Different buildings are constructed for different purposes, some such as houses we sleep in, some such as churches, we pray in, some such as schools, we learn in, and some such as prisons, we accommodate undesirables in, for the good of society. With time some of these buildings fall into disuse or get repurposed. Those that are too old, unsightly or plain unlucky get demolished to make room for new buildings. In the course of their lives, these buildings bear witness to everything that takes place within them. Sometimes the walls really do have ears and after years of listening, the buildings that stand the test of time scream out on the streets to whoever will care to listen to their story. This is the story of a prison whose testimony intrigued me so much, I stayed back to listen.
I first heard about this prison from colleagues who were planning to visit it for an assignment of some sort. I was moderately interested in the place. What lingered in my mind was the sheer accessibility of this place. My idea of a prison is a highly guarded place that is only accessible to inmates, the wardens, and possibly people intent on visiting their loved ones who are locked up behind bars.
“Why does this place sound so inviting to the curious?” I asked myself. Soon enough I figured out that this is not just another run of the mill prison, it was a defunct one. “But prisons go defunct every time,” said the voice in my head. Okay, the voice in my head didn’t really say that, but it makes for a great segway to what blew my mind about the prison. It was an old East German Prison, a defunct Political Prison from the Cold War era. The voice in my head said “A POLITICAL PRISON FROM THE COLD WAR!!” In the days that followed, I found myself going deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole that is this prison’s history.
I made several visits to the place and did some reading about it. I found out many things about it including starting with its construction in the 19th century, followed by its use by the Nazi’s Gestapo and later by the Stasis to detain political dissidents. Somewhere between the Second World War and the Cold War, this facility was bombed by the allies. The former prison is no longer a prison but a memorial founded and operated by former political detainees who use the facility to tell the world about horrors they were subjected to because of openly expressing dissatisfaction with the powers that were in former East Germany.
My efforts to read up on the place were for the most part hampered by a majority of the literature is available only in German (Which I don’t particularly enjoy reading owing to my slow pace). I sought to change that for English speakers/readers who may be interested in finding out a more concise story about the prison. In this article, I share what I found out about Zuchthaus Cottbus (Cottbus Prison), now known as Menschenrechtszentrum (Human Rights Center) Cottbus.
Timeline of the Prison’s Developments
1855-1859: Construction of the prison
1860: Official opening of the facility as a prison of the Kingdom/ king.
1930 – 1937: It was used as a Juvenile facility
1937 – 1945: Used as a women’s prison by the Nazis. Here, female political prisoners in transit to concentration camps were housed.
April 1945: The prison suffered significant damage following a heavy aerial bombing from the allied forces. Some repairs were done then the province of Brandenburg took over its administration. This was two months later.
1945-1951: Reconstruction of the buildings damaged in WW2.
1951- 1989: It was taken over by the GDR’s interior ministry for use as a state penitentiary. During this period, the prison was used to detain political dissidents, including those who tried to defect to the West.
1990- 2002: From this period, the prison was used as a normal prison facility for ordinary criminals.
2002-2007: The grounds remained unused.
2007: The land was purchased by a private investor from the city.
2011: Former political prisoners, through the association, Menschenrechtszentrum (Human Rights Center) purchased the property from the investor and began doing renovations to the main building. The purchase and renovations continued until the following year.
2012: On 4th September, the memorial was opened to the public as ‘Gedenkstätte Zuchthaus Cottbus.'(Cottbus Penitentiary Memorial).
2013: On the 10th of December, a permanent exhibition, ‘Kariete Wolken'(Chequered Clouds) “Politische Haft im Zuchthaus Cottbus 1933-1989”
Frauenzuchthaus(Women’s Prison) Cottbus
The Nazi dictatorship used this penitentiary to imprison female political prisoners from Germany as well as other European countries under occupation. Some of them such as Johanna Kirchner, Johanna Melzer, and Erna Stahl was arrested by the Gestapo for engaging in resistance activities against the Nazi regime. While some were held for their ethnicity such as the Sorbs, (an ethnic minority in the Eastern part of Germany), a significant number were also imprisoned for their participation in subversive activities and active combat. During this time, the prison served as a transit-camp as the female detainees who had been arrested by the Gestapo. These female prisoners were kept here as part of the dictatorship’s efforts to ensure their complete isolation from the outside world.
During their incarceration, the female prisoners were forced to work in the manufacture of military and prison uniforms. The other items they manufactured were mattresses and gas-mask filters. In addition to the forced labor, the poor diet and other unbearable conditions were meant to break down the morale of the prisoners. As a result of this, the mortality rate of the prisoners was quite high. From 1942, they began sending the prisoners to concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Ravensbrück.
Allied Bombing of Cottbus
On the 15th of February 1945, Cottbus was subjected to heavy air raids courtesy of the Allies. The aim was to cripple the central train station and effectively sever a crucial artery of Hitler’s total war machine. The allies deemed Cottbus to be a legitimate target because important machinery such as the tracks intended for the Wehrmacht’s tanks, explosive munitions, and fighter planes was being assembled here. While the target was the main train station, other buildings were also destroyed including Luther’s church, the main hospital, residential houses, and the prison. In total, the city lost over 1100 souls. Around this time, the tide was beginning to turn against the Nazi war machine since the Soviets and allies were closing in from different fronts.
Of 1100 who died in the bombing campaign, 100 were female inmates of ‘Frauenzuchthaus Cottbus.’ Following this destruction, 200 inmates with shorter sentences were released while the rest were redistributed to different labor camps to serve the rest of their sentences or await execution. As the war was coming to an end, some of them survived their ordeals following the liberation of the camps by allied forces. This would not be the last time the facility would be used to hold political dissidents. The Stasi eagerly filled up the gap left by the Gestapo.
Secret Police- the Gestapo
The Gestapo whose name was an abbreviation of the German words ‘Geheim Staatspolizei’ was the Nazi regime’s official secret police unit and they enforced the will of the party within Germany as well as other occupied countries in Europe. Under the command of infamous characters such as Heinrich Himmler and Herman Goering, the Gestapo rounded up Jews, the Roma, homosexuals, and political opponents of the Nazi regime, sending them to prison and death camps. The infamy of the holocaust owes much of its success to the operations of the Gestapo. This branch of the police was founded in 1933 and disbanded in 1945.
Secret Police- the Stasi
Initially created to eliminate the remaining hints of Nazism, the Stasi rapidly transformed into a police unit dedicated to the investigation, capture, and occasional assassination of political dissidents. Like Gestapo, the Stasi’s name was an abbreviation of German words ‘Staatssicherheitsdienst’ (Ministry of State Security). This unit was created in 1950, a few months after the Deutsche Demokratische Republik/German Democratic Republic (commonly referred to as East Germany) was created. Given that this region was still under Soviet occupation following the defeat in WW2, the powers that be modeled the new country as a satellite state of USSR. Consequently, the Stasi was heavily inspired by the KGB. In many extents, their version of the surveillance state was for a time the world’s most efficient.
While the Gestapo was famous for the sheer brutality its foot soldiers employed, the Stasi made a name for itself by infiltrating virtually every facet of the lives of East Germans, both private and public. Many their resources were dedicated to psychological torture of perceived ‘enemies of the state,’ at times without the individual’s awareness of such happenings.
By the time the Berlin Wall came down, this shadowy organization had a file on more than half of the GDR’s adult population. Given that they had at least two hundred thousand informants in addition to the permanent staff, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of the political prisoners were exposed by their close friends and family. As the wall fell, the Stasi desperately tried to cover up their tracks by shredding the millions of files they had. The records that still exist today, could stretch over 180 km if they were to be laid out. They are maintained by a federal commission of Germany’s government. Members of the public stormed their offices rendering this final operation a dud. The importance of these documents was underscored by the newly unified government putting in place a law that would allow the preservation of these records so that anybody who was spied on can access the records and find out the information gathered about them, as well as the identity of the informants who passed on this information.
Unlike the second world war, whose human cost was rather obvious and tangible, the cold war’s victims were for the most part hidden. In the case of East Germany, they were hidden behind the iron-curtain, where they were subjected to mostly psychological harm rather than physical. Their suffering was hidden away from the world and they only had each other to console, and it is likely many chose to suffer in silence rather than betray oneself to a would-be informant who they themselves may have already been informing on for years.
The reunification of Germany was celebrated but little was done in the way of memorializing the sufferings of political dissidents whose unwelcome opinions welcomed told and untold sufferings to their lives and those of their loved ones. Former victims of this flavor of communism had to take matters into their own hands as private citizens to make sure their story is told to the world. At the height of the Stasi’s operations, one in 60 citizens was working for them directly or indirectly. These informants were recruited either through coercive means, indoctrination, or through the promise of financial gain.
A Memorial Center
The memorial’s main use today is to commemorate the experiences of political dissidents who were detained here between 1951 to 1989. Zuchthaus Cottbus was the biggest political prison in East Germany(Former German Democratic Party). While the official designation was that of an ordinary penitentiary run by the state, 80% of the prisoner population landed here for political reasons, with the remaining 20% were here for various non-political crimes.
The reasons for detaining political prisoners ranged from attempted defection out of the country, to involvement in political agitation against the dictatorship. Accusations about being critical of the state or association with known dissident groups. Communicating with West German Human Rights organizations and media houses such as ARD and ZDF.
Detaining political prisoners here was carried out for several reasons. The main one was to silence the dissenting voices to curb any chance they would have had of inciting more citizens. Attempting to defect to the West was another excuse the Stasi used for imprisonments. In the prison, the aim was to ‘re-educate’ or rehabilitate the detainees into being more respectful/ appreciative of the authorities. There was also a psychological element to the imprisonments, as they were meant to serve as deterrents against anybody who may have had thoughts of engaging in what the East German government considered to be subversive.
During the 70s and 80s, living conditions for those who were imprisoned here were bad, even for a prison. According to the memorial’s director, Sylvia Wähling, it was a case of ‘German perfectionism meets communism.’ At their worst, prison cells were holding almost five times their ideal capacity. Inmates had to adhere to an extremely strict code of conduct that dictated almost every detail of their lives, down to their posture during sleep and the arrangement of toothbrushes and other personal effects. Failure to toe the line would often lead to disproportionate punishment. It is hard to imagine that some of the guards still went the extra mile by being so violent against inmates that their crimes were prosecuted under East German legislation, months after Germany’s reunification.
Any sign of defiance was met with disproportionate punishment, with the worst being solitary confinement in tiny cells located in the basement. These were referred to as ‘tiger cells’ and people would be kept here for anything between a few days, to several months on end. Uwe Carsten, a former inmate said in interviews that he was confined to such a cell for two years. He described it as a prison within a prison. I could call it a prison, within a prison, within a prison. The first prison was the country itself since the Berlin Wall was built to keep the people in rather than keep out enemies. The second prison is, of course, the facility where the dissidents were being held in and the third being the infamous tiger cell. All of this being done to a person because he expressed a desire to leave the utopia the communists had carved out for them.
The physical conditions of the rooms only made the conditions worse, there were limited ventilation and blockage of windows with thick iron sheets. Some prisoners smoked inside the room, making it even more unbearable for the rest of the prisoners. This was done to stop prisoners from communicating with the outside world; prisoners are said to have made banners fashioned out of bedsheets and hung them out of their windows in a bid to pass messages to the workers at the nearby printing press.
Cheap Prison Labor
Between 1971 and 1989, prison labor was used extensively at this place, often with little regard for the prisoners’ well being. The GDR got into agreements with Pentacon VEB (Dresden) and Spela VEB, to have inmates provide ultra-cheap labor for the manufacture of industrial and consumer goods meant to be exported to West Germany. Sprela manufactured industrial pipes while Pentacon was in the business of making cameras. The working conditions in these workshops were inhumane and to make matters even worse, those whose work was deemed unsatisfactory were punished by having their commissary privileges revoked.
The prisoners-for-cash system was known as ‘Freikauf ’ which loosely translates to the purchase of a prisoner’s freedom also served as a cash-cow for this prison, and the state, by extension. The political nature of the imprisonments and the complicated relationship between East and West Germany served as a motivator for such exchanges. To secure the release of a political detainee, the West German state had to pay anything between 40,000 and 90,000 Deutsch Marks. The facilitation of such exchanges was done through intermediaries such as human rights organizations who often responded to requests by family members of detainees.
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, effectively marking the end of the Cold-War, and by extension the legitimacy of the GDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), all the political prisoners were released and the prison continued to operate, only this time as an ordinary prison.
A Change of Hands
Given the location of the prison compound near the city center, the land on which the prison stands was considered to be prime. As a result, the city decided to put it up for sale, given that the property lay disused for about five years. A private investor responded and purchased it with the aim of speculating on its value. There were several things he would have done with this property had he so wished.
In one of the study modules I took during my Masters, we specifically discussed the different ways such a property could be repurposed. We mused about the property’s potential for conversion into apartment blocks, a community recreational center, a prison-themed hotel (such as Alcatraz). The fact that none of these options were actively pursued by the private developer in a way helped to maintain the foundation for what the prison’s former political detainees had in mind.
From Prisoners to Prison Owners
Prior to the 2007 sale, Dieter Dombrowski, a former political detainee, and current CDU politician unsuccessfully attempted to stop the land’s sale by the state. He requested to the politicians to have the former prison designated as a Memorial.
After its sale to the private investor, an association of former political detainees, through Menschenrechtszentrum Cottbus (Human rights center) got into negotiations with the then owner of the property. The building outside the prison, first used by the Stasi was purchased for a symbolic price of 1 Euro while the compound itself was bought for 436,000 Euro. Of this amount, 200,000 was contributed by the state of Brandenburg while the rest of the money was raised from other contributions as well as the sale of the house outside the prison.
As of 2010, the prison is owned by the Cottbus Human Rights Center. More than half of the members of the human rights center are former political detainees and this has been of great help in the recreation of the prison’s former aesthetic during its conversion into a memorial. Their presence and active involvement have also made it easier to get first-hand accounts of how life was inside the prison. The prison’s status as private property, as opposed to a protected monument, has given its administrators a great deal of flexibility since the decision-making process for the former is relatively shorter. The ground floor of the prison serves as a permanent exhibition with most of the space being dedicated to different aspects of the prison’s history with the rest of the floor being used for human rights causes.
There are artifacts from former prisoners, illustrations, hand-written accounts, and other items of relevance to the memorial. In addition to architectural recreation, there are also mannequins that have been strategically placed in the cells to simulate the overcrowding. The first floor has an exhibition made up of the prison cells, recreated to display the evolution of the prison’s aesthetic and through the decades. In addition to this, there are recreated administrative offices as well as more art installations by former inmates. There are also rooms where guests can have a glimpse of life during the East German dictatorship, specifically being surveilled. Various artifacts relevant to the experiences of detainees are also on display in different areas of the ground floor.
In addition to serving the general public, a demographic that regularly visits is the former political detainees. At times when they meet they get to share their experiences and find out how the others are coping. At times they also share their experiences with visitors. Such exchanges were crucial in reconstructing the prison cells and living conditions from different time periods. These former detainees also exchange their experiences on different social media platforms where they share their experiences as well as developments related to other human rights initiatives they are involved in. Several have gone ahead to publish books detailing life behind bars and behind the iron curtain.
Students from the nearby university Brandenburg Technical University’s faculty of Archeology have also actively participated in the reconstruction by conducting physical investigations on the different walls to find out the aesthetic changes the cells underwent over the years. Of particular importance was the identifying the types of paint used as well as their colors through a process known as stratigraphy. I got the chance to participate in a course known as Hidden Traces where I made a short documentary about the investigative process to reveal the traces of the past left on the walls.
The Human Rights Center is not exclusively dedicated to violations that happened to the this prison’s former inmates but also to the condemnation of other violations that have happened in different parts of the world. These include the forceful adoptions carried out by the East German government, separating perceived enemies of the state from their children. Material highlighting human rights abuses in other parts of the world as well as support for other human rights causes are also on display as part of the permanent exhibition at the memorial center.
Uwe Carsten Günnel, mentioned above was sentenced to three and a half years for attempting to defect to West Germany by seeking the help of ZDF magazine. His solitary confinement was constantly interrupted by guards who brutalized him among other forms of psychological torture. Evidence of the brutalization came to light when his former guard, Herbert Schulze, known as ‘Arafat’ or ‘Rote Terror’(Red Terror) was sentenced to two years. This case was interesting considering that many of those who were guilty of human rights violations in East Germany walked away scot-free following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The reason for this was that they were operating within legal boundaries existing in the former state. What that implied was that the actions of the Red Terror were considered extreme even by the standards of a dictatorial regime.
Siegmar Faust, another former political detainee and current honorary general manager of the human rights center, always dreamt of being a Sailor and seeing the world, but this all went down the drain thanks to his detention in the prison. He describes the situation of the time as a sad one where everyone became increasingly secretive as they were hyper-aware the state had ears everywhere. His troubles with the state began when he was still in school; he was expelled twice for writing poems that were critical of the state of affairs in the country. The provocative poems got the attention of the Stasi who began observing him more closely. He was sentenced to three and a half years in the Cottbus prison for the purpose of ‘re-education.’ Here he too was sentenced to solitary confinement in the dreaded tiger cells, starvation, and physical torture. While the experiences initially struck fear in him, the more he was subjected to abuse, the more emboldened he became. In addition to sharing his experiences with visitors at the human rights center, he gives talks on human rights in different international forums.
Nyayo House Torture Chambers
The focus on human rights violations for the sake of maintaining the status quo is hardly a new subject for me. I was born in Kenya at a time when the country was under an authoritarian single-party rule. As a child, I didn’t directly hear much about the happenings around me, but I remember a distinct fear that the adults had for the police. At this time, my mother used to work in a building known as Nyayo House. For a time, it was the tallest building and that was what I thought of it, ‘that tall building where my mum worked.’ Growing up, I, together with other oblivious Kenyans got to discover dark secrets this building held.
While the building was officially being used for the government’s different bureaucratic functions, some of the floors were constructed with a more sinister purpose. Stories, first coming out as rumors and later in the form of survivor accounts began trickling into the public domain. Tales of arbitrary arrests forced confessions, torture, and even assassinations were a common theme. To me, it was almost as if we had been living in two almost identical countries, where some people lived their lives while others were dragged into a nightmarish place. The bulk of the political dissidents who met this fate were intellectuals who challenged the government’s position either directly or indirectly. Officers from the intelligence services sought to punish them as well as have them confess to the charges of treason. With or without their confessions, many of them were handed prison sentences.
Today, Nyayo House’s torture chambers remain closed to the public despite requests by former detainees to have it converted to some form of memorial. If dictators sanctioned the constructions of monuments in their name when they were in power, there should also be monuments that remind present and future generations of the horrors that took place as well lest the sufferings of political dissidents fall victim to the collective amnesia of a generation. There is, however, Freedom Corner, located on Uhuru Park which is adjacent to this building. In 1992, this was the site of demonstrations by the mothers of dissidents being held extra-judicially by the state. From time to time, activists assemble here to demonstrate against different human rights abuses taking place in the country.
The Cottbus prison has different lessons for different people. I think the general message the memorial tries to pass to its visitors is one of tolerance for different political opinions and what can happen if powerful people decide to entertain intolerance. The Stasi used this prison to punish and try and ‘rehabilitate’ those whose ideas of the truth contradicted the state’s version. I’m yet to come across the report of a single political prisoner who upon release, had his/her worldview altered. If anything, keeping them locked in only emboldened them to keep chipping away bit by bit against the tyrannical regime.
This prison paints a picture of irony. The communist dictatorship in East Germany was so keen on showing its citizens the ‘right path’ even if it meant forcing it down their throats (Mind you, the word ‘Democratic’ was part of the country’s name!). It was not the first government to do this, and it certainly won’t be the last. The world is rife with examples of powerful nations who much like Bender from Futurama, stand by the notion of ‘The whole world must learn our peaceful ways… by force!’ I wish more societies across the world would be willing to boldly face the shameful facets of their past so as to avoid such mistakes in the future.
The fact that the Nazis were defeated in spite of jailing as many dissidents as they could, should have been adequate evidence of the inefficiency of imprisonment as a means of quelling a revolution. It’s hard to believe that the Stasi overlooked this fact, given their obsession with ‘intelligence’. They did the very same thing, in the very same prison, with the hope that it would achieve a different result. This is an appropriate illustration of Albert Einstein’s definition of stupidity, that is, “Doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result.” Today, several regimes the world over continue to employ a ‘lock them up’ approach to political dissidents. Rather than end uprisings, such efforts only delay them while emboldening those being punished for acting upon their conscience.