Plötzensee Prison and Memorial

Marcel Krueger profiles one of Berlin’s grimmest memorials…

Named after the nearby lake, which is well-known to any serious Berlin city bather, Plötzensee prison was created by the Prussian government, under King William I, as a modern penal institution in the nineteenth century. Planned by architects Paul Spieker and Heinrich Hermann and built between 1868 and 1879 on the southern outskirts of Tegel forest north of the Berlin-Spandau Ship Canal, the red-brick “Strafgefängnis Plötzensee” originally had space for up to 1,400 inmates on a 26-hectare site complete with church and Jewish prayer area.

The largest prison in the entire German Empire when it opened, it was also the last place that those who received the death penalty in the German Empire (and subsequently the Weimar Republic) would ever see. From its opening in 1879 until 1933 there were 36 executions carried out in Plötzensee, all for charges of murder. The following twelve years, however, were infinitely more ominous.

Between 1934 and 1945, the notorious Berlin “People’s Court” or Volksgerichtshof—a kangaroo court set up after the Reichstag fire which ‘political offences’ including black marketeering, defeatism, and treason against the Third Reich—helped sentence more than 16,560 people to death, of which over twelve thousand were killed by April 1945. Almost 3,000 of those took place at Plötzensee.

The former execution shed at Plötzensee, which is now part of the official memorial. Image by A.Savin, via Wikipedia.

After Hitler rose to power in 1933, the prison housed both regular criminals and political prisoners, and became one of eleven execution sites established in 1936 throughout Nazi Germany; together with Brandenburg Prison it was the main execution site in the central German Reich. Each site was operated by a full-time executioner carrying out the ever-soaring numbers of death sentences, especially after the penal law was tightened in World War Two; following a 1943 agreement with the Wehrmacht, Plötzensee also became a site for the execution of army members sentenced to death for desertion, conscientious objection, and “subversion of the war effort”.

Among those murdered in Plötzensee were people of all social classes and political persuasions whose intentions and desires did not fit into the National Socialist system; people like resistance fighter Cato Bontjes van Beek, a young woman who had worked with the “Red Orchestra” resistance group and was executed just weeks after her 22nd birthday; Tatar poet Musa Cälil, who had come to Berlin as a POW and set up a resistance group among fellow Soviet POWs; star pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, who was killed for confiding in a friend of his mother—who subsequently denounced him—that Hitler was an “insane man”; and Jewish kindergarten teacher Sala Kochmann, who had formed a resistance group with her husband Martin and committed an arson attack against a propaganda exhibition in the Berlin Lustgarten. Kochmann had to be carried to her execution on a stretcher because of the beatings she received from the Gestapo after her arrest.

The Nazis beheaded convicts with a guillotine and, from 1942, also by hanging; a beam was set up the execution chamber to serve as gallows for up to eight victims at a time. All executions were carried out in a small red-brick shed that had been designated a killing place after 1933 (before then executions were carried out with an axe in the prison yard, according to the old German imperial penal code). Condemned prisoners were held in the large cellblock named Haus III, directly adjacent to the execution shed, where the machinery of the Third Reich denied them any dignity—a public prosecutor informed the doomed prison inhabitants of their impending death on the evening before their execution or, towards the end of the war, just a few hours beforehand.

The interior of the execution shed. Image by Markus Schweiss, via Wikipedia.

This perverse killing system functioned until the end of the regime—indeed, even more so as it began to die itself. After bombing raids in September 1943, State Secretary Curt Rothenberger of the Reich Ministry of Justice ordered the immediate execution of more than 250 prisoners to “prevent their escape” from the half-destroyed prison: 186 were hung in a single night, waiting in double file across the courtyard and along the corridors behind. Less than a year later, the participants and accomplices in the failed assassination attempt of the 20 July 1944 also died here; Hitler gave special orders to have the agonising deaths of the men filmed. The last execution in Plötzensee took place on April 18th, 1945, just seven days before the remaining 750 prisoners were liberated by the Red Army.

After World War Two, the prison buildings that had been destroyed by bombing raids and artillery fire during the Battle of Berlin were rebuilt and housed a youth detention centre until 1987, when it became a men’s prison again, and which it remains to this day. There had been plans to turn the execution shed into a site of remembrance from 1945 on. Although it was only seven years later, in September 1952, that the remaining two rooms with the preserved gallows beam dedicated, it was still one of the first memorials dedicated to the victims of the Nazis in Berlin.

Memorial exhibition. Image by Alter Fritz, via Wikipedia.

In the space adjacent to the grisly execution room, an exhibition (in German and English) maintained by the Stiftung Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand documents the wartime court system and some of the individual fates and life stories of some of the people who were persecuted and killed at the prison via photographs, texts about their lives, copies of their files. All the victims are listed in the Totenbuch von Plötzensee, the Plötzensee Book of the Dead, an electronic archive placed in the exhibition that lists all the victims by name and nationality.

Aside from this, a large grey wall bears an inscription dedicated to the “Victims of the Hitler Dictatorship 1933 – 1945” and to the side sits a large stone urn with earth from the German concentration camps. On nearby Heckerdamm, part of the Paul-Hertz-Siedlung built in 1970, is the Gedenkkirche Plötzensee (Plötzensee Memorial Church) which contains the “Plötzenseer Totentanz”—the Plötzensee Danse Macabre—a series of 16 images created by Viennese artist Alfred Hrdlicka (1928 – 2009) as another memorial for the victims.

Berlin, July 20, 1991—a ceremony commemorating the resistance against the National Socialist tyranny on the occasion of the 47th anniversary of July 20, 1944,

The relative minimalism of the site is intentional. The image of the cold, bare, white-walled room, with its steel beam and five hooks on which so many people were killed, is difficult to forget, symbolising the Nazi contempt for life and the grisly, unadorned horror of its regime. Like all good memorials, it helps ensure we ‘never forget’.

Image article header courtesy of Alter Fritz via Wikipedia


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