A trip with an unexpected detour.
I had to go to Lithuania as a friend of mine had died. A researcher, diplomat and expert on all matters Soviet, my pal had been expelled from Moscow as part of a diplomatic tit-for-tat. Heartbroken, she spent her last years as an Englishwoman exiled in her own country.
I became an honorary member of her merry band of defectors, a group of habitually drunk octogenarians whose passages to the West she had arranged. Her papers, covering decades of her life and travels in the USSR, were to be donated to a Vilnius archive. So a memorial event was held in her honour, which I was to attend.
But when I mentioned my travel plans to my mother on the telephone, she delightedly told me that Vilnius is only four-and-half hours from the Wolf’s Lair, Adolf Hitler’s Eastern Front bunker.
For my mother, regarding both geography and conversation, all roads lead to Hitler. When I noted the location of the Lair in a bid to dissuade her, she pointed out, as the Fuhrer presumably did himself back in September 1939, that we could just nip over the border into Poland.
My mother was born in 1950, yet took the Second World War very badly. She has developed a lifelong interest in the Third Reich and will elaborate upon her thoughts to anyone who will listen – and a great number who will not.
A softly spoken and slightly built woman, at the end of the first COVID lockdown, she was, within minutes of our tearful reunion, explaining that ‘his greatest mistake was invading Russia, because that constituted a war on two fronts’.
For the avoidance of doubt, her fixation stems not from any admiration for Nazism, but rather from a revulsion at its evils and an attempt to understand how seemingly decent people can succumb to such depravity. That does not, however, make her any less embarrassing at parties, restaurants or my university graduation ceremony. (Apologies again, Professor Schulz).
She had mentioned the Lair a few times previously: I suspected our old friend the History Channel was the culprit. As she told me, a visit to the Wolfsschanze was a dream comparable only to meeting Cliff Richard, and would buy me at least a year with no mention of grandchildren.
Hitler lived on the site for over 800 days between June 1941 and November 1944, the longest he spent in one place during the conflict, and the website even features testimonies of how Hitler’s birthday was celebrated there, which I didn’t mention to Mum lest she get ideas.
And the operators of the Lair have done their best to create an authentic atmosphere, installing displays of the Warsaw Uprising staffed by mannequins against ‘Allo ‘Allo style backdrops.
But before a 2012 intervention by Polish government officials, the site was used for paintball, pottery classes and general Nazi uniform photo opportunities. In 1991, a casino was proposed. Even this year, the Lair has attracted controversy for permitting re-enactments of World War II battles which did not occur in the immediate vicinity. As we entered the car park, a family pulled up from a joy-ride in an open-top military jeep. It is, if you will, the closest the world will ever get to an Adolf Hitler Theme Park. Hopefully.
We were led around the site by a tour guide of over 25 years standing who was, I rapidly discovered, a Polish version of my mother. Having initially taken Mum for a dilettante or rube, she attempted to explain who Alfred Jodl was, only for my mother to interrupt with a potted biography of the Wehrmacht generaloberst. Your humble correspondent attempted unsuccessfully to probe the guide: ‘Do any honeymooners come here?’ I asked, hopeful of a good story. ‘Of course not!’ she barked back.
The term ‘bunker’ is misleading, since the Lair is actually a complex of heavily fortified and camouflaged concrete huts situated above ground and surrounded by lakes and forest. As the Red Army loomed on the horizon in January 1945, the stragglers detonated the huts using TNT. Hermann Goering’s bunker – which he never used, preferring to stay at his hunting lodge around 90 kilometres away – remains almost intact. ‘No wonder they didn’t win the war, couldn’t even destroy a portacabin properly,’ Mum muttered.
An eclectic collection of abandoned detritus can be viewed in a special gallery, including asthma inhalers, swastika-stamped belt buckles and metal condom cases. (Clearly, nights on the Eastern Front could grow cold and lonely.)
But those are not the oddest items on display. A trip to the gift shop – yes, really – offers the opportunity to purchase a range of branded merchandise, including fridge magnets, mugs, tea sets, towels, baseball caps, T-shirts and umbrellas. Items available without branding include helmets, model planes, birdhouses, jigsaw puzzles depicting Boy Scout troops with quotes from Baden Powell on the box and – astonishingly – gas masks.
I found myself more concerned by the man in front of me in the queue for fridge magnets. Clad in army fatigues, his knapsack had ‘Kameradenhilfe’ stitched on it to resemble a Wehrmacht soldier’s sewing kit, while the ‘Wolf’s Lair’ baseball cap perched on his head suggested a repeat visitor.
You don’t have to buy souvenirs at the Lair. Surveying Goering’s bunker, our guide picked up tiles from what had once been the bathroom. She pushed one into my mother’s hand, adding, to my concern: ‘Keep it, I have many items myself at home’. Mum turned it over in her fingers, before returning it to the soil, where it belongs. I put my arm around her. ‘Does Goering’s hunting lodge still exist?’ she wondered aloud.