Day Hikes in Germany
Hiking Past a Nazi Monument
Considering the big shadow the Third Reich was once (and, up to a point, still is) casting over Germany, there are relatively few places in the country that can still give you a whiff of that old Nazi sulphur.
There are, specifically, only a few examples left of what you could call “Nazi architecture”. While most towns and cities still have buildings from the period between 1933 and 1945, as well as residential homes, office blocks and army barracks, these are largely inconspicuous and do not look much different from similar buildings constructed at the same time in Holland or France.
Come to think of it, this absence of Nazi monuments should not be all that surprising. What chances of survival, for example, did Hitler’s favourite alpine residence on the Obersalzberg have?
The last thing the allied forces wanted after WWII were physical reminders of the “ancien regime” around which a cult of remembrance might some day congeal.
The few existing remnants of “Nazi architecture” owe much to chance – and to local politicians of the immediate post-war era with a clean slate and a keen eye for the emerging tourism market. (Once these Nazi monuments had made it into the mid-1950s, they were generally safe, but few made it that far.)
The Eagle’s Nest near Berchtesgaden is probably the most famous of these survivors. Built on top of a mountain as the Nazi Party’s gift for the Führer’s 50th birthday (it was either that or the monogrammed morning gown), it managed to stave off destruction several times, possibly because Hitler himself appeared not to have liked it too much. (He visited it only a few times. The pictures of him and Eva Braun gallivanting in front of an alpine scenery have all been shot in the near-by Berghof residence that was demolished in 1945.)
The best – as in the most sinister – of the remaining Nazi buildings, however, can be found in Wewelsburg near the west German town of Paderborn. Although, strictly speaking, Wewelsburg Castle is not a Nazi monument as such but constructed in the late Middle Ages. Heinrich Himmler and his SS storm troopers had merely taken it over and “restructured” it for their own purposes.
These “purposes”, up to a point, remain a mystery to this day. It is quite possible that Himmler himself had only a hazy notion at the time. What is known is that the Reichsführer SS believed the Wewelsburg constitute the “centre of the world” and that it had been constructed over the junction of several “subterranean lines of divine power”.
I am not making this up. Himmler also believed that the Wewelsburg would, one day, serve as the location for the decisive battle between Aryan warriors and Asian invaders. And that the Knights of the Round Table would come back to life inside its walls – presumably to defend them against the Mongol hordes.
It is also known that Himmler planned to turn the castle into some sort of academy for SS officers, but he also had conference rooms built and at least one room whose purpose was never made entirely clear. Was it meant as a shrine, perhaps? As a place for some mumbo-jumbo initiation ceremonies – or for funerals? Perhaps Himmler himself wanted to be buried there, one day?
What is also known is the effort it took to reshape the castle according to the wishes of the SS. An entire concentration camp of forced labourers was built near-by. No Jews, by the way, were allowed anywhere near. Himmler’s preferred workforce consisted of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Building work continued even after WWII had already started – one of the few Nazi projects that was not interrupted by the war. Albert Speer’s New Berlin had to wait, but Himmler’s lunatic project was allowed to continue until 1944. The most conspicuous architectural element of the castle exterior that was added under the Nazis is the bridge that leads to the main entrance.
In the end, Wewelsburg Castle survived the war by a whisker – and only because the SS men who were defending the castle not quite to their last drop of blood before fleeing in panic did not have enough dynamite to “obey orders” and blow it all up. (The idea was no American would ever be allowed to put his racially impure paws on their Holy Shrine.) They set all the rooms on fire, but the building fabric survived intact.
Wewelsburg Castle is located outside the town of Paderborn and serves, surrounded by parkland and forests, as a good starting point or destination for hiking trips. Around a dozen trails pass by, just look for the signs near the castle walls, including the Jesuitenpfad, a 27-km-long circular trail around the town of Büren. Wewelsburg is located roughly at the half-way stage of the trail, so you could – on a bright summer day – take the bus to Büren and walk from there to the castle. You will find more information about and the map of the trail HERE, some of it in English.
When we visited the place, however, the day was neither bright nor sunny, so we went to Wewelsburg directly by bus from Paderborn and took the lazy option of a brief 1-hour walk behind the castle on the banks of the river Alme. On leaving the castle, just follow the Jesuitenpfad signs to the right, walk down the hill and cross the river on the stone bridge. On the far side, there are signs that tell you which way to turn. (It’s a circular path.)
Paderborn can be reached by train in just under one hour from Hamm, one of Western Germany’s busiest railway junctions within easy reach from Dortmund (20 minutes) or Essen (40 minutes).
From Paderborn Central Station, take bus number 460 (this is the hourly service to the local airport). Get off at the stop Wewelsburg Schule/Kreismuseum from where you will already be able to see the castle. The bus fare – normally about € 10 per person round-trip – is included in the Deutsche Bahn’s various One Day Network options (such as the Schöner Tag Ticket).
If you are going for the longer option on the Jesuitenpfad, take Bus S60 from Paderborn Central Station to the town of Büren (also hourly). The trail starts at the Church Maria Immaculata, the Jesuitenkirche, 100 metres away from the bus stop (“Am Markt”).
But what does Wewelsburg Castle look like from the inside – and how does it feel to stand on the very spot where the SS expected the rematerialization of Sir Galahad? I will tell you about that in our post HERE.