Berlin - It's the kind of architecture that intimidates. Making people feel small was the intention of the mighty stone buildings of the Ordensburg Vogelsang, one of the Nazi Party's elite academies.
Rising party members were taught the ideology of an Aryan “master race” in the 1930s and schooled in absolute obedience to orders from above.
Ironically, the setting where this murderous mentality was inculcated was in the midst of the beautiful Eifel mountains, a 90-minute drive northwest from Frankfurt and near Germany's western border with Belgium. The place is still there, and open to tourists.
As Stefan Wunsch, a historian and head of academic research at Vogelsang, sourly points out, the Nazi Party exploited anything and everything, even the landscape, to aggrandise itself.
Until 11 years ago, the facility was used as a training site by the Belgian military. After their withdrawal, scholars began arriving to study and analyse the architecture, function and history of the place. After a while, a visitors' centre was set up.
The scholars also undertook to research the histories of the 2 200 men who were trained in three Nazi “Ordensburg” facilities. Besides Vogelsang, the other two were at Sonthofen in the Alps and Kroessinsee in today's Poland.
The purpose of the three places was to train elite cadres of the Nazi Party.
Now, the general public is getting a chance to experience the place with the opening in the Vogelsang site of an exhibition documenting the Nazi system.
Purpose: Master Race is the name of the show exploring the dark fascination emanating from the Ordensburg schools and their ideology-driven curricula.
“If you take away their uniforms, they were just ordinary men,” historian Klaus Ring says in a display showing photographs of the recruits shortly after they had been outfitted in their new uniforms.
Many had lost their fathers in World War I and were seeking recognition, others hoped for a career in the Nazi Party apparatus. For others, a party career was mainly a promising route to wealth.
“They weren't monsters,” Ring said. “At least not in the beginning.”
The exhibition is a bid by the facility in Vogelsang to become a major place of remembrance about the miseries of the Nazi era, on a par with Adolf Hitler's mountain retreat at Obersalzberg and the documentation centre of Wewelsburg in the city of Paderborn.
The academy buildings covering 50 000 square metres make it, like the Nazi party rally grounds at Nuremberg, among the largest architectural ensembles from the Third Reich period now open to the tourist.
The idea of the place was to make the individual person vanish, dwarfed by the monumental architecture.
But it also mirrored Hitler's idealised image of Aryan physical supremacy. Old photographs show men, their naked upper bodies illuminated by floodlights, waging mock battles in formation on the sports field.
Large-format photographs are a major element of the exhibition. Educational materials illustrate the Nazis' warped view of history.
One document shows the notes taken by a recruit at a lecture on “totalitarian” theory: “This path leads to an outlook on the world that by nature is total and can tolerate no other next to it.”
The exhibition rooms are not authentic reconstructions, but instead were designed with a neutral, modern feel to them.
As the scholars have determined, the seeds sown in the three Ordensburg sites bore their deadly fruit.
“Numerous Ordensburg members in the end became accomplices and perpetrators in the Holocaust (and) practitioners of genocide,” they write. Behind the lines on the Eastern Front they were engaged in the expulsion of Poles and Jews, in setting up ghettos and in mass executions.
One such Ordensburg man was Franz Murer, who underwent training in Vogelsang and later would be in charge of the Jewish ghetto in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.
Mascha Rolnikaite, a survivor of the ghetto, is heard in an audio recording saying: “Murer was the biggest horror in the ghetto ... And if I could avow that he ever possessed something akin to a conscience, then he has 70 000 murdered Jews on his conscience.”