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20 Years On: Old Soviet Military Base

News from October 1989.

News from October 1989.

A few years ago I spotted on Flickr some photographs of an old Soviet military base located near Weimar. Thursday I finally made the trek out there with a friend—he with his sophisticated film camera, me with my crappy point and shoot digital camera.

I’d show you his pictures, but the film needs to be developed, photos scanned, and then uploaded. Consequently, you are stuck looking at my crappy photographs of the base for now. When his are finally online, I’ll link to them.

Reminders of home?

Reminders of home?

Wandering through the base is an opportunity to really reflect about history: 20 years ago I wouldn’t have been allowed in Weimar without a government minder. 20 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to get close to the Soviet base. 20 years ago the base was active, full of soldiers, soldiers families, and, presumably, military equipment designed to protect the Warsaw Pact from a NATO invasion.

This is a place where the mighty Soviet military stood its ground and was defeated without a shot. The defeat came not from the hands of a massive military invasion, but rather from political forces so great and powerful that its hard to imagine: on 9 November, 1989, DDR soldiers manning the Berlin Wall were forced by their fellow citizens to open the gates, setting the state for an emotional and the highly anticipated Deutsche Einheit.

Looks like a gym!

Looks like a gym!

Admittedly the compete story is far more complicated than stated here, but this is a basic truth: internal forces were responsible for the immediate causes preceding the wall’s fall.

Although I know this history, I do not know the history of the Soviet Garrison near Weimar. I have lots of questions about the base: How long did it remain open? What happened to the soldiers stationed there? What was its role in defending the East from NATO? Why was Weimar chosen for this base?

Not sure Id hang out here...

Not sure I'd hang out here...

Without answers, I can only guess—based on the clues on site. Walls covered with Cyrillic-based (Russian) newspapers from October 1989—but why? The newspapers appeared to be wallpaper, glued on, now falling off—were they glued up to hide something underneath? I didn’t see any older newspapers, nor did I see newer newspapers. Certainly we weren’t the only visitors to the base: empty beer bottles with current labels were scattered in some rooms.

No amount of polish will fix this damage.

No amount of polish will fix this damage.

Nature is the most frequent and dominant visitor: slowly, steadily, staking claim on the buildings.

Man, bent on destruction, is the other visitor: tearing down the buildings one by one.

It’s actually kind an odd contrast looking at a building slowly being taken over by nature versus the ones in the process of being torn down. The former is filled with mold, warped floors, bird nests, and broken windows. Nature is slowly growing over the buildings, doing its best to neuter man’s construction creating caves, cliffs, and adapting human construction for natural needs. In the later, nature and forgetful man are brutally pushed back and out: buildings swept clean of doors, windows, and anything that can be easily pulled off the walls. Outside huge garbage wagons rest, along side huge machinery that can peck and pull at the remaining reinforced concrete structure.

I’m not an expert, but it’s my vague impression that it doesn’t look to me like active destruction, but rather it is in a temporary state of suspended deconstruction.

Hammer and Sickle Remains too!

Hammer and Sickle Remains too!

After paying homage to a lonely Lenin, we poked through two buildings. We couldn’t tell what the first building was for—it could have been a dormitory-like facility—there were two rooms with gym like wall decorations, and large bathrooms with lots of squat toilets. The second, closer to being torn down, looked like an old elementary school—three stories tall, with paintings on the wall appropriate for children.

Staring Down...

Staring Down...

One thing that I noticed about the first building is that, first, there was only one entrance, and to get beyond the front entrance hall, there was a guardroom with a window—where presumably somebody would look you over before opening the door to the rest of the building. Secondly, the building had one staircase—right in the middle of the building. I couldn’t imagine a building of this size in the States having only one staircase—it seemed to disregard the possibility of fire. Of course the structure, itself, was made of concrete: large, thick, reinforced slabs of it—so fire was probably not a significant concern—although there was plenty of wood in the buildings—and the roof appears to have been made exclusively of wood.

Windows eliminated

Windows eliminated

Strangely the second building, which looked like a school, didn’t seem to have a staircase at all—my friend and I speculated that it might have been external, but there weren’t any markings on the sides or front that suggested where the stairs might have been located. The second building is also clearly on the verge of being chewed up—when professional destructive activities resume.

I said earlier that the site appears to be in a suspended state of deconstruction—I say this because there were several buildings that are partially demolished—half way knocked down, but the equipment didn’t seem to be in a position ready to strike Friday morning.

More to come down.

More to come down.

The deconstruction project hasn’t halted without some achievement: some buildings are completely erased. There are clues that buildings once stood: gaps in the forest create meadows—and the dirt in these freshly created meadows is still soft and in the process of settling. However, nature offers fresh grasses and flowers. We walked into one of these open meadows, surrounded by tall trees, and filled with poppies.

It might not mean much to Americans, but for Canadians, people from the UK, and other Commonwealth counties, it seems wholly appropriate: poppies are the ultimate symbol for war remembrance, reflected in poetry:

All that remains.

All that remains.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In Flanders Fields
Lt.-Col. John McCrae
(1872 – 1918)

You can see the rest of my photos on Flickr: Ex-Soviet Base.

Bonus Photos: Here are three other sets of photos from the base: Nohra (Soviet Barracks) by gonzo67; Sowjetkaserne Nohra by tritom; and Nohra – The 8th Guards Army – Die 8. Gardearmee by Batram.

8 comments to 20 Years On: Old Soviet Military Base

  • Ohhh! I can’t wait to link this to my upcoming post on the Minuteman Missile NHS!

  • Great write up.

    Dammit Adam, I’m completely jealous. It really is great to tour something like that and wonder what happened there. It’s great you got out there before they tore it all down.

    Maybe next time you come up to Berlin we should take a tour down to Beelitz-Heilstätten

  • Prashanth

    Excellent writing Adam!
    I guess the wait was worth its money! You have put together the entire experience to its precision!

    I have given the film to a processing lab on friday…I guess I should get the pics by tue/wed!

    I am excited!

  • Prashanth

    Upon some info gathering, I found that the Nohra garison was the biggest helicopter (Hubschrauber) landing zone with huge helipads during the DDR period in entire east germany.

  • Reko

    Hola, Sr. Adamo! Long time no directly chat with on Yahoo Messenger. Wie geht’s, Guapo?
    As a 7th grader, I was required to memorize that “Flanders Fields” poem for English class (Anglistikunterricht). Today I interpret “the foe” with whom the next generation is to “take up our struggle” not as any particular nation, but as the ideology of violence. The struggle against violence must be carried out through non-violent means. In a recent book, Mark Kurlinsky has stated that what brought down the Soviet Empire was NOT Ronald Reagan’s militarism, but rather the Prague Spring of 1968. When the armed occupation of Czechoslovakia was greeted only by non-violent resistance, the days of the Soviet Era were numbered, because the Soviets had lost all moral credibility and the source of their authority was exposed. Kurlinsky points out that one might have expected the process to take 50 years; the startling result is that it took only a little over 20 years.

  • @disenchanted: I’m looking forward to reading your post 🙂

    @Snooker: You should come here sometime–although the tear down schedule for the Soviet base is pretty rapid. It will be gone by the end of the year.

    @Prashanth: I wonder where the helicopters flew from–i don’t think we really saw any spaces large enough to be landing pads.

    @Reko: How do you explain Tienanmen Square in China? Is that a 50 year program? I”ve never actually read Flanders Fields before this week–I knew about it in theory, but I actually quite like the poem.

  • […] My friend TQE recently posted a cool entry about the Cold War in Germany. Check it out by clicking here. […]

  • Russ Furnas

    It might not mean much to Americans, but for Canadians, people from the UK, and other Commonwealth counties, it seems wholly appropriate: poppies are the ultimate symbol for war remembrance, reflected in poetry:

    In America Poppy Day is the 11th of November. Amristice Day, now known as Veterans Day. We do remember the dead heroes with poppies. Ask any DAV member. Don’t forget that the United States had a part in World War I.
    This from a WWII veteran.