Hohenschönhausen is one of those areas in Berlin that one rarely traverses these days. Wedged above Lichtenberg and Marzahn, one struggles to come up with a reason to visit this district – aside from the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, a former State Security Political Prison. But there is a lot to see and discover in this district, especially because it seems to have retained much of the secrecy that surrounded the area when it was declared an exclusion zone by the Soviets and the East Germans.
One of the most intriguing buildings that you’d come across in Höhenschönhausen would be the Villa Heike, a giant three-story Prussian Villa a few minutes walk from the former Stasi Prison. It’s an impressive building, though completely boarded up and overgrown with ivy. So whats the story behind this seemingly abandoned Villa in East Berlin?
Villa Heike – A Specialist in Canned-Goods Machinery Production
The Prussian Villa Heike and the area surrounding it once belonged to the industrialist Richard Heike. Richard Heike began his engineering career in 1893 for the Braunschweig based Karges-Hammer AG. By 1903, Heike felt like he had enough experience and business knowledge to set up his own factory. He based his factory – which specialized in equipment for the food industry – in the Neuen Friedrichstraße 37 (in Berlin).
He chose this location as the city built a large Livestock and slaughterhouse in the district of Lichtenberg in 1881. The Livestock and Slaughterhouse attracted several other business such as tanneries who made leather from the hides, and the bones were turned into fertilizer and absorbents. With the lack of proper cooling (fridges weren’t really a thing at the time – they still relied on Ice Factories) the meat that was on sale was only consumable for a very limited time.
Before 1810 (and even after that) the most common way to preserve meat was through smoking, curing and drying – until the french inventor Nicolas Appert came up with the airtight food preservation process. This process was refined by the Englishman Peter Durand who came up with the idea of using tin cans. The patent and process of tin can preservation was bought up by his fellow Englishmen Bryan Donkin and John Hall who opened the first cannery in 1813.
Sensing that he had picked the right spot, Heikes factory began producing machines for meat factories as well as for margarine production and packaging. The company produced boilers, mixers, pressure coolers, ice machines and assorted equipment. Heikes production could barely keep up with the demand, so he ended up buying up a company called Scheffel & Schiel to increase and expand production. He found a plot of land in the Freienwalder Str 17-19 in Hohenschönhausen where he decided build his new factory.
From 1911 onwards, Heike built up a large industrial site consisting of a Machine Factory (specializing in meat and canned goods), a living and administrative building (the Villa Heike) and a factory storage. Heike lived on the top floor of administrative building with his large family, while the rest of the building was used for administrative purposes as well as functioning as a showroom for his machines. Once the second world war broke out, Heikes production lines were considered “war essential” as they produced canned goods for the Wehrmacht (Heike had experience in this field as he had also supplied german troops during the first world war).
The Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt (National Socialist People’s Welfare) either acquired one of his buildings or built a two-story brick building on his property (its unclear which) which housed a canteen. Not far from the canteen was a camp for prisoners of war and forced labourers. Now these prisoner of war camps weren’t set up next to the factory by accident, Heike and his war essential products employed soviet prisoners of war to keep the production lines going.
The Soviet Arrival and the liquidation of the Villa Heike
The area, along with Heikes Factory, the Villa Heike and other buildings survived the allied assault on Berlin completely unscathed until the Soviets marched in. On the 23rd of April 1945, the Red Army marched up to the factory. Richard Heike apparently wasnt home at the time but rushed back to the factory. The Soviet soldiers gunned him down on the street (allegedly for the fact that he had employed prisoners of war) in front of the building and liquidated the rest of the building.
The Soviets seized the soup kitchen and the surrounding buildings and created the “Speziallager Nr.3”. The camp was under jurisdiction of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and served primarily as a collection and transit camp for over 16,000 men, women and young people. From here transports were organized to the special camps in Ketschendorf, Weesow and the former concentration camp Sachsenhausen.
The living conditions in the camp were catastrophic. At times over 4,200 people were crammed into confined spaces. The hygienic conditions, the food and the medical care were completely inadequate, the rooms unheated. According to calculations of the memorial about 1,000 people were killed. Their bodies were buried anonymously in mass graves on a rubbish dump.
The prisoners were forced to convert the underground storage and refrigeration room of the former canteen into a prison during the winter of 1946. The underground prison consisted of 60 windowless cells, and at best was only furnished with a wooden bunk and bucket. The light was left burning in the cells day and night, the sound of the ventilation system was constantly audible and the inmates felt “submerged”, they soon called the prison the “submarine”.
The Stasi and 11 Kilometers worth of Nazi Files
The soviets handed over the area to the GDR in 1951, which continued to operate the facilities and prison. The area, which was just a white space on east german maps was also home to the “Operativ-Technische Sektor” – the unit which was responsible for developing all the technical gadgets any spy could need. The OTS was developing a type of magnetic suitcase bomb in 1974 – apparently designed so you could attach it under a car. A lieutenant colonel of the Stasi called Paul Marustzök was responsible for testing the device, though apparently something went wrong and it tor him to shreds.
The same lieutenant colonel had been responsible for the kidnap of the West Berlin Lawyer Walter Linse in 1953. Linse was imprisoned and interrogated in the “Submarine” – where under duress he confessed to espionage and subversion against the GDR. A soviet Military tribunal found him guilty of Espionage, anti-Soviet propaganda and formation of an anti-Soviet organization and sentenced him to death.
He was flown out to Moscow, and imprisoned in the infamous Lubjanka, and was shortly thereafter shot and cremated. The Villa Heike soon found itself being used for something even more secretive – it was to become the central storage and research facility of the Stasi for its secret nazi files.
By 1953, the East German State (and specifically the Ministry for State Security) started a large-scale effort to collect and centralize as many “Nazi” files as it could. A large portion of the files were returned by the Soviets – specifically from the soviet trophy commission who had taken the files back to Moscow to sift them for any and all valuable information. Another portion was acquired by the newly formed German Communist Party and Police as they swept through the country. And they all ended up in the Villa Heike.
By 1990, the Stasi had amassed 11 kilometers worth of nazi files. On the one hand these documents were collected to launch destabilization campaigns against “brown elites” in West Germany, but also to aid in the prosecution of Nazi Criminals in East Germany and the eastern bloc. But they were also used to thwart criminal proceedings in East Germany.
The documents prove that Nazi perpetrators living in the GDR were not necessarily brought to justice and that former NSDAP members, but also heavily incriminated Nazi criminals were systematically recruited as “unofficial collaborators” – in the East and West. The “infiltration” of Nazi circles served as the Stasi internal legitimacy of these recruitments.
The majority of the former Nazis who were recruited didn’t need any coercion to begin with, as they helped purely out of fear of self-incrimination, and by no means in the investigation of Nazi crimes or the unmasking of previously unknown perpetrators. Large swaths of original files were also mixed and matched, with “documents” being added and removed destroying the historical context and often creating new realities. (If you can read German – I highly recommend this research paper by the Bundesarchiv on the Nazi files of the Stasi)
The Villa Heike after 1990
With the tumultuous events of the late 1980s, a citizens committee stumbled over the files which caused a minor media sensation. With the German reunification, the files moved into the German Federal Archives. With the files moved, the Villa Heike was left abandoned. The building was gutted and virtually closed off. And that’s how it remained for almost 25 years – until a group of 6 Architects and Investors bought the building in 2015 and decided to renovate it (to the tune of two million euros).
The ground floor up to the second floor apparently will be made up of “large functional units. The aim is that they will have a positive effect for the entire building”. The third floor and the attic will be converted into four studios / offices.
As of February 2018, it seems like the conversion has progressed to near completion. Its heartening to see such a historic building brought back to life rather than just being left to rot and eventually being torn down. The majestic entrance Foyer will apparently be restored with the help of a grant from the Landesdenkmalschutz, which means there might be hope that it will be publicly accessible in the future. While the Villa Heike is off-limits for the time being, you can still catch a glimpse of the building on your way to the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial.
Villa Heike Address
Freienwalder Str. 17