Moabit’s most wanted

From imperial assassins to Nazi resistors to RAF terrorists, the JVA Moabit has been home to some of Berlin’s baddest, boldest and deadliest outlaws.

Image for Moabit’s most wanted
Photo by Sigrid Malmgren

If you ever wonder where nearly two percent of Moabit’s population sleeps at night, you’ll find the answer directly on the corner of Alt-Moabit and Rathenower Straße: the Justizvollzugsanstalt Moabit (JVA). The imposing building houses one of Berlin’s three inner-city prisons and its most central.

The walls enclosing the premises stand tall and intimidating as shiny razor wire symmetrically trims the rampart like a stretched-out slinky: an oppressive sight that doesn’t seem to bother locals, like the kids from the daycare across the street. First-time visitors might feel tempted to scale the roof of a parked car and take in a fuller view of this massive beast in the heart of the German capital.  

The penitentiary’s history started some 1100 metres west and 170 years earlier, when, in a gradual attempt to fade out the showcasing of cruel and painful punishment, King Frederick William IV of Prussia took inspiration from London’s Pentonville Prison and ordered the construction of an institution where criminals would repent their actions in solitary confinement.

Das Zellengefängnis Lehrter Straße (The Cell Prison of Lehrterstraße) was completed in 1849 and went on to house many law-breakers, both famous and unknown. Some found temporary abode in the infamous house while others lived out the rest of their years here or met an early and unnatural death on the grounds.

In 1878, Emil Max Hödel lost his head for attempting to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm I. A most definitive departure, death by beheading was often a prisoner’s sole way out. Security was akin to that of a fortress and escape almost impossible, with one exception. Communist legend has it that during the days of the Weimar Republic, Olga Benário and her band of activists broke into the prison, successfully liberating her lover, the communist leader Otto Braun. Braun made sure to flee far, first to Moscow and later to China, where under the name ‘Li De’, he would become a hero for his participation in Mao’s Long March.

When the Nazi Regime took over, the Gestapo began using the prison as a detention center for political opponents and resistance members. In 1933, Bulgarian Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov was briefly detained in Moabit after being accused of setting the Reichstag fire. That same year, Ernst Thälmann, leader of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was arrested by the Gestapo and held in solitary confinement for 11 years before being shot in Buchenwald on Hitler’s orders.

The 16 conspirators who plotted Hitler’s assassination, which was supposed to be carried out on July 20,1944, were arrested and sent to the prison, including Albrecht Haushofer, son of the famous geopolitician Karl Haushofer (who infamously mentored Rudolf Hess and inspired Adolf Hitler’s expansionist Lebensraum ideas). During his incarceration, he wrote 80 soulwrenching sonnets, later published and known as the Moabiter Sonette. On the night of April 22, 1945, after hearing the news that Soviet troops were closing in on Berlin, Haushofer and the other inmates were released… only to be captured by SS soldiers and shot dead. Nearly three weeks later, Haushofer’s younger brother found his corpse, and in his cold, clenched hand, pressed against his still heart, were the neatly folded sonnets. (Today, the tombs of the last murdered resistors to Nazism are in the graveyard of the St. Paulus Monastery near the Moabit courthouse between Turmstraße and Alt-Moabit.)  

After the war, the old prison was so bombdamaged that it was demolished. In 1955 construction began on its descendant, the JVA Moabit, about one kilometre east. Completed in 1964, the prison accommodated many left-wing terrorists in the 1970s, including 27 members of the Red Army Faction (RAF). A high-security terrorism unit was specially added for them.  

These days the JVA Moabit detains some 1095 male inmates – most in custody awaiting trial and many others locked up for drug related crimes. Here, inmates can watch cable TV in their individual eight-sq. metre cells, all furnished with a bed, table, chair and wardrobe. Moabit’s modern-day bad boys are kept busy with gardening, painting, book-binding, tailoring and social programmes that hopefully turn them into happy, productive citizens – almost as good as a Germany’s activity-packed Harz-IV welfare programme.

Justizvollzugsanstalt l Moabit, Alt Moabit 12A, Tiergarten, U-Bhf Turmstr