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Our cases have been researched using open source and archive materials. It deals with true crimes and real people. Each episode is produced with the utmost respect to the victims, their families and loved ones.
Berlin, January 1943. It was the height of World War II, and air raids continued to increase throughout the year. Most residents had evacuation plans in place in case of bombing. Additional shelters were built, and there was a sense of panic. It was the fourth winter of wartime, and there was no way of telling when or how it all would end.
For the everyday German person, life was no song. Life in neighbourhoods like Köpenick, south of Berlin carried on as best it could. Average citizens tried to get by, keeping routines as normal as possible. They witnessed Jewish people being taken to concentration camps and saw violence and unfairness.
It was best to keep one’s head down and stay out of trouble. If you had a job, you showed up and didn’t complain. Food and clothing were rationed, although they could not complain, as the average Aryan household had more generous3 rations than a Jewish neighbour.
In a time of chaos, petty crimes increased, and the atmosphere seemed apocalyptic at times. Famous landmarks and historic buildings were reduced to piles of rubble, dust and smoke filled the air.
On the 29th of January, 51-year-old Frieda Rösner left home to go and collect firewood in the woods behind the Achenbach Hospital. In 1943 the hospital was located in the heart of the forest. It was a secluded place of healing and restoration, away from the turbulence of war.
Two days later, Frieda was found only 450 yards from the hospital building. She had been raped, strangled with her own shawl and robbed. Berlin homicide detectives were called to the scene. What they didn’t realise, was that they were about to unmask Germany’s most prolific serial killer…
Bruno Lüdke was born on the 3rd of April 1908 in Köpenick, on the outskirts of Berlin to parents Otto and Emma. He was the fourth of six children and his family owned a laundry. The Lüdke family was very poor and the children did not have great opportunities.
Lüdke fell on his head as an infant and his mother later blamed this incident for his mental disability. He a slight speech impediment and stuttered sometimes. He attended a special school for children with academic challenges. Everyone in town called him Doofe Bruno or ‘Stupid Bruno’. He did not have many friends, but also no enemies to speak of. Although people called him by his nickname, it was done in good humour and he always smiled back at them. He kept to himself for the most part.
When his dad passed away from throat cancer, he dropped out of school and took on the job of delivering laundry with a horse-drawn cart. His mother paid him 50 pfennig a day and 1 Reichsmark on Sundays. He habitually took a cut of the money paid by customers, but never got away with it as his mother was super vigilant. His sisters also kept an eye on him and made sure he came clean whenever he tried to steal money.
‘Doofe Bruno’ did his rounds with his horse-drawn cart through Köpenick every day. Local kids were often seen running closer to greet him and ask for a ride on his cart. He was friendly and playful, like a big kid himself.
But he had a strange pastime. He often roamed the woods of Köpenick for hours on end. He hid behind trees and waited for someone to walk past. Then he jumped out and scared them. He thought it was very funny, but people did not appreciate it. Not at a time when everyone was on edge. His mother and sisters told him to stay away from the woods as they were concerned for his safety, but he didn’t listen to them.
Lüdke used most of his money on tobacco for his pipe and drinks at a local beerhall. His mother accepted the fact that Bruno would probably never marry. The lack of female attention did not seem to bother him, as he was used to being a solitary person.
On a round of laundry deliveries, Lüdke ran over a woman in his cart and left her for dead. This was the first of many incidents that made police think there was perhaps a dangerous side to him. There had also been complaints about the ferocity with which he whipped his horse and police took him to the Psychiatric Ward of the State Hospital for assessment.
The results proved that he was illiterate and incapable of performing simple mental challenges, like reciting the alphabet. However, he was able to orientate himself in terms of place, time and people. He was physically able and strong and it was deemed that he was fit to work as a coachman.
Bear in mind that this was in the late 1930s, when Hitler was the most prominent force in Europe. The ideal of an Aryan nation was at the forefront of the Nazi campaign and laws like the ‘Law for Prevention of Hereditary Offspring’ were instated. It ruled that people with disease or disability had to be sterilised, to prevent posterity of disorders.
In January 1939, Lüdke was ordered to be sterilised. His mother tried her best to appeal, and wrote a letter stating that Lüdke had suffered a head injury as a child and his condition was not hereditary. But this law did not allow for exceptions and the procedure took place in 1940 when he was 32 years old.
Germany in the 1920s was still in a state of chaos in the aftermath of The Great War. It was a time of lawlessness and despair and many criminals took advantage of the situation. Killers like Peter Kürten (The Vampire of Düsseldorf) prowled the streets. News of murder gripped the imagination of everyday Germans and cheap crime novels sold like hotcakes. Sigmund Freud’s psycho-sexual analysis gave people something new to think about and crime and psychology became a much enjoyed topic of conversation at dinner parties. One could even say it was the origin of true crime culture.
In Köpenick, all of this would not have been on the radar of young Bruno Lüdke. Always looking for some extra cash, he resorted to petty theft. But he wasn’t very good, as police caught him out most of the time. It was mostly ‘innocent nonsense’, like stealing and selling firewood. On one occasion he stole a whole cart full of wood, worth 187 Reichsmark. He sold it all for 13 Reichsmark. Witnesses saw him leaving with his cart, the name ‘Lüdke Laundry’ printed in bold letters on the side.
At his trial his sisters blamed the townspeople for exploiting the situation. They knew he had no idea what the value of the wood was, so they paid him a pittance and took the wood. His sisters felt that if they had scolded him instead of encouraging him, he probably would have returned the stolen wood. But that is not how the law works. This incident landed him in jail for three months.
When he came out, he went back home and his job at the family laundry. There were some reports of him being a Peeping Tom, but he was never formally charged. Some residents of Köpenick became wary of Lüdke, as they found his loitering behaviour strange. Police recognised the fact he was mentally disabled and felt that he was harmless. After his prison sentence for stealing wood, police even noted on his file that he was not a criminal and that his acts were a result of his Dummheit (stupidity).
On another occasion, he walked into Café Fuchs in Köpenick town and tried to sell a dead duck to the owner. One of the customers was a police officer and asked Lüdke where the duck was from. It didn’t take rocket science to work out that Lüdke had stolen the duck from a local farmer. It was a time when meat was scarce and valuable and the farmer had reported his duck missing earlier that same day.
Lüdke was taken into custody for 10 weeks, but the farmer dropped the charges before the case went to trial. A month after his release he was caught yet again, trying to sell a stolen dead chicken at another restaurant.
Crimes like these hardly ever made it to court during wartimes. It was a challenging time for police, to try and maintain a degree of law and order with air raids on the increase. Looting of bombed areas was a big problem. Theft also became more acceptable, people did what they had to do to get by. Police were overwhelmed and did not feel like they had the situation under control at all. They warned residents about increased punishments for minor crimes, like the death penalty for looting.
But this did not deter people from doing whatever they wanted to. The war was raging on in its fourth year; people were dying and buildings were being destroyed every single day. The boundaries of morality were blurred and countless criminals simply got away with whatever crime they committed.
Another problem was the lack of infrastructure and resources. The reality was that every single case COULD not be taken to court, there was not enough lawyers, prosecutors and judges around. Many were fighting at the front and remaining law enforcement officers had to make do with what they had. The lead investigator on a case was given the authority to decide whether an accused criminal should be tried or not and in many cases if they should be imprisoned or not.
On the 31th of January 1943, the body of 51-year-old Rösner was found in the Köpenick woods, where she had been collecting firewood. She was found two days after she was last seen. She had been strangled with her own shawl and raped, possibly after she died. The killer stole her purse and left her body exposed in the snow.
Homicide Detectives from Berlin descended on Köpenick, headed up by Krimialkommisar Heinrich Franz. He was an ambitious law enforcer and this was his first murder case. If he could further his career as a detective, he would have been able to avoid being drafted into the army. He was determined to catch the perpetrator as soon as possible.
After questioning a couple of local people, they learnt of a man by the name of Bruno Lüdke. He was seen near the scene on the day Frieda’s body was discovered. Police questioned him and he admitted that he knew Frieda Rösner, because he collected and delivered her laundry.
There were no other notable suspects and police felt that Lüdke was the most probable perpetrator. Six weeks after Frieda’s death, police were ready to arrest him. Kommisar Franz wrote in his report:
“On 18 March 1943 we learned that a worker named Bruno Lüdke was a feeble-minded man who was known for troubling local women. As we figured that this man, who lives in the area of Elisabethstrasse, could know more about the murder, I questioned him at work. Following this informal interview, I got the impression that he should know more.”
When they asked Lüdke if he had killed her, he lashed out by assaulting his interrogators and ran away. Officers managed to catch up with him and subdued him. He was arrested and charged with the murder of Frieda Rösner.
People who knew Lüdke were shocked – they could not imagine that he was a killer. He was a simple man who was always composed and quiet. He could not even get away with killing a duck or stealing firewood, let alone commit such a heinous murder.
There was no evidence linking him to the crime, but police refused to budge. Lüdke’s sister went to police headquarters in Berlin and told them that he could not possibly have committed the murder. She provided an alibi, saying that at the time of the murder, Lüdke was in Charlottenburg, making a delivery, 17 miles away. The customer was prepared to testify in his defence. Police did not think it was a strong enough alibi and decided not to pay any attention to it.
Then, to the shock of the community of Küpenick, Lüdke confessed to the murder. He said that he saw Frieda alone in the woods. He hid behind a tree so he could jump out and scare her. He pounced on her, then lost control. In the end he raped and killed her. Then he took her purse and ran away.
It was a stunning confession. But that was only the tip of the iceberg, once he started talking, he wouldn’t stop. He confessed to twenty unsolved murders in Berlin. Then the net began to widen to the rest of Germany, one confession after the other. In total, Lüdke confessed to having committed more than 50 brutal murders between 1924 and 1943. His victims included 51 women, 11 of them were sex workers, as well as 5 men.
Was one of Germany’s most prolific serial killers hiding behind the façade of village idiot for all these years?
Although some of his victims were robbed, Lüdke claimed the main motive behind the murders was rape.
He told police that his killing spree had started when he was 16 years old, but it was only in later years that his body count increased. The outbreak of World War II gave him the perfect cover and he felt like he was invisible and invincible.
Three major unsolved cases in Berlin at the time were the murders Käthe Mundt, Bertha Schulz and the Umann-couple. Lüdke confessed to all three. He initially denied it, but once Kommisar Franz took him to the various crime scenes, and prompted him, he was able to give many details, some facts only the killer and investigators could have known.
Paul and Gertrud Umann owned a tavern in Grünau. Both husband and wife were found murdered on the 5th of May 1941. They had been budgeoned to death with sticks, stabbed and strangled. The original investigation noted that it was the work of two attackers, a fact that Franz and his team chose to ignore. Franz took Lüdke to the scene and he confirmed that he was the killer.
Franz also took Lüdke to the bedroom of Dora Rudigier, who was found murdered in her bed. She had been raped and strangled. Lüdke said that there was a doll on a chair in the room and that was enough for Franz to tie him to this murder too.
Bruno Lüdke made so many confessions, sometimes one confession every hour. Other agencies became sceptical of his interrogator, Kriminalkommissar Heinrich Franz. As a result of the confessions, Berlin police were in contact with various other agencies to inform them that Lüdke had confessed to an unsolved murder in their jurisdictions. Most investigators were confused when they received the typed confessions, as it didn’t match the evidence of the crimes. Investigators from Hamburg even said that the confessions were ‘absurd’.
Kommissar Franz was always alone when he questioned Lüdke and all the confessions were made following the exact same pattern. Lüdke’s first reaction when asked if he was responsible for a certain murder was always NO. Franz then revealed details about the case and pulled Lüdke into the conversation in a way that it sounded like Lüdke was the one who gave information first. Lüdke, smiling and foolish, answered like it was a guessing game of sorts, he wanted to please Franz by ‘getting it right’. When he did, Franz rewarded him with a cigarette – a treat for someone like Lüdke who was an avid smoker.
Franz assembled a team of about ten investigators and took Lüdke to all the locations of the murders to reconstruct the crimes. Franz took whatever Lüdke said and molded it to fit the case.
Franz made it clear to Lüdke that he would never be prosecuted because of something called ‘Paragraph 51.’ This is a law that meant Lüdke was immune from indictment, due to his mental disability. Because he was feeble-minded he wouldn’t have been held responsible for his crimes. So Lüdke felt at ease having hypothetical conversations about murders with Franz, as he felt it would be of no consequence. By the time Franz was done with Lüdke, he had confessed to no less than 84 murders.
Many officers were doubtful that a man of limited intellect managed to commit so many murders and get away with it for nearly two decades. They questioned the validity of the confessions, and Franz’s methods.
Reichskriminaldirektor, Arthur Nebe defended Franz and hailed him to be a hero for cracking all the unsolved cased. SS Leader Hans Lobbes thought that the confessions would make the police look ridiculous and warned that a trial, based on the confessions alone, would be a disgrace. Because of this, Lüdke never stood trial, yet Berlin police concluded that he had unequivocally committed 53 of the 84 murders he confessed to. The document sentencing him was signed by Kriminalkommisar Heinrich Franz, who acted as investigator, judge and jury.
Another reason why he never went to trial, was the fact that Himmler had declared his case a ‘secret imperial affair’. The double standard was astonishing: the Germans killed millions of people, but they did not want to publicize the fact that a full-blooded German man had killed other German people simply for the sake of killing.
It was curious that the murders did not have many similarities. It differed in terms of victim profiles, method and crime scene composition. There was no physical evidence, like fingerprints, placing Lüdke at any of the scenes either. Some murders were crimes of passion, others revenge killings, sexually motivated murders, random killings… Victims were young and old, male and female… If Lüdke was behind each and every murder, he must have been a deeply disturbed individual.
Police in Hamburg were especially critical of Kriminalkommisar Franz’s investigation. He claimed that Lüdke was responsible for the unsolved murder of a sex worker Henrietta Kujer in July 1940. She was found strangled with three pairs of women’s stockings. Franz took Lüdke to Hamburg to walk him through the crime scene.
Lead investigator of the case, Kommisar Faulhaber, insisted on interviewing Lüdke himself, but his request was denied. While in Hamburg, for the walk-through of the crime scene, Lüdke was kept at a Gestapo Prison. Faulhaber was determined to speak to him and entered the prison undercover, as a fellow-prisoner. His conversation with Lüdke confirmed his suspicions. Lüdke said that he had never been to Hamburg before and that he only confessed to killing Henrietta Kujer to keep Kommissar Franz happy.
Faulhaber wrote a letter to his boss, informing him about his conversation with Lüdke and that he was convinced Lüdke did not have any knowledge of the murder. He only repeated information given to him by Kommisar Franz. He recommended they appointed an impartial investigator to look into the matter.
However, nothing much came of it. When the months of interrogation were over and police deemed him to be guilty, he was sent to The National Socialist Criminal Medicine Central Institute of Security Police in Vienna. The institute was founded on the orders of Heinrich Himmler. Medical experiments and trials were conducted to study criminal minds. He faced a sentence of prolonged torture at the hands of experimental doctors.
Lüdke arrived at the Institution on the 11th of December 1943. Psychologists and scientists wanted to study him and learn what made him a mass murderer? He became a prime example of how one should study a criminal: to ascertain if his behaviour was hereditary or anthropological. In other words: nature or nurture. Lüdke was found to be someone who was a ‘natural born criminal’, rather than an innocent person who had been corrupted by his environment.
Lüdke was filmed during the experiments by Robert Ritter. Many audio recordings were also done. They monitored his brainwaves and measured the circumference of his head. On the 15th of January 1944, they made a cast of his head that is still in the Museum of Forensic Medicine in Vienna.
Lüdke was made to drink pure alcohol while scientists looked on, noting his reaction (what would it be – vomiting??). His spinal cord was also punctured. Probably the most painful procedure must have been an orchiectomy, a procedure to remove both testicles.
The institute received orders from the highest ranks, Himmler personally informed the institute that it was time to execute Lüdke. Reichs Propaganda Minister Goebels wrote Himmler a personal letter regarding the serial killer, saying:
“As Leader and Defense Commissioner it is my right and my duty to request that the savage mass murderer and woman-slayer Bruno Lüdke does not die a normal hangman’s death. At the very least, he should pay for his heinous crimes with a torturous death. I suggest he is burned alive and quartered.”
This method was used in concentration camps, like in an instance when an SS guard was caught in an attempt to abscond. He was tied to a metal tray and taken to a crematorium. The guard was placed in an oven and roasted alive. His executioners took him out of the oven several times, removing limbs, effectively ‘quartering’ him. This was the execution Goebels had in mind for Lüdke. Immensely cruel, bit perhaps his fate turned out to be, even worse…
The initial plan was to poison Lüdke with a bullet filled with the poison aconitine – a common method of execution at the time. However, this didn’t happen and Lüdke’s execution became an experiment. On the 8th of April 1944, Bruno Lüdke died. The circumstances of his death have been called into question, but is most likely that he was killed in a vacuum chamber during a medical trial.
A vacuum chamber is an airtight cell with an airtight window of three-quarter inch plate glass for observation. The condemned is stripped naked and instructed to lie flat on his back with his hands locked above his head so as to allow for the free flow of breath. An air pump extracts all oxygen from the room and the person is left to suffocate. A process that is supposed to last one minute, forty seconds.
Stories circulated about Lüdke’s execution, how everything didn’t quite go according to plan. The execution team set up the cell, led Lüdke inside, closed the door when the left, and waited for him to pass out. But then pumped a gust of oxygen back into the cell, so he could regain consciousness. They repeated this procedure until he perished.
Critics wondered why they chose such a cruel method of execution. One theory was that it wan unplanned, it didn’t work at first and they decided to reset the situation somehow. Either way, there is no documentary evidence of this, so it is all speculation.
How he actually died remained a mystery, even to his family. Kommisssar Franz told his sisters it was Typhus. On his death certificate it cited ‘Heart failure’ as the cause of death. His sisters believed that neither explanation was true and that their brother Bruno had suffered a painful demise that authorities had covered up the truth intentionally.
In 1944, Kommisar Franz was drafted into the German army and sent to serve in Russia. Unconfirmed reports stated that he lost his life in Russian captivity in 1945.
In 1946, the war was over and many documents were declassified. The story of the was released to the press and the nation devoured it. All this time they had been focussed on surviving the war, they would never have thought that a serial killer was at work as well.
In 1950, the myth of Lüdke was still haunting post-war Germany. He was a serial killer during the lowest point in the country’s history. Criminologist Bernd Wehner wrote a series of articles exploring German police work in Nazi Germany for national newspaper Der Spiegel. He profiled Bruno Lüdke and described him as an alcoholic and a tobacco addict. A deadbeat and an imbicile. He continued his derogatory description, saying Lüdke was an "animal" who was "giant gorilla… A retarded Neanderthal man." Yet he commends Lüdke’s memory of the crimes and the detail in which he described it.
His article was based on the casefile compiled by Kommisar Franz, nothing else. Yet the article created the belief that Bruno Lüdke was Germany’s worst killer ever. The article inspired another writer, who wrote under the pseudonym of Will Berthold. He took the drama of Lüdke’s case a step further and published a series of 15 articles in Munich Magazine in 1956.
Here is an adapted, loosely translated passage from one of the articles:
“The murderer raced all over Germany, driven by desire, greed, the lust to kill… Lüdke is the most abominable killer in criminal history. He is a brute, a beast, a monster in human form.”
Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam (The Devil Strikes at Night), based on the alleged murders of Lüdke was released in 1957. The film reveals the life and times of one of Germany’s worst killers, without questioning his guilt. Lüdke’s family tried to prevent its release, but their efforts were unsuccessful. By that time Lüdke had been named Germany’s worst killer, a monster and there was no clearing his name.
His skeleton was never released to his family and it is said to have been lost by the institute in the 1960s.
Until the 1990s, Bruno Lüdke was considered to be Germany most prolific serial killer. It was only in 1994, Dutch Criminologist and former chief of police, Jan Blaauw investigated Lüdke’s case. He concluded that Franz, Lüdke’s interrogator, had gained Lüdke’s trust. For the first time in his life, Lüdke felt that he had a friend. Franz optimized the situation to extract information from Lüdke. Franz did not see Ludke as a friend, he saw him as a means to an end – to make him the man who caught Germany’s most prolific killer of all times.
It became evident that Franz gave the impression he learnt about the Mundt and Schulz cases from Lüdke, but records showed that Franz had pulled the files before he interrogated him. Police records showed that AFTER Lüdke had confessed to the 50 rapes or attempted rapes, Franz visited the Berlin Homicide Department Archives and took unsolved murder casefiles with him.
With regards to the murders of Herr and Frau Umann, he was taken to the scene of the crime in Berlin and it was evident that he was NOT familiar with the area. He also neglected to mention the murder of Frau Gutermann, who was killed only two days before the Umann’s. When Franz asked Lüdke about her murder, he suddenly ‘remembered’ killing her too.
Instead of Lüdke confessing, it was Franz who named locations and dates of unsolved murders, then asked Lüdke about his whereabouts at the time. Lüdke, not sure what he was confessing to, claimed to have been wherever Franz wanted to place him.
Because the interviews had no audio recordings, the only evidence that exists are interrogation notes. It is not clear in these notes if Franz elicited the confessions, but in studying each separate confession, something didn’t add up.
Lüdke was intellectually challenged, yet he described the crimes to the letter: the exact date and time, the location, the temperature and small details only police or the perpetrator would know. The murders he confessed to, spanned over 20 years.
Jan Blaauw pointed out that it was unlikely for someone in Lüdke’s financial position to have travelled across Germany to commit all the murders. He hardly travelled out of Köpenick, let alone visit all corners of the Reich by train, bicycle, hitchhiking, walking from town to town. Some of the murders were as far north as Hamburg and as far south as Munich.
The transcripts of the interrogation showed that he was not very travel smart.
KK Franz: How did you buy that ticket?
Lüdke: Simple, I just said I want a ticket to there and there…
KK Franz: But where?
Lüdke: I will think about that during the night.
The next morning:
KK Franz: How did you buy a ticket to that place?
Lüdke: I went to the ticket-window and asked for a ticket to Silezia.
KK Franz: What is Silezia?
Lüdke: It's a city.
KK Franz: But Bruno, Silezia is a province. That’s more than a city. It's much bigger, with many towns.
Lüdke: I call that a city…
This didn't keep Franz from reporting that Lüdke's knowledge of most places outside Berlin is "amazing"
Bruno Lüdke always had an inappropriate grimace when talking about the murders, which made him appear to be a heartless madman who killed for the pleasure of it. He could not tell police his address or sign his name.
Also bear in mind that all of the murders occurred at the height of World War II. Travelling around Germany was problematic and dangerous. Roadblocks were commonplace and most journeys were interrupted by ID checks, always looking for escaped POW’s etc. And Berlin and surrounding areas was a highly patrolled area. If he had travelled so often without any other reason than to commit rape and murder, he would most likely have been on police radar.
How could a man that didn’t get away with stealing a chicken commit more than 50 murders over 20 years and get away with it?
After his death, Lüdke’s sisters who lived in East Berlin wrote to Hamburg Criminalist Gootfired Faulhaber that Bruno had told them:
“Herta, if I didn’t say I killed Frau Rösler, they would have shot me!”
Mario Adorf, the actor who played the role of Lüdke in the 1957 film, The Devil Strikes at Night, received many awards for his portrayal of Lüdke. which were good for him at the time. But as time went by, he came to the realisation that Lüdke was not the devil. The devil was, in fact, someone else. He admitted that he would have played the role differently, had he even suspected that Lüdke was framed at the time of filming.
It is more than likely that Lüdke did not commit the 84 crimes he confessed to. It is also not likely that all the murders were committed by one person. The lack of similarities in the murders denote that different perperators were at work. Again, it was wartime and in the chaos and hate-fuelled climate of the time, crimes unrelated to the war often went unsolved.
An important consideration to take I that Nazi’s were fastidious over their paperwork. 84 Unsolved cases would have been an unacceptable legacy, as the tides were changing in wartime Germany. The allies were encroaching upon their stronghold. If they could not even catch one of their own killers, how could they hope to dominate their enemies? An embarrassment that would not have been taken lightly.
Fortunately for Kommissar Franz, he found the perfect scapegoat in Bruno Lüdke. Wrong or right.
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