From Treblinka to Tannenberg

A tour through Eastern Poland uncovers the wreckage of German military might

It was a devil to find. And that is what its creators had intended. Treblinka II, the Nazi extermination camp north-east of Warsaw, was the ultimate expression of the Final Solution. It is estimated that in the space of 13 months (July 1942-August 1943), at least 780,000 people were gassed or shot there. More people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau but over a longer period. This was the SS killing machine at its most efficient.

The enormity of the Nazi project – to rid Europe of Jews – was wreathed in subterfuge. Those at the apex of the Third Reich ensured that their signatures were not on the relevant documents. The sites chosen for extermination were remote and heavily camouflaged. In 1943, as the Soviet armies approached, Treblinka II was dismantled, the ground was ploughed over and a Ukrainian guard was settled there as the resident “farmer”. After he had left, local people unearthed parts of decomposed bodies. But it required the witness of survivors, some of whom had escaped during a brief uprising in August 1943, to reveal the full extent of the horror.

Our approach to the camp was complicated because the road from Malkinia Gorna, which takes you southwards over the railway line and the River Bug to the village of Treblinka, was closed for repairs. After trying to find the way, we were directed back downstream to Brok, where we crossed the river. Reaching the village from the west, we found no signpost to the former camp, so headed south. After a mile or so, we realised we had overshot. We came back and this time noticed a little black sign pointing to the left. We had at last found what we were after. Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau or Majdanek, an extermination camp on the outskirts of Lublin, Treblinka II has none of its original buildings. Today, what was there is symbolised by stones. Before you reach the “entrance”, tablets in English, French, German, Polish, Russian and Yiddish remind you of what happened – the liquidation of around 800,000 Jews, first from the Warsaw Ghetto, subsequently from other parts of Poland, then from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Greece and the Soviet Union.

Two great blocks mark the entrance, from which slabs in the form of sleepers run past a low platform, a representation of the siding where the transports would unload their human cargo. By the sleepers is one of the lines of upright stones, like dolmens, which designate the camp’s perimeter. To the left of the “station”, the site opens out into a meadow dominated by a squat, mushroom-shaped tower with a deliberate crack down the middle. The monument bears a carved menorah, or seven-branched candelabrum, and a Star of David. By its foot are rough tablets bearing the inscription “Never Again” in the same languages as before. A shallow pit of molten basalt represents the cremation of victims. But most remarkable is the “cemetery” of 17,000 jagged granite rocks dotted across the grass, many of them carrying the names of Polish Jewish communities obliterated by the Holocaust.

17, 000 stones commemorating Jewish communities annihilated at Treblinka death camp

Our visit took place at the end of May. The sky was cloudless, the leaves were freshly green, speedwell was out and a cuckoo called from the surrounding forest. Nature seemed to be saying: my beauty, and the passing of time, can salve any wound, however deep. And this in a place where multitudes of Jews were herded naked into the gas chambers, buried in mass graves, disinterred and cremated on the grill of a cyclopean furnace. Vasily Grossman, the Red Army correspondent who in 1944 interviewed some of the survivors, aptly called it “the hell of Treblinka”. Against nature’s seductive call, the mute stones cried out their warning: “Never Again…Jamais plus…Nie wieder…Nigdy wiecej…Nikogda bolshe…Keinmal ma’ar…”

For much of the period when this slaughterhouse was functioning, the architect of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler, was 100 miles to the north in his East Prussian bunker complex, the Wolfschanze, or Wolf’s Lair. He arrived there for the first time immediately after launching the biggest and most devastating action of the war, the invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa. When, later in that year, the German armies were checked outside Moscow, Hitler assumed personal command of the campaign, involving himself in decisions down to divisional level. The Wolfschanze, where he spent more than 800 days between June 1941 and November 1944, was the nerve centre of this colossal undertaking.

In their book Hitler’s Secret Headquarters, Franz Siedler and
Dieter Zeigert give details of 19 Führerhauptquartiere, ranging from W3, near Vendôme in Touraine, to the Bärenhöhle, or Bear’s Den, outside Smolensk. Of those either completed or under construction by 1945, the Wolfschanze was the third largest. It was also where Hitler spent more time than in any other place in the war.

We approached it from Ketrzyn (Rastenburg), a town with a Teutonic Knights’ castle in one of the most beautiful regions of Poland, the Masurian Lakes. From the car park, a winding path takes you through a wood where vast bunkers rear up like Khmer temples in the Cambodian jungle, except that in this case there are no smiling apsaras, but simply brutal, unadorned ferro-concrete monoliths. The complex included quarters for Hitler, Bormann, Goering, Jodl and Keitel, a stenographers’ barracks, a heating plant, a telephone and telex exchange, underground storage, a situation room, an officers’ mess, guest accommodation and a railway station.

Today, the bunkers occupied by Hitler and Bormann present at first sight an unblemished face. It is only when you go round them that you see the damage wrought by an attempt at demolition in January 1945 as the Red Army approached. The roofs have been lifted and the walls tilt crazily, like those of a slighted medieval castle. We went into a corridor in Hitler’s quarters. It was dark and bitterly cold. At the side, the edifice had been split by dynamiting, forming a mini-gorge, with exposed reinforcing rods, through which we passed. As intended, these buildings were indestructible.

From the Wolfschanze, the Führer directed a theatre of war that stretched from the Atlantic to the Volga and from the Arctic to North Africa. Whether through the rapid thrust of the Panzer divisions or the extermination of Jewry, he held Europe under his evil sway. Yet the impression left by the remains of his East Prussian headquarters is of a man terrified of being killed, crouching half-underground in a cramped, artificially ventilated bunker with walls nearly ten feet thick, in an area plagued in summer by mosquitoes.

His fears proved well founded, though the danger came not from Allied bombers but from much nearer at hand. On 20 July 1944, Count Claus von Stauffenberg, a decorated Wehrmacht officer who was Chief of Staff of the Reserve Army, attempted to assassinate him by placing a bomb under the table in the temporary situation room where the midday conference was taking place. Ironically, the structure of the weaker building helped to save the Führer: the end walls were blown out, thus dissipating the blast. Today, that heroic action, from which flowed terrible reprisals (see Nigel Jones’s article in the January issue of Standpoint), is commemorated by a plaque in Polish and German, on a rock in the ruins of the situation room.

The battle of the Masurian Lakes marked the end of the first phase of the First World War in East Prussia, the high point of that campaign being the German victory over Russia at Tannenberg in August 1914. On the eastern front, there are none of the trench networks which you find in Belgium and eastern France. This was a much more mobile theatre, with little evidence today of what it witnessed 95 years ago.

We stopped at Wielbark (Willenberg), where the German Generals von François and Mackensen closed the trap round the Russian Second Army under Samsonov, leading to the capture of nearly 100,000 men and 400 guns. Samsonov, whose plight is vividly caught in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, is said to have shot himself near the village. About 30 miles to the west is Tannenberg (Stebark). We passed through it on the way to what for the Poles is a much more important site of war. In 1410, at the Battle of Grunwald, with help from Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Tatars, Czechs and Hungarians, they defeated the Teutonic Knights in an engagement which was huge for its time. The allies’ strength is believed to have been 30,000, that of their opponents’ 20,000. The Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen, and 8,000 of his followers, including most of the 250 or so members of the Order present, were killed and thousands more taken prisoner.

The topography of the battlefield today is much as it was in the early 15th century, a grassy hill bounded by Stebark, Grunwald and Ludwigowo, with the ruins of a Knights’ chapel on the extreme right. The effect is spoiled, however, by an ugly memorial tower on the summit, a tubular construct with fins. Nearby is a circular stone table showing the disposition of forces. The battlefield of Grunwald is a national shrine to Polish valour. To find the British equivalent, you would have to cross the Channel to Agincourt or Waterloo.

Despite the prominence of Grunwald, commemoration of what is sometimes called the “German revenge” at Tannenberg five centuries later is not entirely absent. A few miles to the north-east, just outside Olsztynek on the main road between Warsaw and Gdansk, is Sudwa, a hamlet so small that we were through it before we realised. We returned, sought directions and were eventually pointed towards a group of trees beyond a line of houses. We could see no sign of what we were looking for. Then, we noticed a large, circular mound covered in the thick vegetation of early summer. We climbed it and looked across a depression in the centre, with isolated clumps of brick protruding from the long grass. We had found what little remains of Hindenburg’s Mausoleum.

This extraordinary memorial started out as something else. In 1919, the Association of East Prussian Veterans suggested erecting a monument to their fallen comrades on the site of the Battle of Tannenberg. An architectural competition was held, and won by Berlin architects Walter and Johann Krüger. A decade after Tannenberg, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who had commanded the German troops, attended the laying of the foundation stone, along with tens of thousands of veterans. The monument was an octagon standing on an artificial mound. Above its walls rose eight 75-foot towers. In the middle of the enclosed area, which measured over 100 yards across, was a tomb for 20 unknown soldiers, surmounted by a wooden cross clad in brass. The unveiling ceremony took place on 18 September 1927, Hindenburg’s 80th birthday.

By that time the Field Marshal had become the German President, an office to which he was re-elected in 1932, his main opponent being Hitler. Eight months later, Hindenburg appointed the Nazi leader Reich Chancellor.

Hitler visited the Tannenberg memorial in 1933 and, after Hindenburg’s death the following year, decided to convert it into a mausoleum for his benefactor and his wife. The tomb of the unknown soldiers was removed. The central part of the enclosed area was lowered by eight feet and connected with the surrounding terrace by stone steps. A burial chamber was built in one of the eight towers, its entrance flanked by two 13-foot statues of soldiers on guard. On 7 August, the body of the old soldier was laid to rest in a brass sarcophagus. Hitler ended his funeral oration with the words, “Toter Feldherr, geh’ ein in Valhall!” The monument was declared a “Reichsehrenmal” and became a place of national pilgrimage.

As the Soviet armies advanced into East Prussia in January 1945, the Germans removed the remains of Hindenburg and his wife and blew up the entrance tower and the one containing the burial chamber. Further demolition took place when, by a final stroke of historical irony, the mausoleum’s materials were used in the construction of the Stalinesque Palace of Culture and the headquarters of the Communist Party in Warsaw.

On the far side of the mound, we discovered one half-buried brick arch. Apart from that were only shattered fragments in a carpet of grass and wild flowers.

The obliterated extermination camp at Treblinka, the crazily wrecked bunkers near Ketrzyn and the pathetic remnants of a great mausoleum: we had been travelling through the wreckage of German military might.

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