Why Visit Colditz in Germany?
If you are interested in modern military history, then you will probably be familiar with the name of Colditz Castle. Colditz was infamous during the Second World War as a Prisoner of War camp for persistent esacpers, and there are numerous accounts and films portraying the attempts by the allied prisoners to escape from this impressive fortress.
You may well also have felt a deep admiration for the men involved. If, like me, you read Pat Reid’s account of life in Colditz Castle, you may have ended up having these men as your boyhood heroes.
The internet is a fabulous research tool, and some time spent checking reveals quite a lot about Colditz Castle, and its surrounding towns and countryside.
Leipzig-Halle is the nearest airport to Colditz and lies about 40 miles to the northwest. Taxis to Colditz are readily available from the airport, although it may be an idea to book in advance.
The journey to Colditz is pleasant, and takes about 40 minutes from the airport. The landscape is dotted with small, well-kept villages, pretty towns, and thick greenwoods. The road, whilst obviously a minor rural highway, was extremely well-maintained, with no potholes.
Colditz Castle sits broodingly crouched atop a rocky crag, dominating the town below. This would have been a sobering sight to those prisoners of war, who were marched up the steep incline to the castle entrance.
Colditz – Home, Hospital, Prison, Asylum
Colditz Castle has been associated with incarceration of one type or another for many years. Building was started in 1158 AD, and by 1694 it had expanded to become a 700-room castle, and was the home of regional royalty and nobility.
During the early 1800s it was destined to become a workhouse for the poor, the ill and local criminals, and became quite run down.
From 1829 until 1924, it became a sanatorium for the rich, with some notable residents, including Ludwig Schubert, the son of the composer Robert Schubert, and Ernst Baumgarten, one of the inventors of the airship.
In 1933, the Nazi Party came to power, and they swiftly saw the potential of Colditz as a prison for Communists, Jews and other dissenters, and by 1939 it became a Prisoner of War Camp for Allied prisoners.
The War Years = OFLAG IV C
Due to its remote location, the German Army decided that they would use Colditz as a holding camp for troublesome prisoners, and those prisoners who made repeated escape attempts. It became known as Oflag IVC (Offizierslager – Officers Camp), and housed Douglas Bader the Battle of Britain hero, Pat Reid and Airey Neave (later Sir Airey Neave, MP) to name but a few.
The camp Kommandant and his guards appeared to be relatively humane, accepting that the prisoners would attempt to escape, and operated fully under the terms of the Geneva Convention.
The prisoners were also under a sworn duty to escape, and used the hours of captivity to dream up ever more sophisticated ways in which to make their way out.
These included tunnelling out, walking out disguised as German officers, and exit by subterfuge. In order to sustain these attempts, a sophisticated support network was created. Counterfeit papers were produced, fake uniforms and civilian clothes manufactured, and diversion tactics employed.
The castle is accessed through a pair of doors into a steeply sloping cobbled courtyard. A small door leads into the official entrance, where a narrow staircase leads to a well-lit room housing a small gift shop, ticket desk, and into a well-lit area containing museum exhibits.
The castle is now owned by the State of Saxony, and they are renovating the building as a long-term project to protect the cultural significance of the area
Glass cases display a great selection of artefacts ingeniously fashioned by the prisoners: digging implements, printing equipment, and even a wooden typewriter!
The museum is quite small and occupies only a tiny percentage of the castle itself. The only way that access can be gained to other parts of the building is by using the services of an official guide.
Having a guide represents extremely good value for money, costing less than 50 Euros for a tour of the castle, which takes about 2 hours. Furthermore, employing a guide gains access to parts of the castle that are off limits to casual visitors to the museum, such as the coal hole where Airey Neave hid during one of his escape attempts.
The Post War Years – Neglect and Decay
After the Second World War, the region was part of the Communist East German administration. The varied history of Colditz was totally ignored – local children grew up accepting that the castle was nothing more than a mental asylum.
The Communist government chose to do nothing to maintain the castle, which became more and more decrepit and ruined as the decades marched on.
The worst example is that of the chapel, which is virtually destroyed. Prior to the war, it would have been a beautiful building, but for the neglect. It is now a dank, gloomy place with standing water and debris everywhere.
Much of the castle is still out of bounds, as renovation work is an ongoing project. The guides are amenable to showing areas that are not normally part of the tour, such as the castle theatre. The auditorium still has peeling flock wallpaper, and smells musty through disuse. The wooden stage is still standing, and was used by the prisoners to stage a number of plays, some of which served to distract the guards during escape attempts.
Whilst most of the tour concentrates on the rooms inside the castle, there are also sites of historic significance outside. Once outside the castle wall, the grounds slope away, and it is here that the prisoners would play football against their captors.
The open ground is surrounded by lightly wooded areas, and it is here that a prisoner called Michael Sinclair was shot whilst trying to escape. It is interesting to note that he was the only prisoner to ever be killed at Colditz.
Sadly, it was a quirk of fate that he died, as the guards had orders to only shoot to wound, but the bullet hit his elbow, and ricocheted into his chest, killing him instantly.
A short stroll from the castle is the railway station where the prisoners would have arrived. The station and its associated railway track is forlorn, and overgrown with vegetation. It still has an air of resignation, as if reflecting the mood of the passengers arriving here during the war.
The modern town of Colditz has still not fully recovered from its time under the jurisdiction of East Germany, although its citizens seem friendly enough. English is not as prevalent as it is elsewhere in Europe, but it is still possible to order meals and drinks using hand gestures and schoolboy German.
So if you are looking for a weekend with a difference, try visiting Colditz – it may be a lot more fun than you imagine!