Tom and I sat in the Vilnius airport, staring at the small screen on my iPhone, as Safari sluggishly loaded a map from our location to Gierloz, Poland. After idle conversation, the map eventually informed us of our journey, and we were pleased to find that only 150 miles, and no more than three hours travel, separated us from our destination, The Wolf’s Lair. You may be sitting at your computer reading this, wondering, how do I know that location? Well, most likely you know it from the movie Valkyrie which starred Tom Cruise, along with a number of other famous actors, such as Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Wilkinson. And, if you are a lover of World War II history, you know it as the strategic military headquarters for the Nazi army in northern Poland.
The Wolf’s Lair was Hitler’s military headquarters for the eastern front during World War II, and was the site of an assassination attempt in July 1944, which became fatal for those who orchestrated this brave endeavor. Unfortunately, Hitler was not killed by this bomb, and he survived to continue his command of the German army. Almost a year later, as the Russian’s bombarded Berlin with artillery and closed in on the city, Adolf Hitler committed suicide, deep beneath the streets of Berlin in his Führerbunker. His body was found by two of his military staff with a single bullet wound to his temple, and his wife, Eva Braun, shared a similar fate, having swallowed poison. The Soviet army, having captured the Wolf’s Lair only a few months prior to Hitler’s death, demolished all the buildings in this compound with tons of TNT—some individual bunkers requiring 9 tons of explosives to raze them. Seventy years later after the Red Army destroyed the Wolf’s Lair, these ruins remain tilted and listing. As a tourist attraction for lovers of World War II history, these bunkers remain a reminder of Nazi occupation in a quiet, densely wooded forest in northern Poland.
After hours of traveling, we finally arrived at the Wolf’s Lair. Reaching our destination much later than we had wished, the man at the front gate immediately asked a single word, “Deutsch?” Tom and I both chuckled, and then volleyed back our word, “English?” He seemed surprised, but continued, confusing us with his currency math, as we persisted on giving him too much Polish Zloty, a communication breakdown between all parties involved. He continued to refuse to take the bills we handed over to him, and eventually the exchange took place, allowing us access into the park. Lifting the red and white striped toll gate, he allowed us passage into this historical site, which had an amusement park like atmosphere.
After leaving our car in the small parking lot, we were immediately approached by a man speaking German. Again, we responded with our single word question, and then he began to speak English to us, astonishingly well. We refused a tour he proposed to give us, and began to explore on our own. As we approached a bunker, which the parking lot abuts, World War II era military vehicles were in the process of being covered for the night with canvas tarps. Signs next to these half-tracks and jeep-like vehicles goaded the visitor into riding these for authentic experiences of the Wolf’s Lair, all of them being Nazi/German army vehicles. With the parks imminent closure for the day creeping up on us, only an hour away, we walked past this low-lying, blue painted bunker, which serves as hotel, bier-garden, and restaurant, and took to the wooded paths of the Mazurian forest. Within those sylvan borders lay the hidden bunkers, the ruins of a past which the Polish community wished to be forgotten.
The Brobdingnagian ruins of Hitler’s military headquarters for the eastern front, during World War II, arose from the forest, arresting the visitor with an eery sensation. These cement monoliths stood, rent asunder, thick hunks of concrete still erect, yet destroyed, like a cardboard box in which an m-80 exploded. From within their walls, a bisection of the concrete lay exposed, like an MRI image of the human body, showing tendrils of rebar for veins. Thick solid anacondas of hardened steel, reaching out toward the casual tourist, contorted and twisted like Medusa’s hair, ready to turn the observer to stone so much like the crumbling structures. Like some surreal science fiction landscape, a post-apocalyptic future of some military base overtaken by nature, trees grew atop thirty foot high bunkers, as their strong roots snaked through large fissures in the walls, breaching the great expanse from sky to dirt, finding nutrients in the soil while perched so high above. Nature began to take this over, and we wondered how it would fair over the next forty years, if there would be anything left but piles of concrete and rebar scattered through the forest, the land conquering what was once perceived to be impenetrable.
The paths through this location meandered through the wooded landscape, with no description or plaques to give the history of what had occurred upon where we stood. Only a few of the buildings warned us of danger—yellow spray paint was stenciled on the exterior of cement bunkers, “Achtung!” Some of these we dared not enter, and even those dilapidated bunkers that did not bear the yellow warning, we explored with trepidation, retreating very quickly, their inky, miasmatic interiors, devouring all light, as if the black air itself was empowered by luminescence, growing darker in its presence. We wondered about the stability of these bunkers, but ventured inside, sometimes finding our way into separate unidentifiable rooms, deep within the murky depths. Many of the bunkers were destroyed, so only a shell of concrete was left, while others were completely intact, seeming as if no explosives touched their structure. The path we took that day wound around twenty-four buildings nestled in the woods, and was only a small section of this park, but alas, time prohibited us from seeing more.
All in all we enjoyed the location immensely, but was amazed at how commodified and touristy this was, especially at how it is geared toward a certain demographic. If you visit their website—just type Wolf’s Lair into google and it is the first search result—you will find a hint, an underlying, unspoken attraction to a certain group of people. You can whittle away the hours recreating life of a sniper by shooting military like air-soft guns at their indoor shooting range—which is in one of the original, intact buildings—or even get a picture next two World War II memorial in “appropriate clothes.” Another of those strange, vague, veiled statements, listed on the site, which just doesn’t quite sit well with me, is that one can organize parties, corporate events, or even “rallies” on the grounds of the Wolf Lair.
Having found Hitler’s bunker, the site of the assassination attempt, and seen the many other buildings available to us, we finished our walk through the wooded expanse of the Wolf’s Lair, and made our way back to the car. We had a long drive ahead of us to make it back to Kaunas, so we had much time to discuss what we had seen and experienced. One thing was blatantly clear, when you turn a place like the Wolf’s Lair into an attraction and give it a theme park atmosphere, there is an unsettling feeling about the whole experience. It was incredible to visit this from a historical perspective, but it begs to question, what is the demographic that this location is really designed to attract? I doubt it’s the Polish.