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
Last Sunday, I joined some Berlin friends at the Pulse of Europe demonstration on Bebelplatz, on Unter den Linden. This square, which was called ‘Opernplatz’ before the war, has a dark history. It was where the Nazi ‘Burning of the Books’ took place on May 10th 1933 – exactly 84 years ago as I write this post. But in 2017, a large friendly crowd was standing in the sunshine, waving European flags. French flags were in evidence too, on the day of the French Presidential Election.
Bebelplatz in the May sunshine
Demonstrations are an intrinsic part of Berlin’s street life. It’s a city where people feel passionately about issues and at the weekend you can almost guarantee that there will some kind of public march or rally. On May Day, protests by political extremists often descend into violence and riots, although this year the multi-cultural ‘Myfest’ in Kreuzberg went ahead in relative calm.
Peaceful revellers at Myfest 2017
Various speakers addressed the crowd from the stage. Some had planned their words, others were more spontaneous. Each person who spoke then received a small bunch of lily of the valley (in German: Maiglöckchen – ‘little May bells’) for their contribution. Their personal stories all held the same message: European unity is the only way forward. Especially memorable were the words of a Jewish Berliner who told us that the EU is “the answer to the Holocaust”. Another speaker described the EU as “the most precious gift of the 20th Century”. Many of them referred to the ideals of French political economist and diplomat, Jean Monnet, considered one of the founding fathers of the European Union in the 1950s.
The stage complete with piano
The organisers of the Pulse of Europe demonstration had distributed sheets printed with the German words of ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. After the speeches, we all sang along to this European anthem, accompanied by live piano playing on the stage. Finally, we joined hands and danced around the square. It was hard to imagine that this square had once witnessed such hatred and violence.
Dancing round the square
On one side of Bebelplatz, is the beautiful Law Faculty building of Berlin’s Humboldt University (see first photo). This used to be the University Library, from whose windows Nazi students threw books that they considered ‘unGerman’ on to the bonfire below. A hundred years earlier, the German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) had written the prophetic lines: “Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.” Set into the ground on Bebelplatz is a memorial to the burning of the books. It consists simply of empty bookshelves and beside it a bronze inscription with Heine’s warning.
Book Burning Memorial
When the Pulse of Europe demonstration broke up, we walked back across Unter den Linden between the Neue Wache and the Gorki Theatre and paused by the statue of Heine, sitting smiling and relaxed among the chestnut trees. Heine’s later verse and prose are full of satirical wit and irony and his radical views led to him being banned in his own country. He spent the last 25 years of his life in Paris.
Heinrich Heine statue
Berlin is best known for its 20th Century history and any mention of the word ‘crossing point’ summons up visions of Checkpoint Charlie, the Glienicke Bridge or the Soviets crossing the Elbe in World War II, prior to the Battle for Berlin. But there is a more significant crossing point in the history of Berlin, dating back almost 800 years when there was a settlement on each side of the River Spree – Berlin and Cölln.
Model of Berlin-Cölln in the Märkisches Museum
The first documented reference to these settlements was made in 1237 and it was around this time that the Margraves (military governors) of Brandenburg used Berlin and Cölln to secure the crossing point of the Spree at Mühlendamm (Mill Dam). Towards the end of the 13th Century, the twin towns Berlin-Cölln had outstripped the older towns of Köpenick and Spandau in importance and in 1280 the first Parliament of the Margravate of Brandenburg was established there.
View northwards from the Mühlendamm Bridge today
There are very few genuine traces of the original settlements of 13th Century Berlin. The ‘Nikolaiviertel’ occupies the area where Berlin was first founded and before it was devastated in the war, it contained some of the oldest buildings in the city centre. After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, this district became part of East Berlin, but it wasn’t until 1979, in the run-up to the 750th Anniversary of the city, that reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel started.
Aerial view of the Nikolaiviertel
During the eight-year project, the GDR authorities made an attempt to recreate this historic quarter, but since almost none of the buildings are located on their original sites, and many of them were built with prefabricated concrete slabs (a style referred to in German as ‘Plattenbau’), the Nikolaiviertel was often scornfully referred to as ‘Honecker’s Disneyland’. Yet despite its lack of authenticity, the Nikolaiviertel’s narrow, pedestrianised streets are popular with tourists and its cafés and restaurants alongside the Spree are particularly inviting in the summer months.
The Spree terraces in the Nikolaiviertel
In the heart of the Nikolaiviertel is the oldest church in Berlin, the Nikolaikirche, which gave the quarter its name. It was probably built shortly after Berlin was granted town privileges, but the building has undergone a great deal of reconstruction over the centuries. A presbytery was built in 1402 and the two towers were added in 1877. The Nikolaikirche was destroyed in 1945 by bombing and completely rebuilt in 1987.
The reconstructed Nikolaikirche
The Nikolaikirche is no longer a church, but now forms part of the Stadtmuseum (City Museum) with a permanent exhibition called ‘From the Base of the City to the Double Spire’, although only the stone floors date back to the 13th Century. From 1st April until 28th May 2017 there is also a special exhibition, ‘Saint Luther’, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.
Inside the Nikolaikirche
In front of the church is a small square, Nikolaikirchplatz, with an octagonal fountain known as the Wappenbrunnen (coat-of-arms fountain), created in 1987, and based on a design from 1928. On each side of the fountain is a relief showing a coat-of-arms and in the centre is a column with a statue of a bear. The bear symbolizes the city of Berlin and the fountain commemorates the founding of the city and is therefore also known as the Gründungsbrunnen (foundation fountain). Set in the pavement outside the Nikolaikirche is another memorial to the birth of Berlin in the form of a two-metre wide copy of the original seal of the city.
The Wappenbrunnen and the Berlin city seal
The other building in the Nikolaiviertel which has links with the 13th Century, is the Gerichtslaube, a reconstruction of Berlin’s medieval courthouse. It was originally built in 1270 in Gothic style with arcades, and was integrated into Berlin’s medieval town hall. In 1871, the Gerichtslaube was demolished during the construction of the imposing Rotes Rathaus (the ‘Red Town Hall’). When the Nikolaiviertel was recreated in the 1980s, a replica of the Gerichtslaube was erected about 150 metres from its original location. It is now a restaurant serving traditional Brandenburg fare.
The Gerichtslaube – in 1860 and now
But you need to cross the main road of Grunerstraβe to find the most authentic witness to the medieval twin towns. On Littenstraβe, almost hidden between the Amtsgericht Mitte (district court of the borough of Mitte) and Berlin’s most historic restaurant, ‘Zur letzten Instanz’, is a small section of the ancient city wall, dating back to the 13th century.
The old city wall near Berlin’s oldest restaurant
Nearby are the ruins of the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche, a Franciscan monastery church dating back to 1250, devastated during allied bombing in 1945. The remnants of this ancient church are surrounded by trees and grass and make a picturesque setting for outdoor exhibitions, concerts and theatre performances. It is a wonderfully tranquil spot, with few tourists, and perfect for contemplating the vagaries of European history.
The monastery ruins
Just across the street is Klosterstraβe underground station, which has a nostalgic charm of its own. There is a historic train carriage at the end of the platform and beautiful ceramic tiling modelled on wall decorations in the Palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II in ancient Babylon. This station is usually very quiet and makes a good start and end point to a stroll through Berlin’s oldest streets – even if it is the modern vision of the Fernsehturm (TV tower) that greets you as you emerge up the stairs into the daylight.
The palms of Babylon
‘Kaffee und Kuchen’ is one of the best traditions in the German-speaking world. To translate it just as ‘coffee and cake’ is about as accurate as describing English ‘afternoon tea’ as a hot drink with a sandwich. Both ceremonies are social rituals. Starting at about 4pm, they involve taking a break from the day and relaxing with friends or colleagues, either at home or in the kind of café where time is not of the essence. Viennese-style coffee houses encapsulate this atmosphere. With their high ceilings and chandeliers, polished wooden tables, newspapers on wooden holders and waiting staff dressed in traditional black and white, they ooze slow living and fin de siècle charm. Ironically, Trotsky is said to have planned the Russian revolution from the Café Central in Vienna, a favourite haunt of bourgeois intellectuals. There’s a Café Central in Innsbruck too, where I captured the Kaffee und Kuchen scene last Sunday afternoon.
Traditional Coffee House scene
So what about Berlin? Probably the least bourgeois of German cities, the German capital is best known for its trendy coffee bars with edgy barristas and shabby-chic cafes with organic teas. But there are plenty of places where it is still possible to indulge in Kaffee und Kuchen in its purest form. Café Einstein Stammhaus in Kurfürstenstrasse is Berlin’s closest offering to a Viennese coffee house. Housed in a beautiful late 19th Century villa, it’s a great place to go for Kaffee und Kuchen. And with its Austrian links, the Apfelstrudel and Sachertorte are top choices for cake lovers.
Inside Café Einstein Stammhaus
It has an interesting history too. In the 1920s, the building was owned by Jewish private banker Georg Blumenfeld and later used as a secret gambling club for the high society of the Weimar Republic. When the National Socialists came to power in 1933, they closed the club. Blumenfeld and his wife were disowned and finally driven to committing suicide. The Nazis took over the villa and Goebbels supposedly gifted it to his secret mistress, Henny Porten, a famous actress at the time. After Henny moved out, it became an illegal SS officers’ casino. The villa miraculously survived the wartime bombing and opened as the original Café Einstein in 1978, at exactly one hundred years old. It proved a great hit with the West Berlin literati and since then has spawned many other Einstein cafes all over Berlin. The only other Café Einstein with that stylish, historic feel perfect for a Kaffee und Kuchen experience is on Unter den Linden.
The grand villa building in Kurfürstenstrasse
But the most genuinely historic of all cafés in Berlin is Konditorei Buchwald, a traditional cake shop just by the Moabiter Brücke over the River Spree. The café interior is like a large living room, not as grand as a Viennese coffee house, but there is the same feeling of being in a time-warp. No typing on laptops, mobile phone tunes or background music to disturb the social intercourse here. In summer, the tables set outside in the garden have an equally peaceful setting, with only birdsong to compete with conversation.
Inside Konditorei Buchwald
Gustav Buchwald originally founded the cake company in 1852 in Cottbus, his son moved the business to Berlin at the turn of the century, and it has been run by members of the same family for five generations. The full story is fascinating, and German speakers can follow this link to a Tagesspiegel article which gives all the details. The most recent owner is Andrea Tönges who took over in May 2015. Her grandmother was in charge from 1935 and her mother from 1963. Both Andrea and her mother are ‘Konditormeister’ (master confectioners) and Andrea’s son has chosen the same career path.
Three generations of confectioners – with their famous Baumkuchen
Baumkuchen to take home
Buchwald’s speciality is the ‘Baumkuchen’ which translates literally as ‘tree cake’. The recipe is a secret, but certainly features plenty of sugar, spice and marzipan. The cake mixture is rolled onto a sort of spit (now metal, but originally made of wood) that slowly turns over an open flame, creating fine layers upon layers which look like the growth rings of a tree – hence the name. The cake is then sealed with a glaze or covered in chocolate. The result is so delicious that in 1883 the Buchwald bakery received a warrant of appointment to make Baumkuchen for the royal household. And even now, the Schloss Bellevue, once home to Frederick the Great’s youngest brother, Prince Ferdinand of Prussia, and now the official residence of the German President, is just a walk away in the north end of the Tiergarten.
Queuing outside Buchwald’s
As you enter the shop, the display counter is crammed with cakes (Kuchen) and gateaux (Torten), including several varieties of Baumkuchen. All around the walls and windows, shelves are piled high with more Baumkuchen, beautifully wrapped in all shapes and sizes, which you can buy to take home. When I was last there, a group of tourists came in just to buy the cake as souvenirs and to take photographs. But they missed out on the unique Kaffee und Kuchen ritual: first, the all-important selection of a slice of cake, then the settling into an hour or so of ‘Kaffeeklatsch’ – chatting over coffee.
Selecting a slice of cake
To be sure of a table at Café Einstein or Konditorei Buchwald, especially on a Sunday afternoon, you need to make a reservation. All the details are on their website links below. You can find other café suggestions in a previous Café Society blog, ‘The Great Berlin Cake Off’ (October 2014).
- Bunkers and Berlin are synonymous. Designed to protect people or valued materials from falling bombs, during World War II there were bunkers of every kind all over the city. When the air-raid sirens started to wail, making it in time to the nearest bunker was often a matter of life or death. Now bunkers have become tourist attractions and it’s just as well that Hitler’s infamous Führerbunker has been rendered inaccessible.
The Boros Bunker
Berlin Unwrapped has details of the underground bunker tours organised by the ‘Berliner Unterwelten’ and the contemporary art collection in ‘Boros Bunker’, which is so popular that tickets must be booked weeks in advance on the internet. Now, a new bunker exhibition is attracting attention – the ‘Feuerle Collection’, brainchild of art collector Desiré Feuerle, who owned a gallery in Cologne in the 1990s and specialises in exhibiting antiques alongside contemporary art.
The Feuerle Collection’s home is a raw, cast-concrete building that served as a telecommunications bunker during World War II. As it was owned by the Reichsbahn and therefore the property of the GDR, it was left abandoned and fenced-off during Berlin’s years of division. From the outside, the bunker has the bleak appearance of a brutalist-style fortress, but the interior space has been miraculously transformed by British architect John Pawson into something approaching the vast imperial feel of the Domus Aurea, Nero’s ancient Golden Palace in Rome.
A stunning underground setting
We booked our tickets for the Feuerle Collection on the internet a couple of weeks in advance, for a Saturday afternoon (the museum is currently only open at weekends) and took the U2 to Möckernbrücke. It was only a ten-minute walk along Hallesches Ufer, but already the overhead railway, the dark waters of the canal and the massive buildings on either side of the road combined to create a sense of severity. We arrived at the huge metal door of the bunker with a sense of some trepidation.
Entrance to the bunker
Visitors are ushered in semi-darkness to the lobby to place their bags in the lockers, then assembled as a group for basic instructions on how the tour will proceed. Photography is prohibited, so all the pictures in this post have been taken from official photographs provided by the Feuerle Collection on the internet. Our guide offered very little information about what we would find inside the exhibition itself; it was made clear that we would be making an individual discovery, although we could ask questions at any time. We were then ushered downstairs, where a pitch-black room awaited. When the door closed, a minimalist sound piece by John Cage was meant to be playing – a ‘gift’ from the collector, intended as a sort of musical prelude to the stark journey that each visitor was about to embark on. In fact, what we experienced was several minutes of total silence and were rendered both blind and deaf.
We were then told to ‘walk towards the light’ and found ourselves in a huge sub-terranean cavern, which felt like a hallowed tomb for art. Each ancient exhibit stood on its own pedestal or in a glass case with a few other similar creations and the clever lighting made everything seem precious beyond compare. Beautiful Khmer sculptures from the 7th to 13th Centuries made of stone, bronze and wood, cast imposing shadows across the bare floor. We wandered around in awe among the pillars that intersected the large space and made a framework for the exhibition. Mirrors had been strategically placed to enhance the experience and through glass we could see into an adjacent, empty section of the bunker with its tall regal columns gently illuminated.
On some of the pillars and walls were black-and-white photographs set behind Chinese Qing Dynasty-era furniture. Contemporary artwork juxtaposed with antiques is a Feuerle trademark and, in this case, the ‘erotic’ nature of the photographs provided quite a talking point later. One of the central pieces on this floor of the collection was a ‘stone mat’ from the Han Dynasty (200 BC) and hung behind it, a contemporary picture of a mattress. This seemed a brilliantly-conceived contrast. There were no labels or descriptions on any of the items on display, so visitors must ask the guide, who stands discreetly to one side, if they want to learn the origin of a work. Since everyone walks around in studied silence, it seemed wrong to break the spell and we kept our questions to ourselves and gave way to a ‘collapse of time’.
Stone ‘mat’ and mattress
We were allowed just over 20 minutes for the first part of the collection, at which point our guide noiselessly approached each individual or group and invited us to gather in one corner of the room. Together, we made our way up to another huge space where more treasures were on display. A contemporary metal installation shaped as a hillside fountain was the first object of interest, but it was the lacquer Imperial Chinese furniture that stole this show. These pieces, exhibited on plinths, were truly magnificent. But as if to unsettle this feeling of pure beauty, once again Feuerle had used ‘erotic’ images, this time of submissive young Asian women, to create a juxtaposition between antique and contemporary art. It is a point of view we did not share.
Contemporary metal fountain by Cristina Iglesias
Fabulous antique day bed
After a further 20 minutes or so, we returned to the lobby along a labyrinth of dark stone corridors, interspersed with high wells and hanging chains. Before leaving, I asked the guide for further reading material about the Feuerle Collection and was told that nothing was available yet. Perhaps it never will be. And perhaps it’s not important to know all the details. This bunker attraction needs little explanation, it just needs to be experienced. We had made a unique individual journey through time and space, among different periods and cultures and in the company of many a ghost. I will be back in 2017 when the ‘Incense Ceremony’ is added to this exhibition.
Entry to the Feuerle Collection costs €18. To book online follow this link.