Angus Boulton

Encounters

My father had this map of North Yorkshire. On it, he had carefully marked in felt pen the exact location and grid reference of a small number of military aircraft crash sites from the Second World War. One bank holiday back in the late 1970s, we wandered the moors looking for this slightly grim treasure. I recall being surprised that at the head of a gorge, perched on the bank of a stream, we came across the engine of a Blenheim bomber. Further up on top of the moor were the remains of a Spitfire, carefully collected in a swallow hole and still lying there over 30 years after the war. What I found poignant was not the pile of twisted aluminium but the fact that the pilot had apparently died of his wounds before help arrived, unable to move with both legs broken. I didn’t take a photograph because I had no camera but, possibly out of respect, I probably wouldn’t have anyway. This was one of those experiences that perhaps explained why for more than a year I would find myself standing at Berlin Spandau station, having risen at 5am to make the 2 hour train journey and four mile walk just to film a disused runway. On this occasion I hadn’t left enough time to make the train back, I’d even started running but still missed it by less than a minute. I now had two hours at Wittstock until the next train, enduring the cold and rain, plenty of time in which to contemplate exactly how and why I came to be there.

There used to be a drawer at Schropp, the travellers shop in Potsdamer Strasse, which contained a large stack of maps on fairly poor quality paper. Seemingly innocuous small single sheets hidden away, with the words “Vertrauliche Verschlußsache !” (‘Confidential Classified Document’ ) printed in the top right hand corner and “DDR” on the left. They were unsorted relics from an earlier time when information was only for a privileged minority, now relegated to the bargain bin. An initial lack of books on the Soviet Military in Eastern Europe meant researching the actual locations was difficult. These maps dating from the mid 1980s, before military boundaries began to be omitted, proved essential in the beginning. Studying them was a starting point for determining sites of interest, areas one side of a thick purple line, enveloping unusual clusters of buildings and zigzag patterns delineating firing ranges. Maps had always held a degree of fascination, reading the names and imagining the places, but this drawer was quite a find. I’d purchased a large map of Berlin when I first arrived on a residency in 1998, and proceeded to stick coloured pins in it while researching an earlier book. This research resembled a game of finding the bases to visit, made all the more interesting as the maps were in German, the Germans seemed to have a limited choice of names, and there appeared to be at least five villages called Schönewald and Schönefeld on every sheet.

The region of Brandenburg covers approximately 150 x 100 miles and contained a little over half the total number of Soviet bases inside the former German Democratic Republic, more than 200 installations of differing size that accommodated around 250,000 troops and additional personnel. Almost all the locations dated from the late Prussian or Nazi periods, and many of the sites and huge training areas underwent further expansion once in Soviet hands. Indeed, over 500,000 acres within Brandenburg were requisitioned for military use so that by 1990 around 9% of the overall landscape appeared on maps marked (in purple) as ‘sperrgebiete’ or restricted areas.[1]

Layers of history are embedded in the buildings at these installations. Often the gothic script from the Nazi period gradually emerges as the rain dissolves the white wash; occasionally it was never painted over, as in the large “Rauchen Verboten !” warning in red letters at the hangar in Damm. The ‘sperrgebiet’ itself was to most people an unfamiliar place, a closed off zone where life was experienced away from the public eye. Even after the inhabitants have long gone, many of them seem to retain some menacing aura, attracting curious types and criminal behaviour, something I’d been warned about before signing the routine four page ‘Betretungsgenehmigung’, the lengthily negotiated ‘permission to enter’ document.  For example, the two men seen deep in the woods near Priort: one keeping look out, the other hastily digging. The suspected pederast at Rangsdorf collecting grass for his rabbits. A burnt out Porsche at Forst Zinna. The bungled drug deal at Wittstock that ended in a vicious murder.[2] Even some of the security guards seemed to treat knowledge as power, ex Stasi officers evading questions as if the answers were still only available on a “need to know” basis. One crept up on me to check my credentials while I was exploring a depressing officers prison in Potsdam. The warren like building was cold and a uniform dark grey except for the improvised padded cell at the end of the corridor, complete with blood red ceiling. A little later he locked me in an empty building with bars on every window at 4 o’clock on a Friday, knowing full well I was inside. Experiences like these only added to a distinct feeling of intrigue tempered with creeping unease whenever I entered a new location.

The Western Group of The Soviet Armed Forces finally left Germany with the official handover of Central Command in July 1994. Symbolically perhaps, “the last soldier on German soil” was photographed by the press jumping onto the step of the final military train bound for Moscow as it pulled out of Wünsdorf on September 8th. So ended a chapter in German post war history, the occupiers had finally left. Although the details of this withdrawal can be found in retired officers memoirs and occasionally in a small number of photographic publications, it was perhaps somewhat overlooked by the media and general public as events in the Balkans unfolded. The actual timetable for withdrawal had been agreed between the Russian and German governments back in October 1990. This would be an enormous logistical task that, despite talk of Kalashnikovs becoming available on the streets of Berlin for 100 Deustch Marks, was later acknowledged to have been undertaken relatively successfully after a particularly chaotic start, due partly to a reported “catastrophic demoralisation” amongst the armed forces.[3] Rumours that cars stolen in Berlin were flown east from Sperenberg are probably true, indeed a Cyrillic sign outside the main gate banning ‘the sale of motor vehicles’ was still there in 2006. But it was one story from 1991, which finally surfaced in the press in 1998 a few months before I arrived in Berlin, that gave a first clue, a name and specific location at which to begin my research.

Greenpeace had plans to secretly buy a nuclear warhead and then unveil it to the public amid fears that a potentially dangerous situation was developing – the perceived threat of nuclear proliferation following the break up of the Soviet Union. A Second Lieutenant accompanied by two soldiers were to bring the weapon out from their base, identified as Altengrabow, in return for $250,000 and safe passage to Sweden. The plan never came to fruition as the officer concerned mysteriously disappeared amid the strong belief he had probably been monitored by the KGB all along.[4] One security guard recounted another story, somewhat implausibly, of a warhead ‘forgotten’ at Neuruppin and later found in a sub basement by workmen carrying out demolition. What I later discovered was generally accepted is that there had actually been a miscount of the existing nuclear arsenal prior to the signing of the agreement back in 1990, but the Soviet Commanders stuck to their figures and refused to engage with the costly disposal of whatever came to light in addition to that pre-agreed number. Later discoveries were necessarily kept quiet and dealt with either by the German or American authorities.[5]

Wolfgang Weber had first mentioned a forgotten warhead while we drove north from Potsdam on a tour of Ost Prignitz back in 2001. He was an amiable security guard who had been a merchant seaman and acquired a Swedish lady pen pal with whom he had stayed in touch for forty years, so his English was quite good. He had later worked with a construction team that had extended or maintained many of the barracks the Russians occupied, he was both generous with his time and a mine of information. Wolfgang was the only security guard I  met who never once asked “Why are you doing this ?”. Our first stop was at Gadow Glashütte, a huge bunker complex east of Wittstock that had been abandoned midway through construction. Planned as one of two forward control centres for the 16th Air Army, it consisted of four parallel bunkers the same width and height as the hangars that housed the MiG-29’s nearby but a staggering 200 meters long. The site was half finished as the Berlin Wall had come down before completion, another sign that this event was indeed unforeseen. A thousand tons of reinforced concrete, a Tarkovsky film set lurking in the woods. At our final stop in Perleberg, I idly boasted that I could spot a gymnasium up to a kilometre away, such was my growing familiarity with the architecture and routine layout of a barracks. After wandering ahead I eventually came across ‘Perleberg II.  16.3.01’. Peering through the windows, I was intrigued to have found the most intact example so far and possibly gymnasium number 16 of 41, and in a previously unseen shade of green ! Seeing the door was locked and Wolfgang didn’t have a key, it looked like yet another interior that would be missed as I knew the base was scheduled for demolition the following month. As I turned around, somewhat deflated, I caught sight of Wolfgang’s colleague who, having eagerly run back to his office and then returned fully prepared, proceeded to enthusiastically smash the door in with his axe. The gymnasium had been used as a youth club until fairly recently, tables and chairs set out just like a classroom. They very obligingly moved everything out of the way and I made a photograph.

Driving back, I raised the question of why this building had to be demolished, as the visit to Perleberg was only the second occasion I had found a building with functioning electricity. Many of these complexes were built by architects who went on to have illustrious careers, the problem lay in the sheer number that existed, and the bankrupt finances of Eastern Germany. Ideas abound but rarely come to fruition. Wittstock and the huge training area at Schweinrich nearby sit empty, awaiting a government decision whether it will become a 24 hour ‘Bombodrome’, hired out to any nation that has fighter planes and requires a little bombing practice. Forst Zinna was briefly earmarked as a sports training facility. Sperenberg belongs to the city of Berlin, moth balled as a possible alternative Airport should the planned extension at Schönefeld fall through. The Flying school at Altes Lager, bought recently for a Euro by a Dutch property developer is up for sale again. The converted officers flats that surround it have been comparatively successful and are now, rather ironically, populated by a large percentage of Russian immigrants, but many of the shops have closed through lack of business. Even the spectacular Cargolifter terminal at the airbase in Brand, built by Arups for a new generation of airships is now “Tropical Islands”, reputedly the largest indoor rain forest in the world. Then again, the question of just what to do with the huge structural legacy following the ending of the Cold War is being asked all over the world. This is why ‘Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield’ used to be RAF Finningley, where I once saw Vulcan bombers perform a three minute scramble in the late 1970s.

I had become quite used to hearing the  comment “You’re just too late” when talking about my project in Berlin. This time it was ‘Peter’ who was barking it at me, a secretive collector from Berlin who lived with his mother. He handed me a sheet of paper from his briefcase, a colour photocopy with small thumbnail images of all sorts of objects he had assembled along with two colleagues, currently stockpiled at a farm “…. somewhere in Brandenburg”.  Here was everything from stained glass windows and canvas murals depicting heroic deeds of the Soviet Military to simple kitchenware; with gas masks and the odd vehicle and uniforms in between. But, no guns, he was quite insistent on that point. There was even General Burlakov’s red telephone. Presumably, just like the seemingly endless supply of Berlin Wall fragments still sold today, the ‘Commander in Chief of the Western Group of the Soviet Armed Forces’ once had a lot of phones. I showed Peter some of my work and witnessed his surprise as, apart from a few weeds or peeling paint, little had changed in the intervening years. He also had an envelope containing some intriguing photos of his own, taken while assembling the collection. They included images of rooms with the very same murals I had photographed quite recently, but more curious were the scenes resembling a film set, a dining room with khaki jackets hanging on the backs of chairs, caps and half eaten meals left behind on the tables. Peter explained that he had contacted the Imperial War Museum in London and offered the collection to them. Apparently the curators were quite interested until he named the price, one million euros. Stifling a smile I diplomatically suggested that there simply had to be some rich eccentric American collector of militaria who would no doubt buy the lot, the problem was finding him.

General Burlakov was brought in from Hungary to oversee completion of the withdrawal following the dismissal of General Snetkov in early 1991, but even he fell under the suspicion of overseeing racketeering, and was pensioned off six months after returning home in 1994.[6] One thought that repeatedly entered my mind while traipsing alone through empty rooms and along endless corridors was where the average soldier leaving Germany ultimately went, a question alluded to at the end of ‘Cood bay Forst Zinna’. In comparison to standards elsewhere, Germany was a premiere destination for conscripts, two years service without leave in solid barracks as opposed to prefabricated huts in the depths of Ukraine. What became increasingly evident from the state of many buildings following departure were the lengths many went to in order to survive as shortages increased and their future back home became financially uncertain. Anything of value was stolen, sold or reused. In ‘08/26’ the hardened hangars at Wittstock now stand stranded in a sea of long grass, cut off from the runways. The airbase was occupied and then extended by the Soviet Air Army from the mid 50’s continuously until the final flight of MiG-29 aircraft to Damgarten and finally Sernograd in April 1994.[7] The sections of concrete linking the hangars were then removed and transported back to Russia.The German government had provided money and even skilled Turkish construction workers to build accommodation back in Russia as a shortage certainly existed, but much of the money disappeared. Complaints that conscripts were forced to spend the first winter in tents, although somewhat exaggerated by an increasingly disgruntled military, were not unfounded. The less fortunate soldiers eventually found themselves in Chechnya as unrest broke out and soon escalated into open warfare.[8]

Frank Gaudlitz was one of the earliest civilian photographers to be allowed to document preparations for the departure. Frank was particularly helpful but it was some of his bizarre experiences that that gave an insight into the ordered chaos that held at times. He had gained access to the local barracks through a little serendipity one evening while visiting a sauna in Potsdam. Having failed to notice the two officers out of uniform, a heated exchange took place when their superior entered, one that only Frank’s tolerance for vodka and a reasonable ability at Cossack dancing ameliorated. A potentially tricky situation resulted in permission to make the photographs that appear alongside this text, images from his book “Die Russen gehen” ‘The Russians are going’.[9] What is curious about this series is the fact they could perhaps have been taken at any time in the last 40 years. Frank mentioned how, on returning to Krampnitz soon after the base was handed over to take new images in colour, he was staggered to find a handful of feral children hiding in the buildings. Not wanting to return, they had fled when their time to leave arrived and were surviving on the leftover food.

Ultimately it is the pervasive nature of these damaged landscapes and the stories and myths attached to them that have influenced the photographs and films that I made during almost a decade. Just as a person sometimes struggles to make themselves understood in a foreign language, so by adopting a form of artistic vocabulary as I have, one that is certainly limited, only one small part of the complete story can be told. Too much time spent amid the traces of the past, surrounded by ongoing dereliction, must eventually affect a person, just as military life has lasting effects on those who experience it. As one bemused psychiatrist, quietly observing the unfamiliar landscape and brutalist structures around her while accompanying me through Stolzenhain, tellingly remarked:
“What kind of paranoia builds this ?”

 

 

[1] Geschäftsbericht 1995. Brandenburgische Boden Gesellschaft mbH. 1996.

[2] Matthias Anke ‘Mord auf dem Flugplatz’ Märkische Allgemeine. 2.11.2006, reported that:

In February 2006 three men in their early twenties lured Lars I., a local drug dealer, into a trap at the airbase. There he was brutally murdered with an axe, suffered 22 further stab wounds after which his body was doused in petrol, burnt and hidden in a cellar. The trio fled in the victims BMW with 100,000 Euros, failing to notice a further 46,000 Euros in the glove compartment.

[3] Josef Neidhardt ‘Ein Heer ohne Staat’ in Die Weltwoche. No. 12. 19.3.1992 Switzerland.

The author reported on Russian soldiers who are selling everything on which they could lay their hands in order to get food: petrol, ammunition, arms, spare parts and their own services. In Moldova, a weapons depot was stormed by soldiers, who then cleared it out: one million rounds of ammunition, several thousand automatic rifles and thirty rocket launchers were stolen.

[4] The Independent Newspaper. London 26 July 1998.

[5] Conversations with a retired British Army Intelligence Officer between 2000 & 2007.

[6] ‘Sie haben den Rückzug nicht gelernt’ Der Spiegel 10/1991.

The official reason for his dismissal was that a colonel commanding a tank regiment had defected to Germany, taking a number of the latest anti-tank weapons with him.

[7] Sowjetische Fliegerkräfte Deutschland 1945-94. Band 4. Lutz Freundt. Edition Freundt. 1994.

[8] The collapse of the Soviet Military. William E. Odom. Yale University Press. 2000.

[9] Die Russen Gehen – Der Abzug einer Armee. Frank Gaudlitz with Thomas Kumlehn.
BasisDruck Verlag GmbH, Berlin 1993.

 

Angus Boulton © 2007

This text first appeared in Restricted Areas – Angus Boulton.
Published by MIRIAD/MMU/TheWappingProject to coincide with the exhibition 08/26′ at The Wapping Project London, October 2007.

 

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