Germany’s Guilty Secret: Beaten, Drugged, Skewered

150,000 suffered at the jailers’ brutal hands. A few who lived tell David Rose and Anthony Glees their stories.

David Rose and Anthony Glees,
The Observer, UK,
August 10, 1997

The Lost Boys.

In Germany, it is not a secret that Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and the other Nazi camps were used for a short while by the Communists. But the official version promulgated during the Communist era remains generally accepted: that all the 150,000 post-war detainees – half of whom died – were Nazis.

Where does that leave Hubert Polus? When he was taken to Sachsenhausen in June 1946, he was just 16: he had never been in the army, much less the SS, and was starting an apprenticeship as an engineer. His father died in 1938 after a year in a Gestapo prison. “Believe me,” he says, “I was no National Socialist!”

But when the Soviet NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) came to his village just south of Berlin, they accused Polus and three other boys of belonging to the Werewolves – a cadre of young Nazis determined to restore the Third Reich through terrorism.

The Russians, and the German Communists who were being groomed to inherit the post-war regime, claimed the Werewolves represented a grave threat. In fact, there is not the slightest evidence they ever existed.

Like the families of the hostages seized by the Hizbollah in Beirut, Polus’s mother was never told his whereabouts: all she knew was he had vanished. Ignored by the authorities, she went to a clairvoyant, who said her son would come back in December 1947.

December came and went. “She was told I was coming home four days before my release in August 1948,” Polus says. “The other boys did not come home at all. No one knows where they died.”

In the new Germany, people like Polus do get compensation, worked out at a rate of DM550 (£190) per month of imprisonment. For his 26 months detained without charge in Sachsenhausen, Polus has received DM14,300 – about £5,000, enough to buy a modest second-hand car.

East Germany’s archives reveal that the first round-up of youths under 18 – some as young as 15 – took place just before Christmas 1945. The old Nazi camp at Ketschendorf became a giant jugendlager, a youth prison, where 20,000 inmates were held in 200-bed dormitories. Some 6,000 died. Another 1,089 youths died in Sachsenhausen, their names individually recorded. The youngest was nine.

The death certificates of 24 young inmates of the Waldheim camp showed they all died early on 4 November 1950 at five-minute intervals, allegedly of “heart failure.” In fact, they were hanged. Other batches, totalling several hundred youths, were killed on three or four days each month. The bodies were cremated at the camp and their families were given their ashes.

Were all these people really Nazis, war criminals who richly deserved their fate? Hubert Polus remembers the fellow inmates he watched die as “people who owned farms, who ran businesses, factories; shop owners; middle-class people who had a little money. Them or their young sons.” There were some lower-ranking Nazis, Polus avers. But they were a minority.

The Dissident and His Girlfriend.

It took time for the Communists to establish their authority after 1945, and terror was their principal political weapon. If its first target was what was left of East Germany’s bourgeoisie, another was potential opposition on the Left – liberals and Social Democrats, who in many cases had impeccable records as members of the anti-Nazi resistance.

One such was Hermann Kreutzer. Born in 1924 into a Social Democrat family in the province of Thuringia, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. He was posted to occupied France and, at incredible risk to his life, stole weapons and gave them to the French Resistance. In March 1945 he was arrested by the Gestapo for subverting the German army and jailed for 10 years.

Two months later the war was over, and Kreutzer set to work to re-establish his local SPD. Almost immediately, he began to hear of political arrests.

Kreutzer’s turn came in April 1949. The Communist Party had decided to take over the SPD: those who objected were to be treated with “administrative measures.” Together with his father and his fiancee, Dorothy, Kreutzer was accused of “counter-revolutionary activity,” interrogated and tortured.

“I was beaten, immersed naked in freezing water, prevented from sleeping,” Kreutzer says. “I quickly got used to signing anything.” After “confessing,” the Kreutzer men were taken to the former Nazi concentration camp at Bautzen, which the Communists had taken over for their own use. Dorothy went to Sachsenhausen.

As Kreutzer recalls Bautzen, he cannot avoid an involuntary shudder: “Imagine a room 30 metres long, 20 metres wide, with 400 starving people in it, just sitting and lying with nothing to do. No doctors, no drugs, and 50 per cent of us had tuberculosis.”

Kreutzer witnessed many deaths, some of close friends. The bodies would lie among the living until the next day’s roll call: thus the dead man’s ration could be shared. Then the corpse would be taken for an “autopsy” – a sabre through the heart, just in case the prisoner had feigned death in an attempt to escape. Once Kreutzer was ordered to join a party digging a mass grave. They had to begin again after hitting a jumble of bones several feet down.

In Kreutzer’s mass cell, half were old Nazis, living and dying with at least 100 of their sworn Social Democrat enemies. One of Kreutzer’s SPD comrades, Gerhard Veck, had earlier been held in the same cell where his mother had hanged herself while detained by the Nazis in 1933. Veck himself had been a prisoner at Buchenwald until 1944, then forced to join the notorious 999 punishment battalion, an experience few survived.

In 1950, the prisoners were ordered to choose a spokesman. The Social Democrats nominated Veck; the Nazis Gustav Wegner, the former Kommandant of Buchenwald, where Veck had cleaned the lavatories.

One morning, the Vopos, the People’s Police, came to the cell to introduce Bautzen’s new Kommandant, Erich Reschke. Like Veck, he had been a prisoner at Buchenwald during the war, when Wegner was in charge. Veck got to his feet and hobbled over to his erstwhile friend. “I always said we’d meet again,” he said. “Before, the Nazi was the boss, and the Communist was the prisoner. Now you are the boss, and the Nazi is the prisoner. Alas, for us Social Democrats, we are always the prisoners.”

Shamed by this meeting, Reschke promised to try to get Veck released. He was promptly arrested by the NKVD and sent to Vorkuta in northern Siberia for 25 years.

Kreutzer owes his release to the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, who lobbied Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, on a visit to London in the spring of 1956. After seven years of living hell, he and his father were free. Dorothy, however, stayed in detention.

Throughout their imprisonment, the only communication between the two lovers had been occasional garbled messages passed by circuitous means between their respective camps. Now, Kreutzer began a ferocious campaign for her release. He called a press conference in West Berlin, stating that, if she were not freed by 31 July 1956, he would walk back into the East and demand to be rearrested.

On the morning of that day, the doorbell of the house where Kreutzer was staying rang at 8am. It was Dorothy: the Vopos had simply removed her from prison and taken her to the frontier by train. “My father wept and wept, I was shaking like a leaf,” Kreutzer says. “We knew it was going to be difficult: we’d been locked up for so long. But that was good in one way – it meant there was no one else!”

Hermann and Dorothy Kreutzer were married that October: this year they will celebrate their 41st anniversary.

The Torture Victim.

As the Communist state grew more confident in the late 1950s, its way with potential opponents changed. Fewer died: the aim now was to break people. Of all the places where the Stasi practised their art, few were as feared Hohenschoenhausen, a former meat factory surrounded by Berlin housing estates.

Its unique place in the history of inhumanity is assured by the warren of cells in its basement, known among survivors as the “U-boat.” In the middle of the block, there is a set of torture cells. In two of them, naked prisoners spent days tied to a steel frame. Freezing water poured down little gutters; sometimes the Stasi allowed the level to rise until the water lapped beneath the victim’s nostrils.

Another cell was lined with thick rubber, so that a prisoner’s screams could not be heard. Here inmates would be placed in strait-jackets for days at a time, in darkness. They were not allowed to use a toilet: helpless, they became drenched in their own filth.

In 1961, just before his twentieth birthday, Gunther Toepfer, now a member of Berlin’s provincial assembly, made the mistake of fraternising with a group of American GIs. The Stasi told him he would not be punished if he became their agent. Toepfer refused. He did not emerge from the U-boat for more than seven months.

“I never even saw my jailers,” he says. “I only heard their voices. There was no toilet, only a bucket on the floor. Then I got dysentery. I could not wash, they gave me no powder or oil. After two days my backside stuck to the sheets; it became a mass of infected, stinking sores.”

Today Toepfer campaigns fruitlessly for reparation. “People think the GDR was a place with plenty of kindergarten places and cheap train fares,” he snorts. “It was a state which accepted death and extermination. Yet there has been a de facto amnesty.”

The Music Lover.

Some victims have chosen to deal with their demons by clinging to the sites where they were driven half-mad.

Should you visit Hohenschoenhausen, you might be shown round by a wild-eyed man named Charlie Rau. He spent 17 years there and in other prisons from 1969, when he was arrested on the Berlin Wall, craning to listen to an outdoor concert in West Berlin by the Rolling Stones – thus, his indictment said, “disturbing Socialist music culture and spreading terror.”

Or your guide might be the U-boat’s archivist, Mike Froehnel, who endured three long spells there after 1984. He says: “I work here now to come to terms with my experiences. I cannot simply carry them, or I would suffer a nervous collapse. It is our duty as survivors to tell what it was like.”

One day in 1993, Froehnel went to the west part of united Berlin to arrange some insurance. Suddenly he met the salesman’s eyes: he was the man who had tied him to a chair, beaten him and yelled in his ear. Froehnel said nothing, and walked out.

The Doped Swimmer.

None of those responsible for torture in the U-boat, or at other Stasi prisons, has been brought to justice. But Manfred Kittlaus and his police colleagues investigating GDR crimes still hope to charge another group of human rights abusers before the statute of limitations comes into force on 1 January, 1998: the doctors and sports officials who experimented on children as young as eight.

It has long been assumed that GDR athletes used drugs to enhance their performance. But two detectives, Uwe Bethke and Tomas Wuntke, have revealed two shocking truths. The first is that thousands of children were the subject of systematic experiments, carried out under the 1972 “state plan.” The second is that neither they nor their parents were ever told: they thought the drugs were merely “vitamins.”

“It involved all sports except sailing and gymnastics,” Wuntke says. “The doctors administered drugs to children at varying stages of development, in an effort to find out what worked best. Inevitably, as with any experiment, the results were unpredictable. Some of them are tragic.”

In charge of the experiments was the “Sports Medical Service” run by Manfred Ewald – a leading Party figure, whose media catchphrase was “I am sport.” He recruited latter-day Mengeles, who targeted the most promising athletes in each school year.

The officers’ dossier contains cases of people who were permanently damaged: medal-winning male weightlifters who have undergone mastectomies; women whose clitorises had to be removed after growing to grossly abnormal size; athletes of both sexes with irreparable liver and kidney damage.

One of the brightest stars of the last years of the GDR was Karin Koenig. By 1985, she had been European freestyle swimming champion twice: she was still only 16. Chosen for a special Berlin sports school at the age of 10, she was first given “vitamins” the following year.

After training, Karin and the other children were told to drink from a beaker bearing their name. Gradually, she says, the liquid became thicker and tasted more peculiar.

Later, in her early teens, she was also given blue tablets. She recalls: “It was always the same routine – out of the water, swallow the pills. Our blood and urine were checked regularly.”

In fact, Karin had been given male hormones and steroids. “We noticed that some of us were getting extremely muscular. But we thought nothing of it; our officials told us about doping, but said it was something that only the capitalists did. And my performance had greatly increased.”

Her success brought trips to Moscow and Cuba, and later a flat and a car. Now she lives with the consequences: “I feel much older than my years. My medical records are missing. I still don’t know exactly what I received. But I have been told I am likely to develop cancer. My voice is deep. I may not be able to have a baby.

“At the time I was proud of my medals. Now they are a burden, the gift of a system which perfected deceit.”

Kittlaus and his team hope to file cases within weeks. But he says: “I have a wall of evidence. So far it has been examined by five prosecutors and nothing has happened.”

The Wall of Silence.

If the statute of limitations deadline expires without these charges being laid, this will fit a dismal pattern. Privately, the Zerv officers examining Stasi crimes complain that dozens of earlier human rights cases they prepared could have been brought to court: but through the inaction or caution of prosecutors, and the absence of political will, the perpetrators of grave crimes have escaped.

In Germany today the scale and nature of the GDR terror system has been effectively suppressed. Sachsenhausen, Bautzen and the U-boat were the westernmost tip of the Gulag, the archipelago of repression which stretched from Berlin to Vladivostok. From 1945 to 1989, at least 30,000 East Germans bypassed the camps on their native soil: they went straight to Siberia. Many never came back.

In gloomier moments, those who try to raise their voices in an effort to restore collective memory feel they may shout until they are hoarse – no one is listening. Harald Strunz, a retired educationist who fled to the West after being jailed as a student in Jena in 1948, runs a 5,000-strong survivors’ organisation, the League of Victims of Stalinism.

“We campaign for proper compensation and for justice, against the statute of limitations,” he says. “I have to say that our efforts to persuade the German authorities of the importance of this issue have failed. We are desperate.”

Strunz, Toepfer and Kreutzer, who left the SPD in disgust after a career which took him to the highest echelons of the West German government, are convinced that part of the reason for the lack of will lies in secret agreements negotiated by Bonn and the dying GDR at the end of 1989: in return for the West’s granting immunity to the Communist leadership, it agreed to stand peacefully aside. Diplomatic sources suggest this theory is well-grounded.

The long-term cost remains uncertain. But all Europeans need to know that in Germany, as well as in Bosnia, criminals walk free and try to sell insurance to their former victims. “There will in the end be a biological solution to this forgetfulness,” says Strunz. “The perpetrators will die. And then, some time around 2040, the truth will come out. And people will say: how could this happen?”

Anthony Glees is Reader in German Politics at Brunel University.