Remains of Nazi prisoners to be buried in Berlin decades after war

More than seven decades after the end of World War II, the remains of political prisoners executed by the Nazis and dissected for research will be given a proper burial in Berlin.

Remains of Nazi prisoners to be buried in Berlin decades after war
Archive photo from 1997 shows Bundeswehr soldiers laying a wreath for war victims at the Berlin-Plötzensee memorial. Photo: DPA

The microscopic remains – 300 tissue samples each a hundredth of a millimetre thin and around one by one centimetre large – were uncovered by the descendants of the late Hermann Stieve, an anatomist who worked on the bodies of Third Reich opponents.

“Such small tissue samples are usually not deemed worthy of burial,” Andreas Winkelmann, who had been tasked to determine the origin of the histological samples, told AFP.

“But this is a special story, because they came from people who were actively denied graves so that their relatives would not know where they are buried.”

SEE ALSO: Holocaust victims killed at Auschwitz laid to rest in Britain

A ceremony will be held on Monday with descendants of the Nazi victims expected to attend, before the remains are finally laid to rest at the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in central Berlin.

The site had been picked as there are many graves and memorials for the victims of Nazism there, said Johannes Tuchel, director of the German Resistance Memorial Centre, which is organizing the special event along with Berlin's university hospital Charite.

Tuchel said a decision was made to bury the specimens as they are “the last remains of people who were victims of the Nazi unjust justice system”.

“They were denied a grave at that time, and so today, a burial is a matter of course.”


A plaque will also be put up to explain the find.

More than 2,800 people held at Berlin-Plötzensee prison were put to the guillotine or hanged between 1933 and 1945, and most were then sent for dissection at the Berlin Institute of Anatomy.

Most of the 300 specimens found in Stieve's estate stemmed from women, adds the plaque, which would however not list the names of individual victims at the request of relatives.

Berlin-Plötzensee prison today. Photo: DPA

Winkelmann, who had done extensive research into Stieve and his controversial experiments, said it was unclear how many individuals' remains were included in the batch of specimens.

Some 20 specimens came with names, others only numbers.

The clues have however helped draw a firm link with the Plötzensee victims.

Crucially for the history books, the specimens each set on two by seven centimetre glass plates provided rare concrete proof that prisoners' bodies were sent for dissection.

Stieve was the director from 1935 to 1952 of the Berlin Institute of Anatomy, where he carried out his controversial research on the female reproductive system.

Some of his scientific insights derived from histological probes on the genital organs of executed women.

Among those executed at Plötzensee were 42 resistance fighters from the Berlin group Red Orchestra. Stieve is believed to have dissected at least 13 of 18 female Red Orchestra fighters executed.

Hermann Stieve. Photo: Wikicommons

He was never charged with a crime and continued his career after the war like many other scientists who collaborated with the Nazis.

Only the highest-ranking physicians under the Third Reich were prosecuted at Nuremberg in the so-called Doctors' trial for grotesque human experimentation and mass murder under the “euthanasia” programme.

Winkelmann said it was particularly “objectionable” that while Stieve did not directly experiment on live victims, he was examining the physical impact of fear experienced by the women sitting on death row.

“That's of course very cold-hearted and turned these people into mere objects,” said Winkelmann.

'Open questions'

“The Nazi justice system found that interesting for them, not because they wanted to back Stieve's research, but because it was a way to humiliate the victims once again,” Winkelmann said.

“First, by sending them to anatomy — something that not everyone wants… and it was also a way to deny the victims a grave.”

Adolf Hitler's regime sought to dump the remains in unmarked mass graves because it did not want sites where relatives could mourn the victims, and from where political demonstrations could ensue.

While Monday's burial may finally provide a form of closure to relatives of victims, Winkelmann said “there are still open questions that haven't been answered about Hermann Stieve and how he went about his research”.

“I don't want to close this chapter, because the future generations need to be informed about what happened there and why we think it was wrong. All that is relevant for the future.”

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German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.