Lessons from the Stasi

Our fascination with East Germany and Berlin has never been greater but there are lessons to remember from the German Democratic Republic and the State’s brutal, secretive police.

Berlin works on many levels. Artsy, kinky, sombre, depressing, the excellence of the Berlin Philharmonic and its 1963 modernist hall, a coffee and film at the Sony Center before a stroll in the Tiergarten. A cruise along the Spree, every street corner heavy with history, the Weidendammer Bridge and its role in the last days of the Reich, Museum Island. History, everywhere.

A country that wasn’t allowed to get on with life after May 1945. Leading us back to the museum of the German Democratic (by name only) Republic. Here, lives laid bare. A people told to “be happy and sing”: a generation of kids taping songs off DR-64, watching Western television (the signals couldn’t be blocked). Pioneer afternoons collecting scrap for the State, or listening to bands such as the Puhdys or Karat. Monday morning assembly under the red flag, a senior student proclaiming, “Comrade Principal, the school is assembled!”

Heady days. As long as you kept your mouth shut. And it’s still there, mostly. The fascination with East Germany and Berlin has never been greater. Any visit to the capital can be a learning experience. Before you go, grab a copy of the German Book Prize winner In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge. Here, in one novel, a plotted history, a re-imagining of the second half (nearly) of the 20th century in the East. A son’s coming-to-terms with his parents’ ‘glorious’ past. But the fascination extends beyond this. Deutschland 83, The Lives of Others and Goodbye, Lenin! Although the classic post-war German film is Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 Germany Year Zero, a haunting vision of Berlin in ruins. The dark side of this great city that fascinates so many. Maybe it has something to do with the angst of our own age? The worries about political power, privacy, a population’s acquiescence and willingness to accept uncomfortable orthodoxies.

Mostly, Germans don’t mind discussing the past, although when the Berliner Unterwelten tours began 20 years ago, the society’s critics accused them of glorifying Nazism. I had the pleasure of exploring the Friedrichshain flak tower, a few kilometres north-east of the city. Here, a fortified defence (four 12.8 cm guns) the size of small skyscraper, now half reduced to rubble, where you can put on a hard hat and experience the darkest, coldest, most miserable moments of the lives of other (Berliners) in the dying days of Hitler’s war. Where you can imagine Soviet tanks pounding the walls (barely dented).

Life in the East wasn’t all bad. Free education, a nice flat in a pre-fabricated WBS 70 tower block, a Diamant bicycle, or a packet of Juwel cigarettes to smoke after school. Plenty to choose from, although whether you could actually buy anything? One story has book dealers gathering once a week to place their orders. Twenty thousand copies, perhaps, of a new Christa Wolf or Stefan Heym book. And of this, the shop might receive 20 copies, 10, or five — just enough for the employees. A planned economy without a plan, and like the best of them, favours for the inner-party.

The other hallmark of the East, of course, was the management of public opinion, and dissent.

House 1. Sounds ominous. And it was. This was the first of many buildings owned and operated by the Ministry of State Security (Stasi, or MfS). A 15-minute ride on the U5 from Alex. A collection of soulless structures that tried their best to disguise their purpose. That is, watching you. The 3pm English language tour, as our guide showed us through the offices of Erich Mielke, the Minister for State Security from 1957 until the GDR collapsed under its own weight (and debt) in 1990 (the fate, I guess, of even the most ruthless dictatorships). Here, the wood veneer lifting in the foyer, the statues of Marx and Lenin a reminder of a dictatorship at its muscle-flexing, life-destroying best. The model of the dozens of ‘houses’, once full of eager servants of the state.

Mielke’s suite of rooms: his wood-panelled office looking out across this workers’ paradise, the conference room, with its blue-backed seats and table for discussing politics, people, ideology. A small television for monitoring the media, a bed (he put in long hours, his devotion to Communism beyond question). And in the other ‘houses’, tens of thousands of Stasi agents monitoring people’s privacy — phone calls, letters, administering the 189,000 informants on the books (so many, that the German reunification could only proceed with a general amnesty).

There was a country, but mainly, a party. The Socialist Unity Party (SED) was East Germany. The party’s official hymn explained that, ‘The Party, the Party, the Party is always right!’ Enough of this drummed into you from an early age (Hitler had recently done the same thing with the Hitler Jugend) and you might actually believe the lies. After Stalin was put out to pasture in 1956 (his name no longer mentioned), and Walter Ulbricht ‘retired’ by Leonid Brezhnev in 1971, new leader Erich Honecker set the tone. No more I, only We.

The following day, Hohenschӧnhausen, and the Stasi prison (Gedenkstätte). For 44 years, this clutter of buildings (eerily missing from maps) was the unspoken endgame of any dissent in, firstly, the post-war Soviet Occupation Zone (Special Camp Number 3), and later, the GDR. This time a tram trip through east Berlin, mounds of the old city still waiting to be cleared, the same dreary apartment blocks mixed with trendy cafes, parks and galleries. This was where the Stasi (‘the sword and shield of the party’) and its 91,000 full-time employees dealt with the recalcitrants. Seventeen prisons in all, although this was the biggest. Its original red-brick block still in mint condition, the grounds, sheds, outbuildings that were once home to as many as 4,200 inmates. Overcrowding, disease, dead bodies dumped in old bomb craters.

At the start, there was the ‘U-Boot’, damp, cold subterranean cells with a bed and bucket, lights burning all day and night, sleep deprivation, physical torture, comrades made to stand in the one spot, sometimes in semi-flooded ‘water cells’. Then, at night, taken away for interrogation.

This, I thought, was (and is) the end of free speech. The dilemma Orwell warned us about. If any of your ‘incorrect’ letters were intercepted, if a contrary opinion was expressed in the lunch room. A few agents planting bugs in your apartment, gathering evidence, then, a week or so later, a knock on the door at three in the morning, downstairs into an innocuous-looking ice cream van, a two or three hour drive to disorientate you, allow your fear to simmer. Then, the Gedenkstätte, a small arrivals hall in the efficiently named New Building (1960), bright lights to increase your anxiety, into an office to be ‘processed’, wiped down with a rag in case the dogs ever needed to track you, personal details given up and paperwork completed.

This repeating, night after night, as your interrogator warms to you, offers you cigarettes, tells you not to be alarmed, and you, trusting him, sleep deprived, start talking. He says it’s okay, it’s just you and him, and turns off the tape recorder, but of course there’s another one hidden in the cupboard. He asks why you said such silly things about the Party, because you did, didn’t you? And in the end you agree to anything. Yes, I did. The funny thing being, after a day at House 1, and another at the SdF prison, none of this seemed so strange. Like Mielke could’ve been my uncle, and I was here, visiting him at his office. Like the New Building was sort of okay, comfortable, warm. And these interrogators, surely they were decent people, deep down? There were even photos of their Christmas parties, dressed up as the people they arrested. And if all this seemed so normal after a few days, what about weeks, months, years?

When the gates of the Gedenkstätte were thrown open in 1990, hundreds, thousands of stories of broken families, betrayal and misplaced faith in authority emerged. One that struck me was of a son who was given his file, and discovered his father had betrayed him to the Stasi. I was left wondering what sort of society Honecker had helped mould. So many East Germans had been motivated by their hate of the Nazis, and their persecution at fascist hands, but it was strange to think they’d just continued the tradition, albeit in a different form. Maybe, I guessed, they didn’t recognise the similarities, or maybe they thought the end would justify the means?

Maybe this was the lesson of my visit? How quickly things can change. In our own age of (lack of) privacy, monitored internet and phone calls, closed-circuit television, limits to free speech. Maybe we all need to revisit the past to see (a possible) version of the future as our own governments replace common sense with tax-payer funded propaganda. Or maybe it’s just the smell of a place? The damp in the walls of the water cells. Or the way voices continue echoing off the polished floors.

Header image: Hohenschoenhausen, former GDR Stasi prison

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