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Sharing Krampnitz with the ghosts of Nazis

We were not alone in the barracks.

The sound of the slamming door had been loud, sudden. Everyone heard it. In this place, a gargantuan abandoned military complex used by none other than the Nazis and, later, the Soviets, it was more than a little unnerving.

“We should go,” someone remarked. A massive face was spray painted along the far wall, a hideous, grotesque thing more terrible than Medusa – and clearly inspired by the complex’s former occupants.

Kaserne Krampnitz, Germany

The suggestion seemed apt. Normally I reserved judgment, but the evidence was stark: this place was scary.

Krampnitz Kaserne is certainly spine-chilling enough. The site just outside Berlin was used by the German army beginning in 1937, when the cavalry moved its school from Hannover. It was later used as a driving training center for tanks and other armored vehicles, until the Soviets took control of the area on April 26, 1945 – just a day after the Nazis had fled. The dreaded 35th Guards Motor Rifle Division was stationed there until 1992, when the facility was once again abandoned following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

It’s amazing how much it has decayed in just a little over two decades, really. The whole complex consists of more than 50 buildings, from apartment buildings and storage facilities, to an officers’ club, a tennis court, theatre and more. It’s a mishmash of broken glass, rotting floorboards, peeling walls, and accumulating dust.

It’s also said to be among the most haunted places in Europe. And we were there after dark. Yikes.

We kept wandering the decaying halls, however. Then again, who wouldn’t? It’s rumored that portions of Hollywood films such as “Inglourious Basterds” and “Enemy at the Gates” were shot here, and aside from its copious history, the place is a photographer’s dream. To boot, it was the “cool” thing to do – if Berlin’s recent history was any indication.

Exploring the dark places of Berlin in certainly in vogue amongst the hip – and hip at heart – in the city few spend more than a few years in. Tempelhof Airport, the mammoth air terminal Hitler built to impress and intimidate (and the largest building in the world at the time), is now a public park where people come to de-stress and meditate, or wander through the near-endless maze within.

Buildings and spaces scarred by history are reused and given new purpose in Berlin, a testament to the ingenuity found throughout the German capital. The ravages of World War II and the costs of reunification in the 1990s left Berlin with the most debt of any German city, prompting Mayor Klaus Wowereit to famously declare it “poor but sexy” in 2004. While it’s true many of those once-neglected spaces have been reborn – such as the old Jewish Girls’ School, once used by the Nazis for deportations and now home to the Pauly Saal restaurant and Kosher Classroom café, or Kater Holzig, a Wonderland-esque nightclub in a former soap factory in West Berlin – there are those sites that stand as a monument to the past.

Krampnitz almost fell to the fate of gentrification. But plans to redevelop Krampnitz into a football and wellness park came to nothing after the project’s investors went bankrupt in 2006, leaving the complex abandoned once more.

Besides the dozens of blockish apartment buildings that served as soldiers’ dormitories, one of the highlights is the boiler house. Featuring very large machinery, intricate graffiti, and a huge, cavernous basement still partially filled with coal, its most striking feature is undoubtedly a realistic-looking papier-mâché wall, perhaps used as part of the set from “Enemy at the Gates.”

Kaserne Krampnitz, Germany

Yet even the awe-inspiring eeriness of the boiler house pales to what is unquestionably the focal point of all of Krampnitz, and perhaps every abandoned place in eastern Germany: a tiled mosaic of the Nazi eagle sitting atop what used to be a swastika. Opinion on its authenticity is divided, with some claiming it must have been constructed as a film prop because an original Nazi mosaic would never have survived 49 years of Soviet occupation. Others say it must be real, and will point out such a film prop would cost $15,000 and take a year to build, not to mention being illegal due to its depiction of such well-known Third Reich iconography. A violation of such laws, they add, would cause the German government to revoke a filming permit in a heartbeat.

Regardless of its origins, the mosaic is impressive, albeit in a stomach-churning way. Tucked inside a four-story gray building, it is complemented by a marble staircase and ornate balcony large enough for several dozen officials to carry out propaganda-laden public addresses. The swastika has – unsurprisingly, been cut out (which lends one to believe it may indeed be the real thing), but it’s likely the closest one can ever get to experience what kind of imagery Germans and the rest of Europe were assaulted with on a daily basis during that era.

But Krampnitz is one of those special places where you really can’t go wrong no matter which direction you choose to wander. Straddling the lakes of Krampnitzsee (form which the barracks’ name comes from) and Fahrländer See just a few kilometers southwest of Berlin’s large Zoologischer Garten and Hauptbahnhof train stations, it is best reached either by bus or a leisurely bike ride through the rolling hills and pleasant lake country that feels far detached from the hustle and bustle of the city center’s bright lights. The entrances are, naturally, sealed off, but there is a secret to sneaking into the hallowed grounds that doesn’t involve jumping over a barbed wire-tipped fence: just past a small vegetable stand by the side of the road, and a little to the right near a group of four trees standing in a jagged line, is a hole in the fence, just wide enough for even the largest person to fit through as long as they stoop over slightly (Google maps calls it, rather unimaginatively, “Hole in Fence”).

Sure, such an off-the-beaten-path destination may not be everyone’s cup of tea or mug of beer. But for adventurous souls, it’s a temptation as irresistible as any. Taking a sharp left as the floorboards groaned under the collective weight of the five of us, we came across a collection of musty old Soviet maps, all in Cyrillic writing and all in the advanced stages of succumbing to the ravages of time.

It was at that moment we could have sworn we heard footsteps above us.

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