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Castle Wewelsburg in Paderborn

The Nazi castle designed to be the 'Centre of the World'

Image: Castle Wewelsburg |

In the 1930s, Heinrich Himmler was on the lookout for something suitably grand and impressive to house a retreat and training school for SS members. After failing to negotiate the lease on a castle near the town of Schieder-Schwalenberg in North Rhine-Westphalia, he settled on one 60 kilometres to the south called Wewelsburg. What started as an SS academy quickly morphed into something far more bizarre and sinister.

Now a museum, a youth hostel and a tourist attraction, the castle still bears the scars of its dark past.

Acquisition by the Nazis

Consisting of three towers linked together by thick stone walls in a triangular layout, the 17th-century Renaissance castle was just what Himmler was looking for. The owners of Wewelsburg reluctantly agreed to rent the fortress on a 100-year lease in 1934.

Initially, the plan was for it to be a training school for future leaders of the SS, but that soon changed when Himmler announced that the castle would instead be used for ‘Germanic pre- and early history, folklore studies, etc. as an equipment for ideological-political training’. In other words, the castle was to be used to brainwash new recruits into believing the same crackpot hodgepodge of mysticism, pseudoscience and racism that the SS leader believed.

From a school to occult headquarters

The school switched to teaching mythology, early German history, genealogy and folklore - all subjects Himmler was obsessed with as he believed they held the key to proving the Nazis’ racist ideology. Wewelsburg became a brainwashing centre where students were taught pseudoscientific nonsense.

Himmler believed in the theory of the ‘Aryan Race’ - the concept that he and his fellow Nazis were the direct descendants of an original, pureblood European race that was said to have originated in the mythical city of Atlantis. The Aryans, the Nazis believed, were superior to all other races and were thus destined to rule the world. Himmler used Wewelsburg to carry out research, while also hammering twisted Nazi ideology into the heads of young, impressionable men.

Reshaping the castle

Work began immediately to redesign the castle. A series of oak-panelled study rooms were constructed bearing the names of various kings from German history, as well as those of King Arthur (another of Himmler’s obsessions) and the explorer Christopher Columbus. Also built were a new guardhouse, a bridge, guest bedrooms, a canteen and dining room, an auditorium and an archive with a photo laboratory attached.

The centrepiece of the refurbishment was in the castle’s north tower. Construction began on two ornate rooms. Firstly, the ‘Obergruppenführersaal’ - an ‘SS General's Hall’ with a Nazi ‘Black Sun’ emblem embedded on the floor surrounded by 12 columns representing both the leaders of the organisation and the 12 Knights of the Round Table. Secondly, a former cistern in the tower’s basement was converted into a vault containing the mechanism for an eternal flame in the centre of the room surrounded by 12 pedestals. Nobody knows what the pedestals were to be used for as the room was never completed.

Himmler’s plans for Wewelsburg expanded as the years went by. He envisaged a huge complex of buildings with the castle at its centre. This was to be called the ‘Centre of the World’ and it would be where the victorious Nazis would rule over their vast empire having won the war. The castle would not just be a research and brainwashing centre but also become a place where high-ranking SS ‘knights’ could gather to perform occult rituals and where the remains of fallen SS officers would be interred for all eternity.

Had Himmler’s plan come to fruition, the nearby village of Wewelsburg would have disappeared. In its place would have arisen a series of grand buildings, several parks, a motorway, a dam with an attached power plant and even an airport. It was a hugely ambitious scheme that would have taken 20 years to complete. 250 million Reichsmarks were budgeted for Himmler’s Wewelsburg complex.

The use of slave labour

The vast majority of the construction work carried out at the fortress was done by slave labour. Originally shipped in and out from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, a dedicated labour camp was established in Wewelsburg in 1940 to house the workers who would bring Himmler’s vision to life.

Niederhagen was the smallest camp in the Nazi empire, housing Soviet POWs, captured foreign workers and the largest concentration of incarcerated Jehovah’s Witnesses in the prison system. Of the 3,900 who passed through the gates of Niederhagen, 1,285 died of typhus and a further 56 were executed. The camp was disbanded in 1943 and the remaining prisoners were sent to nearby Buchenwald.

Construction is cancelled

Work ground to a halt on Wewelsburg in 1943 when all resources were redirected to the war effort. A room above the Obergruppenführersaal that would have been a meeting room for SS-Gruppenführers never got off the drawing board, and the rooms below were left unfinished. Himmler’s grand plan for a Nazi version of Camelot was never realised.

Hitler committed suicide in April 1945, and Himmler followed suit a month later after being captured by the Allies.

After the war, Wewelsburg became a museum and a youth hostel. A memorial was erected in 2000 honouring the dead from the Niederhagen concentration camp. In 2010, a museum telling the story of the SS occupation of Wewelsburg was added and it now attracts visitors from around the world, all eager to learn the history of the castle that Himmler dreamed would one day be known as the ‘Centre of the World’.

Interesting facts about Wewelsburg

  • At some stage during the 1930s, Himmler had a secret safe built into the west tower of the castle. Despite numerous attempts to locate it, the safe has never been found and its contents remain a mystery.
  • Himmler banned anyone from visiting the castle without permission in 1935. In 1939, he ordered that nothing could be published about the castle, adding to its air of mystery.
  • The castle was to house all Death’s Head Rings of deceased SS-men and officers in a special chest. Rather than ending up in Wewelsburg, an estimated 11,500 rings - issued as a personal gift by Himmler himself - disappeared after the war.
  • In the dying days of the war in Europe, Himmler ordered the destruction of Wewelsburg. The American Third Army Division seized the castle before Himmler’s order could be carried out.