4 motorway and then (coming from Leipzig) exit at Grimma and take the B107 south all the way to Colditz. From Chemnitz the B107 leads north to Colditz, but in a more roundabout, slower route.
  
Getting there by public transport is trickier. The local train station has not been in use for years, and there are only a few regional bus connections. From the nearest place still on the train network, Grimma, buses depart for Colditz regularly, though not that frequently. To check connections go to pvm-mtl.de/fahrtenplaner.html – it's in German only, but once you put in the departure point under "von", the destination under "nach", select a random date and time and then click the yellow button below, you will be passed on to another, better timetable search site where you can switch to English! .. you'll have to enter the details again; but at least it works.
 
When arriving by bus you will have to climb the hill to the castle on foot. But if you come by car you can drive up very close indeed, namely from Tiergartenstraße, where an access road branches off north and leads to a car park directly outside the main gate. The official address is: Schloßgasse 1, 04680 Colditz.
 
Opening times: daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (between November and March only to 4 p.m.). The regular (limited) guided tours take place at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; the special extended tours focusing entirely on the POW prison history and its escapology take place at 10:30 a.m. daily (and on request at 2 p.m.), from April to October only. (Other times may be possible by prior arrangement: phone 034381/43777.)
 
Costs: admission to the museum alone costs a mere 4 EUR (concession 3 EUR), the regular guided historical tours of the castle cost 8.50 EUR (6.50 EUR from 4 people; concession: 5.50 EUR for students and disabled persons); and those special extended POW-themed tours are charged at 15 EUR per person (children over ten 10 EUR, under ten free). It's absolutely worth the extra investment!
 
 
Time required: The special tours in English that concentrate on the WWII history of the place last about two hours. Add to that the extra time you'll need for the museum, at least half an hour.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Closest to Colditz is the city of Leipzig, and Dresden isn't much further away. Both have good offers for dark tourists.
 
Just beyond Dresden in Pirna is another ex-castle that has a dark history, namely that of having been one of the six T4 euthanasia centres during the Third Reich.
 
And if you want to compare the conditions the Colditz POWs were held in with the infinitely worse lot that international concentration camp inmates had to endure, head west towards Weimar and pay your respects at the truly grim site of Buchenwald!
 
For more see under Germany in general.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The area around Colditz is green and wooded, but hardly spectacular. To the south that changes somewhat in the form of the Erzgebirge, or 'Ore Mountains', straddling the border between Germany and the north-west of the Czech Republic.
 
Within Germany itself, the closest real tourist draws are the cities of Leipzig and, in particular, Dresden.
   
 
 
  • Colditz 01 - the castle towering highColditz 01 - the castle towering high
  • Colditz 02 - main gateColditz 02 - main gate
  • Colditz 03 - front facadeColditz 03 - front facade
  • Colditz 04 - view over the town belowColditz 04 - view over the town below
  • Colditz 05 - magic archway leading to the courtyardColditz 05 - magic archway leading to the courtyard
  • Colditz 06 - in the courtyardColditz 06 - in the courtyard
  • Colditz 07 - castle detailsColditz 07 - castle details
  • Colditz 08 - escape statistics on a plaqueColditz 08 - escape statistics on a plaque
  • Colditz 09 - hatch to old Pat Reid cellarColditz 09 - hatch to old Pat Reid cellar
  • Colditz 10 - Pat Reid cellarColditz 10 - Pat Reid cellar
  • Colditz 11 - a really narrow escapeColditz 11 - a really narrow escape
  • Colditz 12 - view down to the parkColditz 12 - view down to the park
  • Colditz 13 - outer wallsColditz 13 - outer walls
  • Colditz 14 - bricked up barred windowsColditz 14 - bricked up barred windows
  • Colditz 15 - secret hatch in the parkColditz 15 - secret hatch in the park
  • Colditz 16 - recently discovered outer end of a French escape tunnelColditz 16 - recently discovered outer end of a French escape tunnel
  • Colditz 17 - another meaningful holeColditz 17 - another meaningful hole
  • Colditz 18 - the old theatreColditz 18 - the old theatre
  • Colditz 19 - windowColditz 19 - window
  • Colditz 20 - view down into the courtyardColditz 20 - view down into the courtyard
  • Colditz 21 - life-size photo cut-outs of escapees  in the courtyardColditz 21 - life-size photo cut-outs of escapees in the courtyard
  • Colditz 22 - prisoner in drag as camouflageColditz 22 - prisoner in drag as camouflage
  • Colditz 23 - escape tunnel access under the chapelColditz 23 - escape tunnel access under the chapel
  • Colditz 24 - the chapelColditz 24 - the chapel
  • Colditz 25 - ongoing archaeologyColditz 25 - ongoing archaeology
  • Colditz 26 - down to the tunnelColditz 26 - down to the tunnel
  • Colditz 27 - recent findsColditz 27 - recent finds
  • Colditz 28 - another secret escape passageColditz 28 - another secret escape passage
  • Colditz 29 - in the museumColditz 29 - in the museum
  • Colditz 30 - finds on displayColditz 30 - finds on display
  • Colditz 31 - the most recent find, a secret compassColditz 31 - the most recent find, a secret compass
  • Colditz 32 - forged Nazi insigniaColditz 32 - forged Nazi insignia
  • Colditz 33 - larger exhibitColditz 33 - larger exhibit
  • Colditz 34 - note with escape ropeColditz 34 - note with escape rope
  • Colditz 35 - model of the gliderColditz 35 - model of the glider
  • Colditz 36 - secret radio station uncovered in the roofColditz 36 - secret radio station uncovered in the roof
  • Colditz 37 - prisoner cellColditz 37 - prisoner cell
  • Colditz 38 - dark tourist trophies on offer in the shopColditz 38 - dark tourist trophies on offer in the shop
   
  
  
  
  
  

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