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People, Places, Stuff

Vogelsgang

All across Germany monuments like Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial have arisen to engrave the Second World War on the mind of man. And historic sites have opened telling different chapters of the story from the birth of the National Socialist Party in Munich to concentration camps like Bergen-Belsen and Eagle's Nest, Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat atop a network of bunkers and tunnels built as last-ditch hideouts for top Nazi brass.

Some of these World War II memorials attract international travelers. But increasingly, it seems, others have opened in out-of-the-way places visited chiefly by Germans.

I’m thinking specifically about Vogelsgang, a Nazi site I virtually stumbled upon during a visit to Schnee Eifel National Park, a lost pocket of northern Europe where Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg meet. My sister and I were going hiking across the region’s high plateaus, cut into puzzle pieces by impounded rivers like the Urft and the Rur. One afternoon our path took us to Vogelsgang above the Urftsee reservoir.

There was a village once. But since its opening to visitors in 2006, Vogelsgang has become better known as the site of an academy for Nazi youth, part of an ambitious program begun in 1934 to train the next generation National Socialist Party leaders. Several other academies--known as Order Castles--were planned. Vogelsgang was never completed because manpower and materials were diverted to build Hitler’s Siegfried Wall, part of which runs through the national park.

Even so, Vogelsgang is impressive, a 12-acre complex poised at the edge of a cliff, with terraces and staircases leading to amphitheaters, parade grounds and sports facilities below. The ensemble of barracks, dining halls, class rooms and auditoriums is a sterling, if eerie example of the Nazi building style which took notes from the monumental architecture of ancient Sumeria, Greece and Rome, all supposed cradles of the Aryan people. Cologne architect Clemens Klotz added Teutonic carved roof beams, lattice windows and dormers along with dour stone reliefs of naked horseback riders, swastikas and imperial eagles.

In this strange, isolated place elite Nazi cadets--or junkers--studied racial theory, history, ideology, military science and sports. Religion was replaced by unquestioning obedience to the Reich, worshipped in a church-like Cult Room with a statue of the archetypal Aryan man at what would otherwise have been the altar.

Between 1936 and 1938 the Vogelsgang Order Castle graduated 800 junkers who, like other young people, fueled the German war machine. When the Allies crossed the Rhine it was occupied by American and British forces, then turned over to Belgium as an extra-territorial military installation that could be visited only by special permit.

Now young people have returned to Vogelsgang, most of them born after the war, come to learn and teach their children about Nazi Era. Seeing them there made me hopeful that the past is not being forgotten in the new Germany.  Read More 
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