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Deutschland Stadthöfe in Hamburg
Image: DW/J. Witt

Dealing with the Nazi past in a property boom

Jenny Witt
February 10, 2018

A row is stirring over a planned public-private memorial in Hamburg's luxury quarter. Relatives of people tortured by the Nazis there have protested commemoration plans put forward by the city and the private investors.


Hamburg's "center of terror," as city-state Culture and Media Minister Carsten Brosda describes it, was based in the Stadthaus, a splendid 300-year-old building right downtown. Its restored tower overlooks adjacent buildings. A hotel has opened on the ground level. On some windows, slogans such as "Chin up, Cherie!" advertise new luxury flats above.

Behind the elegant facade, Adolf Hitler's Gestapo tortured opponents of his Nazi regime. The violence began as early as 1933 in this historic building with a view of the the canals that run through Hamburg's inner city.

The victims included the barber Herbert Baade. An active communist, he was arrested because he had a leaflet against the Nazis. The Gestapo never found out that he had printed it himself or who else was involved, said Detlef Baade, Herbert's son.

"My father was brought here several times," Baade said. "They strapped him to a wooden gymnastics vault and beat him till he bled and collapsed. They stabbed him through the leg with a bayonet, and he had broken bones in his face."

Stadthöfe in Hamburg
"Chin up, Cherie!" the former Gestapo torture center cheerily greets potential tenants Image: DW/J. Witt

'Station of suffering'

Prisoners were systematically terrorized. Deportations were organized in the Stadthaus. "For many, this was the first station of suffering on their way to the concentration camps," a memorial plaque says.

The building's role remained largely undiscussed after the war ended. Only the "walk of sighs," which led from the former basement cells to the Gestapo offices, continues to be a reminder of its dark history. The rest of the Stadthaus was bombed in the war and, after being rebuilt, housed the Hamburger's planning department until 2013.

But prestigious property on one of Hamburg's most lucrative sites rarely stays in public hands. In 2009, the city sold the Stadthaus, and the land it stands on, to the real estate developer Quantum Immobilien.

Construction boom at Hamburg's HafenCity

Commerce or commemoration?

In its contract with the city, Quantum agreed to create a "place of learning" about the Nazi era in the building, which has been branded Stadthöfe.

Hamburg's Culture and Media Ministry describes the planned memorial site as a significant step forward. For the first time, a spokesman said, there will be an exhibition in this location about persecution and resistance in Hamburg during the Third Reich.

A specialist book store and a literary cafe will form two further parts of the memorial. Shops, restaurants, work spaces and apartments are planned for the rest of the building.

Read more:Sebastian Kurz to Hitler comparison sparks uproar in Austria

The commercial aspects have provoked protest. It is undignified, said Cornelia Kerth, of the VVN-Bda, an association for people persecuted by the Nazi regime. "The point is that it will not be a memorial, but merely a 70-square meter exhibition in a retail space, in a commercial book store and a cafe," she said. "The memorial site has shrunk. This is where the Nazi terror in Hamburg was organized."

Detlef Baade believes that the developers sought not only to sanitize the grounds when preparing the building for its luxury tenants, but its history, too. "It needs to be restored a little to how it used to be — with the cellar, where people were locked up and half beaten to death," Baade said. "That means dealing with our past, with the Gestapo. We owe it to the victims."

This criticism irritates Quantum's spokesman, Matthias Onken. "Until now, there was only the memorial plaque — nothing else," he said. "Quantum's wish is to create this place of commemoration. That's why it is simply absurd to say, in any way, shape or form, that this will now supposedly be suppressed."

Nevertheless, Quantum has decided to remove an iron sign from one of the building's doorways. The design of the letters spelling out "Bienvenue — Moin Moin — Stadthof" ("welcome" in French and "hi" in the local dialect) had been criticized for being too similar to that of the notorious sign stating "Arbeit macht frei" at the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

A commemorative space should have been created far sooner, said Norbert Hackbusch, a member of the Left party in Hamburg's city-state parliament.

"That we have not yet commemorated the victims here was an unforgivable mistake," Hackbusch said. "From outside, there will be no visible sign that there is a memorial here. It looks as though all this will be run by a bookstore owner who needs to make a living from it at the same time. That is asking too much. And the rooms look pretty small. A dignified commemorative space looks different."

From left to right: Hackbusch, Baade and Kerth
(Left to right) Hackbusch, Baade and Kerth and the bronze plaque to honor victimsImage: DW/J. Witt

Forum for dialogue

Culture Minister Brosda said a meaningful memorial space was planned to adequately represent the building's history. The organization running the educational site at the former concentration camp Neuengamme, near Hamburg, is also involved in the process, he said.

Brosda's ministry has invited the memorial's planners and their opponents to roundtable talks at the end of February. Quantum will attend them, too.

Baade views this with a mixture of skepticism and optimism: "That people talk to each other is sensible. But the department must follow its words with actions. That's why it's good that we are now working on a concept together."

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