Geesthacht: Germany’s powder chamber

Watching the Netflix series Transatlantic I was surprised to hear someone say that they hadn’t met since Geesthacht. Until recently, I’d never heard of this town in northern Germany and truth be told, had I not been meeting up with an old friend, I’d probably never have gone there. Yes, I know, it’s only 34 km from Hamburg, but then, Hamburg wasn’t on my list either.

It’s a fascinating place. The thatched houses, the broad expanse of the River Elbe, and the old hotels and churches make it a curiosity but in and of themselves, perhaps not something you’d make the detour for. It’s only when you get into the forests that the magic happens.

Let’s go back to 1865, when Alfred Nobel buys 42 ha of land on the Krümmel (an expanse of gorges and sandhills) where, close to the Elbe, he builds the first nitroglycerin (invented by the Italian scientist Sobrero) factory in Germany.  [German lesson: Krümmel is an Ortsgemeinde (a community) that belongs to a Verbandsgemeinde (an administrative unit typically composed of a small group of villages or towns).]

This wasn’t Nobel’s first rodeo though – he had built other nitroglycerin factories, but this was the first was in which he had the majority shares. He called it Alfred Nobel & Co. Today, in the area at the foot of the hill where his villa still stands, you can find Nobelplatz.

Red brick house with white framed windows, four on each floor and four dormer windows in the roof. There's a green bush fence in front and some tall tress to the left and right
A house Alfred Nobel once called home

Working in the factory wasn’t the safest of jobs to have. I’ve watched enough movies to know that nitroglycerin is very explosive, the manufacture, handling, and transportation of which are hazardous. The buildings were spaced out and surrounded by solid protective walls in an effort to limit the damage should an accident occur.

And it did. In 1866. This prompted Nobel to go back to the drawing board and come up with an explosive that was more user-friendly – dynamite. In the next seven years, Nobel went on to build 14 dynamite factories in Europe. But the one at Geesthacht was the first. By 1910, it was the largest production facility for explosives in Europe, employing some 600 people. By the end of WWI, the payroll hit 2,750. And during WWII, 9,000+.

Nobel was quite the prodigy. The son of an inventor, he was educated in St Petersburg with a focus on chemistry and languages: he spoke Swedish, Russian, English, French, and German. A man without issue, he reputedly said: “My home is where I work and I work anywhere in the world.”

Immortalised by the Nobel Prize which bears his name, his invention – dynamite – would go on to change the face of mines, roads, and tunnels forever.

Fast forward some 21 years to 1887 when Nobel has another stroke of genius and comes up with Ballistite, ‘a smokeless propellant made from two high explosives: nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine.’ It was another first that would go on to form the basis of cordite.

When he died, he left most of his millions 31 million Swedish Krona (today approx. 1.3 billion Swedish Krona, or $126m €115m) to be invested with the return being “distributed annually as a reward to those who have shown the greatest benefit in the past years of mankind.” Hence the Nobel Prize in five areas: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and brotherhood of peoples (peace).

In its heyday, by 1945, the plant comprised some 750 buildings in a secure, fenced, classified area of 5 square km.  Today, the place is littered with concrete rubble, with one intact water tower.  As I stood looking up at the old water tower on the Krümmel, I wish I’d known more about the man himself. It was only later that I read about his philanthropic convictions: “I find it more important to tend the stomachs of the living than to honor the glory of the dead with monuments.” I wonder what he’d have thought of his lasting monument to his work and plans to turn the water tower into a museum?

Red bricked water tower with three visible vertical panels each with three windows. The top panel runs around the tower with six windows showing. To the bottom on the right is a flat-roof two-storey building with four windows on each floor. IN the foreground are bushes and in the background, tall trees

Back in the town, in the trees behind a residential area is what’s known locally as Bunker Forest. Here, in 1877, Max Duttenhofer built the Düneberg powder factory on ​​the grounds of the Besenhorster Sandberge. It’s a tad surreal to see a large expanse of sand in the middle of an oak forest but this isn’t the only wow you’ll get from a walk in this particular woods.

Sand dune in a forest - grass in the foreground then a bank of sand with a line of trees in the back against a blue sky
Photo by E. Cano.
Forest path with two stone pillars on either side and a red and green barrier to the right. The pillars have old Roman guards painted on them.
One of the entrances to the old powder factory

For ten years, 1935-1945, raw powder from Nobel’s dynamite factory was processed and tested here. During WWII, as with many large industrial complexes, both plants used forced labor from nearby camps in addition to local workers. I can’t begin to imagine what life was like for the captives but to add insult to injury, to know they were producing a product that would ultimately be used to kill their neighbours defies belief.

11,270 workers from the Düneberg and Krümmel factories were housed in camps near the production sites during the Second World War. The camps were called Spakenberg (for 1,500 German workers), Börnsen (in houses), Grenzstraße (in barracks), Heidberg (in houses), Sandstraße (in barracks), Grünhof (in barracks), Reichsstraße (2,500 Soviet prisoners of war in barracks). After the war, refugees were admitted to empty camps. In the 1950s the camps were cleared and demolished. [7]

Among the foreign workers were 3,800 “Ostarbeiter”, 3,520 French, 1,375 Italians, 1,055 Dutch, 320 Poles and 177 Belgians. [8] “If you take the population of 8,500 in 1940 as a basis and compare this with the number of 12,902 foreign workers and prisoners of war, you can see that almost 2/3 of all residents of Geesthacht were non-German”. [9]

Today, there are marked trails for walkers and horseriders, an archery site, and a dog-training place. And there are the snails. Millions of them. Huge things. But bigger still is the bunkers. The forest floor undulates, the carpet of green moss disrupted by the projecting roofs of bunkers whose underground existence was exposed when, in 23 minutes on 7 April 1945,  “118 B-24s dropped 325 tons of high explosives, mostly 500 lb., and 0.5 ton of incendiaries”.  In hindsight, this was thought to have been a little indiscriminate, but in fairness, enough’s enough:


Ruins of a concrete bunker standing in a forest setting

In the last few weeks of the war, a few powder and explosives plants were subjected to bombing when other targets became scarce. But apparently no discrimination was used in selecting targets. For instance, the Dueneberg plant of Dynamit A. G. and the Kruemmel plant, 4 mi away, from which the Dueneberg plant got its raw cordite paste, were both bombed the same day. The destruction of Kruemmel would have closed Dueneberg, and so there was actually no necessity for bombing Dueneberg.

Two workshops still stand, their roofs a second forest floor where trees have rooted and grown, deliberately planted to camouflage the goings on beneath.

Geesthacht – Germany’s powder chamber – isn’t an international tourist destination. But it could be. There is a wealth of history buried in the forests and hundreds of stories just waiting to be told.


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