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Resident Evil

How Berlin is dealing with the most feared address in Europe.

11:00 PM, Dec 9, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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"GRAU UND REGNERISCH" was how the German forecaster described the weather in Berlin during my visit there last month. But "gray and rainy" is typical for most of Germany this time of year. It's the kind of weather that makes a café warm and cozy inside, what is known as Gemütlichkeit. But it also creates a somber mood if you happen to be standing outside--which for a good part of the day I was, under an umbrella in the pouring rain, able to see my breath in the chilly air, and surrounded by rubble.

So why wasn't I basking in the Gemütlichkeit of a café or taking a steam at the Hotel Adlon? The rubble surrounding me was not from the usual construction found throughout the city. Rather, it dated back to the Second World War. The buildings that once stood here, on a city block along Niederkirchnerstrasse, Wilhelmstrasse, and Anhalter Strasse, were once home to the most feared addresses in Europe: At 102 Wilhelmstrasse stood the Reich Security Service (SD). At 8 Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse stood the Reich Security Main Office and the Gestapo. The rest of the SS leadership resided next door at the Prinz Albrecht Hotel.

From here, policies were issued, including the removal of political threats, the arrest of undesirables, and, eventually, the liquidation of all enemies of the state, especially the Jews. It was here that the ideas for the Wannsee Conference (where the Jewish Question was answered) were first formulated. It was here the Einsatzgruppen (special task forces) were created, before they were unleashed on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, leading to such massacres as that of Vinnitsa, where 4,000 Ukrainian Jews were executed in one day, including 1,000 children, or Babi Yar in Kiev, where 34,000 men, women, and children were murdered in two days. This city block was home to Heinrich Himmler, his henchman Reinhard Heydrich (aka "The Hangman"), and Adolf Eichmann--all architects of the Final Solution. It was also here at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse where countless individuals were rounded up and interrogated, including those who plotted to assassinate the Führer.

Specifically, suspects were taken to the Gestapo's house prison, which consisted of 39 cells, within which unspeakable acts of torture and murder took place. The story of Joseph Beyrle is especially enlightening. Beyrle is the only American to have fought for the United States and also (after escaping a stalag) for the Red Army in World War II. In 1944, Beyrle landed in Berlin, having gotten on a railcar headed in the wrong direction. Eventually he and two other Americans were taken to 8 Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse for interrogation. As Beyrle related to author Thomas Taylor in "The Simple Sounds of Freedom":

I'd resisted interrogation before, better than most. Under the Gestapo I was not being interrogated, just tortured. . . . They used their boots, truncheons, whips, and things I won't remember. The physical senses are an electrical system. The goons knew from lots of practice how to extremely stress but not short it out. Pain built up, beyond where pain had ever gone. . . . They were looking for a weakness, something like my shoulder wound [where Beyrle was hit by a bullet]. I was stripped so they could see how it was healing. They reopened the wound and probed around. And they had a favorite shoulder torture. They hung me up backwards, hoisted and dropped me till the shoulders dislocated. Releasing the ropes brought equal pain in reverse. The combination blacked me out for the first time.

There were other brands of torture that took place at Gestapo headquarters. In "Faust's Metropolis," Alexandra Richie mentions how the SS "devised situations in which fellow prisoners were forced to beat one another, and they entertained themselves by meticulously recording how long it took before the man or woman would pick up the whip or how many times they would have to be threatened before they acted. They particularly enjoyed forcing friends to beat one another, reveling in the debasement and the dehumanization of their victims."

The horrors at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse continued until the end of the war--the building's last defenders being battalion commander Henri Fenet and his band of French Waffen SS. By the time the Red Army reached what remained of the Gestapo house prison on May 2, 1945, there were only six prisoners alive, including a Communist, a former Gauleiter, and a pastor.