Colditz Castle is a Renaissance castle in the town of Colditz near Leipzig, Dresden, and Chemnitz in the state of Saxony in Germany. Used as a workhouse for the indigent and a mental institution for over 100 years, it gained international fame as a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II for "incorrigible" Allied officers who had repeatedly escaped from other camps.
The original castle
In 1046, Henry III of the Holy Roman Empire gave the burghers of Colditz permission to build the first documented settlement at the site. In 1083, Henry IV urged Margrave Wiprecht of Groitzsch to develop the castle site, which Colditz accepted. In 1158, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa made Thimo I "Lord of Colditz", and major building works began. By 1200, the city around the market was established. Forests, empty meadows, and farmland were settled next to the pre-existing slavic villages Zschetzsch, Zschadraß, Zollwitz, Terpitzsch and Koltzschen. Around that time the larger villages Hohnbach, Thierbaum, Ebersbach and Tautenhain also emerged.
In the Middle Ages, the castle played an important role as a lookout post for the German Emperors and was the centre of the Reich territories of the Pleißenland (anti-Meißen Pleiße-lands). In 1404, the nearly 250-year rule of the dynasty of the Lords of Colditz ended when Thimo VIII sold Colditz Castle for 15,000 silver marks to the Wettin ruler of the period in Saxony.
As a result of family dynastic politics, the city of Colditz was incorporated into the Margraviate of Meißen. In 1430, the Hussites attacked Colditz and set city and castle on fire. Around 1464, renovation and new building work on the Castle were carried out by Prince Ernest, who died in Colditz Castle in 1486. Under Frederick the Wise and John the Gentle, Colditz was a royal residence of the electors of Saxony.
The rebuilt castle
In 1504, the servant Clemens the baker accidentally set Colditz on fire, and the city hall, church, castle and a large part of the city went up in flames. In 1506, reconstruction began and new buildings were erected around the rear castle courtyard. In 1523, the castle park was turned into one of the largest zoos in Europe. In 1524, rebuilding of the upper floors of the castle began. The castle was reconstructed in a fashion that corresponded to the way it was divided up — into the cellar, the royal house and the banqueting hall building. There is nothing more to be seen of the original fortified castle, where the present rear of the castle is located, but it is still possible to make out where the original divisions were (the Old or Lower House, the Upper House and the Great House).
The structure of the castle was changed during the long reign of the Elector Augustus of Saxony (1553–1586), and the complex was reconstructed into a Renaissance style castle from 1577 to 1591, including the portions that were still in the gothic architectural style. Architects Hans Irmisch and Peter Kummer supervised further restoration and rebuilding. Later, Lucas Cranach the Younger was commissioned as an artist in the Castle.
During this period the portal at what is known as the church house was created in 1584, made of Rochlitz Porphyr (rhyolite tuff) and richly decorated in the mannerist style by Andreas Walther II. This dimension stone has been in use in architecture for over 1000 years. It was at this time that both the interior and the exterior of "the Holy Trinity" castle chapel that links the cellar and royal house with one another were redesigned. Shortly thereafter the castle became an administrative centre for the Office of Colditz and a hunting lodge. In 1694, its then-current holder, Augustus the Strong, began to expand it, resulting in a second courtyard and a total of 700 rooms.
The modern castle
In the 19th century, the church space was rebuilt in the neo-classic architectural style, but its condition was allowed to deteriorate. The castle was used by Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony as a workhouse to feed the poor, the ill, and persons under arrest. It served this purpose from 1803 to 1829, when its workhouse function was taken over by an institution in Zwickau. In 1829, the castle became a mental hospital for the "incurably insane" from Waldheim. In 1864, a new hospital building was erected in the Gothic Revival style, on the ground where the stables and working quarters had been previously located. It remained a mental institution until 1924.
For nearly 100 years, from 1829 to 1924, Colditz was a sanitorium, generally reserved for the wealthy and the nobility of Germany. The castle thus functioned as a hospital during a long period of massive upheaval in Germany, from slightly after the Napoleonic Wars destroyed the Holy Roman Empire and created the German Confederation, throughout the lifespan of the North German Confederation, the complete reign of the German Empire, throughout the First World War, and until the beginnings of the Weimar Republic. Between 1914 and 1918, the castle was home to both psychiatric and tuberculosis patients, 912 of whom died of malnutrition. The castle was home to several notable figures during its time as a mental institution, including Ludwig Schumann, the second youngest son of the famous composer Robert Schumann, and Ernst Baumgarten, one of the original inventors of the airship.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they turned the castle into a political prison for communists, homosexuals, Jews, and other "undesirables". Starting in 1939, allied prisoners were housed there.
Use as POW camp
After the outbreak of World War II the castle was converted into a high security prisoner-of-war camp for officers who had become security or escape risks or who were regarded as particularly dangerous. Since the castle is situated on a rocky outcrop above the Mulde river, the Germans believed it to be an ideal site for a high security prison.
The larger outer courtyard, known as the Kommandantur, had only two exits and housed a large German garrison. The prisoners lived in an adjacent courtyard in a 90 ft (27 m) tall building. Outside, the flat terraces which surrounded the prisoners' accommodation were constantly watched by armed sentries and surrounded by barbed wire. Although known as Colditz Castle to the locals, its official German designation was Oflag IV-C and it was under Wehrmacht control.
Although it was considered a high security prison, it boasted one of the highest records of successful escape attempts. This could be owing to the general nature of the prisoners that were sent there; most of them had attempted escape previously from other prisons and were transferred to Colditz because the Germans had thought the castle escape-proof. One lavish scheme even included a glider that was kept in a remote portion of the castle's attic, although it was never used because Germany surrendered to the Allies before the scheduled date of the planned escape.
Captain Patrick R Reid, who successfully escaped from Colditz in 1942, wrote two detailed books about the living conditions and various escape attempts at Colditz from 1940 to 1945: The Colditz Story and The Latter Days at Colditz. In the early 1970s, these were made into a BBC television series starring David McCallum, Edward Hardwicke and Robert Wagner.
In April 1945, US troops entered Colditz town and, after a two-day fight, captured the castle on April 16. In May 1945, the Soviet occupation of Colditz began. Following the Yalta Conference it became a part of East Germany. The Soviets turned Colditz castle into a prison camp for local burglars and non-communists. Later, the castle was a home for the aged and nursing home, as well as a hospital and psychiatric clinic. For many years after the War, forgotten hiding places and tunnels were found by repairmen, including a radio room set up by the British POWs, which was then "lost" again only to be re-discovered some ten years later.
The current castle
During 2006–2007, the castle underwent a significant amount of refurbishment and restoration which was paid for by the state of Saxony. The castle walls were repainted to reflect the look of the castle pre World War II.
With renovations largely completed, the castle now includes both a museum and guided tours showing some of the escape tunnels built by prisoners of the Oflag during World War II. The chapel, although accessible to visitors, is in disrepair.
The outer courtyard and former German Kommandantur (guard quarters) have been converted into a youth hostel / hotel and the Gesellschaft Schloss Colditz e.V. (the Colditz Castle historical society), founded in 1996, has its offices in a portion of the administration building in the front castle court.
In 2010 the hotel was featured in an episode of the series 15 episode 5. Top Gear television series.
As of mid 2011, a replica of the Colditz Glider had been completed, and plans put in place to install the replica in the original glider workshop above the chapel.
- Booker, Michael. Collecting Colditz and Its Secrets. London: Grub Street, 2005. ISBN 190494308X pp. 32
- Reid, P. R. 1953. The Latter Days. Hodder & Stoughton. Also as The Latter Days at Colditz, 2003, Cassell Military Paperbacks. ISBN 978-1-4072-1466-5.
- Reid, Patrick. Colditz: The Full Story. New York: St. Martin's, 1984. ISBN 0312005784 pp. 124, 259–263
- Schädlich, Georg Martin, Tales from Colditz Castle. Thomas Schädlich/Colditz Society, 2000. pp. 4–6, 27, 61, 63, 91–101.
- "Exposé on Colditz Castle: Description of the Building" from the Colditz tourism webpage. Retrieved March 19, 2005.
- "What is special about Colditz Castle?" from the Gesellschaft Schloss Colditz e.V. homepage Retrieved March 19, 2005.
- Colditzer Schlossgeschichte "Colditz Castle Story" from the same homepage. Retrieved March 19, 2005.
- German army records indicate the camp was in existence from September 1939 until April 1945.
- Further reading
- Official web page
- Official Society Colditz Castle homepage
- ColditzCastle.Net — a definitive history & guide to visiting Colditz Castle — large photo gallery.
- VirtualColditz.com — Videos and photos of Colditz Castle as it is today.
- Detail Aerial Photograph Detail from an aerial photograph of Colditz Castle in Saxony, Germany, on 10 April 1945 just three days before US forces overran the area. Individual prisoners can be seen in the photograph
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