In the 1800s, tuberculosis (then known as consumption) was a major disease. Before the invention of the antibiotic streptomycin (which would not be discovered until 1943), common belief was that the best cure was the fresh air found high in the mountains or on the Mediterranean coast. Northern Germany did not have easy access to either of these locales. Travel was expensive, as was medical care, even after the Health Insurance Act of 1883. This act was pivotal in the creation of sanatoriums, as it ensured compulsory public health insurance for all workers, as well as a pension and insurance for both disabilities and accidents. This meant that medical care was more affordable and accessible for everyone, which in turn required more facilities to be built.
Pr. Dr. Pannwitz, the General Secretary of the Red Cross, saw an opportunity. With the help of generous laypeople and industry bigwigs, he found a 34 hectare plot of land near Oranienburg, Germany, for an experiment. He wanted to see if the fresh air of the pine forests in the German lowlands could help cure TB just as easily as mountain or coastal air. Thus, in 1896, the Heilstätte Grabowsee was founded by the People’s Sanatorium Association of the Red Cross. This was one of the very first buildings in Germany to be funded by health insurance companies and pension funds — after all, they wanted patients to heal so they could get back to work!
The sanatorium was built in a large clearing in the pine forest, isolated from the world. When it first opened, it could comfortably hold around 200 patients. Its yearly intake was around 1,000 people, depending on how many rooms became available over the course of the year (either due to patients being cured or dying). It was less a mere hospital and more an entire city. There were three two-story buildings of patient rooms, an additional single-story barracks of beds, a farm building with a kitchen, a dining room, multiple business rooms, a variety of staff rooms, a machine house, a wash house (complete with disinfection facility), a gas station, a chapel, ten lounge halls, a greenhouse for growing food, the chief doctor’s house, a table, and a park for walking.
The facility was remarkably modern in its amenities. A few years into its operation, there was a steam-sewage treatment plant constructed nearby to handle its waste and provide clean water. Certain areas even had hot water. They also had gas and electricity, thanks to the acetylene gas storage and generator in the underground areas. Each room had its own internal phone line, and the buildings also had electric clocks and radio speakers. Like many sanatoriums, they had a discreet body disposal system; in their case, it was the coffin elevator at the back of one of the treatment buildings. This allowed them to relocate bodies to the chapel without having to wheel them past the still-living patients. What was particularly impressive, though, was their meal delivery system. There was an underground train that transported the completed food from the main administration building to the buildings where patients ate; from there, the meals were distributed with internal food lifts. This kept the level of exposure that the kitchen staff faced to a minimum, and allowed for easy food distribution. All of this was available for 3 Mark/day (approximately 11 euros or 12 USD today), which was later raised to 3,75 Mark, and was paid for by the statutory pension insurance.
All of this changed with World War I. The sanatorium was used as a military hospital, taking in anywhere from 15,000 to 16,000 people during the war and up to 10,000 afterwards. It was also used to house certain prisoners of war. And, like the rest of Germany, the sanatorium suffered great financial hardship after the war, including issues with inflation. It was sold to the Brandenburg Insurance Company on June 1st, 1920, but still had to be closed for a year and a half starting in 1923 due to hyperinflation. However, things were looking up by 1926, as that was when expansions started. By 1929, there was space for 321 patients, which raised to 430 by the mid-1930s.
Then World War II happened, changing the sanatorium’s fate yet again. The nearby city was strategically important for the war, as it was where research for the German atomic bomb occurred. The sanatorium itself became a reserve hospital of the Wehrmacht — and was also where certain experiments from nearby concentration camps took place. This lasted until the Soviets captured it, whereupon it became used as barracks. The sanatorium remained under their control until their occupation of the area ended in 1995. It is unclear exactly what all they did with it after the war, as that appears to be classified, but we do know that they changed one of the underground morgues into a sauna and bricked up some corridor connectors.
In 1994, the sanatorium was put under monument protection, as that was when it was officially abandoned. Despite this status, however, it was mainly left to rot away in the forest, despite it still being functional at the time the troops left. Time and the elements were aided in their destruction by metal thieves, vandals, and arsonists. Most of the copper and other useful metals were stolen; the walls were graffitied; statues were decapitated; and the chapel building was burnt down. It soon became clear that the sanatorium would need major repairs if there was ever a hope of it being used again.
There have been many attempts to do something with the sanatorium and its lands. The current owner, up until recent events, was charging ten to thirty euros to let people explore the ruins. Two films were done there, the mediocre Heilstätten and the blockbuster The Monuments Men. The KidsGlobe charity, with the patronage of former Federal President Roman Herzog, is trying to restore it so it can be used as an international academy. Yet nothing seems to be happening to slow the mouldering of the buildings. As of now, there seem to be some attempts being made to construct new apartments on the land. It is reported that the project will also restore the park for public access, rebuild the burnt chapel, and hold an exhibition about the sanatorium’s history in one of the buildings. Until something definitive happens, however, the Heilstätte Grabowsee will sit empty in its fading glory.