After accidently stumbling upon a former Red Army camp in an East German forest, Johanna Pruessing learns how history can easily fall into oblivion: either because its legacy is actively eradicated and reversed, or because it is left to decay.
Where is the end of an era exactly and what does it look like? Is it an all covering event or does it creep in little by little? Was it the symbolical power of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the process of self-determination in the former Soviet republics or Gorbachev’s glasnost that marked the end of the Soviet Union? The Wall, glasnost, and Gorbachev are gone. Yet, pieces of ‘Sovietness’ remain in a new world, be it because cleaning them up takes too much effort, dealing with the past is too painful, or because they are kept with some well-meaning nostalgia. It is only time that eats at these pieces, eradicating them slowly. Let me take you to one of these forgotten places. Just an hour away from Germany’s capital Berlin, where we would all expect the past to have vanished many years ago.
Leaving Berlin behind, my train passes through Brandenburg’s vast nature. Forests, fields and little villages flash by. After one hour, the ruin of an old industrial mill appears on the edge of a lake. And this is where the train stops. Our destination is the small district “Röblinsee Siedlung” which is part of the village of Fürstenberg located on the shores of lake Röblinsee. It was here, on the coastline of this quaint landscape, that the architect Carl Reinhard began the construction of 15 different types of country houses in 1900. Once the construction was completed, the settlement became not only a beloved weekend destination offering refuge from Berlin’s hectic city life but also an inclusive home for all representatives of society.
First it seemed as if this quiet piece of earth would remain untroubled by the social and political changes of the time, as it was spared from the bombs of the first and later the second world war. This, however, came to an abrupt end when the Nazis established the largest female concentration camp on German ground only a few kilometres away in 1939. And then at the end of the Second World War, the Red Army arrived and established its infrastructure there. This was the time when houses, inhabitants and beliefs around the Röblinsee became part of another world. The Allies, represented by the second tank division of the Red Army, were originally supposed to pitch their camp in Fürstenberg for only three weeks. These three weeks, however, turned into forty-eight years.
The villas around the lake and the houses of the former concentration camp guards became homes for the division’s general staff. Sparing only a small part for a public memorial site, the military used the rest of the camp and free plots to build a chemical storage, clothing warehouses, a tank farm and so on. It seemed as if behind this newly erected “Schlagbaum” (barrier) in the middle of the village was the border to the Soviet Union. The Röblinsee district was soon shaped by new apartment buildings, barracks, military training areas, warehouses, armoured workshops, garages, ammunition bunkers, a gigantic field bakery, sports grounds, a boiler house, a school and a prison – a total of 23 new properties. In peak times up to 30,000 soldiers were living in this little union just one hour away from Berlin.
Unfortunately, little is known about what happened beyond the Schlagbaum. And even less is written about the Soviet history of Röblinsee. Residents recount today that Russian visitors come sometimes for a day or two. Some stay even longer and some talk about childhood memories. But real connections between the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ world do not exist. Names and contacts are only rarely exchanged which may well be due to the language barrier or a lack of interest. The stories reminded me of this Polish-Russian film “Mała Moskwa”, in which the daughter of a Polish soldier and a married Russian woman who met in a Soviet garrison in Poland returns years later to the post-Soviet reality to visit her past. Röblinsee might have well shared similar experiences.
And just like in the movie, the end of it all was not a happy one. Forty-eight years after the Red Army first arrived in Röblinsee, and two years after the Soviet Union dissolved, the last troops finally left the village. Their departure was as fast as their arrival. Only the most personal belongings were taken on the journey, everything else was left behind. And then, after all these years, houses and gardens reconnected with the life on the other side of the Schlagbaum. When the original owners or their relatives returned to their houses, it emerged that the Red Army had never officially expropriated the properties. It was thus not a huge effort to assert property rights. The houses were returned to their original owners who soon found out that everything was just the way it used to be. Only in a devastating condition.
Suddenly, the landscape’s beauty presented a harsh contrast to the rotten houses left behind. I once had a landlord who said: “Short-term tenants only have short-term goals”, which seems to fit very well. But still, wasn’t the community of the proletarians build to last forever? The proletarians of Röblinsee perceived their mission clearly only in temporary terms. Several attempts to restore some of the remaining estates failed due to the lack of investments as well as unclear ownership. It almost seems like the past and all of its remaining witnesses are better to be forgotten. Now, twenty-two years later most of the structures are too dilapidated for restoration. Nature has delivered its final judgement.
The identified new-old inhabitants, however, returned to stay. Houses, whose previous owners were impossible to find, were sold, redeveloped and renovated. And yet others, mainly military buildings, stayed empty and started to merge with the opulent nature. This is why the deterioration of a once stunning commander’s villa is only witnessed by a lonely stone-Lenin, silently watching over empty fountains and crumbling façades. The nature takes back what once belonged to it. Barracks, tank garages, bunkers, and canteens are slowly disappearing between trees and bushes. Here and there it is possible to discover colourful mosaics of hammers and sickles shimmering through the coppice. Hikers and visitors enjoying a little walk through the forest will soon not be able to notice the world that existed here and still exists underneath their feet.
Is this how history fades, how an empire ends? Its legacy receives a new colour and lives on with a new meaning. New stories in old structures. Or nature finalises its work until remains disappear from minds and maps.