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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries


We came over from Naumburg this morning and are currently sitting in the market square in Colditz enjoying some out-of-season Stollen. This Christmas season treat used to cause problems in medieval Saxony: as Advent was a time of fasting, bakers were not allowed to use butter, only oil. Since the local oil was made from turnips and expensive, they petitioned Pope Nicholas V in 1450 for dispensation to continue to use butter even during Advent. He and the following four Popes denied the request. Eventually, after endless more appeals, Pope Innocent VIII signed the famous Butter Letter of 1490 giving permission – but only to the Saxon Prince, the polloi had to pay a butter tithe or use turnip oil.

Eleven hundred years ago, the ground on which our chairs are resting on was home to Slav tribes: in the immediate vicinity of Colditz were half a dozen of their villages. But this was the period of the Medieval Climatic Anomaly when the scrubby, marshy woods east of the Elbe started to dry out and offer fertile farming land. In an earlier post, we saw the advance of Germanic tribes across the Elbe, pushing back the Slavs. Part of the expulsion happened here in Colditz when in 1046 the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry II, gave permission to the Lords of Colditz to settle here and build a castle.

The Lords ruled until 1404 when they sold their castle to the Wettins, one of the ancient Germanic dynasties. Until 1806, when Napoleon reordered German governance, the family (through various branches) ruled much of Central Germany: Augustus, for example, he of the maladie de porcelaine, was a Wettin.

One offshoot of the family, the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, garnered the unfortunate appellation 'the stud of Europe'; Prince Albert was from this stable. In 1917, when George V decided to hide these Germanic roots, the name Wettin was suggested - but rejected as "unsuitably comic”; Windsor was seen as more palatable.

Family tree of the House of Wettin, the royal & ducal house of Saxony and later Great Britain, Belgium, Portugal, and Bulgaria (c)wikicommons

In 1430, Colditz Castle was burnt down by Jan Hus's Bohemian Protestants. And it burned again in 1504, when an apprentice baker got things wrong. The rebuilding and redevelopment (the young baker had also burnt down half the town) saw the castle begin to look much like does today – though sadly the Wettins' zoo, one of the largest in Europe in the sixteenth century, has gone.

The Nazis used the castle at first to imprison Jews, homosexuals and communists. But with the onset of war it became a secure pen for particularly recalcitrant Allied prisoners of war. Despite its stated purpose, Oflag IV-C had a significant escape record - between 30 and 36 inmates got away (the figures are disputed) and there were myriad attempted breakouts.

There are wonderful escape stories – the glider built by French inmates; the 'lady' in a smart hat who walked out past admiring guards; knotted bedsheets that were unfortunately dropped outside the guards' canteen; tunnels; the prisoner who sewed himself into a mattress; tiny Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce (nicknamed RAF-style "the Medium-Sized Man") who curled up in a Red Cross packing crate; and then there were the 'ghost officers' whom the Germans believed had escaped but actually they went into hiding in the castle so that they could turn up for roll-call to cover for the escapees.

Colditz Castle in April 1945 (c)wikicommons

The torrent of books and films has cast a veil of romance around Colditz. But societies of male prisoners crowded together with few resources or diversions are unlikely to be either glamorous or uncomplicated. What was the reality of communal life during those difficult years? How, for example, did rank operate in practice? What distortion of it led Douglas Bader to prevent the repatriation of his batman in 1943 because he did not want to lose his “lackey's” (his word) services?

What is certainly true is that, as a group, the prisoners were extraordinarily brave: men like Bader and Airey Neave proved willing to accept not only the hazards of makeshift escape methods but also the risk of being shot. And they were ingenious: the guards at Colditz were so amused by the range of their invention that they created a little museum of escapee accoutrements.

The regime in Colditz was not brutal (though I have a vestigial memory that they were restricted to 1,200 calories a day to quiet them. Certainly rations for PoWs across Germany were cut down after the invasion of the Soviet Union when food generally became scarcer). Numerous escapees were arrested by Colditz guards at gunpoint as they emerged from tunnels or swung on knotted sheets, but only one prisoner, Michael Sinclair, was shot trying to escape, and this after shouted warnings. The Germans buried him with full military honours, including a seven gun salute - and they swathed his coffin in a Union Jack hand-made by the guards themselves.

Credit for this regime belongs to Commandant Reinhold Eggers. As one of his Dutch prisoners wrote later: “This man was our opponent, but nevertheless he earned our respect by his correct attitude, self-control and total lack of rancour despite all the harassment we gave him”.

Reinhold Eggers (c)pbs

Eggers had been an outstanding soldier himself, winning the Iron Cross twice in the trenches of the Western Front. After that war, he left the military and became a language teacher. With these skills, now aged 50, he was put in charge of Allied prisoners. He brought to the job the ethos of a primary schoolmaster: never ruffled or enraged (even when the prisoners stole his cap for an escape attempt), he made sure his guards stuck to the Geneva Convention.

Colditz was liberated by the Americans, who allowed Eggers to return to teaching because he was not a war criminal and nor had he been a member of the Nazi Party. In fact, before the war, Eggers had been denounced by Nazi sympathisers as a left wing 'internationalist' and had consequently been restricted to teaching primary school children. His record proved no protection, unfortunately, when Saxony was handed over to the Soviets in 1948. In what was obviously a propaganda trial, Eggers was convicted of 'crimes against humanity, spying and supporting a fascist regime' and sentenced (aged 60) to ten years' hard labour. He survived and spent his last years on the shores of Lake Constance, meeting up with ex-PoWs and writing his memoirs.

As for the castle, the East German regime used it as a secure mental hospital but, like a lot of East German buildings, without the money for maintenance, it started to decay. Then with the fall of the Berlin Wall, tourists began to flood in and the castle became an attraction worth preserving. If you have a penchant for youth hostelling, you can stay there.

Five European dynasties: Wettin is number three (at 3 minutes 30 seconds) -

A documentary about an inmate, Kenneth Lockwood, returning just after the fall of the Berlin Wall - Worth watching as an insight into East Germany.

A short scene from the 1955 Colditz film -

Mighty Mo Rodgers Prisoners of War -

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