Relics of Germany’s past dot Army’s Grafenwoehr Training Area
By MARTIN EGNASH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 6, 2017
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — U.S. soldiers at the Grafenwoehr Training Area often notice a curious sight they wouldn’t find on bases back home.
There are scores of ruins scattered throughout the training area. Some as small as collapsed houses, others as large as whole villages, hidden just behind the tree line of some of the live-fire ranges. But what is the story behind these structures?
The town of Grafenwoehr proper dates back to the 9th century, but there were at least 58 smaller villages located on what is now the U.S. Army’s largest training area in Europe.
In 1938, the Third Reich drastically expanded the base from a small artillery range to a large training area, and forcibly evicted more than 3,500 people from the villages.
German Army Sgt. Maj. Gerald Morgenstern, a base historian and author of the book “Grafenwoehr Training Area Yesterday and Today,” said that though the Third Reich’s Resettlement Corporation offered new houses or financial compensation for their loss, many of the villagers did not want to leave the area.
“The loss of their property ... was very painful for the affected residents,” Morgenstern said. Prior to the expansion in 1938, Bavarian pilgrims flocked to several churches and holy sites on what is now the training area. Today there is only one completely undamaged chapel, the Wolf Hunters Chapel, located south of Camp Normandy.
Legend has it that the 17th century chapel was built by a hunter who shot and wounded a wolf, which then attacked and nearly killed the hunter. He then prayed to the Holy Trinity and the hunter’s son appeared and killed the wolf. The hunter later built this chapel on the very spot he nearly lost his life.
Church-goers in nearby Vilseck, where some of the evicted residents moved to, still make a yearly pilgrimage to this site every Trinity Sunday.
The largest pilgrimage destination in the area was to the village of Pappenberg, the ruins of which can be found bordering the base's impact area.
Pappenberg was remembered for its large church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and it’s “Black Madonna” painting. Today, the church is a tumble of arches, with growth covering every wall.
On a nearby tank trail, U.S. soldiers routinely drive past the ruined walls and cellars of the largest former village, Haag.
Haag, which once had more than 500 inhabitants, sat at the crossroads of trade between Regensburg and Bayreuth. Very little is left from its days of former prosperity. The old brewery can barely be seen today, and if it not for a complete restoration in 1992, the cemetery might have followed suit.
Today, family members of former Haag residents visit the restored cemetery, marked with ornate 19th century headstones.
The largest single ruin of the area, the Hopfenohe Church, has become somewhat of a landmark for soldiers training on base, even if they don’t know its history, said Morgenstern.
The large, red-brick church which sits near a tank range now, began as a knight’s estate in the 7th century. It was turned into a place of worship sometime in the Middle Ages, and was drastically expanded in 1935, by local priest Johann Ritter.
Ritter believed if the church was larger and more important, the Third Reich would allow it to stay. However, even with extensive renovations, they were forced to move.
“Most of the soldiers don’t know what they’re looking at, but there’s a lot of history here,” Morgenstern said. “There aren’t a lot of people left from these villages, so these (ruins) and a handful of historic documents are all we have left.”