Hitler’s Bunker on the Eastern Front: Wehrwolf Museum Reflects Ukraine’s Difficult Historical Position

Wehrwolf SquareIn September, TCUP Director Emily Channell-Justice went to Vinnytsia, Ukraine, for the Borderlands and Contact Zones conference. During the conference, attendees visited the Wehrwolf bunker museum. Here, she describes the museum and reflects on how Ukraine remembers its complicated past.

Adolf Hitler’s easternmost bunker, Wehrwolf, lies eight kilometers north of the regional capital of Vinnytsia. Hitler visited the site three times, and other leaders whose regimes were allied with the Nazis visited with even more frequency. 

Generals convene in front of a wooden building on the Wehrwolf site

The site is now an open-air museum with panels placed throughout to explain the history of the place and the chronology of World War II in Vinnytsia city and region. There are few remnants of what was once a city-like, well-developed area that boasted of not only living quarters for soldiers and visitors but also a church, a hotel, and a swimming pool. When the Nazis retreated from Vinnytsia, they blew up most of what they had built, and some speculate that the Soviets later destroyed what was left in order to repurpose the building materials.

The open, outdoor section of the historical site

Opened as a museum site in 2018, the territory of Wehrwolf and museum of the site’s history reflect Ukraine’s difficult position between the Nazi and Soviet regimes in the 1940s. The Nazi repressions in the region were intended to replace Ukrainians with German inhabitants, a move eerily similar to Stalin’s motivations for the Holodomor, the 1932-1933 famine that killed over 3 million people. The Wehrwolf site evokes weighty feelings from the legacies of the Nazi generals and allies who lived there. Yet the museum’s narrative of Soviet liberators is problematic in its own way. Panels placed around the outdoor site glorify underground Soviet Partisans who fought against the Nazis. 

Panel about the role of Soviet Partisans, who fought against the Nazi occupation

When describing the Nazi attacks, the captions use terms such as “peaceful civilians” rather than stating that the Nazis were explicitly targeting Vinnytsia’s Jewish population, which they decimated. Balancing such complex historical narratives in a museum is no easy feat, and visiting the site perhaps prompts more questions than answers as to how one should talk about history in Ukraine.

“Red Partisan” newspaper from 1943

A Tour of Wehrwolf*

* The information in this section comes from the panels at the site as well as the brochure from the on-site museum.

In July 1941, the entire Vinnyts’ka oblast’ was occupied by the Nazi regime. The occupation of the region continued for two years and eight months. According to official figures, during this time, over 200,000 civilian residents were killed, including 25,000 civilians in the city of Vinnytsia alone following mass shootings in September 1941 and April 1942. In order to use the regional psychiatric hospital as a casino for officers, 1,800 patients were shot, starved, or poisoned by the beginning of 1942. The occupying regime also built 18 camps for Soviet prisoners of war in the region, as well as ghettos, labor camps, and prisons for the region’s Jewish residents, practically all of whom were killed at the hands of the Nazi regime. Other citizens of the region, including women, were sent away to forced labor camps in Germany—61,000 people were removed from the Vinnytsia region to be replaced by German occupants. 

Women who were forced laborers for the Nazis

Women who were forced laborers for the Nazis

The building of the Wehrwolf site began at the end of 1941. While local builders were involved in the preliminary work, the hardest labor was left to Soviet prisoners of war, who suffered from starvation, illness, severe cold. Some 4,000 workers built the site, and according to records, all of them were killed and buried in a mass grave.

A destroyed bunker, with iron reinforcements visible

The Wehrwolf camp was divided into two parts, a central area and a general area. On this territory were various buildings: the Fuhrer’s building and bomb shelter, a bunker for officers, space for the security services, a building for high-ranking officers and personnel, a bathing area and barber shop, a communications area, a hotel, a casino, and a swimming pool. Altogether there were 81 wooden buildings and three bunkers (a general bunker, an officers’ bunker, and Hitler’s bunker). The bunkers were made of concrete, with 4.5 meter thick ceilings, 2.5 meter thick walls, and 10 mm iron reinforcements through the concrete.

Swimming pool

Currently, on the entire territory of the Wehrwolf camp, visitors can only see the remains of the three reinforced concrete bunkers and the preserved swimming pool. 

Hitler visited Wehrwolf for nearly four months beginning on July 6, 1942, in order to be closer to the Eastern Front as he launched his summer offensive on Stalingrad and the Caucasus. He again visited from mid-February to March 1943 and again for a few hours on August 27, 1943, to attend a meeting concerning the situation on the Eastern Front. Hitler relinquished control of the camp to Field Marshall Erich von Manstein in September 1943. Following the decision to retreat from Ukraine at the beginning of 1944, the Germans destroyed the structures at the site. 


The liberation of the Vinnyts’ka oblast’ began on December 28, 1943. Vinnytsia was liberated by the Soviet Army on March 20, 1944, followed by the entire oblast’ on March 26. Some 500,000 soldiers contributed to the liberation of the region. For their courageous participation in the battles, 125 soldiers were given the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Rebuilding the region cost the regime 196 billion rubles (cost at the time of the war).

Rethinking Ukrainian History

In the story of the German occupation of Vinnytsia, the Soviet Army are painted as the heroes. They certainly effectively liberated the oblast’ from Nazi rule. Yet given Ukraine’s recent decommunization laws, which condemn glorifying the Soviet regime (in addition to the Nazi regime), it is striking that the apparent heroism of the Red Army remains uncriticized in this museum. Indeed, the indoor museum portion features other cities “liberated” from the Nazis by the Soviets, including Prague—a narrative that would likely not be fully supported in Czech national history. As in (then) Czechoslovakia, the Soviet presence in Ukraine is also a story of repression, even if the Red Army did push the Nazis out of Vinnyts’ka oblast. Yet this side of the story is notably absent from the museum in Vinnytsia.


Is such a complex representation of history too difficult for a public museum? The panels explaining the events of 1941-1946 paint a black and white picture of World War II, in which the story ends at Nuremburg with the Nazis paying for their crimes. Many Soviet officials, on the other hand, have yet to be held accountable for their crimes; many even remain in positions of power in post-Soviet countries around the world. The problematic legacy of the “liberators” is not addressed anywhere in the museum. While not a simple topic of discussion, it would be beneficial for museums such as this extraordinary site to present history as complex, with plenty of gray areas, rather than continually supporting narratives of heroes and enemies. The truth is always much more interesting.

Emily Channell-JusticeEmily Channell-Justice is the Director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. She received her PhD in sociocultural anthropology from The Graduate Center, City University of New York, in 2016. Her research focuses on political participation and social movements in contemporary Ukraine, where she has done ethnographic fieldwork since 2012. She has received grants from Fulbright IIE and American Councils Title VIII Research Scholar Program, and she has taught in anthropology and international studies departments at Miami University (Ohio) and John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY).