For international readers of my author’s page, I’m now providing a translation of the talk and reading I gave at the Leipzig Book Fair on March 20, 2018.
Before I start my talk, I’d like to take a moment to welcome Claudia Beck, who has become a dear friend of mine. Both Claudia and I had to endure and suffer under doctors who brutally and eternally shattered our image of a physician as a healer committed to humanistic values, for whom the well-being and safety of the patients entrusted to his care are of the utmost importance. This experience is something we share, although our stories have been different. However, what we have in common is that the effects of our experience were horrific and damaging in every way! We’ve experienced doctors who had no intention of healing us or anyone, doctors who violated personal as well as legal and ethical boundaries. Our lives have been thwarted by doctors who have turned people in need of help into objects they used and abused, gaining power and control over the bodies of their patients, as was the case with Claudia Beck’s 20-year-old daughter Melissa. When she entered the emergency ward of a psychiatric clinic due to a life-threatening condition, Melissa was left in the hands of unqualified medical staff, a measure taken to cut costs. The “treatment” she received resulted in her death within four hours after being released.
When the ARD broadcast the documentary “The Hell of Ueckermünde –Psychiatry in the East” in 1993, it received major media coverage. The inhumane treatment and accommodation in psychiatric hospitals in the former GDR sparked outrage. But what was more appalling?
The justifications for such treatment given by the staff interviewed in the documentary, or the sight of frightened men and women who had barely seen daylight in years, who sometimes huddled naked in the corners, or emitted guttural sounds while creeping across the bare floor? The public outcry was followed by public appeasement. Once these terrible conditions were exposed, it appeared that immediate changes to the system were enacted. However, behind closed doors many of these practices remained in place. As the author of the book “The Voices of Those Remaining,” I sadly discovered this fact in 1997—and suffered both physically and emotionally as a result.
I was seventeen at the time and in the midst of an existential crisis due to my intense fear of death due to a tumor illness as well as the uncertainty I felt around coming out as homosexual. At the hospital, instead of care, what I experienced was a complete disregard for my feelings, violence and coercion. This “treatment” was carried out and ordered by physicians from Neubrandenburg whose infamous past should have prevented them from practicing their profession long ago.
For example, the psychiatrist Dr. Rainer Gold was involved in criminal activities in the Wilhelm-Griesinger Clinic in the Berlin district of Marzahn, a fact which had already been exposed by the German magazine Der Spiegel in 1991. He was directly involved in a scheme in which new medications were tested on patients without their knowledge or consent, with no regard to the possible health risks or potentially fatal side effects.
But Dr. Rainer Gold was not only involved in drug tests: In 2006 Gold, together with Mayor Andreas Grund, who still holds office today, publicly unveiled a plaque commemorating the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin and had only words of praise for his scholarly achievements.
Gold, who received his doctorate with his wife Karin née Weiß, also a psychiatrist, their joint doctoral thesis on alcoholism and involuntary hospitalization, referred to Kraepelin’s immense influence and mentioned his classification of mental disorders and disease systemology as examples of important contributions to the psychiatric field. Gold stressed Kraepelin was one of the most avid promoters of scholarly alcoholism research. However, Federal Cross of Merit bearer Dr. Peter Lehmann urges the long overdue public condemnation of Kraepelin as one of the ideological forerunners of psychiatric mass murder during Hitler’s dictatorship. In his work, Kraepelin denigrates Jews, draws dubious conclusions about homosexuals and those he considers “different”, and suggests eliminating psychiatric patients, which led to the psychiatric mass murder (T4) of hundreds of thousands of victims. In response to Peter Lehmann’s repeated request to remove the commemorative plaque or, at the very least, add in the information mentioned above, Mayor Grund has refused to take any action. To this day, the plaque is still mounted on Glambeckerstraße 14 in Neustrelitz. This ignorance on the part of political leaders is something I have encountered for many years, especially when I ask what has become of the people shown in the documentary “The Hell in Ueckermünde”.
To the best of my knowledge, the individuals involved in these treatment practices are either no longer alive or no longer capable of participating in society. However, the staff working at that time are still actively employed, either at the same institution or a similar one elsewhere. The efforts to address and deal with these incidents as well as discover the fate of the victims has failed due to the stubborn resistance of the authorities who possess the power to either clear or block the way to knowledge as well as set action in motion.
Minister Harry Glawe, why should the human rights violations remain unexplained?
If this is the case, as the treatment of the petition I submitted to the Parliament (Landtag) of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in 2016 demonstrates, it does not appear to be merely a coincidence that Harry Glawe, the current Minister of Health who addressed the petition, was in fact a nurse in the psychiatric ward at the Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald’s Neurology and Psychiatry clinic for over twenty years in the GDR before the German reunification took place. The fact that certain allegiances and loyalties established during his time as a nurse may have played a role in the decision to reject the petition can simply not be ruled out.
From the perspective of those concerned, instead of receiving care, those individuals entrusted to the psychiatric system in Neubrandenburg and Ueckermünde as patients in need of help suffered severe breakdowns and splits to such a degree that they either could no longer participate in “normal social society” after their experience in these places, were completely destroyed or even driven to suicide. However, those involved in administering treatment continued working in their positions without interruption or reprimand; in fact, in some cases, they even made significant advancements in their careers. Therefore, in their development, one group remained completely unscathed and untouchable—no matter what the rumors or what became known of their actions—while the other group completely vanished from sight. The quest and aspiration of the voices of those remaining is to examine these backgrounds and seek out the traces of those lost.
Victims of Torture
In the name of the voices of those remaining, I can clearly speak from my own experience and knowledge of the state of the psychiatric system in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania when I tell you that the “Hell of Ueckermünde” has to this day not yet been dealt with or properly addressed.
For example, Sonja Süß, who worked as a psychiatrist in the GDR, accused Ernst Klee in 1998 of making gross generalizations; she stressed that the scenes depicted in the documentary were only an example of past “contamination” of the psychiatric hospital in Ueckermünde which had since been “reformed.” By that time, individuals with mental illnesses had already benefitted from the reforms put in place.
Social Minister Dr. Klaus Gollert (1990-1994)
Similarly, the then Social Minister Dr. Klaus Gollert mocked the victims in the documentary and those who had been abused there after the “Hell in Ueckermünde” was created. It was not the atrocities he recalled in his speech at the commemorative event “25 Years Mecklenburg State Parliament” on 17 November 2015, but rather, and I quote Dr. Klaus Gollert:
“The most negative thing I experienced during my time in government and parliament was the ZDF documentary about the “Hell in Ueckermünde”. Maybe some people know this already – it was depressing that in this place, where we had already done so much work, some TV team went into the institution and shot scenes which showed some very bad things. However, as I’ve said, this was at a time when we were catching up and couldn’t accomplish everything at once.”
In connection with how he addressed and dealt with the “Hell in Ueckermünde”, Gollert was inclined to an awful shallowness, which he already clearly illustrated in his doctoral thesis “Zur Innervation der Cornea. Eine histologische Studie ab der Hornhaut des Komoran” (“For innervation of the cornea. A histological study from the cornea of the comorant”) published at the University of Greifswald in 1963.
A nurse interviewed in the documentary “The Hell in Ueckermünde” made the following statement about the minister’s short visit:
“The minister has already been to our institution and we aren’t hiding anything from anyone. Although we showed him one of our wards, the minister’s visit was only very short as he was too pressed for time to see everything.” Whether the visitor was indeed Minister Gollert was not mentioned, but the political responsibility for the conditions in the “Hell in Ueckermünde” lay in his hands of the Minister for Labor, Health and Social Affairs, which he then publicly downplayed in 2015.
Trivial abuse and crimes against people in Ueckermünde has led to serious human rights violations and, for some, was even the cause of their death many years after the documentary was made. Even so, Dr. Klaus Gollert has been awarded the German Federal Cross of Merit (first class). “Dr. Klaus Gollert is one of the most outstanding figures of our federal state. Even after his time as Social Minister in the first state government from 1990 to 1994, he continued to work intensively for the interests of the people of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.”
However, my own experience there happened in 1997, in other words, seven years after German reunification and four years after Ernst Klee’s documentary was released, a fact which directly contradicts her statement.
The people I met or briefly interviewed about their experiences at these infamous psychiatric hospitals—some were committed during the GDR era, some after reunification or, like me, in 1997 or later—still talk of the cruel treatment they were subjected to, which haunts them to this day. Some of the people are now no longer living or have multiply disabilities thanks to their experience in these psychiatric institutions.
My friend Simone Stark, called Elisa in my book, was committed to the psychiatric hospital in Ueckermünde before the fall of the Wall. She told me she is convinced she was committed to hospital by the Krauses, a Neubrandenburg psychiatrist couple, for political reasons: before this occurred, she had publicly criticized Marx and Engels and held political speeches. While housed at Ueckermünde’s psychiatric hospital, she was raped by a janitor. When she did not behave in a way the staff deemed fit, she was often confined in a cage bed, tortured, doped up or humiliated. Not only was she prevented from returning to school after her stay at the psychiatric hospital in Ueckermünde, she also was blocked from receiving any sort of training. After her terrible experience in Ueckermünde, she was never taken seriously by any responsible authorities. Today, she is no longer alive.
My friend Birgit, who is referred to by her real name in my book, tells a similar story. For example, she told me that the staff in charge of her care expected sexual favors in exchange for letting her smoke on the terrace or bum a cigarette. Birgit also said “abnormal” behavior was punished with punitive measures, such as confining patients in cage beds or cruel, painful injections in their heels. Birgit was housed at Ueckermünde both in the GDR as well as after reunification. Therefore, she can testify that the exact same staff who treated her in the GDR largely continued to work there after reunification; she also claims that the staff behaved exactly the same after 1990.
Many similarities can also be seen in the life story of the protagonist Renate, whose real name is Antje Dreist. Antje came from a family which was involved in politics during the GDR. When their daughter was first committed to a psychiatric hospital, they used their far-reaching connections among the authorities to establish her total surveillance, which was carried out by medical and nursing staff, and reached all the way down to her circle of friends. For example, her father’s sister was a medical officer at the Health Authority in Neubrandenburg; she also had close contact with the social psychiatry service and the main welfare authority as well as all psychologists and psychiatrists in the area. Research has shown that regular exchanges took place between the doctors, the relevant authorities and Antje’s parents. For this, the medical staff and staff working at the authorities regularly breached their duty of confidentiality.
As someone who has survived the abuses described in my book, and was placed in a ward with people who had multiple disabilities as well as many who were developmentally disabled, I can testify to the injustice suffered at the hands of the medical staff in 1997. To a large extent, this very same staff had treated my fellow companions. I am a witness to my own story and can hereby state that after my initial assessment, the medical staff deliberately made false diagnoses and refused to offer me legal support. Although I was a minor, they refused to let me to contact my parents. They breached their duty of confidentiality with people unknown to me, clearly wished to permanently damage me and, as a homosexual, dispose of me.
After an eight-week stay and receiving “regenerative treatment” at psychiatric hospitals in Neubrandenburg and Ueckermünde, I left these institutions with multiple disabilities. Later, I discovered the same staff who treated me had also worked there during GDR, the same staff who had played a part in destroying human lives in the “Hell of Ueckermünde.” My companions and I had no chance to defend ourselves against this system of injustice. To this day, this injustice has not been dealt with or addressed.
The media covered the “Hell of Ueckermünde” as though it were a relic of the past, left behind in the GDR. They acted as though the people depicted in the documentary and their individual fates are something we no longer need to talk about today. The fact that, under a different guise, such conditions continued until 1997, indeed, still continue today—also in other places in Germany—is above all due to the lack of interest by policy makers and the responsible authorities to devote themselves to addressing this topic. If they would, the unimaginable would finally come to the surface.
Take a look at the pictures of people crowded together in Ueckermünde. How do you feel? What does the scene remind you of? Do you not agree that it should be the primary concern of the Minister of Health, Harry Glawe (CDU), to promote and push through addressing these human rights violations? After doing everything in my power to promote awareness and call for action, my petition was ignored by both the Ministry as well as in Parliament. Now, I sincerely hope to find people who will support me in my work to raise awareness.
Before I start in on the story, let me quote a young man from the documentary, who was clearly scarred by the mistreatment he received, as is made clear in his statement, “The sisters try hard to solve all the problems, but we all know where we come from, there’s no reason for us to delude ourselves.” Behind closed doors in Ueckermünde, people simply had no worth.
Dr. Christian Discher