Arriving at Lübben train station isn’t a thrilling experience. It certainly doesn’t give you the impression that you’ve arrived in a charming small town at the edge of a beautiful nature reserve. I double-checked the map and set off towards Lübben’s historic centre, a couple of kilometres away. Things improved almost immediately. I passed a memorial to Red Army soldiers who died fighting in the area and entered a lovely woodland, Der Hain, before arriving in the town proper.
It was still early morning and Lübben seemed half asleep, although I suspect that may apply regardless of the time of day. I’d planned to walk the 10km to confusingly named Lübbenau, but wandered around the streets before heading for Schloss Lübben. The castle dates back to the 12th century, but this version of it was built by Duke Christian I of Saxony-Merseburg in 1682. It is a striking building that sits on the edge of large parklands with picturesque waterways, and it was of course closed.
Lübben was in the East after the Second World War, and there are plenty of buildings that carry the stamp of Soviet brutalist architecture. One that doesn’t is the Gothic Paul Gerhardt Church. I’d never heard of Gerhardt, but he is considered to be the most important German hymn writer of the 17th century, some claim the greatest European hymn writer, of all time. A staunch Lutheran theologian, he worked as an archdeacon in Lübben from 1669 until his death in 1676.
In 1931, the city renamed the Church of St. Nicholas after him. It too was closed. I took this as a sign that it was time to leave town. I made my way through the Schloss park to a branch of the River Spree, the Hauptspree, which I’d follow all the way to Lübbenau passing through green meadows, verdant forests, and slow-moving waterways on the way. Even though it was a weekend, and this is a popular walking and cycle route, it was very peaceful.
The Spreewald has a rich and fascinating ecology, with wetlands, forests and meadows in seemingly equal measure. The whole area is criss-crossed by the hundreds of small waterways that have been created as the River Spree passes through this area. Tall reeds densely fill areas of the water, attracting a multitude of small birds. Occasionally I saw the flash of a brightly coloured kingfisher, while birds of prey glided effortlessly along the meadow floors. Frogs lept into the water. I even saw an otter.
Today, these natural charms are protected by law and the whole area is an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Wind back to April 1945 though, and things were anything but peaceful. The Spreewald was the epicentre of the Battle of Halbe, part of the larger Battle of Berlin. It was here that 150,000 soldiers of the German 9th Army, surrounded by a vastly superior force of three Russian Armies, attempted a daring escape: to break out and head west to surrender to the Americans.
Things did not go as intended, with only around 25,000 German troops escaping death or capture at the hands of the Russians. The Russians had already surrounded Berlin and the operations in the Spreewald were merely ‘mopping up’ exercises. The German efforts to escape were chaotic and casualties were very high on both sides, but several thousand civilians also managed to escape with the German forces. It must have been a terrifying ordeal at the end of the cataclysm of the Second World War.
It’s a struggle to reconcile these facts with the charm and tranquility of the area today, but every year the remains of those who died in the fighting are found. That though, should not prevent anyone from exploring this wonderful region.