An Englishman abroad
I know I’m not the only one but I love a bit of dereliction. Discarded items in abandoned buildings have a very special poignancy. They’re a chance to see what happens when life stops, but time keeps ticking.
Berlin has more than its fair share of abandoned places. Most are fenced off and boarded up. You often have to trespass to get in but it’s always clear that you’re not the first. You have to go against your normal, law-abiding instincts but Beelitz-Heilstätten is a popular, if unorthodox, attraction.
It’s also a dangerous site and you need to take care. Floorboards are rotting, ceilings are collapsing. One of these days, something is going to fall on someone. For now, I’m willing to break-in – without actually breaking anything. Have no impact, leave no trace.
I feel a little odd writing about Beelitz-Heilstätten. So many people have done it already and I don’t have any new insights to offer. A quick Google of this place will help you find the same handful of stories (see links below for my sources) and some amazing photographs. On the other hand, this blog is supposed to be about my time in Berlin and this was a particularly memorable day – so, “hey,” I thought, “write it up”.
Beelitz-Heilstätten was built in the 1890s to treat the increasing number of people suffering from tubercolosis. It became a military hospital for the imperial German Army during First World War and was taken over by the Soviets after Second World War.
Adolf and Erich
Beelitz-Heilstätten has treated two German dictators – Adolf Hitler and Erich Honecker. Hitler came to Beelitz in 1916 after injuring his leg at the Battle of the Somme. Erich Honecker was treated here for cancer in 1990, shortly after standing down as leader of East Germany.
As I wandered around the enormous hospital complex, and there are around 60 buildings within it, I imagined a young Hitler recuperating in the leafy grounds. Perhaps limping or on crutches. I couldn’t help but wonder what the world would be like if he hadn’t survived WW1.
Beelitz-Heilstätten is spectacularly atmospheric and evocative. Your imagination doesn’t need much encouragement to go off on a tangent. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to say that somewhere is haunted. It just means there’s a strong sense of what went on in the past. By this definition, Beelitz is the most haunted place I’ve ever been to.
There is part of me that feels sorry for Erich Honecker during his time at Beelitz. By then, it was 1990, he had liver cancer and the world had changed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. He was the former leader of a former country. Instead of being Erich Honecker, he became ‘disgraced head of state, Erich Honecker’.
Honecker left Beeltiz and fled to Moscow in an attempt to escape prosecution. As leader, Honecker was ultimately responsible for East Germany’s border policy and he was to be put on trial for the deaths of 192 GDR citizens who died or were killed while trying to cross the border illegally. The Russians extradited him back to Germany in 1993 but he was deemed unfit for trial on grounds of ill-health. Erich Honecker died later that year in Santiago, Chile.
I’m not saying Honecker was a nice guy or that he deserved anything better in his final years – but 192 deaths? Compare that to thousands of deaths George W. Bush and Tony Blair are ultimately responsible for. And they’re free VIPs. Free to earn millions and travel the world – all under the protection of state-funded security.
Sometimes, history can be so unfair…
Perhaps the most unpleasant and gruesome Beelitz story is that of Wolfgang Schmidt – aka The Beast of Beelitz. He was a serial killer who stalked the area and murdered six people between 1989 and 1990. He always left a calling card of an item of pink lingerie – having also used it to restrain and strangle his victims. In 1990 he attacked the wife and child of a senior Beelitz physician – crushing the child’s head on a tree before gagging the mother, raping and eventually strangling her.
Thankfully, Schmidt was caught when he attacked two young female joggers. They were able to over-power him and raise the alarm. What a dreadful story.
Our visit to Beelitz-Heilstätten was one of the most fascinating things we’ve done in Berlin. It’s a real find but not really a secret anymore – if it ever was. Perhaps there’s a future for it but it’s hard to see what that could be. Even if some billionaire entrepreneur developed it into a health spa, there aren’t enough de-toxing customers to fill Beelitz-Heilstätten. For now, the place crumbles a bit more each day and the damp seeps a little deeper into the beams, stone and brick work.
As you walk round such prestigious buildings, you realise that without people and without a use, they’re just bricks and mortar. But even as bricks and mortar, it’s hard to grasp how something so beautiful could have such little value.
Click on the image below for Beelitz photo gallery.
Most of the information above came from the following websites:
Here’s a nicely made, full-length documentary about Beelitz-Heilstätten (in German).