In a dense forest in the former East Prussia, the easternmost province of the German Reich until the end of World War II, Adolf Hitler built his secret Wolf’s Lair (Wolfschenze) military headquarters.

Located near the small town of Ketrazyn in Poland, the hermetically sealed and highly guarded complex was built between 1940 and 1944 and included 50 bunkers, 70 barracks, two airfields and a railway station. Hitler, his secretary Martin Bormann and army chief Hermann Göring had private bunkers and one reserved for government guests.

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The concrete walls were five to seven meters thick. Three highly secure exclusion zones, numerous guard posts and ten kilometers of mines protected the thousands of military and civilians living in Wolf’s Lair.

“The name comes from Adolf, which means ‘noble wolf’ in Old High German,” tour guide Lukas Polubinski tells our group. This pleased Hitler and Wolf became his cover.

The Führer’s own headquarters were completely camouflaged and impossible to see from the air. Tall deciduous trees and netting hid the facility. Nowhere else did Adolf Hitler spend more time during World War II – the dictator spent around 830 days in the bunker at Wolf’s Lair.

From the outside, Hitler’s bunker looks like an ancient Egyptian tomb. Hitler lived, worked and slept in this tomb. “It felt as if seven-meter-thick concrete walls surrounded him, separating him from the outside world and imprisoning him in his madness,” Polubinski said.

Nature reclaims the site

The German Wehrmacht blew up the quarter on January 24, 1945, when the Red Army, the armed forces of the Soviet Union, approached.

But the massive steel buildings were not completely destroyed. After the war, locals looted the ruins for building materials but large chunks of concrete still lie in the forest, overgrown with ferns and moss.

The minefields were cleared and tourists have been coming to Wolf’s Lair since 1959. Almost 80 years later, visitors can still feel the atmosphere of the place where Hitler, his generals and marshals not only planned campaigns but also discussed the genocide of the Jews. Details

For a while, a tour operator allowed visitors to sit on tanks and play war games with air guns. But this approach deterred potential visitors, Polubinski said. As of 2017, Wolf’s Lair is under state management. About 300,000 people visit each year, mostly from Poland but many from around the world.

Access to the remains of the bunker is prohibited, although some visitors climb into some of the remaining corridors. “We had to evacuate a lot of people who were hurt,” Polubinski said, “staying on the road.”

I have absolutely no desire to crawl through wet corridors. Surrounded by meter-thick concrete, it must be oppressive.

42 assassination attempts on Hitler

A few steps into the area, I saw a memorial plaque commemorating Klaus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. On July 20, 1944, the colonel tried to kill Hitler with a bomb.

The attack failed. “This was not the first attempt on the Führer’s life,” said Lukas Polubinski, adding that there were at least 42 attacks on the dictator. If only one of them had succeeded, what would have saved the world, I think.

Hitler took his escape as a good omen. But he was careful. Visitors to the Wolf’s Lair were screened before entering the seemingly impregnable fortress. I think it was a miracle that Stauffenberg got close to Hitler with the bomb.

Hitler survived only because the attack took place in a wooden barracks. He and his military staff gathered to discuss the military situation, and Stauffenberg was also invited. The colonel had tried to smuggle in bombs several times before, but had to abort at the last moment.

This time Stauffenberg managed to place the briefcase containing the bomb under the oak table next to Hitler — but someone pushed it aside with his foot because he was in the way. Hitler owed his life to this situation, as well as to the fact that the blast pressure was directed outwards through open windows due to the summer heat.

Four officers were killed, while Hitler was slightly wounded. If this meeting had taken place in a bunker, he might have died.

Stauffenberg had left the room with an excuse. Convinced of Hitler’s death, he left for Berlin to complete the putsch. Instead, he and his co-conspirators were arrested and executed that same night.

Planning the invasion of the Soviet Union

I wonder why the Allies didn’t attack the Wolf’s Lair to end Nazi terror. Simply because the bunker was too big, Polubinksi said.

“Maybe the British and Americans knew from the summer of 1943 that the Wolf’s Lair existed, but they didn’t concern themselves with the buildings – they wanted to get Hitler. And they didn’t know when he would get there.” Besides, the tour guide argues, planes at the time did not have the capability to fly to East Prussia, drop bombs and return to England.

Hitler chose the location in East Prussia because it was a good hiding place, but more importantly because it was not far from the Russian border, Polubinksi explained. On June 22, 1941, he ordered an attack on the Soviet Union from Wolf’s Lair.

Amber Room at Mauerwald?

Just a few kilometers away, also hidden in a dense mixed coniferous forest, the Army High Command established its headquarters, known as the Mauerwald.

Unlike the Wolf’s Lair, these bunkers were not destroyed. The damp, oppressive rooms house life-size figures, visitors can marvel at a replica of a submarine and, surprisingly, a replica of the legendary Amber Room, a chamber decorated in amber panels.

King Frederick William I of Prussia gave it to Tsar Peter I the Great in 1716 as a sign of his friendship and to confirm the alliance between their countries.

The tsar exhibited in his palace chamber in St. Petersburg. But it was stolen by Nazi soldiers during the Second World War and to this day no one knows where it is.

Later, East Prussian district chief Erich Koch suggested that the valuable room might be hidden in the Mauerwald. After the war, he was not executed because authorities hoped he would reveal his mysterious whereabouts. However, they have kept silent. Mauerwald has been searched again and again, most recently in 2017, but to no avail.

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