Visit Hohenlychen Sanatarium today, a short drive north of Berlin, and you’ll see there’s little left of the Nazi showplace it once was. You’d never know that behind those crumbling walls is a story of Nazi hubris and shocking medical experiments.
Originally a TB sanitarium, in 1935 Hohenlychen came under the control of the infamous Nazi doctor Karl Gebhardt and became known for treating the German national teams’ athletes. Gebhardt not only served as the Hohenlychen Medical Superintendent but was also the Consulting Surgeon of the Waffen-SS, the Chief Surgeon of the SS and Reich Police and Heinrich Himmler’s personal physician.
Gebhardt turned Hohenlychen into a world-class facility and it became a popular place with Nazi officials who came for rest and recreation. Both Himmler and Rudolf Hess lived there for long stretches. Himmler even kept his mistress, Hedwig Potthast known as “the little hare” at Hohenlychen, where she gave birth to their children.
The visitors books are signed by numerous prominent Nazis including Hitler, Reich sports leaders and international guests from all over the world including Italy, England, France, Portugal, Peru, Chile and Argentina.
The mayor of Tokyo visited, as did the Greek royal family. High profile medical lectures were held at Hohenlychen and the gymnasium was used as a cinema for film screenings.
Guests enjoyed a wide range of recreational sports and Gebhardt added a large swimming pool, which had a removable roof for summer bathing and a weather station was built in order to study of the relationship between weather and disease. During the Olympics Hohenlychen achieved a great international reputation for treating meniscal injuries.
In 1939 after the outbreak of the Second World War Hohenlychen was converted into a military hospital, still headed up by Gebhardt. He supervised many questionable medical experiments there, including an attempted arm transplant from a Ravensbruck prisoner onto a German man, but he became infamous for his experiments on 72 Polish women who became known as “the Rabbits.”
Gebhardt commuted from Hohenlychen to Ravensbruck to carry out his extensive sulfa drug clinical trials on Polish women prisoners. The women in his experimental group, chosen from a recent transport of Polish political prisoners picked for their healthy constitutions and legs, were surgically wounded and contaminated with bacteria, dirt, wood and ground glass.
Once several of the women died, the doctors concluded sulfonamides were not an effective treatment. At the same time, Gebhardt also used these women as experimental subjects to conduct a series of studies into the transplantation of bone, nerves and muscles.
After the war Gebhardt appeared at Nuremberg in the Doctors’ Trial, along with assistants/co-defendants Dr. Herta Oberheuser and Dr. Fritz Fischer (the press called the trio the “Hohenlychen Three”) and was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Gebhardt was found guilty and condemned to death on the 20th. August, 1947 and hanged in 1948, in Landsberg Prison, Bavaria.
Fischer was sentenced to life imprisonment and Oberheuser sentenced to twenty years in prison for their parts in the experiments, but were quietly released after serving only a fraction of their time.
During the war Hohenlychen was never bombed due to the large red crosses painted on the roofs. When Himmler realized the war was lost he set up meetings there using Count Folk Bernadotte, the head of the Swedish Red Cross, as an intermediary, hoping to broker a deal with the Allies.
The meetings were fruitless and in April, 1945, Hohenlychen surrendered without a fight to the Soviet army and the Russian soldiers bivouacked in the hospital. After the war the Russians used the site as a general hospital and barracks and following the fall of the Berlin Wall in August, 1993, the Russian Army left East Germany for good.
Today Hohenlychen remains empty, the ghosts of a checkered past its only guests.