15 April 2020

Hitler’s Hospital: The Eerie Remains of Beelitz Sanatorium

In the last years of the nineteenth century the population of Berlin was expanding rapidly. The attendant issues of housing large numbers of people in cramped conditions were not far behind.  By 1898 the German National Insurance Institute had a sanatorium built for the victims of tuberculosis.  Beelitz-Heilstätten (or the Beelitz Sanitorium) steadily grew and functioned for many decades, playing host to a number of infamous patients, including Adolf Hitler. Yet most of it is now abandoned.

Although just a short distance from the German capital, the Beelitzer forest was considered suitable for a sanatorium as the area enjoyed fresh air and countryside.  However when the First World War broke out in 1914 it was not long before it was requisitioned and converted to care for the massive casualties inflicted at the front.  In the later months of 1916 a young soldier called Adolf Hitler was sent there to recuperate from a thigh injury acquired during the Battle of the Somme.

The post war disorder of the early 1920s saw the expansion of the sanatorium so that thousands of the ill and recovering could be treated at any one time.  It operated almost like a small town:  it had its own butcher’s shop, bakery and laundry not to mention facilities to provide more of the creature comforts such as a restaurant and beer garden.

Although the economic crisis of 1923-4 saw a number of the wards forced to close, by the end of the decade the whole site was open once more and a new women’s surgical building was built which was considered a global frontrunner in the treatment of tuberculosis.

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The site even had its own power station which generated so much warmth that, even in the depths of winter, snow could never find a resting place in the grounds of the sanatorium.  During the 1930s the sanatorium continued to flourish although war was looming on the horizon.  It was requisitioned once again and was a military hospital for the duration of World War II, with several of its buildings destroyed by Allied bombing.

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After the war Beelitz- Heilstätten found itself under the control of the soviets, inside the German Democratic Republic (the name given to communist East Germany with no irony whatsoever).  It became out of bounds to ordinary East German citizens and was used as treatment center for the Soviet soldiers stationed in the area.  Those in the upper echelons of the East German government received treatment there too, including Erich Honecker.  The deposed leader of the GDR used the hospital as the starting point of a flight to Moscow after communism had crumbled and he feared prosecution for crimes against the German people.

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The Soviets finally withdrew in 1994 and the hospital was left empty.  As a set of buildings so long in the hands of what was essentially an occupying force it found itself in something of a legal limbo and it was not until three years later that part of the site was redeveloped.  Yet the vast majority of the buildings have remained empty ever since, half boarded up and slowly but inescapably sliding in to deterioration and ruin. Whatever ghosts roam Beelitz will probably be left to their own devices save for the intrusion of the occasional urban explorer.

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