Last year during a visit to my friend Joe Vodehnal in the Czech Republic we came up with the crazy idea of me coming over to Czech Republic again and the both of us driving to Germany to visit Colditz Castle. I had memories of the castle from my childhood days, and Joe had passed the area many times but never stopped to visit. We were both interested to see it and thus a plan was drawn up. But rather than escaping, we would be ‘breaking in’!
Schloss Colditz, as it is known in German, is nestled in the centre of the town of Colditz a few miles west of Dresden, and was a four and a half hour drive from Joe’s home in Dolní Lánov.
There where two things that immediately struck me on arrival. That well known view of a large, dark and foreboding fascade on a steep rocky outcrop, which is typically associated with the castle in the films and TV shows was not entirely visible from the tight and windy approach road – the guide explained later that there are better views when approaching from other directions. I eventually recognised the steep road leading to the front gate from the TV series, but that was the only thing that seemed similar.
Secondly, the castle itself, dark and dismal in the war days was now painted bright white, and seemed much less imposing.
We entered the castle through the large arched gate into a small courtyard. Signage is good but discrete, and for a second we wondered if we were in the right place. However, we followed the ‘kleine’ sign to the museum and soon found the shop and information desk where we could purchase our tickets from a friendly fraulein.
Our tour did not start until three p.m. so we started our visit in one of the two museums, which gave the account of the castle’s sordid history prior to the start of the Second World War. Since the early 1900’s the castle had been an asylum and hospital for the very frail or mentally disturbed, until the start of the second world war when Germany invaded Poland. At this time (facts about the war that I didn’t know) the Germans signed a Soviet friendship agreement which assured the Soviets help in ensuring a successful invasion of Poland. Some 300,000 Polish prisoners of war where held in such places as Colditz, and the exhibition explained how many of these were massacred in violation of the Geneva convention; the Soviets were infamously responsible for a particularly brutal mass murder known as the Katyn Massacre, which they later apologised for in 1999. How big of them.
I explained to Joe that I do not understand the generations of today requesting apologies for these atrocities, from people who weren’t there and weren’t involved. An apology serves little purpose. An acknowledgement and agreement over the appalling loss of life, and a joint commitment never to allow the same thing to happen again in the future would be much more useful, especially in these days of continued tensions with Russia.
Of course, (another fact I did not know) history records how Hitler eventually turned his attention on the USSR and tore up the friendship agreement, at which point the Russians apparently released some 280,000 Polish and other nationalities back into the wild, I suppose with the hope that they would assist in fighting off the oncoming Nazi assault.
This was a real eye opener, and a quite shocking one. I had not really understood the levels of atrocities which occurred outside of the actual battlefields. Even though the exhibition mentioned the 1.1 million lives lost at extermination camps such as Auschwitz, the numbers involved here with the Polish at the start of the war were not insignificant.
This had already dispelled any ‘glamour’ associated with the castle through the soft portrayal of the story on the BBC and in early films. It wasn’t at all glamorous.
Half a hour later we were met by our guide Alex, a Yorkshireman of Polish decent living in Germany. What a combination! A really nice guy though who was of course very knowledgeable and very friendly.
We were very lucky to be with just two other English speaking guests from New Zealand, while the German speaking group, much larger, had their own German speaking guide. They had not paid the extra three euros (I’m saying nothing) so they were not following us around on the ‘grand’ tour.
We started the tour in the main courtyard and the first thing that struck me is how small this area was.
I had imagined the grounds of the castle, which held between 500 and 700 prisoners at a time during the war years, to be much bigger in area than it actually was. I couldn’t imagine them getting that many people in the courtyard for roll call but photos confirmed they did. It was a squeeze!
We then opened up a large locked wooden door leading to a stone spiral staircase, this was the stairs to the various dormitories. It became obvious that although the map detailed each of the different quarters e.g. Commandants quarters, hospital, the rooms actually were not setup as they would have looked back then, as exhibition pieces. In fact most of them were now in use for other things, like the youth hostel. This was somewhat disappointing and instead of lots of interesting noticeboards, some reconstructions of the various quarters would have added a little more substance to the tour.
89 painful steps later and we were in the glider loft above the dormitories, and watched a film which detailed the whole glider plot and a later attempt by a British professor (filmed by channel four) to reconstruct the glider and see if it could have flown out of the castle. I hadn’t realised the glider had never flown; the Americans liberated the prisoners before it was put into use.
Nevertheless the ingenouity of the three servicemen who came up with the idea was fascinating, and it it was with some irony that we learned they had received the main technical input to their plan not from the experience of any particular airman, but from two books loaned out of the castle library about British aircraft design!
Our next port of call was the chapel which housed the famous French tunnel, where the French had tunnelled down through 30 metres of solid rock with only spoons and were only six days from breaking out when discovered.
Intriguingly, the story of the ‘ghosts’ of Colditz was the most fascinating. Men would be hidden in the walls of the castle, and the Germans would assume they had escaped, but of course they were never found. When a REAL escape took place, the ‘ghost’s would re-appear in order to take the escapees’ place and make the roll call numbers correct, thus giving the escaping prisoners a head start.
The last part of the museum was less gruesome and somewhat more light hearted.
Displays of false walls made from paper mache that hid tunnels, a hidden radio room not discovered until 1993, radios that were smuggled into the castle in pieces inside Red Cross parcels – 74 pieces to be precise – then re-assembled and hid in the castle.
Equally interesting were details of the shows, lectures and classes that were put on by the well educated officers in the prison ( Colditz was one of four locations exclusively reserved for higher ranking officers and habitual escapees) and was hence known as an Oflag rather than a stalag, which was for ordinary soldiers. According to the Geneva convention the officers could not be forced to work, so had plenty of time on their hands to plot their bids for freedom, or plan how to wind up the German guards at every opportunity. There were no women in the castle, yet photos show some very convincing imitations of women in some of the plays – obviously men in drag. The Germans had enlisted a local photographer to record the whole life in the castle, so the photographic records of the history are superb.
A considerable number of prisoners escaped from the castle prior to its liberation, and many more tried and were returned. Some of the stories of how they escaped beggars belief. It was mostly about humiliating the guards, by keep finding more and more ingenious ways to escape, while the guards spent hours reconstructing the escapes using captured equipment and tools, to try to train the guards to be more observant and vigilant.
The castle shop also exhibits some related items including DVD’s of the 1954 film and a good copy of the original Escape From Colditz board game.
My thanks to our excellent guide Alex, and I would thoroughly recommend this visit if you are in this part of Germany.