The Stasi – 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