Postcard from Berlin: The Stasi
In the West we think of the end of World War II as a release from tyranny, but in the East it was merely the start. Those who found themselves under Soviet jurisdiction, be that half of Berlin or half of Europe, found their lives controlled in an increasingly sinister way by a government desperate to maintain the upper hand. The Staatssicherheitsdienst (or Stasi for short) was founded in 1950 as the official state security service of the newly-formed German Democratic Republic. As the magnitude of the surveillance operation necessary to keep a nation in check became clearer its staff numbers grew, and grew, until in 1960 a new administrative complex was opened to the east of the city centre. Residents might not have given this campus of austere blocks a second thought, but within its hundreds of rooms a bureaucracy of fear developed unchecked. When finally the Wall came down the buildings were stormed and sealed before the Stasi could destroy their archives. A civil rights organisation took control and has created an extraordinary museum on site, both in the information it holds and the lessons it teaches.
To locate the Stasi Museum take the U5 to MagdalenenstraßeU-bahn station, and then walk one block north. The area looks like you'd expect East German flats to look, but instead these were offices, workshops and repositories for a megalomaniac organisation. The boss (Erich Mielke) had his HQ in Haus 1, the slightly less greybuilding that now houses the museum. At €6 a ticket (plus an extra euro for permission to take photos) admission is very reasonably priced, indeed Berlin's moderate entrance fees put London's money-hungry charges to shame. There are three floors to explore, two of these devoted to a newly-updated exhibition putting artefacts found on site in context. A cutaway door shows how agents infiltrated homes to hide microphones in the woodwork, while a Young Pioneers neckerchief is a reminder that the long-term objective was the infiltration of children's minds. Vast card indexes were used to keep identities and observation notes separate, for added security, with the Stasi having implanted informers everywhere - some say up to 10% of the population.
Excellent though the exhibition is, the remaining floor is visually the most memorable. These rooms housed Erich Mielke's offices and have been retained as was, kitted out with quaintly ancient technology and furniture in DDR-approved orangeandbrown. So retro is the wood-panelled decor that one suspects it's already come back into fashion somewhere closer to home. Busts of Soviet leaders in committee room corners oversee long veneer tables, while one comfier room was used as a cafeteria (and occasionally a casino!) during breaks from meetings. Elsewhere it hits home that those chunky typewriters once generated dictatorial directives, and don't even begin to think about the human rights that might have been quashed via that pushbutton telephone switchboard. You'll leave hoping society would never be foolish enough to sleepwalk into such despair again.
Just over two miles to the north (and hikeable in 45 minutes flat if you've a deadline to meet) is the Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen. This national memorial was home to Berlin's main Stasi prison, hidden in plain sight in the suburbs and once unmarked on any map. A former flour mill, it was first appropriated under Soviet rule and then enlarged by the DDR as a holding pen for those approaching trial. Guided tours are held daily, at least three a week in English, hence my enforced routemarch across Lichtenburg to reach the gates by 2.30pm. All visits begin with a film, not the Oscar-winning 'The Lives of Others' (which was filmed here) but an informative thirty minute documentary. After this your guide will lead you down into the cells of the Russian prison, nicknamed the U-Boot, where conditions were cramped, damp, unhygienic and generally horrific. Only one of the German guides at the museum is old enough to have been a prisoner here in the Soviet wing, twice, as a testament to the amazing strength of the human spirit.
After the dusty catacombs, the more modern DDR prison looks almost luxurious. It was nothing of the sort, of course, with the treatment of prisoners switching from physical to psychological torture. Inmates arrived bundled into a camouflaged van and were led down empty corridors to their cells to endure months of solitary existence, a tactic which encouraged bonding with their interrogator when they finally met. One entire wing of the prison was given over to interrogation rooms, 40 on each of three floors, where the process of eking out a confession was carried through. Each room was identical, with wallpaper, lino and curtains designed to remind prisoners briefly of home. The Stasi's ubiquitous social surveillance operation would have provided much of the evidence required, with painstakingly acquired titbits of gossip, opinions and beliefs combined to devastating effect. Our guide left us at the end of the tour with the thought that much of the personal information DDR citizens fought to keep concealed, today's German citizens blithely upload to Facebook on a daily basis. All it takes is a change at the top to bring open democracy crashing down.