This abandoned 'Forbidden City' was once the largest Soviet military base in East Germany

It was once the biggest military base in Europe, but now Germany's "Forbidden City" sits empty and forgotten.

Posted: Oct 8, 2019 4:00 PM
Updated: Oct 8, 2019 4:00 PM

Deep inside a pine forest in eastern Germany, a statue of Lenin keeps watch over a lemon-colored building that has housed everyone from the Kaiser Willhelm II, to the Nazis, and the Soviets.

The abandoned military complex -- known as the Forbidden City -- sits behind a hefty padlocked gate in the quiet neighborhood of Wünsdorf. It has been empty since the last remaining Russian soldiers left 25 years ago, following the fall of the Iron Curtain.

It wasn't always like this. The site was once home to around 40,000 Soviet soldiers, earning it the nickname "Little Moscow in East Germany," says tour guide Werner Borchert.

Some 500,000 Soviet troops were stationed across the German Democratic Republic -- otherwise known as East Germany -- during the Cold War, and this sprawling military base hidden in the woods was their headquarters.

"It was filled with schools, shops," says Borchert, 67, a cigarette perpetually hanging from his lips.

Store shelves were lined with "Soviet products, Soviet magazines," he says. And all encased behind a 17 kilometer wall, just over an hour's drive from the capital Berlin.

Despite familiar goods from the motherland, life was heavily restricted for soldiers who were stationed here two to three years at a time.

There were "no vacations, no visits from girlfriends or family," says Borchert. Though there were daily trains running to and from the Soviet capital.

For the higher-ranking officers and their accompanying wives and children, it was a different story. They were stationed here for up to 12 years and enjoyed the more luxurious parts of the military base, like its grand pool and theater.

When the last Soviet personnel left in the 1990s, the site remained empty -- except for the local teenagers who used it as a drinking spot, says Borchert, pointing at the odd empty bottle or graffiti.

Today the painted murals of Communist heroes are peeling from the walls. Weeds sprout from rotten windowsills. And mold creeps across rooms that once saw some of the most important military decisions in the country's history.

Famous residents

The military base was inaugurated at the turn of the 20th century -- and has boasted a hefty line-up of residents over the years.

A high-ceilinged room with a crumbling stage was once a dining hall for World War I officers, explains Borchert.

Years later, the same room was transformed into a casino for the Nazis. And most recently it was used as a concert hall for Soviet officers and their families.

Walk along the garden paths overgrown with weeds and you'll come to the swimming pool, today eerily empty of water, its lane-dividers still hanging in mid-air.

Elsewhere, Bochert flicks the light switch in a dilapidated theater -- illuminating hundreds of red seats facing a dusty stage.

Here, officers would watch Bolshoi theater, ballet and choirs that were sent over from Moscow, says Borchert, his cigarette smoke twirling in the half-lit theater.

For local East Germans living outside its walls, this was a "forbidden place," remembers Michaela Schreiber, who grew up in the city of Zossen, where the base is located.

''Only a few selected GDR citizens were allowed to enter," says Schreiber, who this September ended a 16-year stint as the city's mayor. "Usually it was just those who worked there and they had to carry their work permit.

"A few friendships between those select people and the Russian military could develop. But everyone else was literally cut off."

'They had to leave quickly'

When the Berlin Wall finally did come crashing down in 1989, the Soviet soldiers living in Wünsdorf watched it all on TV.

"The mantra was: 'Stay calm,'" says tour guide Borchert.

The last Russian troops left the military complex in 1994. Zossen's mayor at the time, Werner Lesse, remembers the soldiers "had to leave quickly."

After they left, Werner and other German locals were for the first time able to look inside the mysterious barracks.

"We saw that some still had lunch on their tables," he says. "The Russian soldiers and officers with their families knew they would have to leave, but a precise time was not scheduled."

After years living on the site, they were given just 12 hours notice, he says. "We found abandoned pets -- cats, dogs," he adds.

A new generation of visitors

Today the site is operated by development company EWZ, with funding from the local government.

Around 1,700 modern apartments have now been reconstructed from the old soldiers barracks, says former Zossen mayor Schreiber.

Another 700 residential units are set to be reconstructed or built on the site in the coming years, she adds.

The grand lemon-colored officer's building, meanwhile, is still waiting for a buyer.

These days the site attracts as many as 90 visitors every Sunday, when tours are run through the company Bücherstadt-Tourismus GmbH.

They come to see a ghostly reminder of "Little Moscow" in the German woods, retracing the footsteps of its famous inhabitants.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 52685

Reported Deaths: 2775
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion12192697
Lake5764251
Elkhart372061
Allen2988135
St. Joseph223570
Hamilton1779101
Cass16519
Hendricks1482100
Johnson1366118
Porter86738
Vanderburgh8586
Tippecanoe79510
Clark72844
Madison68564
LaPorte63928
Howard61758
Bartholomew60945
Kosciusko5874
Marshall57412
Noble52628
Boone49744
LaGrange49110
Delaware48452
Jackson4813
Hancock47236
Shelby46225
Floyd42544
Monroe37528
Dubois3447
Morgan34431
Grant33426
Henry30618
Montgomery29720
Clinton2913
White28110
Warrick27929
Dearborn27723
Vigo2638
Decatur25732
Lawrence25325
Harrison22022
Greene20032
Miami1972
Jennings18012
Putnam1758
DeKalb1714
Scott1669
Wayne1656
Perry16010
Daviess15117
Jasper1422
Orange14023
Steuben1403
Ripley1357
Gibson1332
Franklin1288
Wabash1203
Carroll1142
Starke1103
Fayette1087
Whitley1086
Newton10110
Huntington932
Jefferson932
Wells841
Randolph814
Fulton791
Knox730
Jay720
Posey680
Washington681
Pulaski661
Clay655
Rush633
Spencer621
Owen541
Sullivan541
Benton510
Adams491
Brown461
Blackford412
Fountain382
Tipton361
Crawford350
Switzerland320
Parke280
Martin260
Ohio230
Vermillion200
Warren161
Pike150
Union150
Unassigned0193

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 67995

Reported Deaths: 3069
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin12574449
Cuyahoga9509400
Hamilton7179208
Lucas3110306
Marion275739
Montgomery264737
Summit2420209
Pickaway223542
Mahoning1996239
Butler194247
Columbiana140560
Stark1252116
Lorain120870
Trumbull107178
Warren106827
Clark83210
Delaware78415
Fairfield75117
Lake64322
Tuscarawas62811
Licking61913
Medina61432
Belmont57224
Clermont5327
Miami52031
Wood51551
Portage50760
Ashtabula45244
Geauga43643
Richland3926
Allen39141
Greene3809
Wayne37856
Erie30822
Mercer30410
Holmes2645
Huron2643
Darke26126
Madison2309
Ottawa21924
Athens2011
Sandusky18015
Coshocton1554
Ross1543
Washington14920
Putnam14615
Crawford1405
Jefferson1322
Morrow1291
Hardin12512
Union1191
Auglaize1124
Muskingum1061
Preble961
Lawrence930
Clinton922
Hancock921
Monroe8917
Hocking848
Guernsey834
Scioto800
Ashland782
Shelby784
Williams772
Logan731
Carroll713
Fulton710
Wyandot665
Brown621
Champaign601
Knox591
Fayette580
Highland581
Defiance563
Perry501
Van Wert501
Seneca432
Henry380
Paulding350
Jackson320
Pike290
Adams282
Vinton232
Gallia211
Noble140
Harrison131
Meigs130
Morgan130
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
68° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 68°
Angola
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 89° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 64°
Huntington
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 64°
Decatur
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 64°
Van Wert
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 64°
Storms Late Wednesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events