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1 The Plötzensee Prison    

Plötzensee prison is built between 1868 and 1879 as a prison outside the Berlin city limits. Covering an area of over 25 hectares (about 62 acres), it arises as a complex of structures for accommodating 1,200 inmates that includes many open areas. In addition to the prison buildings themselves, the red brick complex includes administration buildings, service buildings, numerous work sheds, a prison infirmary, a chapel, and housing for prison staff.

There is a significant difference between German penitentiaries and prisons. The penitentiaries are characterized by strict isolation and disciplinary measures, whereas prison inmates are generally convicts serving shorter sentences under less severe conditions. The aim of Plötzensee prison is to rehabilitate its inmates as opposed to exacting retribution from them.

Shortly after the National Socialist takeover in 1933, prison discipline also becomes harsher in Plötzensee. The goals of the penal system are now retribution, deterrence, and the ”elimination” of persons regarded as inferior. Plötzensee now serves as a facility for pretrial confinement for persons arraigned on political charges. Increasing numbers of such cases are prosecuted before the National Socialist Special Courts (Sondergerichte) created in 1933, before the political criminal tribunals of the appellate court, and before the ”People’s Court,” established in 1934.

During the war increasing numbers of foreigners are incarcerated who had been deported to Germany as forced laborers. They form a fourth group of inmates in Plötzensee in addition to the German prisoners who are generally serving shorter sentences, political suspects in pretrial confinement, and convicts awaiting execution. “Repeat offenders” sentenced to more than a year in National Socialist prison have hardly any chance of ever regaining their freedom. Once they have served their sentence, they are turned over to the criminal investigation division of the police, which generally arranges for them to be sent to concentration camps for ”protective custody.”

An air raid in autumn of 1943 heavily damages Plötzensee prison. The large three-wing cell block building (House III) housing prisoners awaiting execution is severely damaged. Overcrowding, deficient and often insufficient nutrition, and delayed or withheld medical treatment combine to create chronically poor living conditions for the inmates in the second half of the war. Inmates are successively released in the spring of 1945. By the time the Soviet Army captures the facility on April 25, 1945, it is largely empty.

In 1945, the Allies determine that Plötzensee should serve as a juvenile prison in the future. The large cell block building is not rebuilt, and House III is torn down. Instead, new structures are built to house juvenile offenders. Plötzensee still includes a prison infirmary.

In 1951, the Berlin Senate decideds to erect a memorial in Plötzensee. Architect Bruno Grimmek is entrusted with the planning. Portions of the execution shed are torn down, and a memorial wall is erected in front of it. The cornerstone of the memorial is laid on September 9, 1951; the memorial is officially inaugurated on September 14, 1952. Since that time, Plötzensee has become a place of silent remembrance commemorating all the victims of the National Socialist dictatorship.

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