From Nazi holiday camp to Cold War base to hot property
Private developers renovate symbol of Nazi and East German regimes
A canoodling couple lies on the pristine white sand. Two boys collect shells for their sand castles. A trembling black chihuahua yaps pointlessly at the feeble waves of the Baltic Sea.
It’s a sunny day on the pretty island of Rügen, tucked away in Germany’s northeastern corner.
For millions of West German holidaymakers, unification in 1990 was a revelation, opening up to them 350 glorious kilometres of pristine coastline in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Made up of two historically distinct regions, Meck- Pomm, as locals call it, has Germany’s lowest population density but some of its most spectacular scenery. This is the land of 1,000 lakes, the redbrick Hanseatic glories of Rostock and Stralsund and the spectacular fairytale palace in the state capital, Schwerin.
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Back on Rügen, the spotless seaside resort of Binz has just been crowned most popular destination in Europe for Germans by travel website Trivago.
But let’s head back to the beach 5km north of Binz, where all would be utterly normal if it wasn’t for a few troubling details such as the fiery graffiti on what looks like a pier, reading: “Nie wieder fascismus” – Never again fascism.
If you’re wondering what fascism has to do with an otherwise innocent beach, head inland into the woods and you’ll soon discover a lost world of mossy concrete and twisted metal.
Keep going and soon, without warning, it hits you: a concrete monster with 10,000 empty eyes, five storeys high and stretching so far left and right that it disappears on the horizon.
For 75 years this 3.5 km-long colossus has stood here in Prora, a stubborn and silent witness to two dictatorships: the Third Reich and the East German Democratic Republic (GDR). The structure was planned as the first Nazi-era holiday camp for the Third Reich’s “Kraft durch freude” racket, the “Strength through joy” leisure organisation with a firm ideological focus.
The Nazi propaganda remains so effective today that many people are surprised to hear the complex was abandoned, unfinished, at the outbreak of the second World War. Only a decade later was Prora partially completed. It served for 40 years as a base for East Germany’s National People’s Army (NVA).
Of the 15,000 men performing obligatory military service here at any time were several hundred bausoldaten or spatensoldaten, so-called building or shovel soldiers. These were all men who had rejected military service and declined to bear arms. Their punishment: deployment as forced labourers in army bases such as Prora, slaving for up to 18 hours a day.
Yesterday a group of former bausoldaten – many physically and mentally scarred by their time in Prora – returned to the dilapidated base to unveil two memorials: a tall metal pillar and a reconstructed arrest cell.
Stefan Wolter remembers his Prora bausoldat service, from 1986 to 1988, as an “unimaginable machine of grey-clad monsters, clicking boots on concrete pavements, barked orders and screams of ‘Let me go home’ from soldiers’ windows”.
Like other bausoldaten, he was denounced as an enemy of the state for refusing to “defend peace and socialism with a weapon”. Many bausoldaten were radicalised by their time in Prora and subsequently made important contributions to bring down the East German regime in 1989.