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Wolfschanze ('Wolf's Lair') at Gierloz

  
  - darkometer rating:  7 -
 
A complex of semi-destroyed bunkers in the north of Poland, infamous as the place where Adolf Hitler had his main headquarters during much of World War II. However, this is also the site of Stauffenberg's failed assassination attempt on Hitler, which could have changed the course of history so dramatically if only had it been successful. So it's kind of a doubly dark site – both a purely sinister Nazi site and at the same time a place of very unfortunate tragedy. 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

 
More background info: The complex of bunkers at the so-called Wolfschanze (frequently also spelled 'Wolfsschanze'), or 'Wolf's Lair' in English and 'Wilczy Szaniec' in Polish, is part of a larger complex of bunkers and military installations that was built from 1940 to 1944. It served primarily as a Nazi command centre in World War II. This role it had primarily during Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union, code-named 'Operation Barbarossa' and said to have been planned in large part at the Wolfschanze.
 
The complex was elaborately camouflaged – in addition to the safety that concrete walls several metres thick provided. Hitler himself used the Wolfschanze as his main base during much of the latter years of the war, until it was given up, in view of the advancing Red Army.
 
The name of the place is said to derive directly from Hitler's self-chosen nickname of Wolf. It was also used in other such HQs/command bases, such as "Wolfsschlucht" in Belgium or "Werewolf" in Ukraine. Maybe "Mole" or "Rabbit"would have been more appropriate, though – as the enormous bunkers are testament to the increasing isolation the Nazi leadership sought as the war dragged on. As developments in their crazy war effort deteriorated, they basically chose to dig in rather than face reality.
 
And the security at the complex was extraordinary as well. Thus it was all but impossible for anyone other than the very hard core of those closest to Hitler to get anywhere near the heart of the complex where he stayed.
 
However, it was here where the one assassination attempt that came closest to being successful was undertaken. It is primarily for this reason that the place is included in these pages. A circle of high-ranking army officials, most prominently Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, plotted to kill Hitler as a desperate measure to try and save Germany from destruction by the Allies, which they correctly foresaw.
 
Stauffenberg had the opportunity to participate in briefings at the Wolfschanze and thus get close to Hitler. On 20 July 1944, he took a briefcase charged with explosives into the briefing room and placed it under a table, just a few feet away from Hitler. After he had triggered the bomb's timer, Stauffenberg sneaked out of the building minutes before the explosion. Assuming that the blast must have killed Hitler he flew off to Berlin to carry through the plans the plotters had put into place for the takeover of military command – with the intention of ending the war as quickly as possible by entering into peace talks with the Allies.
 
But things had gone wrong: apparently one of the officers present at the briefing had moved the briefcase with the bomb to the side, enough for the blast not to hit Hitler directly. Though it did kill four men and injured ten more, Hitler himself escaped with only minor injuries. The plotters and any suspected collaborators subsequently did not. (See also German Resistance Memorial Centre Berlin!)
 
In fact Hitler's revenge was ruthless beyond imagination. Not only did he have the plotters themselves shot. Families, friends, any vague associates were rounded up, even though most of them had had no knowledge of the assassination plans. Many were tortured by the SS, and then subjected to ludicrously humiliating show trials at the infamous People's Court. With the predictable result: death sentences en masse. (See also Plötzensee.)
 
It is estimated that over 5000 people were killed in the frenzy of revenge after July 1944. The victims were often military intelligentsia – and with them wiped out, and only the most fanatic Nazis left in charge, things could only get even more insane. And they did, as is known well enough. Less than a year later Germany lay in ruins, and civilian casualties during the last few months of the war had been particularly atrocious. The bombing of Dresden in February 1945 being only one of the better known tragic events.
 
But the fact that the assassination attempt failed was not only tragic for Germany, of course. Not only would the war most likely have been brought to rapid end had the plot been successful, thus also saving countless lives on the Allies' part, it would also have saved hundreds of thousands of victims from Nazi persecution during that final period. This applies in particular to the Hungarian Jews, who until 1944 had largely escaped the Holocaust (see Holocaust Memorial Center Budapest).
 
When even Hitler and his closest cronies at the Wolfschanze could no longer deny that their "Endsieg" ('ultimate victory') was not coming and instead the Red Army was advancing, Hitler retreated to Berlin in November 1944 – where he hid in the capital's reinforced "Führerbunker" until his suicide on 30 April 1945 (see also Topography of Terror)..
 
In early 1945, the German army tried to blow up the bunkers of the Wolfschanze. But the result was far from complete. Even several tons of explosives per bunker couldn't fully destroy the gigantic concrete monsters. Thus a good proportion of the structures can still be seen today, and, despite collapsed roofs and mangled blocks of reinforced concrete, even some of the interior is still accessible.
 
After the war it took many years to clear the area of mines, but in 1959 the remains of the Wolfschanze were opened to the public. Today they are a major tourist attraction in the area – albeit a somewhat problematic one (see below).   .   
 
 
What there is to see: mainly lots of concrete, but close to the car park there is also a small exhibition and a couple of memorial monuments.
 
One monument/plaque specifically commemorating Stauffenberg, and resistance against Hitler in general, was only added as late as 1992. It marks the location of the hut in which the briefing and bomb blast took place. This memorial, like Stauffenberg himself, is not uncontroversial in Poland – after all, it was pointed out, Stauffenberg was still a Nazi who had played a part in the military invasion of Poland.
 
Another nearby memorial honours the sappers of the Polish army who cleared the area of the thousands of mines left behind by the Nazis.
 
The exhibition in a single-storey restored building doesn't show much, apart from a scale model of the complex to illustrate what it may have looked like when it was in use (minus most of the camouflage, though). There are also a few pictures and text panels on the wall. A few text panels are also found in the grounds, especially ones detailing the events of 20 July 1944. These texts are in English too. Most of the complex, however, is left to speak for itself, as it were, as far as that is possible.
 
The main draw are the really big bunker ruins, of which there are six. Hitler's giant bunker is building No. 13. Goering's, Keitel's and Bormann's bunkers as well as a 'communications bunker' and a general 'guests' bunker' are of similar size.
 
Some can also be explored inside, giving an impression of how cramped the conditions were inside, despite the huge overall dimensions of these monsters of concrete (walls and ceilings were five to nine metres thick). NOTE that officially you are not supposed to venture inside any of the ruins – and big yellow signs remind you of this. However, many if not most people ignore them – and even tour groups are led by their guides inside some precarious looking ruins.
 
How dangerous these ruins really are remains unclear. After all, they're made of the strongest reinforced concrete and they've survived decades exposed to the elements. More dangerous than entering what is left of indoor sections of bunkers (only possible with a good torchlight), are probably the more badly damaged piles of mangled steel and concrete where you could easily break a leg when clambering about (in particular if wearing flimsy shoes). Some openings are blocked off by wire mesh or barbed wire – so it can be assumed that those bits would really be too unsafe to enter.
 
In any case, the place has a very strange atmosphere, not only due to the massive concrete manifestations of Nazi militarism and their historical significance, also because of the clientele of this tourist sight. Amongst the ca. 200,000 visitors that come here each year are holidaying families, general tourist coach parties and military delegations (on educational excursions?) … and then there are also some dodgy looking groups of big guys in mock military attire, some skinheads, some bikers.
 
I didn't witness any open evidence of neo-Nazism, but you can be sure that they get them here. Others who perhaps only look the part may merely be 'militaria enthusiasts'. Still it makes for a very mixed crowd of people. And it can get pretty busy in season. At peak times cars queue up for hundreds of yards in front of the gates, basically clogging up the entire road.  
 
Outside the main complex that you have to pay to enter (see below), there's also an area in the woods with more bunkers on the other side of the road, and that part can be accessed free of charge. There is a small cemetery (formerly serving the nearby village of Parcz), several partly ruined buildings and, most prominently, literally speaking, another giant bunker. The latter was a general-purpose shelter – so no special associations with any of the Nazi big shots here.
 
Those who dare could even climb up the steel ladder steps that go up on the outside wall to the top. There's nothing to hold on to other than those steel clamps poking out of the concrete – so not the safest thing to do!
 
The fact that this part of the Wolfschanze can be freely accessed is also demonstrated by the graffiti on the bunker's walls – some of it, unfortunately, is of a decidedly unwelcome nature, including swastikas.
 
Finally, there's a souvenir shop by the main part of the complex which sells brochures and various items of trouist tack – some of it pretty dodgy too, like the mock hand grenades with wolf images painted on them, or plastic skulls with steel helmets recalling the insignia of the notorious "Totenkopf" ('skull') divisions of the SS. Indeed, the commercialization of the place could have been more restrained and done in a more sensitive manner.
 
All in all, the Wolfschanze is an important dark tourism destination by any account. It certainly looks grim and oozes an overall sinister atmosphere. Awareness of the historical significance of the place only heightens this further. There remains a certain uncomfortable feeling, however, that not all visitors are indeed fully aware of this. And the management of the place could do a bit more to foster this awareness and at the same time include a clearer distancing from the Nazi shrine aura or at least that mere military monument character that seems to be the only aspect that some of the visitors come for. Still, an absolute must-do for any dark tourist travelling through northern Poland.
 
 
Location: in the north-east of Poland, in the northern part of Masuria, near Lake Mamry by the village of Gierloz about five miles (8 km) east of Ketrzyn (formerly Rastenburg).
 
Google maps locator: [54.080,21.495]
 
 
Access and costs: a bit remote, but fairly accessible; not unreasonably expensive.
 
Details: To get there, having your own means of transport is certainly beneficial, as it gives you independence and allows you to combine a visit to the Wolfschanze with other sites in the area (see below). The route to take from Ketrzyn, off the main road (592) to Gizycko, is well signposted.
 
There is also a regular bus service from Ketrzyn in the summer months (bus No. 1); alternatively some of the overland bus connections between Ketrzyn and Wegorzewo go past the Wolfschanze (but check exact routes and times carefully).
 
Admission to the main zone, i.e. that with the memorials and Hitler's bunker, is 15 zloty (10 zloty for students and children). There's an additional charge for parking: 10 zloty for a car, 5 zloty for motorbikes, 2 zloty for bicycles
 
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (or till dusk).
 
The zone south of the main one can be accessed for free at any time, but there is no dedicated car park. If you're not using the one at the main site you could drive off the road along dirt tracks into the woods and find a spot to park there. Coming from the official car park and entrance area to the main zone you first have to walk along the road, so take care with traffic, there's no real sidewalk; so stay on the kerb, until you can branch off into the woods after about 300 yards. It's useful to have a map of the site on you to get your bearings – best to get the visitors' brochure then; e.g. at the souvenir shop. But it's also sold everywhere in the area.
 
At the Wolfschanze, guided tours are also available, and in fact most coach parties go on guided tours (a large proportion are from Germany). However, to get away from the throngs you have to go on your own, which is perfectly possible, especially with the aid of a brochure/map, or alternatively hire a guide on a private basis (50 zloty – available in English and a few other foreign languages).
 
When staying in Gierloz, you can get to the Wolfschanze on foot. Near Gierloz and the Wolfschanze there's the beautiful little Ksiezycowy Dworek hotel, right by a picturesque lake and relatively good value (its restaurant in particular). The building also has associations with the Wolfschanze and the Nazi days: Eva Braun is said to have stayed here, whereas she'd never been to the actual Wolfschanze herself.
 
It is also possible to stay overnight right at the Wolfschanze: there's a basic hotel by the car park on the premises. For me that would be a little too close for comfort to the site, but if you don't mind that then it may be a budget option. There's also a campsite on the premises, whose tariffs are naturally even lower (10 zloty per tent, 15-20 zloty for caravans/motorhomes/RVs).
 
 
Time required: In total a serious visit to the site takes about two hours, but can be cut shorter. The brochure/guidebook for the site officially suggests three routes of varying length:
  
For those in a hurry there's the 'Yellow' route, estimated to take 45 minutes, which takes in the small exhibition, the monuments, a few of the bunkers, and the "highlight" of bunker No. 13, i.e. Hitler's bunker.
 
The longer 60-minute 'Red' route also takes in General Keitel's and Goering's giant bunkers. It's worth taking this longer route for the latter in particular, as it allows the easiest access to the bunker interior (still, officially you're not supposed to enter …), or even to the roof (dangerous steel clamp steps, though …).
 
It used to be possible to cross the road to get to the zone south of the road, but no longer, since a fence was built around the main complex. So you have to follow the rest of the 'Red' route back to the entrance, past more bunker ruins.
 
From there you can then add on the 50-minute 'Blue' route through the freely accessible zone south of the road.
 
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Not far from the central Wolfschanze part of the bunker complex there's another huge part called Mauerwald, or Mamerki, which served as a main Nazi army command HQ.
 
It's much less well known, but it makes up for that through the fact that here the bunkers were not blown up. Thus you can see structures much like the ones used by Hitler and his inner circle at the Wolfschanze in close to the original state.
 
Unlike at the Wolfschanze, you are actively encouraged to explore the interior of the bunkers here. If you don't have the prerequisite torchlight to be able to do so you can even hire a torch at the entrance for a small fee in addition to the admission fee of 12 zloty (students 8 zloty) plus another 5 zloty for parking (motorcycles 3 zloty, minibuses 10 zloty).
 
At one of the two giant bunkers a wooden tower has been added that allows safe access to the top of the bunker, and further up to an observation deck that allows views over to Lake Mamry. Interestingly, here the lower rungs of the steel clamp ladders leading to the roofs have been cut off – presumably as a health and safety measure.
 
Mauerwald, though it had its importance for the Wolfschanze (and Stauffenberg stayed here too), is a less historically charged place and even more a speciality for those militaria enthusiasts ... as well as for families with children, well, boys. Some stomp about in full mock-soldier outfits. There's also a stand and a shop with some scary-looking (mock or antique?) military gear on display/sale. A barbecue place supplies sustenance.
 
Mauerwald is open from 1 May to 30 October between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
 
To get there from the Wolfschanze, it's another 12 miles (20 km) or so along the (unnumbered) road from Gierloz to Wegorzewo.
 
On the other side of the road with the car park, there are further bunkers in the woods … but that's only for the really dedicated. Most people will probably get the they-look-all-the-same-y feeling that I developed towards bunkers after a few hours sightseeing at the Wolfschanze and Mauerwald …
 
Mauerwald location: [54.186,21.652]
 
 
Just a bit further up the road and then left on the 650 towards Srokowo you get to the Lesniewo Sluza on the Masurian Canal. The building of the canal was never completed but some half-finished giant locks, more concrete legacies of the Nazis in the area, can be found. At Lesniewo there's a signposted car park (where you can leave your vehicle for a few zloty). From here a path leads along the course of the canal – first you see some rudimentary, but already quite big remnants of a sluice, but a few hundred yards further up the path you get to the huge one which is the main draw. In fact, the place has been taken over by a company offering 'adventure sports' on and in the structure, including climbing, boating, and abseiling from the top.
 
At the front of the facade towering over the canal you can still see the hollowed-out shape of the Reich's eagle emblem. The emblem itself (with its swastika in the eagle's claws) has been removed, however, though you still find it mentioned on the Internet. So now the place is less for hunters of Nazi memorabilia and more for the young sporty lot (mostly Poles). They also make it a crowded place. But even if you're not in the mood for adventure sports it's still interesting to walk around this kind of concrete folly in the woods.
 
Sluza location: [54.2084,21.5937]
 
 
Further eastwards, beyond Wegorzewo and roughly halfway along the 650 towards Goldap, a road branches off to the right which takes you to the Rapa pyramid, another folly, only older and without any Nazi connections (it is, or rather was, a family mausoleum).
 
Further east still is Suwalki, capital of the north-easternmost of Poland's provinces, and a good stepping stone for travels onwards into Lithuania, especially to Grutas Park, which isn't so far from the border.
 
When coming up to the Wolfschanze from Warsaw, or when carrying onwards towards the city, then it is worth considering the slight detour to Treblinka, not only because it is (almost) along the way, but also as it is a sobering counterpoint to the somewhat dodgy Nazi-related commercialism at the Wolfschanze. At the site of the former Holocaust death camp of Treblinka you're reminded of the very worst of the genocidal nature of Hitler's Nazism.
 
If going west from the Wolfschanze, you'll eventually come to Gdansk, which also offers some dark sites. En route you can take in Stutthof, site of the Gdansk area's own concentration camp.
 
Thematically related to the failed assassination plot on Hitler is the German Resistance Memorial Centre in Berlin, which (amongst other stories of resistance against the Nazis) chronicles the failed assassination attempt of 20 July 1944 in minute detail. And in the courtyard is the place where Stauffenberg and some of his fellow plotters were summarily shot on the same evening. That spot too is now marked by a memorial plaque.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The Wolfschanze is located right in the heart of one of Poland's prime tourist areas: the Masurian Lakes with their lovely scenery and water sports opportunities. It's generally well developed for tourism, but accordingly gets rather crowded in summer. There are also some pretty towns, of which Mikolajki usually gets top marks in that respect, as well as historical sites such as castles, churches and monasteries.
 
See also under Poland in general.
 
 
 
  • Gierloz - Wolfschanze 1aGierloz - Wolfschanze 1a
  • Gierloz - Wolfschanze 1b - modelGierloz - Wolfschanze 1b - model
  • Gierloz - Wolfschanze 2 - Stauffenberg memorial plaqueGierloz - Wolfschanze 2 - Stauffenberg memorial plaque
  • Gierloz - Wolfschanze 3Gierloz - Wolfschanze 3
  • Gierloz - Wolfschanze 4Gierloz - Wolfschanze 4
  • Gierloz - Wolfschanze 5 - warning signGierloz - Wolfschanze 5 - warning sign
  • Gierloz - Wolfschanze 6Gierloz - Wolfschanze 6
  • Gierloz - Wolfschanze 7Gierloz - Wolfschanze 7
  • Gierloz - Wolfschanze 8Gierloz - Wolfschanze 8
  • Gierloz - Wolfschanze 9Gierloz - Wolfschanze 9
  • Gierloz - Wolfschanze 9bGierloz - Wolfschanze 9b
  • Gierloz - Wolfschanze 9cGierloz - Wolfschanze 9c
  • Mauerwald 1Mauerwald 1
  • Mauerwald 2Mauerwald 2
  • Mauerwald 3Mauerwald 3
  • Mauerwald 4Mauerwald 4
  • MauerwaldMauerwald
  • Sluza 1Sluza 1
  • Sluza 2Sluza 2
  • SluzaSluza
  • vicinity - Masurian lakesvicinity - Masurian lakes
 

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