Germany's Real-Life Grand Budapest Hotel
The grand entrance to the hotel (all photographs by Mathias Wasik)
It turns out the fictitious European town in which Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel was set isn’t so fictitious after all.
Hidden amidst the Brandenburg forest 15 kilometers (9.32 miles) north of Berlin are buildings seemingly lost in time and built in such grandiose socialist-classicism style, you wouldn’t be surprised if a concierge named Gustave greeted you at the door or a “Boy With Apple” painting adorned the walls. Winding back the clock a few decades to the Cold War era, it was within these very four walls that the German Democratic Republic (GDR) brainwashed young people and officials from all around the world with propaganda about the ideals of socialism and the evils of the capitalist West.
From 1951 to 1990, the FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend) youth academy was the top-secret educational facility for the official communist youth movement of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, occupying a vast 43 000 square meters at Bogensee near Wandlitz. Today, despite being relinquished and left to decay for over two decades, these buildings haven't lost their majestic, otherworldly charms.
Goebbels’ Love Nest
In 1936, the city of Berlin gave Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels the Bogensee property and its surrounding terrain, along with a humble log cabin, for his 39th birthday. Three years later, Goebbels built a grand villa there costing 1.5 million Reichsmarks. Otherwise known as his “Liebesnest” (“love nest”) where he brought his long succession of affairs, the forest retreat comprised 30 private rooms, 40 day rooms, a bunker, a guest house in which the SS guards were housed, and a cinema where he examined the newest Nazi propaganda films.
Goebbels wrote in his diary in November 1936:
"Gorgeous fall weather! The forest smells so wonderful. This Jewish pest must be completely eradicated. There must be nothing left of them. In other news, only palaver, reading, writing. Going to bed early. I sleep so marvelously out here in the woods."
Establishment of the FDJ Elite
After the end of World War II, the property was first used as a military hospital by Western allies before it was taken over by the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD) on March 9, 1946, and it's there that the FDJ youth academy was established.
In the early years, the FDJ was an open, democratic organization welcoming Christians in addition to Communists and Social Democrats, where you’d more likely overhear a discussion about democracy, anti-fascism, and East-West bloc politics in the cafeteria than one about dogmatic Leninism and Stalinism.
Alas, all good things come to an end. When the GDR was founded in 1949, the FDJ’s spiritual climate drastically changed. Christians were forced out of the organization and the youth academy was systematically transformed into a "training ground" for the FDJ elite. It wasn’t long before indoctrination replaced frank and open discussion and party line ousted personal opinion. Even the old teaching staff were swiftly superseded by former prisoners of war who had been retrained in the Soviet Union and were sworn to party discipline.
A Soviet Gingerbread Town
In 1950, the academy was named “Wilhelm Pieck” after the GDR’s first (and only) president, and in 1951, Berlin’s Stalin-Allee architect Hermann Henselmann was entrusted with the construction of a complex of monumental buildings, encompassing conference rooms, interpreter cabins, dance halls, boarding school dormitories, and banquet halls. I
In the mid-1950s, several new dormitory buildings, a large cafeteria, and a teaching building were built — turning the once private country estate into a small Soviet gingerbread-style town.
More than 500 students each year from the GDR and other socialist countries could now attend courses at Bogensee. Party loyalty was naturally a prerequisite for admission, as all the students had to be committed to the ideal of a new social order. In fact, almost all of them were members of the SED.
A Pseudo-International Melting Pot
By the beginning of the 1960s, the academy had established itself as a cadre training school for the highest of the elite. Intended to be the source of a socialist stimulus for the world, students were taught philosophy, Marxism-Leninism, scientific communism, dialectical materialism, and the political economy of capitalism.
Liberation organizations across Africa, Latin America and Asia started sending their young members to the academy, and from the mid-1970s, even students from West Germany and Western Europe, delegated by their Communist parties, were enrolled in the hope that the seeds of socialism would then carried to the West.
Over time, the academy evolved into a bustling international melting pot, with celebrities such as American actor Dean Reed, German astronaut Sigmund Jähn, and former West Germany Chancellor Helmut Schmidt even visiting Bogensee. However, despite the supposed newfound “international feel” on the campus, close relationships or romances with international peers were strongly advised against, and GDR students even got an "internal briefing" on how to deal with international students.
The End of the Palace of Red Dreams
The end of the GDR and a divided Germany also meant the end for the elite at Bogensee. By the end of January 1990, the FDJ broke up; by March, the last People’s Police guarding the area finally withdrew, and by summer, the last students left the campus. Over the four decades of the FDJ academy’s history, thousands of young people and officials from all over the world successfully completed their training there, with many former students going on to possess high positions in Latin American or African governments today.
After 1990, other institutions attempted to take over the old “Palace of Red Dreams,” however, with building maintenance costing a colossal 250,000 Euros ($340,000) per year, it failed to work effectively as a meeting venue or as a hotel, and no buyer has been willing to take it on since. Those days might soon be over though, as it was put up for sale late last year.
For now though, saying the derelict property has fallen on hard times is an understatement. Dripping — in the truest sense of the word — with history, the grand hall’s roof is leaking, rotten floorboards crunch beneath your feet, and the musty “smell of the East” permeates through the damp peeling walls. In a losing battle against Mother Nature, there’s no longer a guest in sight, the only patron getting a spin on the old dance floors is a tumbleweed, and the “lobby boy” holding up the fort today is an old janitor named Robert.
All photographs by Mathias Wasik.