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Authors: Roger Moorhouse

Berlin at War (49 page)

figure far beyond that registered by any other regional office in Germany.

By August of that year, the figure had risen further, to 1,478, meaning

that, on average, around fifty Berliners were arrested by the Gestapo

every single day.37 One might assume from these figures that the chances

of arrest for an offender were greater in the capital than elsewhere. But,

in fact, by head of population, Berlin had a Gestapo arrest rate that was

broadly similar to those found elsewhere in the Reich.38

For those who found themselves under arrest, their first stop would

have been the cells at a local station, or at the central police head quarters

at ‘Alex’. While conditions were generally bad, Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse

was described by one memoirist as the ‘Gestapo prison
de luxe
’, a place

in which its inmates actually feared being sent elsewhere.39 Yet, with

the watchers and the watched


most prisoners there being held in solitary confinement, conditions could

hardly be described as comfortable.

The solitude permitted time for often painful reflection. As one inmate

wrote, ‘Once the cell door closes one has plenty to do pondering the

situation and asking oneself “Where will all this lead?”, “When are you

going to get out of here again?” And the more time passes, the more

the question runs through your mind, “Will you ever get back to your

family alive?”’40 For the writer Günther Weisenborn imprison ment

in Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse gave rise to some unsettling insights into the

human condition. ‘When you spend your days’, he wrote, ‘sitting hand-

cuffed on a stool in a wholly unheated basement cell, without a book,

hungry, in almost total darkness, you are almost embarrassed by the

thought of what humanity has accomplished.’41 Another inmate

summed up his predicament quite succinctly: ‘sitting in a cell hour after

hour with nothing to do; to see time, which is the very substance of life,

as an enemy to be destroyed . . . [this] is an exquisite form of torture.’42

While the prisoners at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse agonised in isolation,

those at ‘Alex’ were faced with different challenges. There, over-

crowding was the primary problem, as the cell blocks could contain

up to four times the capacity for which they had been designed, some-

times holding over two thousand prisoners.43 There would be no space

for them to lie or even sit, they were simply pressed together, bathed

in sweat.44 Food was predictably awful, consisting mainly of a thin,

indeterminate soup, served once a day and containing perhaps a single

potato or a piece of fatty meat. Some inmates called this soup ‘Lorelei’:

like the mysterious rock from German mythology, no one was entirely

sure what it was supposed to be.45 As one inmate recalled: ‘If one was

imprisoned by the Gestapo for two weeks, one was lucky. But if one

was there for six weeks, it was like a life sentence.’46

Those prisoners collected for interrogation each day would have

feared for their lives. Dangerous as they were, however, interrogations

did not begin with violence and generally proceeded correctly, although

repetitiously.47 The suspect would be interrogated for hours every day;

asked the same questions over and over and persistently reminded that

the interrogating officer already knew everything about the case

anyway. Typical, perhaps, was the experience of one man who had

been hauled down to ‘Alex’ in his nightclothes: ‘God knows what [he]

had done’, a colleague wrote: ‘He never found out. No evidence was


berlin at war

ever produced. There was no trial. For months he lived within the

grey dungeon walls of Alexander Platz. He was questioned for hours

each day with no apparent purpose but to exhaust him and drive him

mad.’48 That almost certainly
the purpose of such treatment, to

see if a suspect would crack and begin to change his story or to divulge

the secrets the Gestapo believed him to be hiding. In some cases, it

seems the interrogators tired of the chase and released their prisoners:

the cell door would simply be opened one day and the prisoner would

be informed that he was to collect his effects and leave.

Others were not so fortunate. In those cases where the investigating

officers believed vital information was being withheld, they could

employ the euphemistically titled
Verschärfte Vernehmung
– ‘enhanced

interrogation’. Such methods could include comparatively mild proce-

dures, such as sleep deprivation, reduced rations or isolation.

Another Gestapo favourite was the use of bright lights, which would

be shone into the faces of suspects or prisoners. When Christabel

Bielenberg went to Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse in the winter of 1944, to

plead on behalf of her husband who had been arrested in the after-

math of the 20 July Plot, she was called into an interrogation room:

I came to a dead stop inside the door. For a moment or two I was

completely blinded. The room seemed smaller, it was warm and airless

and all I could make out was the vague shape of a writing desk in the

corner. Arc lights seemed to be fixed behind the desk, somewhere near

the ceiling, and they were focused on the door . . . instinct told me I

would not be able to stand those lights for very long.49

To her surprise, when she asked the officer if the lights could be switched

off, he complied. Nonetheless her ‘interview’ lasted nine hours.

Prisoners would be routinely subjected to much worse treatment,

with no such leniency afforded them. Beatings with sticks or rubber

truncheons were commonplace. One suspect lodged a formal

complaint, claiming that he was thrown against the wall with such

force that one of his teeth was knocked out. The official report into

the incident cast doubt on the claims, suggesting that the suspect was

mistaken, but nonetheless noted that after the application of the

‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques a full confession was submitted.50

Yet the Gestapo had free rein to develop more imaginative tech-

the watchers and the watched


niques, showing a level of brutality that was only matched by their

diabolical ingenuity. As one French victim testified, the methods of

his interrogators included:

(1) The lash

(2) The bath: the victim was plunged head-first into a tub full of cold

water until he was asphyxiated. Then they applied artificial respira-

tion. . . .

(3) Electric current: the terminals were placed on the hands, then on

the feet, in the ears, then one in the anus and one on the end of

the penis.

(4) Crushing the testicles in a press specially made for the purpose.

Twisting the testicles was frequent.

(5) Hanging: the patient’s hands were handcuffed together behind his

back. A hook was slipped through his handcuffs and the victim was

lifted up by a pulley. . . . The arms were often dislocated.

(6) Burning with a soldering-lamp or with matches.51

Some of the techniques outlined in the documents from the Gestapo

in Berlin, though less immediately spectacular, are no less inventive,

especially as it appears that officers at Alexanderplatz often had to

make do without specialised torture apparatus. One Gestapo officer,

for instance, placed pencils between the fingers of an uncooperative

suspect, which were then crushed. Another stabbed the bare chest of

a prisoner, again using a pencil.52 Other methods had a grim, almost

comedic quality. One interrogator would simply lock recalcitrant

suspects in a small cupboard, with the instruction that they were to

knock when they were ready to talk.53

The real torture took place at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, where not only

the specialised hardware, but also the specialist torturers were to be found.

One of the most infamous cases of torture in the building was that of

Fabian von Schlabrendorff, one of the circle of plotters rounded up in

the wake of the failed attempt on Hitler’s life in the summer of 1944.

In his memoirs, he described his treatment in the interrogation rooms:

This torture was executed in four stages. First, my hands were chained

behind my back, and a device which gripped all the fingers separately

was fastened to my hands. The inner side of this mechanism was studded


berlin at war

with pins whose points pressed against my fingertips. The turning of

a screw caused the instrument to contract, thus forcing the pin points

into my fingers.

When that did not achieve the desired confession, the second stage

followed. I was strapped, face down, on a frame resembling a bedstead,

and my head was covered with a blanket. Then cylinders resembling

stovepipes studded with nails on their inner surface, were shoved over

my bare legs. Here, too, a screw mechanism was used to contract the

tubes so that the nails pierced my legs from ankle to thigh.

After these modern variations of the medieval ‘iron maiden’ failed to

produce the required results, Schlabrendorff’s torturers resorted to

more elaborate techniques.

For the third stage of torture, the ‘bedstead’ itself was the main instru-

ment. I was strapped down as described above, again with a blanket

over my head. With the help of a special mechanism this medieval

torture rack was then expanded – either in sudden jerks, or gradually

– each time stretching my shackled body.

In the fourth and final stage I was tied in a bent position which did

not allow me to move even slightly backwards or sideways. Then the

Police Commissioner and the Police sergeant together fell on me from

behind and beat me with heavy clubs. Each blow caused me to fall

forward, and because my hands were chained behind my back, I crashed

with full force on my face.54

Eventually, after falling unconscious, Schlabrendorff was returned

to his cell; the following day, the thirty-seven-year-old suffered a serious

heart attack. He was certainly not alone in his suffering. Even those

who had been exposed to less rigorous forms of interrogation often

returned to their cells physically broken and mentally scarred.

It is not surprising that some inmates were driven to suicide. Though

belts, braces, razors, towels and even spectacles were removed from the

prisoners or were strictly controlled, those who were determined or

desperate enough could always find a way to take their own lives. One

inmate of Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, the communist John Sieg, managed

to hang himself in his cell. A number of others were able to slit their

wrists, or to use a momentary distraction during an interrogation to

the watchers and the watched


leap from an upper-floor window.55 In many such cases the authorities

were reluctant to release the body of the prisoner to their next of kin,

as the corpses often showed the telltale signs of torture and abuse.56

Once the interrogation process was complete, a fortunate few were

released without charge and returned to their families, exhausted,

unshaven and hollow-checked. Many, however, found themselves

consigned to one of the myriad camps that dotted the countryside around

Berlin, and that formed the very backbone of the Nazi police state.

There were different types of camp for different classes of miscreant.

Forced labourers would be sent to one of the

or ‘work education camps’, such as those at Wuhlheide, in the south-

eastern suburbs, or at Fehrbellin to the north of the capital. Political

prisoners, in particular, could find themselves shipped to one of Berlin’s

regular prisons, such as Moabit, Plötzensee or the notorious women’s

prison on Barnimstrasse, where the regimes were still harsh but at

least inmates might be spared the arbitrary violence and deliberate

neglect of Wuhlheide.

Perhaps it was this comparative comfort that meant that Moabit lent

its name to a number of literary endeavours that were penned within

its walls. It was there, for instance, that the Soviet Tatar poet Musa

Dzhalil wrote the poetry cycle that became known as
The Moabit

. Though he had his arm broken and his fingers crushed in

an earlier interrogation, he was nonetheless able to complete more

than one hundred poems before he was executed in August 1944. The

notebooks, entrusted to his fellow prisoner and cell mate André

Timmermans and smuggled out of Moabit, were published in the Soviet

Union in 1953.

Perhaps the best known of Moabit’s poets, however, was the geog-

rapher Albrecht Haushofer. A professor of geography at the Humboldt

University in Berlin, Haushofer had studied with Rudolf Hess in post-

war Munich, but had thereafter drifted away from Nazism, before

finally joining the conservative opposition and being implicated in the

plot to kill Hitler in July 1944. Arrested and imprisoned in Moabit, he

spent much of his time between interrogations composing sonnets,

through which he contemplated his fate and that which had befallen

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