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Bonnie’s Ranch: Berlin’s notorious psychiatric hospital

This infamous mental institution went from progressive care home to the site of horrific Nazi crimes. We look back at its 125-year history.

Image for Bonnie’s Ranch: Berlin's notorious psychiatric hospital

The main building of the former Karl-Bonhoeffer-Nervenklinik, also known as Bonnie’s Ranch. Photo: Imago/Schöning

“Patients lie in a centrifuge with their heads on the outside and are quickly rotated for one and a half to two minutes at 100 revolutions per minute until they turn red and then pale and their eyes are bloodshot,” writes psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer in his 1940 study, A History of Psychiatry at the Charité in the 19th century. Doctors used “spraying machines, plunge baths, forced sitting and forced standing” to treat serious psychological conditions. In overcrowded, filthy psychiatric wards, patients lay “soiled, with the mentally ill side by side with sufferers of venereal disease and scabies.” “The violence of the means,” Bonhoeffer writes, “is almost disturbing.”

This was the reality of psychiatric treatment in Berlin for much of the 19th century. Force, restraint and isolation were the primary tools. Medical staff were overworked and underpaid, and had little time for compassion. And so when the Charité opened the “State Insane and Idiot Asylum of Dalldorf” in 1880, they hoped to usher in a new era of care for the mentally ill. Sited 8km northwest of the city centre in the rural village of Dalldorf, the asylum was the primary institution for Berlin’s severely mentally ill. It was intended to house 600 patients, divided into the “insane” (people with mental health problems) and the “lunatics” (people with developmental disabilities).

Patients were mostly working class, with neurosyphilis, “mania”, schizophrenia and epilepsy the most common reasons for admission. The site was supposed to replace overfilled, archaic inner-city wards and provide patients with open space and greenery: rather than one large institution into which all patients were squeezed, Dalldorf was designed as a village, with 10 attractive yellow-brick buildings arranged around a central administrative block. “The clinic was built without luxury in the style of private houses, with pavilions for each sex holding 25 patients each with special provisions for bathing needs,” Bonhoeffer writes.

Patients not prisoners

In addition to architectural improvements, Dalldorf’s founders set out to change how patients were handled. Throughout much of Western history, the mentally ill were essentially locked up: sent to institutions that resembled prisons and kept there even if they showed improvement. But at the beginning of the 1800s, a reform movement emerged arguing that people with severe psychological conditions should be treated in hospitals rather than prisons – an idea that was radical at the time.

Prior to Dalldorf’s opening, a group of Charité psychiatrists and other experts were commissioned to develop more enlightened treatments for the patients. Their guiding principle was freie Behandlung – or “free treatment” – which meant forgoing the straitjackets and chair and bed restraints that were in widespread use at the time.

Although Dalldorf did have secure wards, patients who were well enough were able to attend organised trips and parties, as well as receive visits from relatives, while those able to work were employed at on-site workshops or tended to the surrounding gardens. Treatments at the newly opened facility were clearly antiquated by today’s standards – a common remedy for seriously ill patients was to place them in hot baths for hours on end – but the non-restraint approach represented real progress.

It was intended to house 600 patients, divided into the ‘insane’ and the ‘lunatics’…

But despite intentions to improve patient lives, Dalldorf had an overcrowding problem from the beginning. Within six months of opening, over 1000 acutely ill people were being housed at the site – double its design capacity. The opening of the facility had already caused the population of rural Dalldorf to double overnight, and with patient numbers continuing to grow it wasn’t long before locals began to resent the clinic’s presence. In 1883, after reports emerged that patients had escaped from the hospital, Berlin newspapers ran headlines warning of “The lunatics from Dalldorf” and predicting the imminent “revolt of criminal lunatics”.

Medical staff were attacked as “sentimental humanists”, whose non-restraint approach was putting the public at risk. The reality was that without modern tools, it was inevitable that medical staff would struggle to stabilise troubled patients. Besides work therapy and hot baths, the only cures available to psychiatrists were drugs like chloral hydrate, potassium bromide and camphor bromide – crude substances that were often highly toxic. It would be several decades before effective psychiatric drugs and psychotherapy techniques became available.

The strain of the growing patient population reached a critical level during World War I, during which Germany’s food supplies were blockaded. The result was mass starvation at clinics across Berlin, including at Dalldorf. Its pre-1914 annual mortality rate of 350 patients – already extreme by today’s standards – had reached 657 by the time of Germany’s defeat in 1918. The wartime tragedy lent Dalldorf even more notoriety, and in 1925 local people demanded that their village be renamed Wittenau so as to cut ties with the asylum. But the clinic decided to adopt the name itself, becoming the Wittenauer Heilstätten the same year and thus restoring the namesake the villagers had hoped to jettison.

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Staff at the asylum in 1903. Photo: Public domain

Destroy life unworthy of life

By the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933, attempts to run the hospital as a progressive force in psychiatry were faltering. Like Germany, Wittenau was entering its darkest period. The Nazis’ seizing of power was felt immediately at the site: a branch of the Hitler Youth began occupying buildings for their swearing-in ceremonies, while dozens of hospital staff were dismissed and replaced by inexperienced but loyal Nazi party members.

The government moved quickly to stamp out anything that might hinder a “healthy” German population from flourishing, and so a new law for the “Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring” was pushed through in 1934 with the aim of stopping the “inferior” or “weak” from having children. The upshot of this was clear: forced sterilisations of the mentally ill.

Precisely what happened at Wittenau during Nazi rule was shrouded in secrecy for several decades. For much of the post-war period it was thought that the files from between 1933 and 1945 had all been lost – destroyed by Nazi doctors hoping to cover their tracks. “The official position at the clinic was that there were no documents or eyewitnesses that could be used to recount the history,” says Christina Härtel, a psychotherapist who joined the staff at Wittenau in the 1980s and helped uncover the truth.

When Härtel started, many German institutions were beginning to address the issue of Nazi criminality within their own ranks, and so a team of psychiatric staff at the clinic decided to investigate their own institution. “At the behest of the medical director at the time, a working group was formed,” says Härtel. Along with colleagues she recruited historian Götz Aly, who was well known for his studies of the Holocaust, to find the missing files. In 1984 the group uncovered the supposedly lost records – buried amongst 90,000 documents in the archive cellars of the hospital.

By 1939, the Nazi policy switched from sterilisation to killing: “destroy life unworthy of life” was the mantra.

Wittenau was thought to have played a minor role in the Nazis’ campaign of violence against mentally ill and disabled people. But the files revealed that doctors at the institution made avid use of the sterilisation laws. Between 1934 and 1938, clinical staff submitted a total of 1828 applications for infertility treatment to the so-called “hereditary health courts”, who almost always approved the requests. Once the doctor had the rubber stamp, the patient would be taken to a nearby hospital where the sterilisation was carried out.

Witteanu’s patients all lived under the threat of the procedure: in 1935 the asylum’s medical director Gustav Adolf Waetzoldt said that, of the 2635 patients at the facility, 1498 were in his opinion “hereditarily ill”. Amongst Waetzoldt’s victims were Jewish patients, who faced a double stigma. Of the 190 Jews resident at Wittenau, at least 29 were subjected to infertility treatment – few of them survived the Nazis.

By the outbreak of the war in 1939, the Nazi policy switched from sterilisation to killing: “destroy life unworthy of life” was the mantra. The killing of disabled and mentally ill people in the Berlin area was concentrated at the Tötungsanstalt (killing facility) at Brandenburg an der Havel, where almost 10,000 people were murdered under Hitler’s Aktion T4 programme of involuntary euthanasia. The number of patients deliberately killed at Wittenau cannot be known, but the hospital’s extremely high death rate during the war provides strong evidence.

Files uncovered by the working group show that 358 Wittenau patients died in 1939, a number which climbed rapidly as the war progressed and Aktion T4 was stepped up. In 1944, 919 people died at the asylum, bringing the total number of patient deaths during the war to 4607. Evidence suggests that they died from neglect, non-treatment and refusal of food, with the mortality of Jewish and foreign patients particularly high. Around 15,000 more people passed through Wittenau during the war – a third of them died in other asylums or at killing facilities outside Berlin.

“Bonnies Ranch”

Russian soldiers liberated Wittenau in April 1945, opening the asylum gates after apparently mistaking it for a prison camp. In desperately poor health, many of the patients left the facility only to return within a matter of days due to the widespread hunger and chaos that prevailed in post-war Berlin. Hundreds of residents are thought to have died of starvation in the two years that followed.

In 1946, 78-year-old Karl Bonhoeffer was appointed clinical director and given the task of establishing some semblance of care at the stricken facility. Battered by the war, the physical state of the institution continued to deteriorate, with conditions described as “unbearable” in a 1961 report. New blocks and annexes were subsequently added to the site to relieve the perennial problem of overcrowding. With the city now divided, Wittenau was the only psychiatric hospital serving all of West Berlin.

Image for Bonnie’s Ranch: Berlin's notorious psychiatric hospital

The institution at Dalldorf, pictured in 1885. Photo: Public domain

With the onset of the 1960s, patient care began to improve dramatically with the introduction of a new generation of tranquilising drugs that reduced the need for physical restraints. The lives of patients became freer: walls around the institution’s gardens were demolished and bars on the windows removed. Known by then as the Karl-Bonhoeffer-Nervenklinik – or “Bonnies Ranch” amongst locals – the institution had became increasingly dominated by drug addicts.

By the 1970s, heroin was sweeping through West Germany: recorded deaths due to drug abuse rose from 29 in 1970 to 380 in 1977, with the real figures assumed to be much higher. West Berlin’s young, hedonistic population meant it was particularly affected by the epidemic, with more than half of drug deaths in the whole of West Germany occurring in the enclave. Addicts who were able to get help ended up at Bonnies Ranch. One such patient was Vera Christiane Felscherinow, more famously known as Christiane F, the star of the 1981 film Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo. She was taken to the institution by her mother in 1977 for treatment for heroin addiction, but relapsed soon after being admitted and ended up on the streets again.

Finding closure

After reunification, Berlin’s mental health hospitals were reorganised and the Karl-Bonhoeffer-Nervenklinik merged with the Humboldt-Klinikum general hospital 3km up the road. The two sites were subsequently absorbed into the state-owned Vivantes hospital chain, which began to move psychiatric units and outpatient services away from Wittenau. Large psychiatric facilities had long since fallen out of favour, and patients were increasingly sent to more modern sites. 

The Nazi-era files uncovered by Christina Härtel and her colleagues were displayed in the exhibition Totgeschwiegen 1933–1945 (“Dead Silence”), which opened in 1988 and can still be visited at Wittenau today as a belated recognition of the crimes committed there. Härtel is now retired, but continues to tell the story of the wartime victims through the Totgeschwiegen non-profit that fights the stigmatisation of mentally ill people.

In 2006 – after 126 years of operation – the Karl-Bonhoeffer-Nervenklinik was finally closed to patients and put up for sale. Wittenau’s yellow-brick buildings fell into disuse: the only ward that remains on the site is a high-security psychiatric unit for offenders. Activity returned in 2015 when Berlin authorities began using the buildings as emergency accommodation for newly arrived refugees, while operations expanded last year with the opening of five purpose-built blocks that provide temporary living space for up to 600 asylum seekers.

Nearby, in the extensive green space that surrounds the old hospital, one form of treatment is still being practised: hippotherapy, which uses horse riding to help people with neurological and psychological conditions. Gentle, therapeutic and humane, the practice symbolises the transformation of mental health treatment since Dalldorf’s early days – a small step towards healing the wounds of the past.

Bonnie’s Ranch in pop culture

Far from simply being a psychiatric hospital, Bonnies Ranch has crept into Berlin popular culture quite unlike any other medical institution. With a mere mention of the name, Berliners will often make a quip or have an anecdote about the notorious facility.

On September 5, 1950, a 26-year-old man by the name of “Nakszynski” was admitted to Bonnies Ranch. His other name: Klaus Kinski. Suicidal and in a “fit of raving madness”, the Berlin film star was diagnosed with schizophrenia, later revised to antisocial personality disorder. Kinski recovered sufficiently to have a successful acting career, most famously as lead in the films of Werner Herzog. After his death in 1991, Kinski’s daughter Pola published a memoir accusing him of repeatedly raping her as a child.

The institution gained further notoriety with the 1978 best-selling biographical book Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo and subsequent 1981 film of the same name. It detailed how Berliner teenager Vera Christiane Felscherinow, better known as Christiane F, was taken to the clinic by her mother for treatment for heroin addiction. While Christiane ultimately relapsed and ended up back on the streets, for many the facility became synonymous with the fight against addiction.

Following the institute’s closure, Berliner rapper Sido – who was born in nearby Märkisches Viertel – released the 2011 song “Bonny’s Ranch”, singing: “Ich brauch Urlaub auf Bonny’s Ranch/Nur das kann mir helfen” (I need a holiday at Bonny’s Ranch, that’s the only thing that can help me). Three years later fellow Berliner rapper Fler dropped “Zurück aus Bonny’s Ranch” (Back from Bonny’s Ranch), a song about a traumatic childhood in the Hauptstadt.

More recently the clinic has also been given the comedy treatment, with the satirical Radioeins programme “Bonnies Ranch” – “two hours of genius, sustained mindfulness and grit” – being blasted over the airwaves on Fridays between 5pm and 7pm, ensuring that the institution’s cultural legacy lives on.