In a quiet corner of northeast Poland, dense forest hides an important, historic site. Here, world-changing decisions were coordinated, and an assassin once failed to end a conflict. Welcome to the Wolfsschanze, better known as the Wolf’s Lair, a once-secret headquarters that previously housed a dictator.
The complex is where German dictator Adolf Hitler and his aides once directed German forces during World War II. And while these days little of the original complex remains, what is left is a stark reminder of the terrible conflict and its chief architects. Not that you’d know that from looking at it, because in 21st century Poland, the Wolf’s Lair has fallen foul of mother nature.
Trees, plants and shrubbery surround this important historical complex, cloaking the relics of the conflict in velvety green, giving the place a sense of bucolic perfection, miles from anywhere. And believe it or not, those exact qualities were what made it the perfect location for a secret wartime headquarters.
But before we discover the secrets which lie behind Hitler’s bunker, let’s explore its origins. Back in 1940 Nazi planners began to look into constructing a hideout to oversee Germany’s planned invasion of the Soviet Union. They settled on a site in northeast Poland, in what was then East Prussia, miles from the nearest large town or main transport routes. The location, in the Masurian woods around five miles from the town of Kętrzyn, then called Rastenburg, was where Nazi planners coordinated some of the worst crimes in human history.
Construction of the camp began at the tail end of 1940, with three thousand German laborers initially erecting wooden barracks and a few concrete bunkers on the site. So secretive were the Germans about the location’s purpose that locals were convinced they were building a chemical factory. But with three-meter thick walls, sophisticated camouflage and multiple gun emplacements completing the site, you’d be hard-pressed to believe anything was being manufactured there.
Despite that lack of factories, however, the camp would eventually contain all the amenities that a town needs, including power generators, airfields, a sewage system and even a movie theater. But why was all this necessary for a secret headquarters? Well, for one thing, there were 2,000 people manning the complex.
Hitler, for his part, also planned to spend a lot of time at the camp. That meant that the site also needed meeting rooms, housing for high-ranking officers, halls for dining and, of course, somewhere for the Führer to live. His extended presence, then, required extensive security measures, including the placing of around 55,000 landmines within the the complex.
With security incredibly tight on the ground, German forces also erected camouflage nets above the site. And it order to make them look as natural as possible, they made them look like vegetation and changed them according to the seasons. At the time, Hitler was convinced that the Allies were planning to bomb the complex and insisted on such measures. However, the threat of bombing would actually come from within the compound, but we’ll come back to that a little later.
Hitler first arrived at the camp on 26 June, 1941, four days after over three million German troops had launched an invasion into the Soviet Union, known as Operation Barbarossa. The complex got its name from a nickname Hitler had, Wolf, and he reportedly inserted it into the names of several wartime headquarters. When completed, the site housed 80 buildings, including reinforced bunkers for the highest-ranking Nazi officers.
Military matters were only discussed twice a day, once at noon in Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and General Alfred Jodl’s bunker and again in the evening, held by the latter. Outside of wartime machinations, Hitler reportedly walked his dog, listened to opera, gave extended speeches to his close followers and had coffee every day at 5:00 p.m.
Meals, however, were a markedly tense affair and were taken at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Furthermore, Hitler insisted on one very important condition for his food. Perhaps due to paranoia, the Führer was reportedly terrified of being poisoned. So, to combat any lethal doses that might come his way, a group of young women would taste every plate for him.
Margot Wölk was among 15 women who were drafted in to eat potentially poisoned food every day. In 2014, aged 96, Wölk told German network RBB about her experiences. Once at the Wolf’s Lair after being bussed in from her home in nearby Partsch, now known as Parcz, she was taken to a special building to taste Hitler’s meals before he ate them.
Wölk told RBB, “There were constant rumors that the British were out to poison Hitler. He never ate meat. We were given rice, noodles, peppers, peas and cauliflower.” And once the plates were set down before the girls, they “started to shed tears as they began eating, because they were so afraid. We had to eat it all up.”
“Then we had to wait an hour, and every time we were so frightened that we were going to be ill,” Wölk continued. “We used to cry like dogs because we were so glad to have survived.” But despite the role she played in Hitler’s security regime, their paths didn’t cross. She said, “The security was so tight that I never saw Hitler in person. I only saw his Alsatian dog, Blondi.” As it turns out though, the Nazi leader’s paranoia wasn’t completely unwarranted.
But it wasn’t poison that Hitler needed to worry about. A very different kind of threat emerged in July 1944, and it all took place inside the incredibly secure compound. Senior staff members of the German armed forces had hatched a plot to kill the Nazi leader – and they very nearly succeeded.
With the Nazis losing ground on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union and the western Allies pushing through France, many German military planners had decided that Hitler’s time was up. Those individuals, including German army officer Claus von Stauffenburg, hatched a plan to rid the world of the Nazi leader using a briefcase bomb during a military meeting at the camp. He somehow managed to get the explosive device past the stringent security and into the room with the Führer, but there were two problems.
The first issue with the attempt on Hitler’s life was that only one bomb went off in the Wolf’s Lair. Stauffenburg reportedly had two explosives at his disposal, but he only set one of them. And that’s important because of the second problem, a change in the meeting venue. Originally scheduled to take place in the Führer’s personal bunker, extensive reinforcement works on the building meant the meeting was moved to a completely different building.
The meeting’s new location was actually in a much less reinforced bunker ‒ which made a huge difference to the explosion. The bomb damage would have been considerable within a room with nine-foot thick walls. But, in a less well-reinforced room, which also had its windows open, the force of the blast dissipated somewhat. Nevertheless, while Hitler escaped with minor injuries, four other officers later died of their injuries.
But it wasn’t just the new venue that saved the Führer’s life. Despite Stauffenburg’s careful positioning of the device, under a heavy wooden table at which Hitler and the others officers were seated, somebody moved it. And as the conspirator had already escaped the room, he had no way of knowing about this change. The device was put beside the leg of the table, which apparently helped shield the Nazi leader from the worst of the explosion.
The blast was actually so big even food taster Wölk heard it going off. Describing the moment the bomb exploded, she told RBB, “We were sitting on wooden benches, and suddenly we heard and felt this incredible big bang. We fell off the benches and I heard someone shouting, ‘Hitler is dead!’ But of course, he wasn’t.”
As a result of the botched assassination, around 5,000 alleged co-conspirators were rounded up and executed for their perceived part in the plot. Stauffenburg himself managed to escape to Berlin before the Führer’s men caught up with him. And the deaths of those people were reportedly filmed for the Nazi leader’s entertainment.
But the deaths of the plotters weren’t the only ones Hitler ordered while at the Wolf’s Lair. While there, he and his aides made decisions that would result in millions of deaths. After all, the apocalyptic violence conducted in the Soviet Union by German forces was directed from there. But it would ultimately end with the destruction of the Wolf’s Lair.
However, Germany and the Soviet Union hadn’t always been so opposed. Just over a week before Hitler’s forces invaded Poland in 1939, the two countries had signed a secret pact. The deal essentially divided up eastern Europe between the two powers and gave the Soviets a buffer zone as it had too invaded Poland from the east. But Hitler had expressed a desire to destroy the Soviet Union since 1925, and in December 1940 the German High Command presented him with the final military plans.
So on 22 June, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the latter suffering 750,000 military casualties in the first three weeks alone. And though Axis forces killed, by some accounts, up to ten million Soviet troops during the course of the war, the latter army eventually turned the tide. Then, in January 1945 they captured the Wolf’s Lair, but not before the Führer had ordered its destruction.
But it wasn’t just the plans to kill millions of Soviet citizens and troops which was sanctioned at the Wolf’s Lair. Because during his residence at the encampment, Hitler and his aides also worked on implementing another world-changing decision – the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews.
It is at the Wolf’s Lair that Hitler and Nazi planners took key decisions regarding the systematic murder of Jews in Europe and the Soviet Union, known as the Holocaust. The mass killing of Jews had begun in 1939 following the Nazi invasion of Poland and intensified after Germany attacked the Soviet Union two years later. However, it wasn’t until January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference close to Berlin where Nazi leaders rubber-stamped the systematic murder of all Jews within Germany’s reach. And by war’s end, some six million were killed.
So the Wolf’s Lair became the headquarters in which two of the world’s most heinous crimes were orchestrated, resulting in the deaths of millions. However, following the disastrous defeats at the battles of Stalingrad in Russia and Kursk in Ukraine, German forces began to be pushed back in the east. And this, coupled with the western Allies’ invasion of France in 1944, meant that Hitler’s defeat was now inevitable.
In October of that year the Soviet Red Army arrived at the borders of East Prussia, home of the Wolf’s Lair. Hitler was then evacuated the following month after Stalin’s armies reached the town of Angerburg, now called Wegorzewo, only nine miles away from the headquarters. It wasn’t until January 1945, however, that the Nazis destroyed the complex, apparently using around 8,000 kgs of explosives.
When the Red Army walked in to the Wolf’s Lair unopposed in January 1945 ‒ the same day that the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated ‒ they found the devastated site. And despite the fact the Germans had attempted to destroy everything, the sheer strength of some of the structures meant they had still survived in some places.
According to history site In Your Pocket, the demolition “[sent] huge slabs of concrete flying through the air like scattered dominoes.” The Wolf’s Lair, along with its grim history, had almost been lost to the world, but the Nazi’s efforts didn’t destroy the camp completely.
After the partial demolition, the Polish communist government left it to mother nature, as it largely remains to this day. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to tell the grim story of the Wolf’s Lair. After the war, Polish soldiers spent ten years clearing the area of the 55,000 mines the Nazis had left, making it safe for visitors. But it wasn’t until the 1990s after the fall of Communism that the site opened to the public.
While many of the buildings in the site were destroyed, some remained in differing conditions, and one even survived intact. Nowadays, some 300,000 people make the trip each year to walk among, and even in, some of the remaining structures. Visitors can even see the ruins of the building where Stauffenburg attempted to kill Hitler, which also houses a memorial to the executed conspirator.
Further into the complex, and despite the tons of dynamite, Hitler’s bunker still stands, just about. While the structure survived the demolition, the interior of the building was completely destroyed. But if you look closely enough, you might find a piece of yellow tile that once decorated the Führer’s kitchen.
But it wasn’t just Hitler’s residence that survived the dynamite. The bunker belonging to Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe Herman Göring also escaped complete destruction. There’s a ladder to the roof that, if you’re lucky, you can climb and survey the area. You’ll see some of the once-huge gun towers that protected the complex. And if you get hungry while you’re there, there’s even a restaurant on the site.
The only structure to survive in a usable state is the building that once housed Hitler’s personal guard, which is now a hotel, bar and restaurant. And while visiting the camp and enjoying a a warm meal might be enough for some, it seems that the Polish authorities would like to see a whole lot more going on.
In July 2019 the Srokowo Forest District, which manages the site, announced plans to give it a makeover. Plans include recreating historical events on the site, including the assassination attempt, with dressed-up actors performing them for visitors.
However, many have slammed the proposed plans for the Wolf’s Lair site. Polish WWII historian Pawel Machcewicz told the BBC in July 2019 that the proposals were “insane and outrageous.” He added, “Exhibitions should explain the history, contextualise the place, but not completely overshadow it.” For its part, Srokowo Forest District has already installed new information points, built a new car park and given the go-ahead for a new hotel and restaurant.
Visitors to the Wolf’s Lair can even access an app that helps guide them around the camp, which itself is host to military equipment from the era. The Srokowo Forest District then, is clearly keen to attract even more tourists to the out-of-the-way site, which, at the time of writing, costs only $4 to visit.
But what happened to Hitler following his evacuation from the Wolf’s Lair in January 1945? Well, he along with the other military planners fled to Berlin, where the German dictator stayed, cooped up in an underground bunker directing the war. Then on 30 April, 1945, as Soviet forces ravaged the capital and the end was near, Hitler and his wife Eva Braun committed suicide, bringing WWII in Europe to an end.
For its part, the Wolf’s Lair serves as a vitally important historical site to remember the heinous crimes committed during WWII. It gives us a frightening insight into the German war machine, and requires us to never forget quite how different the world could have been had the Nazis prevailed in this global conflict.