Updated: Mar 15, 2021
This Saxon castle has become something of a legend in the UK. Tales of escaping from the supposedly impenetrable fortress during World War II have been reimagined in a plethora of literature, films a 1970s TV show, and even a hugely successful board game. Yet the castle’s history is not as thrilling nor as glamourous as these products would have us believe. Abandoned, burned down and frequently repurposed, Colditz Castle has a turbulent and uncertain history.
The name Colditz actually refers to the town surrounding the castle, which was built around 1200. Built on the orders of King Henry IV, the castle initially served a military function as a defensive fort. In 1404, the Wettin family bought Colditz castle for 15,000 silver marks. Over the following century, the castle was burnt to the ground by invading Hussites in 1430 and rebuilt before being burned down again in an accidental bakery fire in 1504.
Reconstruction began under Augustus I, Elector of Saxony, who lived in the castle with his wife Princess Anna of Denmark between 1553 and 1586, and involved significant redesigning and extension of the castle, including the construction of one of the largest zoos of the time. With royal courtiers using the castle as a hunting lodge, Colditz town underwent a cultural and economic blossoming.
However, over the course of the 17th century, Colditz fell into both social and structural decline. Abandoned by the electoral royal court in 1753, its furniture and valuables were publicly auctioned off. In the 19th century, the castle began to serve a social function, first becoming a workhouse before being converted into a state psychiatric hospital for high-profile patients in 1829.
It was only under the Nazi dictatorship that Colditz gained its reputation as an impenetrable fortress, when the castle was converted into a specialist maximum-security prison, known as Oflag IV-C (Offizierlager IV-C; officer’s camp IV-C), for ‘incorrigible’ Allied officers who had repeatedly tried to escape from other PoW camps.
Its fearsome reputation was well-earned: would-be escapees had get past the guards, then either burrow through or climb the castle’s high seven feet thick walls, risking a 250-yard sheer drop, before somehow crossing the river Mulde. Once outside of the castle grounds, they faced a four hundred-mile ‘home run’ to relative safety in non-Nazi occupied territory.
Nevertheless, despite Hermann Göring’s claim that Colditz was “escape-proof”, Oflag IV-C actually had one of the highest escape rates of all German PoW camps, with between 30 and 35 successful escape attempts. As former Colditz guard Captain Reinhold Eggers later recalled, “We kept them in with rifles and machine guns. We searched them day and night. And yet they got out.”
Perhaps the most daring of escape attempt was the construction of a gilder (nicknamed the Colditz Cock) from floorboards and mattress covers by three British airmen, Bill Goldfinch, Tony Rolt and Jack Best, in the attic, although the castle was liberated before it could be put into action. Colditz however continued to function as a prison camp even after the end of the Second World War under Soviet occupation. Following the founding of the German Democratic Republic, the castle’s wartime past was suppressed and the castle itself was turned into a hospital and care facility.
Renovation and redecoration work on the castle began in the mid-1990s, which is now maintained by the Gesellschaft Schloss Colditz (Colditz Castle Society), who run tours of the site as well as the accompanying Escape Museum. You can even stay overnight in the on-site youth hostel, which overlooks the castle’s outer courtyard. However, there has been much debate over the castle’s sanitary make-over, which critics argue is an attempt to market the site as “a fairy tale castle” whilst removing the last reminders of the castle’s darker past.
Yet it is sad to say that of all its complicated and uncertain 800-year long history, the majority of 30,000 (mostly British) annual visitors to the castle only know of Colditz as a notorious POW camp, drawn to the site by the legendary stories of daring escapes and chance to ‘escape from Colditz’ for themselves. Perhaps it is time we learned to appreciate the whole Colditz story.