Berlin is a city with a fearful past. But it doesn’t keep its skeletons in the cupboard; it bares its soul and share its shame. Countless museums and memorials bear witness to its willingness to confront a catalogue of 20th Century crimes. And it’s not just the Nazis who committed them. Life in the capital of the GDR held plenty of horrors as well, now brilliantly documented in the permanent exhibition at the Stasi Museum, ‘State Security in the SED-Dictatorship’. The museum is located in the main building (‘Haus 1’) of the former Stasi Headquarters, which also contains the recently-renovated offices of the notorious Erich Mielke, Minister for State Security from 1957 until 1989.
Walking into the Stasi HQ
The Stasi was the GDR’s infamous secret police force. Calling itself the ‘Shield and Sword of the Party’ (referring to the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany – in German: Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED), it was from its massive headquarters on Magdalenenstrasse in Lichtenberg that the Stasi conducted a covert war against all perceived enemies of the state – including thousands of its own citizens. The Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal declared the Stasi to be “worse than the Gestapo”. It’s estimated that one in every ten East Germans worked as an ‘unofficial informer’ for the Stasi and the museum reveals many of the extraordinary ways in which the regime spied on its population.
“The Party is the State”
There is nothing quite like a museum which is housed in its authentic surroundings. When I lived in West Berlin in the 1980s, I knew all about the Stasi, but I couldn’t really conceive of its horrifying, all-encompassing power until I first visited its headquarters in the 1990s. This vast complex of grey concrete blocks started life in 1930 as the finance offices of the borough of Lichtenberg and was then enlarged by the Ministry for State Security in the 1970s. The buildings are grouped menacingly close together and included a cinema, canteen and exclusive supermarket. The Stasi headquarters formed a city within a city, totally closed off from the ‘normal’ world. Even now, the buildings exude a grim, inhospitable air.
Aerial view of the vast Stasi HQ
When the Berlin Wall fell, the Stasi buildings were taken over by an East Berlin citizens’ organisation, called ASTAK (Antistalinistische Aktion), which stills runs the museum in Haus 1, jointly with the Federal Commission for Stasi Records (BStU). Haus 7 contains the Stasi archives and Haus 22 contains an information centre and is used for functions. The remainder of the buildings have been bought by a real estate company but it is proving difficult to redevelop the site as it is under a historic preservation order. At present, one building is being used to house refugees, but in the long run it is difficult to imagine Berliners choosing to live in surroundings with such an eerie past.
Refugees happy to have a temporary home
The Stasi Museum is open every day, from 10am until 6pm on weekends and from 11am until 6pm at weekends and entrance costs 6 euros, with reductions for school pupils, students and pensioners. There are excellent free guided tours in English at 3pm on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, but you can also spend a gripping few hours at this museum on your own, as all the information is given in English. This is a museum for genuine history buffs, with fascinating exhibits and excellent display boards giving every possible detail of the Stasi’s activities. No Disneyfication here.
Detailed information in English
When you walk into Haus 1 of the Stasi Headquarters, it is as if you are re-entering the GDR. The interior décor is original, so the colours are murky; a depressing palette of brown, yellow, orange and cream. The large foyer has a model of the whole complex and under the 1970s-style staircase, complete with tacky gold-coloured railings, stands a ‘delivery van’, used by the Stasi to pick up ‘suspects’ for interrogation. On the ground floor, it is also worth visiting the café where time has stood still for almost 30 years – as have the prices.
The first and third floors of the museum contain the permanent exhibition. This includes an excellent general history of the Stasi and their propaganda methods. For example, they tried to brainwash all GDR children not only at school, but by making them join the ‘Junge Pioniere’, a state-run communist organisation which fed them political propaganda as well as organising activities and camps. There is also an interesting section devoted to the Stasi’s technique of ‘Zersetzung’ (‘undermining’) which involved disrupting the lives of problematic political dissidents, by ruining their marriages or constantly deflating the tyres of their bicycles.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the displays remains the exhibits which are examples of the ingenious ways in which the Stasi used to spy on its citizens. There are wrist watches with wire taps for running up the inside of sleeves, microphones hidden in hymn books and handbags, cameras in nesting boxes and tree trunks. The list is endless and some of the unlikely hiding places for cameras and microphones have to be seen to be believed. These days, we might view the Stasi’s surveillance methods as bizarre or even amusing, but for ordinary people living under their control they must have been totally unsettling.
If you have seen the award-winning 1986 film ‘The Lives of Others’, you will remember one of the methods that the Stasi used to track their suspects. First, they would bring in the person for interrogation and leave a cotton square under their seat cushion. This piece of material would then be placed in an airtight jar and later used by sniffer dogs.
The second floor of the Stasi Museum is devoted to Erich Mielke, as this was entirely his domain. Everything is wood-panelled and emanates a suffocating stuffiness. His luxury office features his desk complete with chair , telephone and shredding machine. There are a series of meeting rooms with original maps on the walls, long conference tables, bright blue chairs and a secretary’s desk complete with a 1970s telephone switchboard. Mielke also had a bedroom, bathroom and small kitchen on this floor, suggesting that he spent much of his time in the building, controlling his empire of 92,000 spies and 170,000 ‘unofficial informers’, rather than returning home to his wife and children.
Mielke’s office and meeting room
On November 9th 1989, when the GDR effectively collapsed, the Stasi started destroying all their files as East Berliners stormed the buildings in their headquarters. Mielke left his post three weeks later and in 1993, aged 85, he was sentenced to six years in prison for the murder of two policemen back in 1931. Mielke was released after four years for medical reasons and died in 2000, living in a small apartment in Hohenschönhausen, East Berlin, not far from the notorious Stasi prison. For further reading about the Stasi and its methods, I have listed a couple of interesting links below. The Stasi Museum is only a five-minute walk from Magdalenenstrasse Underground Station.
Mielke facing trial
To explore the German capital, it is not enough to walk the length and breadth of its streets. If you want to catch the Berlin Feeling and understand what makes this city really tick, you must enter a world that lies hidden behind the façades – the parallel universes of the Berlin courtyards. There is no other city in the world where this style of building construction is so seminal to its architectural style. Berlin’s ‘Höfe’ (singular: ‘Hof) contain apartments, offices, workshops, shops, galleries, cafés and gardens. They may be chic or shabby, interlinking or individual, but one thing is sure, this multiverse of courtyards pumps energy into Berlin street-life in a unique and fascinating way.
Berlin courtyards – My very own Berlin courtyard
The history of the Höfe goes back to the second half of the 19th Century when Berlin’s population began to boom. In the 1870s, there were over one million people living in Berlin; whereas in the 1820s, it stood at about 220,000. This massive population increase had dramatic effects on the social and economic aspects of city life. The city centre residential districts had to be utilized as much as possible and this resulted in the construction of tenement blocks called ‘Mietskasernen’ (literally ‘rented barracks’). These blocks were often built behind the prestigious street-front buildings that served as homes for the bourgeoisie and housed domestic employees, workmen, and poorer families.
Kreuzberg Hinterhof today
The ‘Hinterhof’ (‘backyard’) separated the various social strata and there were sometimes three or four such courtyards in a row, with the buildings at the very back having little sunlight and a darker atmosphere. Yet these courtyards were also the focus of daily life – even the bathrooms could be located there. Most of these historic tenement buildings have now been renovated and are highly-coveted residential properties. And with their varying garden styles and sizes, the back courtyards are a large part of their charm.
Berlin courtyards – 21st Century chic courtyard
There are several well-known refurbished and renovated courtyards in the central borough of Mitte in the ‘Scheunenviertel’, a poor working-class area just outside the old city walls. Although they are firmly on the tourist route, I always take visitors to the Hackesche Höfe. The eight intercommunicating courtyards have been wonderfully restored and now contain upmarket apartments, galleries, boutiques and cafés. The main entrance at 40, Rosenthaler Straβe opens into to Hof I, festooned with art nouveau tiling and containing restaurants, a cinema and the Chamäleon cabaret theatre. Hof VII leads to the romantic Rosenhöfe with its sunken rose garden and elegant balustrades.
Berlin courtyards – Hackescher Hof I
An absolute must is a walk through the Hinterhof of Haus Schwarzenberg, at 39, Rosenthaler Straβe where the buildings have not been gentrified. This backyard is now famed for its street art, but it also contains three excellent small museums about Jewish life in Nazi Berlin and an art-house cinema that shows films outside in summer.
Berlin courtyards – Central CInema in Haus Schwarzenberg
Around the corner in pretty Sophienstraβe, there are more courtyards to explore. At number 21, the Sophie-Gips-Höfe boast both the Hoffmann Art Collection and Café Barcomi in the shaded Hinterhof. The high walls of the first courtyard are inscribed with an interesting list of German adjectives expressing opposites. It is also worth looking into Paulinenhof, just along the street at number 28/29, an earlier example of the courtyard style, built in 1842.
Berlin courtyards – Sophie-Gips-Höfe
On the opposite side of Rosenthaler Straβe is Münzstraβe, a gently curving street lined with shoe boutiques and coffee shops. Until recently, the courtyards at number 21 still gave a wonderful impression of pre-war Berlin. Now they too have been spruced up and are clearly one of the on-trend places to hang out in Mitte.
Berlin courtyards – Breakfast in Münzstraβe
Nearby Auguststraβe is a street oozing with history, well-known for its galleries and restaurants. The KW Institute for Contemporary Art at number 69 has a pretty courtyard with a café and the legendary Clärchens Ballhaus, set back from the street at number 24, looks on to what was originally a Hinterhof – although in this case the Vorderhaus was destroyed in the bombing and no longer exists. Further along Auguststraβe, just before Tucholskystraβe, there is a sign into the Heckmannhöfe, a courtyard complex which links Auguststraβe with Oranienburger Straβe. This idyllic urban retreat dotted with shops and restaurants surrounding a small playpark, comes as a complete surprise and gives a photogenic view of the golden dome of the Neue Synagoge.
Berlin courtyards – Lunch in the Heckmannhöfe
For a final courtyard visit in the Scheunenviertel of Mitte, I recommend the Missing House Memorial at 16, Groβe Hamburger Straβe, created in 1990 by French artist, Christian Boltansnki. Here, a tenement building on a Hinterhof was destroyed by bombing in 1945. There is now just an empty space with large plaques bearing the names of the people who lived placed at the relevant level the plain walls of the surviving buildings on either side. The café next door to the memorial is called ‘You’re so welcome’ and lives up to its name. Its terrace opposite the Jewish School and the Jewish Memorial outside the Jewish Cemetery is a perfect place to reflect on the pre-war life of the courtyards in this part of Berlin.
Berlin courtyards – The Missing House
I never miss an opportunity to walk through entrances and open gates to see if there is more discover behind the buildings that line the pavements; the Hinterhöfe are the Narnia of the Berlin. For further reading, follow this link to an interesting article on the Deutsche Welle website.
Dussmann das Kulturkaufhaus. Berlin may be famed for its dark history and decadence, but it also has a reputation as a city bursting with culture. Music, literature and the arts have always flourished in Berlin and never more so than in its current 21st Century, post-unification era. What other cities in the world can boast a huge ‘Cultural Department Store’, open Monday to Friday from 9am until midnight, on Saturday until 11.30pm and on some Sundays, too?
The iconic Dussmann building
‘Dussmann das Kulturkaufhaus’ is a unique store, offering an amazing selection of books, CDs, DVDs, sheet music and stationery. In fact, every product that a culture vulture could dream of. There are also regular cultural events such as readings, book signings and musical performances, and a brilliant café in the basement. The owner, Catherine von Fürstenberg-Dussmann describes her store as “the beating heart as the city” and compares Dussmann to a church; a place where people come together, reflect, and communicate with one another. How much better to browse at Dussmann, with the help of expert advice, than alone at home on the internet.
Dussmann originally opened in 1997 and immediately raised the bar for international book and music stores. For the past twenty years, whenever I have been anywhere near Friedrichstrasse, the main shopping artery of Berlin’s ‘City East’, the draw of this Aladdin’s cave has proved irresistible. Since February 2017, all five floors of the store have been reorganised and refurbished. Dussmann remained open during the building works and despite the upheaval, the loyal customers kept coming in. Now, everything seems more spacious than ever, as dividing walls have been removed, storerooms knocked through into the shopping area and more seating areas provided.
The towering atrium
On the third floor are text books and a Berlin Wall Memorial display with touch screens, complete with a piece of Wall signed by Ronald Regan. On the floor below are popular non-fiction books and children’s books. The first floor has novels, audio books and a huge selection of international DVDs. On the ground floor is the most comprehensive selection of books about Berlin in the capital, hundreds of Rock, Jazz and Pop CDs and a tempting range of ‘papeterie’. If you walk through to the back of the ground floor, there is even a separate two-floor English bookshop where ‘Shakespeare meets Auster’. And the basement has a wonderful classical music department with sheet music as well as CDs and space not only to listen to music, but to try it out yourself on an electronic piano.
DVDs of films set in Berlin
Classical listening space
Dussmann is a great place to meet up. It’s situated in the cultural heart of Berlin and is not only a unique shopping experience, but also boasts ‘Café-Restaurant Ursprung’ (Source) open from 9am until 9pm, six days a week, where you are encouraged to ‘eat-drink-dream’. Hype aside, this basement refuge has a relaxing vibe and an imaginative menu. You walk through the ‘nave’ of the store to be greeted by a sphinx at the top of the staircase and a vast back wall featuring a 270-square metre vertical garden of over 6,000 tropical plants. This spectacular ‘Mur Végétal’, designed by French botanist and garden architect, Patrick Blanc, has quite a wow factor – rather like the whole Dussmann experience.
An impressive café entrance
Inside Café Ursprung
Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin. If you love the theatre but don’t speak German, you can still enjoy world-class drama in Berlin – with the help of English surtitles. The German word for theatre is spelt ‘Theater’ – and can be singular or plural. There are scores of good Theater in Berlin, but my two favourites are the Deutsches Theater in East Berlin and the Schaubühne in West Berlin. Their productions are usually outstanding and they each have a loyal following which makes for a buzzing atmosphere. But perhaps most important, I can take English-speaking friends along when there are English surtitles. You only have to check out each of their websites for the dates of these selected performance dates, usually at weekends.
Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin. A scene from Lessing’s Nathan der Weise, 2015
The Deutsches Theater is on Schumannstraβe in East Berlin, not far from Friedrichstraße Station, just around the corner from the Boros Bunker. It was built in 1850 and started life as the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Städtisches Theater, named after Frederick William IV of Prussia, when it was used mainly for operettas. In 1883, the Deutsches Theater was founded as an ensemble-based repertory company to promote German language and literature. Otto Brahm, the first Director, favoured Naturalist plays by Gerhart Hauptmann, August Strindberg und Arthur Schnitzler, then the legendary Max Reinhardt took over in 1905, and during his era the Deutsches Theater soon earned the reputation of being Germany’s top stage. Reinhardt fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and his former assistant steered the theatre through the Nazi period. During the GDR years, the Deutsches Theater was the most daring and experimental theatre in East Berlin and on November 4th 1989, actors from the Deutsches Theater helped organise the largest protest demonstration in East German history at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz – a pivotal event in the fall of the Berlin Wall five days later. The current Artistic Director of the Deutsches Theater, Ulrich Khuon, has recently had his contract extended until 2022.
Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin. The Deutsches Theater
Behind its classical façade, the Deutsches Theater is home to three stages: the main stage, built in 1850, with an auditorium that seats 600; the ‘Kammerspiele’, established by Reinhardt in 1906 for modern drama, which holds 230 spectators; and the ‘Box’, a compact black box located in the Kammerspiele foyer, which opened in 2006. With seating for 80, this is an intimate venue for contemporary plays with topical themes. The Deutsches Theater repertoire comprises about 50 productions. Each season sees about 30 premieres, with English surtitles for all the productions on the main stage. Last month, I went to see the ‘Marat-Sade’ by Peter Weiss at the Deutsches Theater, which first opened in the Schiller Theater in West Berlin in 1964. This a hard-hitting affair, telling the bloody story of Marat’s notorious death at the hands of Charlotte Corday in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The action takes place in a lunatic asylum and de Sade struts about the stage shouting directions and defending his individualism. There was genuinely never a dull moment with live music, a delinquent chorus and plenty of naturalistic horror in the ‘grand guignol’ style, where the actors appeared as surreal puppets. The audience loved it – and I spotted plenty of English-speakers following the translation above the stage. There’s still a chance to catch this production on Sunday July 9th.
Curtain call at the end of Marat-Sade
The Schaubühne (literally meaning ‘show stage’) has a completely different look to the Deutsches Theater and is a very West Berlin post-war institution, attracting audiences from the well-healed suburbs around the Kurfürstendamm. This is not to say that its productions are any less avant-garde – far from it. The building itself is a conversion of the Universum Cinema, designed by the modernist architect Erich Mendelssohn in 1928, who also fled Nazi Germany in 1933. Heavily damaged in World War II, it was rebuilt and re-opened as a cinema and then a dance hall. The building’s current use as a theatre dates from the late 1970s, when the Schaubühne ensemble from Kreuzberg, directed by Peter Stein, was looking for a new home. Stein was strongly influenced by the 1968 German student movement and his productions won favour with the critics, if not the West Berlin politicians. In 1999, Thomas Ostermeier took over as artistic director and in recent years, the theatrical repertoire has focused not only contemporary plays, but included many ground-breaking interpretations of classic works. The Schaubühne showcases its productions all over the world. Their production of ‘Enemy of the People’ by Ibsen was seen in no fewer than in 30 countries and in February 2017, ‘Beware of Pity’ by Stefan Zweig came to the Barbican in London and was a sell-out.
Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin. The Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Ku’damm
Like the Deutsches Theater, the Schaubühne is keen to attract English-speaking theatre-goers and they include English surtitles on selected performances for all their main productions and provide surtitles for French speakers on other evenings. Since 2000, this theatre, with its strong social conscience, has also hosted a series of monthly political panel discussions called ‘Streitraum’ (‘space for argument’). I have been along to a couple of these and discovered that they are more or less conducted simultaneously in German and English. If you are thinking of trying out a play with surtitles at the Schaubühne, I can recommend their current production of Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler. It is an absolute tour de force by the excellent company of actors resident at this theatre. The plot centres around a Jewish doctor at a prestigious private clinic who refuses to allow a Catholic priest into the room of a dying patient to administer the last rites, but it widens into an exploration of how elusive truth becomes when it is manipulated by opposing sides and delivers almost three hours of gripping theatre. Just the ticket in our post-truth era.
Scene from Professor Bernhardi. Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin.
Both the Deutsches Theater and the Schaubühne take a break for a few weeks over the summer. You can already book for September at the Schaubühne and the Deutsches Theater publishes their schedule for the 2017/18 season on 1st August. It is best to email or call the theatre to book seats for productions with surtitles to make sure that you have seats where you can see the words clearly. Ticket prices are so reasonable and it is also worth mentioning that both theatres have good bar facilities – in summer, there’s plenty of seating space outside as well. ‘Verweile doch!’ (Stay a while! – a famous quote from Goethe’s Faust).