Beelitz Heilstätten: The Phantom Sanatorium

Catherine Lupton explores the history of Beelitz’s abandoned sanatorium…

Image by Catherine Lupton

The vast abandoned sanatorium complex known as Beelitz Heilstätten, southwest of Berlin, is surely one of the city’s most flagrantly open secrets.

Easily reached by train from Wannsee, Beelitz is a mythical destination for aficionados of urban exploration (urbex): the clandestine visiting, photographing and filming of abandoned buildings, as well as being an oddly popular spot with ordinary families and couples out for a Sunday picnic or stroll.

Beelitz Heilstätten was built in three discontinuous phases between 1898 and 1930, as a sanatorium commissioned by the National Insurance Institute to house and treat the mushrooming numbers of tuberculosis patients in rapidly-expanding Berlin.

The site in the Beelitzer forest was chosen because it already enjoyed good transport connections to the capital, and met contemporary therapeutic requirements for fresh, smoke- and dust-free air.

The first phase of building work, 1898-1902, under the supervision of the architects Heino Schmeiden and Julius Boethke, established a 600-bed state of the art treatment facility, the patients’ pavilion equipped with large, south-facing balconies for the ‘air-baths’ which were central to the early twentieth-century TB treatment regime.

The second building phase, 1905-08, supervised by Fritz Schultz, doubled the number of available beds, as well as adding outbuildings and infrastructure which turned the complex into a self-contained city for the ill, with its own post office, restaurant, beer garden, nursery, stables, workshops, kitchens, laundry, butcher’s shop and bakery.

The sanatorium was strictly divided along gender lines: women were accommodated to the west of the main road, men to the east.

Beelitz Heilstätten even boasted its own power-generating plant, with a 44-metre high half-timbered watertower, which has been restored and remains one of the most spectacular buildings on the site.

Image by Catherine Lupton

The surrounding countryside might be blanketed in snow, but the warmth from the power plant ensured that the ground at the sanatorium always remained clear.

During World War One, Beelitz Heilstätten was requisitioned for use as a military hospital, and in 1915-16 an infantry solider named Adolf Hitler convalesced there from a thigh wound received at the Battle of the Somme.

The formation of greater Berlin in 1920, combined with the social and economic turmoil of the post-war years, saw patient numbers rising sharply and then falling off during the 1923-24 inflation crisis, when some of the wards were forced to close.

With the return of relative stability in the mid-1920s, the final phase of building was undertaken 1926-30, the centrepiece of which was the women’s surgical building, demonstrating the medical advance of TB treatment into lung surgery.

Until a relatively recent spate of vandalism reduced their contents to wreckage, the operating theatres and their equipment survived miraculously intact, one of Beelitz’s most iconic attractions.

The sanatorium was requisitioned again for military use during World War Two. Parts of the site were bombed: the church was so badly damaged that it had to be demolished, while the women’s pulmonary medicine building remains a compelling, hollow-eyed shell, a virgin forest of fast-growing pines and hazel trees adorning what remains of its roof.

Under the Soviet occupation, Beelitz-Heilstätten became a closed military zone, upgraded for use as the main hospital for Soviet troops stationed in the region, and for high-ranking GDR officials.

In this latter capacity it housed a second notorious patient: in 1990 the deposed GDR leader Erich Honecker was briefly treated at Beelitz, before escaping to Moscow to try and evade prosecution for the deaths of the 192 East German citizens killed trying to escape over the Berlin Wall.

Image by Catherine Lupton

The Soviet military finally withdrew from Beelitz in 1994, and the 200-hectare site entered the to-and-fro limbo between optimistic visions of renewal and steady deterioration that it still occupies today.

From 1997, parts of the site were redeveloped as a medical training facility and rehabilitation centre for neurological disorders and Parkinson’s disease; today these operate cheek by jowl with the eerie, silent, boarded-up pavilions sliding inexorably into ruin.

Beelitz Heilstätten is the largest Grade II listed historical site in the Brandenburg region, so it cannot be simply bulldozed, but apart from the piecemeal purchase and restoration of individual buildings, the funds that would be required to restore and repurpose the site as a whole are conspicuously lacking.

The most recent move has been to erect an elevated walkway over some of the buildings, and open Beelitz up as an official destination made safe for tourism.

But even with these modifications, a visit to Beelitz is still far enough beyond the pale of conventional sightseeing to make for a memorable, if not exactly legal, outing.

Those who prefer to stay within the law can explore the unfenced exterior parts of the site in daytime without much risk of interception, or take one of the informative tours of the sanatorium grounds run by local historian Irene Krause (in German, spring through autumn, no access to any of the buildings).

Still, the real draw of Beelitz for most visitors remains the haunting, magnificently crumbling interiors of iconic structures like the bath house, gymnasium, and surgical buildings.

Image by Catherine Lupton

Entering these is trespassing on private property at your own risk (and derelict buildings are by their nature risky)—even though in the course of any visit you are more than likely to cross well-worn paths with plenty of other intrepid transgressors.

Common sense and caution are needed, especially since, following a fatality a few years ago, the site’s owners are doing more to board over doors and windows and brick up the service tunnels that were a popular route of entry, so gaining access to many of the buildings is by no means straightforward.

Abandoned, and yet a centre of compulsive attention, Beelitz Heilstätten remains well worth exploring, whichever side of the law you choose to enter on.

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