Vetschau - Beyond the Spreewald lies a wondrous place. A site where present, past and future intersect. Near Lübbenau, the A15 autobahn leads past lignite mines, wind turbines, solar panels - and a round structure that from a distance resembles a small football stadium. Only when you get closer do you realise that it is a fortress built from wood and clay.
It's the only realistic replica of a Slavic fortress in Germany. Sixty metres in diameter and five metres high, the structure represents an important era in history: the Slavic settlement of what is now eastern Germany. Around 1000 years ago, the Western Slavic tribes largely dominated the lands west of the Elbe. The Slavs are as much ancestors of modern-day Berliners and Brandenburgers as of the Sorbs, who still live in the Lausitz region (Lusatia) today.
Those in the known will recognise from the disused land and the lakes in the vicinity of the fortress that this was once an open-cast coal mine. A curse and a blessing for archaeologists. Many historical artifacts were bulldozed away forever, while others were only discovered through the mining process. In 1984, the remains of a Slavic fortress built around 880 were excavated here. After the fall of communism, the decision was made to reconstruct it. Today, the building, which was completed in 2003, is a little-known museum.
Jens Lipsdorf receives his visitor on a sunny, windy day in front of a building bursting with contradictions. Lipsdorf, who was born in Cottbus in 1967 and has been the manager of the Slawenburg since 2019, took part in excavations during GDR times. "This is a Slavic fort, but the subject is actually open-cast mining archaeology," explains the archaeologist, "so we have all the periods in there and can play with them a bit."
Not only with the Slavic period, but also with the Germanic and even the Bronze Age history of the region. Since May 2021, the castle's outdoor area has featured huts, archery, bronze casting and iron forging. Due to corona, visitors should also be able to occupy themselves outdoors, as the castle reached its limit of 10,000 visitors a month. "The huts are deliberately not meant to be too authentic," says Lipsdorf. So as not to compete with the replica Slavic village in neighbouring Dissen.
There are many places of remembrance for the ancient Slavs, but their heritage is fragmented. For example, the Sorb communities in the surrounding area were hardly involved in the reconstruction of the fortress. Lipsdorf wants to change that. "In future, we want to communicate better how early Slavs came to be Sorbs. The Sorbs are Slavs, but not all Slavs are Sorbs." Just as every Bavarian is German, but not every German is Bavarian. To this day, the history between Germans and Slavs is full of misunderstandings.
Lipsdorf points to exposed logs in the walls of the fortress. This is to illustrate how the building was done back then. "The Slavs would have plastered the walls with clay, because otherwise the wood would have rotted." The circular rampart is only a façade. Beneath is concrete. It is hollow on the inside and accessible on top. This is not authentic, but it allows visitors to take a tour and enjoy the view of the surrounding countryside.
The museum inside the fortress displays shards, jars, coins and other artifacts from 12,000 years of local history. A monitor even describes finds from the Neanderthal period, from around 130,000 years ago. Lipsdorf stands before a map on which the names of Slavic tribes are marked. "There's hardly a topic among historians and archaeologists as controversial as the Slavs: where they came from, who belonged together and how, what became of them," says the archaeologist. So who were the Slavs that lived in this fortress?
"Here in the region, the Lusitzi formed as a tribe, which is where the name Lusatia comes from," he explains. "They then merged into a Slavic federation later known as Sorbia." The Eastern Slavs, or Wends as they were also called, never formed a single unit. Around Berlin, a good 1000 years ago, the Sprevani tribe lived on the fortified island of Köpenick and while the Hevelli lived at Brenna, a fortification on the site of the modern-day town of Brandenburg on banks of the River Havel. In Lusatia alone, there is evidence of 60 different Slavic forts in a small area.
Lusitzi means "swamp dweller". When Slavic tribes migrated to the east of what later became Germany from the 7th century onwards, the region was made up of forests, swamps and sand, which is probably why the Germanic tribes had abandoned the area beforehand. "There were two breaks: after the Bronze Age and after the Germanic tribes," explains Lipsdorf. "In both cases there was such excessive over-exploitation of nature that ecological catastrophes ensued." Too many trees were cut down, the wind covered many a village with sand. "We should learn from that today," says the archaeologist - looking out at a landscape that was restored after the end of open-cast mining.
What drew the Slavs west is unclear. "It was probably simply a new territory to settle, where they had peace and quiet and could defend themselves well," speculates Lipsdorf. The marshes were a good strategic location. The fortresses were probably storage facilities for supplies. Only when attackers approached did the presumably 200 inhabitants of the neighbouring village retreat behind the ramparts.
Apparently, the Slavs began building such fortresses in the 9th century, a good 200 years after their arrival in eastern Germany. Lipsdorf explains: "There was a threat situation. From the west came the Germans, or Ottonians, as we would have said at the time. Warring groups were also invading from the southeast."
The Ottonian noble Gero ruled with a heavy hand after the conquest of the area in 963 but the Slavs were "only" required to pay tribute temporarily. "They were able to live their lives here," says Lipsdorf, "until the 12th century, when land was claimed by Germanic settlers, which led to mixing, but also greater differentiation between Germanic and Slavic." Nevertheless, the Sorbian-Wendish language was widely spoken in the Middle Ages. Only with industrialisation was the minority culture suppressed.
As his dog sniffs the wood of the castle rampart, Lipsdorf looks out into the Spreewald, the forest region where 70,000 people still speak Sorbian today. Down in the courtyard flutters an advertising banner reads: "The Slavs are back!" Were they really ever gone?
Slawenburg Raddusch, Zur Slawenburg 1, 03226 Vetschau, Tel. 035433 / 592 20, www.slawenburg-raddusch.de