Esterwegen Memorial Site
Remembering the “Moorland soldiers”

The Esterwegen Memorial Site, an information and documentation centre on the concentration camps in the Emsland region of Germany, was inaugurated at the end of October 2011 and has been designed by Hans Dieter Schaal and by WES & Partner Landscape Architects in cooperation with Hans-Hermann Krafft.

Esterwegen Memorial Site Esterwegen Memorial Site | Photo: Simone Schnase Hümmling is the name given to the range of hills from where, facing north, you can look out over the Emsland marsh and moorland landscape. On the horizon you can also make out the Küstenkanal, the old inland waterway that runs between the Ruhr district and the river Weser. It is a wonderful sight across a natural landscape and agricultural land, most of which has been cultivated for over a hundred years. For a long time hardly anyone wanted to know about the 200,000 people who were detained in 15 Nazi concentration and prison camps scattered across the region between Lingen and Papenburg, and how they played a major part in the cultivation of this upland moor landscape.

We are the “moorland soldiers”

The enchanting beauty and the tranquillity that visitors and residents experience in this prosperous region in the north west of Lower Saxony is something the prisoners were never able to enjoy. In 1933 those critical of the regime were the first to be held under cramped and unbearable conditions in these camps and were forced to work as “moorland soldiers“, as described in an autobiographical account with this title by the former prisoner, actor and communist, Wolfgang Langhoff. Activists like the publicist and Nobel peace prize laureate, Carl von Ossietzky, trade union leaders such as Wilhelm Leuschner and Fritz Husemann, social democrats including Julius Leber, Carlo Mierendorff and members of the resistance were among the first to be imprisoned. They were followed by convicted members of the Wehrmacht and then, up until 1945, by prisoners of war. This is where over 25,000 people lost their lives.

A common culture of remembering

Let us not forget them, but rather grasp and accept this part of history within a common culture of remembering in Emsland together with all European neighbouring countries and Israel. The decision to build a central memorial in Esterwegen was therefore finally made in 2006. With much dedication and commitment of the Landkreis Emsland an exemplary place that documents the history of all 15 camps has been created here, on the grounds of the former camp that was later used as a depot of the Bundeswehr. A Franciscan convent designed by the Bremen architect Ulrich Tilgner was built in 2006 as a first step to mark and keep alive the memory of the suffering of the prisoners and to serve as a place of encounter. A conversion to an information and documentation centre with exhibition, media and work rooms, library and cafeteria was then made in 2010, in cooperation with the architect Hans Dieter Schaal who is renowned for his exhibition concepts for the Bergen-Belsen and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp memorials.

An excellently laid out permanent exhibition takes the visitor through the history of the camps, provides information on the victims and the perpetrators and also gives an account of the reception history. The scientific and the pedagogical approach of this permanent exhibition is based on the work of the “Action Committee for a Documentation and Information Centre of the Emsland camps“ (DIZ) that began in the nineteen eighties.

Without words – Corten steel expresses transience

The landscape architects WES & Partner and Hans-Hermann Krafft, based in Hamburg, were awarded the contract for the exterior design and conceptual development of the former concentration camp site. Hans-Hermann Krafft has created a design that communicates with the landscape in form, colour and material and, while keeping it abstract, thoughtfully incorporates the few remnants of the original buildings and the more recent history as a military depot. The main original elements that were also visible from the outside, such as the watchtowers, gates and walls, are represented in abstract form with Corten steel slabs. The dimension of the original camp and the spatial impact are already perceived by the visitors as they approach – with no need for words. Using this steel and sparse gestures the landscape architects remind us of the inhumane acts of violence and cruelty suffered by the prisoners under the SS command, and they do this in a non-sentimental way. Already in 2001, under the supervision of historians, youth groups and voluntaries started to expose the camp road and the few remnants of the buildings that have been left in relief form.

American red oaks mark the area

Whereas nothing has been done to the former guards block, the locations of the prisoners’ barracks have been marked with American red oak trees. These scant, almost branchless trees were left over from the previous use of the site in the nineteen sixties. Today they mark the plots of the prisoners’ block. The number of trees approximately corresponds to the number of prisoners in one of the barracks. The spaces between have been covered with coarse dark brown gravel that is similar in tone to the peat soil of the surrounding area.

Connection with the moorland landscape

A most important aspect in the successful design of Hans-Hermann Krafft and the landscape architects WES & Partner is the reference axis leading into the moor, that extends through the halls of the documentation centre that have been converted by Hans Dieter Schaal. This imposing and striking reference to the landscape is made possible through Schaal’s design of the spacious entrance hall that is glazed on all sides. It represents an element that connects the different functions of the memorial site’s information and documentation centre and simultaneously serves as defined space for the “Moorland Soldiers“, giving their ordeal a visual dimension.