Marcel Kreuger charts the fascinating past of one of Berlin’s most famous prisons…
“Tegel Prison lies to the northwest of Berlin and borders a small lake and the Borsig Locomotive Company housing estate. As I drove onto Seidelstrasse, its red-brick walls heaved into sight like the muddy flanks of some horny-skinned dinosaur; and when the heavy wooden door banged shut behind me, and the blue sky vanished as though it had been switched off like an electric light, I began to feel a certain amount of sympathy for the inmates of what is one of Germany’s toughest prisons.”
– Phillip Kerr, March Violets
It is surprising sometimes how much of today’s Berlin is still held together by the old bones of the German empire. The Amtsgericht district court in Wedding from 1906 is still an Amtsgericht, Plötzensee Prison from 1879 is still a working prison, and the Rotes Rathaus from 1871 is still the main town hall of the city.
Another red brick behemoth from imperial times is somewhat off the beaten track, and often bypassed by those on the way to the Tegel neighbourhood and the lake of the same name in summer: Tegel Prison. Passing by the prison on Seidelstrasse, there is not much that indicates a working male prison with a capacity for almost 900 prisoners, over 600 employees and a layout of more than 130,000 square meters.
The modern facilities are all hidden behind the original red brick administrative buildings from 1898 and the impressive crenellated main gate. But the prison is not a place where men are kept under lock and key, unseen from the world, and the structure has a prominent place in Berlin history.
Just like nearby Plötzensee Prison, Tegel was planned as a massive detention centre representing a more humane enforcement of sentences, complete with workshops, allotments and its own church. Construction began in 1896, and in October 1898 Tegel Royal Penitentiary opened—and closed again quickly and firmly behind the first inmates. By 1913, the structure regularly housed around 1,500 prisoners on average.
One of its most famous inmates before World War I was Wilhelm Voigt, the infamous “Hauptmann von Köpenick”, who, out of work in 1906, had dressed as a Prussian officer and ordered a contingent of troops to the town treasury of Köpenick town hall, where he raided the coffers.
His robbery exposed the blind belief of Germans in the Prussian army and received a large media response. He was apprehended shortly after and served a term of less than two years in Tegel, leaving after an official pardon by Emperor Wilhelm II. Voigt spent the next years on a press tour of Germany, appearing in his “Hauptmann” uniform and publishing an autobiography in 1909.
With the outbreak of World War I there was no more making light-hearted fun of the Prussian military. In 1916 one wing of Tegel became a military prison with staff provided by the Prussian Army. After the end of the war and the fall of the empire in 1918, the prison was renamed Tegel Penitentiary, and remained one of the main prisons of Berlin throughout the duration of the Weimar Republic. The narrative of one of the era’s most important books, Alfred Döblin‘s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1921), begins at the gates of Tegel with the release of main protagonist Franz Biberkopf:
“He stood outside the gates of Tegel Penitentiary, a free man. Only yesterday, he had been on the allotments with the others, hoeing potatoes in his convict stripes, and now he was wearing his yellow summer duster, they were hoeing and he was free. He leant against the red wall and allowed one tram after another to pass, and he didn’t take any of them. The guard on the gate strolled past him a few times, pointed to the tram, he didn’t take it. The awful moment was at hand (awful, why so awful Franz?), his four years were up. The black iron gates he’d been eying with increasing revulsion (revulsion, why revulsion) for the past years swung shut behind him.”
The main man at Tegel Prison from 1916 was superintendent Felix Brucks (1874 – 1938), who was dedicated to a humane way of treating the inmates. He was also in charge of the prison when, in 1932, legendary editor (and pacifist) Carl von Ossietzky was incarcerated following the so-called Weltbühne trial, against von Ossietzky and journalist Walter Kreiser, who were both charged with treason and betrayal of military secrets by publishing plans for rearmament in their left-liberal newspaper Die Weltbühne (which also employed Kurt Tucholsky, Else Lasker-Schüler and Robert Walser).
In 1929 Kreiser had published an exposé of a special Reichswehr, the army of Weimar Germany, which was secretly training in Germany and in Soviet Russia, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles; their arrests and subsequent trial widely seen as an effort to silence the newspaper and in particular von Ossietzky, whose entering the prison was used as a publicity stunt for the newspaper, with writer Alfred Polgar sketching a positive portrait of Felix Brucks:
“The head of Tegel Prison is Senior Prison Director Brucks. Those experienced in Tegel report that the director of the prison did not let the human dignity of his prisoners suffer because they had lost their civil dignity, and did not see his office as that of an earthly avenging angel. And the lawyers who were there say that the director’s first meeting with Ossietzky was such that all those who fear for the fate of the excellent writer may have confidence that no more harm will befall him as a prisoner than is already included in the very fact of being a prisoner.”
Both Brucks and von Ossietzky would not, however, survive Nazi Germany. A prisoner informed Brucks that the Reichstag fire of 1933, which provided the reason for the Nazis to turn Germany into a dictatorship by declaring a state of emergency, was actually caused by the SA, and over the next years Brucks kept investigating and trying to bring this claim to the courts, but many of his witnesses died or disappeared. He himself was forcefully sent on sick leave in May 1938 and died of unexplained causes a month later.
Carl von Ossietzky left Tegel after 227 days of imprisonment in 1932, but was rearrested by the Nazis in 1933 and spent the next years in the Sonnenburg concentration camp in Brandenburg, where he was continuously mistreated and tortured. Even receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936 did not free him: he died in 1938 of tuberculosis, which he had caught in the camp, still under strict observance of the Gestapo.
After the death of Brucks, Tegel became the tough prison Phillip Kerr describes through the eyes of his protagonist, 1930s private eye Bernie Gunther, in the opening quote. Contributing to this atmosphere was the fact that Tegel was the place where the guillotines for judicial murder in Germany were produced, Hitler having ordained in 1936 that the death penalty in the German Reich should be carried out exclusively by the chopping blade. Twenty execution sites were equipped with them, all produced by Tegel prisoners; the designation “Deutsches Fallbeil Modell T” (German Guillotine Model T) refers to the production site.
From 1940, one wing of the prison also became a dedicated Wehrmacht investigation prison, where soldiers accused of treachery or desertion where kept before their trials either at the Reichskriegsgericht court, if they were Wehrmacht members, or the infamous Volkgerichtshof. It was also the place where many German resistance fighters were incarcerated.
Among the inmates who went to their deaths for their convictions were Helmuth James Graf von Moltke (1907–1945), a founding member of the Kreisau Circle opposition group and one of the members of the July 20th plot to kill Hitler; Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (1907–1943); and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), a theologian and founding member of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church.
Like von Moltke, Bonhoeffer was involved in the 20th July plot and spent one and a half years in Tegel before he was transferred to Flossenbürg concentration camp and hanged in April 1945. As his connection to the plot was not immediately established and his uncle Paul von Hase was the military commander of Berlin, Bonhoeffer was allowed extensive correspondence while in prison. His letters paint of picture of the increasingly deteriorating conditions for the inmates as the war progressed, especially the horrible fact that they were not evacuated during the increasing Allied air raids on the city:
“That the rations are completely inadequate for longer periods of incarceration of younger people is obvious. No one is checking the weight of the inmates. Despite the fact that these are only prisoners on remand and soldiers on top of that who will be directly released to the army, it is strictly prohibited for food items to be sent from relatives, of which the inmates are informed under the threat of severe sanctions. […]
There are no bunkers for inmates. It would have been easy to build these in time given the workforce at hand. Only for the administration has a special bunker been built. If there is an alarm, only the top floors of the prison are being emptied and the prisoners locked into the cells on the ground floors. […] The screaming and raging of the locked-in prisoners during a heavy attack, people who are incarcerated for sometimes trivial offences or even as innocents, is unforgettable for those who heard it once. 700 soldiers are entirely defenceless against bombing raids here.”
At the end of World War II, French occupation forces quickly took over the prison in July 1945. All inmates were released, partly because the Nazi administration had destroyed most of the files kept here in the last days of the war, and parts of the prison, like some of the guard houses, had been destroyed during the Battle of Berlin. The prison was returned to the West German administration of the city in October of the same year, and immediately put back into operation.
In 1955 it was renamed Tegel Prison, and in 1957 five new watchtowers were built on the ring-shaped perimeter wall. In 1964 a new workshop complete with printworks was installed. Over the next decades, Tegel saw inmates from a variety of backgrounds and political inclinations. Andreas Baader was imprisoned in Tegel prison for an arson attack on a Frankfurt department store from April to May 1970, until he was violently liberated by Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof during a study outing outside the prison; this incident is considered the birth of the left-wing extremist terrorist organisation Red Army Faction (RAF).
Neo-Nazi Michael Regener was also incarcerated in Tegel from 2005 to 2008 for sedition and criminal activities; in 2006 the extremist right-wing party NPD organised a solidarity concert for him in front of the prison. The Russian FSB operative Vadim Krasikov, suspected murderer of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Chechen Georgian spy that was killed in Tiergarten in 2019, is currently incarcerated in Tegel.
But these infamous inmates still do not mean that Tegel is necessarily one the toughest prisons in Germany. Since 1968, prisoners here have been producing the prison newspaper Lichtblick (“Glimmer of Hope”), Germany’s only uncensored prison newspaper. And since 1997, the Berlin theatre project aufBruch has been organising theatre performances with the inmates, with the aim of making prison accessible to the public and giving the prisoners a voice.
While much of Tegel prison remains hidden from public view, it is very much still there, an essential part of Berlin’s past and present.