Renaissance Castle in Colditz – an eventful history
First built almost 1000 years ago, Colditz Castle looks back on a turbulent past. The first mention of a ‘burgward’ in Colditz dates back to 1046. As it happens, it wasn’t until around the year 1200 that the actual town of Colditz emerged, centred around the market square. By then, the castle complex had already overlooked the area of the modern town for almost 150 years. Colditz experienced its first heyday as a hunting lodge under the art-loving, internationally experienced Saxon elector Frederick the Wise (1486–1525). After a fire, caused by the baker’s journeyman Clemens Bock, devastated large parts of the town, the town hall, the church and the castle in 1504, the castle was rebuilt after 1506, especially around the year 1520. It underwent considerable extension and was overhauled in the early-Renaissance style. Large parts of these buildings, especially in the Electors’ House, survive to this day, including the paintwork on the beamed ceilings. In 1523, sections of the nearby forest were cleared to make way for a wildlife enclosure, which is still a popular tourist attraction today.
Colditz Castle was one of the most important palace buildings in Central Europe at that time. In 1523 the famous court painter to the Electors of Saxony, Lucas Cranach the Elder, immortalised the Colditz landmark as a decorative accessory in his painting The Golden Age. Colditz Castle experienced a second heyday under the Saxon Elector Christian I (1560–1591) and his wife Sophie of Brandenburg (1568–1622), who performed charitable work in Colditz – evidence of her can still be seen throughout the town. Augustus the Strong of Saxony was the last Saxon ruler to visit Colditz Castle with his hunting party. In 1787 the entire inventory was sold and in 1800 most of the animal park was converted into a state forest. In 1829, a state facility for the incurably mentally ill was established in the castle, replacing the workhouse built in 1803. Ludwig Schumann, the second-youngest son of composer Robert Schumann, was one of a number of well-known patients of the Colditz asylum. In 1933 and 1934, the castle was used as a protective custody camp for up to 600 anti-fascists.
“Oflag IV-C” prison camp
Under the name "Oflag IV-C”, during the Second World War Colditz Castle served as a prison camp for Allied officers from Great Britain, the Commonwealth, France, Belgium, Holland and Poland. The prisoners lived in the rear courtyard in the former electors’ quarters. Outside, the flat terraces surrounding the prison buildings were patrolled by armed guards and secured with barbed wire. Sports and theatre, making music and learning languages were some of the prisoners’ everyday activities. On 16 April 1945, American soldiers conquered Colditz Castle and liberated its inmates. After the Americans were succeeded by the Red Army in June 1945, the castle served as a collection point for expropriated and expelled landowners and their families in October and November of the same year. From 1946, Colditz Castle housed a hospital with an ear, nose, throat and eye unit; this facility was relocated in 1996.
Today, the castle belongs to the Free State of Saxony and is administered as part of the “Palaces and Castles of the Mulde Valley” under the direction of Rochlitz Castle. Since 1996, the non-profit association Gesellschaft Schloss Colditz e.V. has been committed to the castle’s preservation and its use for cultural and commercial purposes and as a museum. The historic rooms can be hired for celebrations and weddings. The castle also houses a youth hostel and the Saxon State Music Academy.
The Colditz Story
His heart “sank a little deeper” and he had to “surrender his soul to God Almighty” – this is how British officer Pat Reid described his arrival at Colditz Castle in his novel The Colditz Story. During the Second World War, he was captured by the Germans in northern France and transferred to Colditz in Saxony on 10 November 1940, after having escaped from his first prison in Laufen castle, Bavaria. From autumn 1939 until the liberation of 1945, the picturesque, white-gabled castle in Colditz was known as “Oflag IV-C” and served as a special prisoner-of-war camp for Allied officers. Colditz Castle shot to international fame, especially due to many spectacular breakouts and escape attempts. The Escape Museum in the former administrative building contains an exhibition that gives visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in the adventurous escape attempts of the Allied officers. It houses tools, equipment and much more on the subject of escape – a highlight that visitors to the Leipzig region should not miss!
Of daring attempts and successful escapes
Steep rocks, barbed wire, guard posts and bright spotlights earned the prison camp the reputation of being escape-proof. Nevertheless, between 1939 and 1945 more than 300 attempts were made to break out of the prison camp, 31 of which were successful. After the war, the at times spectacular escape attempts were the subject of several books and films, making Colditz Castle particularly famous in Great Britain, and it continues to attract visitors from the United Kingdom. The most recent such production was the 2005 TV miniseries Colditz. The Colditz Castle Escape Museum is dedicated to this exciting part of the castle's history. The museum brings the fascinating history of the castle to life, presenting authentic tools and equipment as well as a replica of a makeshift glider with which two prisoners wanted to escape across the river Mulde. Visitors can also marvel at a 44-metre escape tunnel and a homemade wooden sewing machine for making fake uniforms. An artistic take on life in the camp is provided by the exhibition of watercolours by British prisoner of war William F. Anderson, which evocatively depicts the everyday life of the Allied officers. Furthermore, an art installation in the basement of the Saalhaus building commemorates the victims of the early euthanasia murders at the Colditz sanatorium and nursing facility. The Leipzig artist Thomas Moecker installed 84 mattresses cast in concrete, making Colditz Castle a moving memorial site. The artwork commemorates the 84 psychiatric patients who died here.
The Escape Museum is open to visitors all year round from Monday to Sunday. Guided tours are offered daily in German and English.
Culture and nature in and around Colditz
Colditz Castle’s location in the triangle between Leipzig, Dresden and Chemnitz makes it an ideal starting point for exploring the city and its surroundings. The town of Colditz with its restored, original townhouses and the Renaissance town hall from 1657 exudes a unique charm that visitors can enjoy during a relaxing stroll along the historic alleyways. If you sit outside the castle café in sunny weather and enjoy delicious ice cream, coffee and cake, you’ll be bound to forget space and time in the quaint surroundings.
Events at and around Colditz Castle
Colditz Castle is a versatile event venue all year round. In addition to the monthly Blüthner concert series Colditz Classic, in the summer months music lovers can also enjoy various jazz and pop concerts and song recitals. The Laughter is Healthy cabaret series and various exhibitions mean there is something for everyone. Colditz Castle becomes truly enchanting in early December, offering Yuletide cheer in a historic atmosphere as it stages “Christmas at Colditz Castle”: the rooms and both courtyards are filled with festive decorations, candles and culinary delights. Traditional handicrafts such as wood art, stoneware, handmade paper and soaps, and plenty more are sold in the cellar vaults.
Research and text: Luise Karwofsky