In 1940, Adolf Hitler decided to build “Wolf’s Lair” — a large base of bunkers from which he could command military operations in the east — in newly-conquered Poland.
Fritz Tot, the German minister for armaments and munitions, oversaw the construction of the site by prisoners of concentration and labour camps. It took four years to build the dozens of bunkers which make up the complex, located deep in the Masurian woods in northern Poland.
Seventy years on, visitors to the hub of Hitler’s eastern war machine will find what the Polish historian Jan Oldakowski termed a “grotesque Disneyland”. The complex today includes a hotel, a restaurant, a shooting range and other tourist attractions, most of them housed in the original bunkers but with few references to their original purpose.
The parts of the complex that have not been converted into tourist facilities are largely in ruins — a state of affairs that has provoked strong criticism of the company that has operated the site for the past 20 years.
But the situation is about to change. The Polish government recently announced a plan to turn the 2,400-acre site into an education centre and museum that will highlight the original purpose of Wolf’s Lair.
Those overseeing the redevelopment hope to attract tourists and Polish schoolchildren to learn about the history of the complex, and why the Nazis built it. The project, estimated to cost around 5 million zloty (£1m), is being run by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the Museum of the Second World War, and is scheduled to be completed in 2015.
Jan Zaluska, 65, CEO of “Wolf’s Nest”, the company which leased the site in 1991 and has been operating it ever since, was enthusiastic about the changes. He said: “We’ve extended our lease agreement for another 20 years… We will turn Wolf’s Lair into an educational centre, especially for the younger generation.”
The Polish Culture Ministry also emphasised the educational purpose behind the project: “The goal of the exhibitions and displays is to show visitors how beliefs like the Nazi ideology can distort an entire country. The displays will try to tell the story of daily life in Nazi command and the horrific decisions taken there.”
One of the exhibitions will focus on the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg at Wolf’s Lair in 1944.
Tomasz Chinchinski, a historian at the Second World War Museum in Gdansk, which will create the exhibitions for the new centre, said: “We do not want to create a glorification of Nazism, so our goal is not to show the visitors only the bunkers and the fortresses or the assassination attempt on Hitler, but to give them the tragic dimension that symbolises this place, which was the command centre of a terrible and destructive war machine…
“We wish to tell the history of the place and teach the visitors about key decisions made here that led to the Holocaust.”