Hidden history with Himmler, Hitler, Heß et al
Mere words or photographs cannot do justice to the jaw-dropping otherworldly beauty of Heilstätten Hohenlychen. Idyllic charms weave their magic to convey an air of secluded innocence, enveloping past nightmares in a cloak of dreamlike stupor, recurring euthanasia.
No traces remain of the atrocities committed here before, no references, no memorials, no signs of repentance. They get eaten by the words.
Its haunting spirits contrived to keep away my planned traveling companion so I* got there alone, tired and extremely cold after a long cycle, only to find the place engulfed in fog.
It was still, silent, eerily calm as I made my way around the site and down to the waterfront, where I disturbed a pair of napping ducks briefly before they accepted me into their peaceful world. Grumpy at first, they settled on a log floating on the lake and waited for the day to start.
Suddenly RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT rang out and shattered the silence. What the fuck?! RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT! There it was again! The ducks seemed unfazed and then I realized it was a woodpecker in the trees above, peckin’ wood, as woodpeckers do. Would peckers peck wood? You bet they wood.
I heard another one, off in some other trees and then I realized the place was full of them, pecking at trees like delinquent vandals, no thought whatsoever for the history these trees must have witnessed.
Gotthold Pannwitz oversaw the establishment of the sanatorium here at the turn of the 20th century under the auspices of the German Red Cross.
Tuberculosis was in vogue at the time and clinics to counter it were springing up wherever the air was fresh enough to deal with it. That was the cure at the time, before newfangled treatments involving antibiotics were developed.
Pannwitz was the go-to man for all your TB cures, and so the first sanatorium, for kids, arrived in 1902. The others for women and kids with various other ailments quickly followed, spreading as quickly as the disease they were fighting…
The interesting stuff happened afterward – Kaiserin Auguste Victoria visited in 1911 and the sanatoriums were used as military hospitals during World War I. Then the really interesting stuff happened, when the focus shifted from TB to sport.
The 1936 Olympics were coming up and naturally the Germans wanted to do well, particularly with the Nazis’ obsession of proving superiority over everyone else. (I could refer to Irish victories over Germany at this time but I’ll resist the temptation.)
The swimming pool and sports center were built and a department of sports medicine was established under the watchful eyes of Karl Gebhardt, who had been given the run of the place as chief physician in 1933.
Gebhardt was an old school pal of SS head honcho Heinrich Himmler. Himmler liked him so much he made him his personal physician in 1938. Both were beady-eyed evil fuckers.
Some truly horrifying things took place at Hohenlychen under Gebhardt’s watch, but I’ll come back to them later.
It started innocently enough – comparatively – with the focus on sport. Athletes enjoyed the best of facilities to ensure their success. The world’s first meniscus operations took place at Hohenlychen. (Allegedly. I’m open to correction.)
Otto Nerz, the German national team coach at the time, apparently spoke of a “Hohenlychen national team” able to beat all others due to the wonderful/dodgy practices being practiced.
But it wasn’t only sporting types who received treatment there. Important guests like Himmler and Rudolf Heß were there all the time! Getting doped up on morphine and having a blast.
Others followed, including Hitler and his henchmen, as well as international guests from Italy, England, France, Portugal, Chile, Peru and Argentina. Apparently the mayor of Tokyo spent his holidays here, as did the Greek royal couple.
More than 25,000 patients were treated between 1933-42, by which time of course the war was in full swing and the focus was on repairing soldiers as quickly as possible so they could go back to the fronts to send some other soldiers to other hospitals.
The aforementioned Gebhardt got into a spot of bother in 1942, when Himmler sent him to Prague to attend to Nazi Liebling Reinhard Heydrich, badly wounded in an assassination attempt.
Gebhardt believed Heydrich would pull through the injuries and declined to give him the early antibiotic sulfonamide, as suggested by Hitler’s physician Theodor Morell. This didn’t go down well with the Nazi top brass when their beloved comrade popped his clogs from blood poisoning eight days after the ambush.
Himmler told Gebhardt he’d better do tests to prove sulfonamide would have done nothing for Heydrich, and so the experiments on inmates from the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp, just down the road from Hohenlychen, began on July 20, 1942.
There was an ulterior motive too – blood poisoning was killing loads of German soldiers, ending their usefulness for killing soldiers than weren’t German.
So Gebhardt simulated battlefield injuries on 57 prisoners, breaking their legs, slicing them up, sowing bits of wood, fabric, glass and/or other debris into open wounds, leaving the injuries fester over days. Only then would he administer his drugs to see what effect they had.
Loads of his victims died of course, including some who were poisoned deliberately with pus injected into their veins.
Gebhardt didn’t give a damn. He got his reports, which he presented to Himmler on August 29. They played down sulfonamide’s effectiveness in treating infected wounds while playing up Katoxyn, which he had given to Heydrich.
Further experiments followed, in which Gebhardt investigated the drugs’ effectiveness on patients who were “treated” with gunshot wounds.
Himmler was impressed, and he wrote his old school buddy a thank you note exonerating him of all blame in Heydrich’s death. Gebhardt’s standing was unharmed, if not enhanced.
Later, in January 1944, he even treated chief Nazi architect Albert Speer for a swollen left knee and overwork, when he damn near killed him. Himmler allegedly wanted his chief rival out of the way.
Well, Gebhardt’s life ended at the end of a rope in June, 1948 after he was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial. He’d been up to his neck in cruelty. Perhaps it was apt that cruelty took his neck.
His accomplices were prosecuted, too. Fritz Fischer was also sentenced to death and Herta Oberheuser got 20 years. Kurt Heißmeyer somehow got away with his atrocities until much later, and even then, really, they all got away with them.
Ludwig Stumpfegger, who was Hitler’s second physician, committed suicide alongside Martin Bormann hours after Hitler did, like loyal dogs following in their master’s footsteps.
Gebhardt and Himmler, the snively nosed fucks, had attempted to negotiate a truce once they realized the Nazis’ days were numbered. They tried using the Swedish Red Cross as a go-between. Hohenlychen was already evacuated by the time of the third meeting on April 20, 1945.
The Red Army took over without a fight nine days later. They thrashed the place, stole all the valuable equipment, and then occupied the vacant buildings like gleeful parasites occupying a fruitful host.
The Russians stayed nearly 50 years, using some of the buildings to house soldiers and the rest as a hospital and maternity ward until they finally left on Aug. 31, 1993.
Their contribution to Hohenlychen’s troubled past is but a footnote, however. It doesn’t erase what happened before. No wonder the woodpeckers were banging their heads. They just want to forget.
LOCATION AND ACCESS (HOW TO FIND GUIDE)
- What: Heilstätten Hohenlychen. Began life as a complex of sanatoriums to treat tuberculosis and other ailments, became a wartime hospital in wartime, graduated onto “sports medicine” research and treatment, played host to evil hob-nobs and misguided royalty, then just evil and disturbing cruelty. By the time the Russians arrived they couldn’t lower the tone any further.
- Where: Pannwitzallee, 17279 Lychen, Germany
- How to get there: You’ll need to get a regional train, the RE4358, from Berlin Hauptbahnhof or Gesundbrunnen to Fürstenberg (Havel) and cycle the 15½ km from there. It’s a fairly straight route directly east. Bring gloves if you’re cycling early in the morning or you’ll arrive with frozen stumps where your hands should be. Here’s a map so you can attempt to make alternative arrangements if my suggestions don’t sound too appealing.
- Getting in: Go past the whole site until you see the church on your left, go behind that, and before you reach the lake (Zenssee), you’ll see where like-minded explorers have hopped the fence to get in. Be careful though! When I* went there were builders working on one of the buildings and I had to skirt around them to avoid being spotted. Only when I had explored the outer buildings did I dare attempt the ones closer to where they were, culminating in a tunnel right beside them. That was fun.
- When to go: Hohenlychen’s beauty needs to be appreciated in daylight, though builders tend to work in daylight too. I don’t think this is a good party location due to the abundance of protective neighbors who’ll have the Polizei on your tail at the slightest whiff of verboten.
- Difficulty rating: 7/10 Some buildings are easy, the good ones are not. Again I* had to squeeeeeeeeeeeze through a gap I could have sworn was smaller than I am. Luckily I was able to squeeze out again or you wouldn’t be reading these words.
- Who to bring: Someone who can squeeze their way through small gaps.
- What to bring: Bring sandwiches. I know, I must be getting old, but seriously, bring sandwiches. Hohenlychen is a very large site with more buildings to explore than you could shake a stick at in one go. Luckily, you’ll pass a Lidl or a Netto or one of those on your right as you approach – you can pop in there and get yourself some sustenance. Get yourself some beer and/or wine while you’re at it. Bring a torch for those dark places and a camera if you want to take pictures.
- Dangers: Watch out for the aforementioned builders, who are working on one of the houses on the site. I* approached them once I’d safely explored the site and asked how they were progressing. Apparently it’ll be a very, very, very, very, very long while before Hohenlychen is fully renovated. So there’s still time.
*I does not necessarily refer to a real person. Who knows if I exists at all? Descartes may have been a clever fella, but he didn’t put as much thought into disclaimers.
More unsanitary tales
Lurking in the shadows of the forest, Heilstätte Grabowsee creaks and groans through the gloom, sighing with echoes of the past as it sinks into decay.
Hitler and Honecker were among Beelitz-Heilstätten’s famous patients. The former TB sanatorium became the largest Soviet military hospital outside the USSR.
The Elisabeth-Sanatorium was built over 100 years ago, when many such facilities near Berlin treated TB patients. In DDR times, it became a top skin clinic.