Worth a Trip: Stasi Sights in East Berlin

In East Germany, the walls had ears. Modelled after the Soviet KGB, the GDR's Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security, 'Stasi' for short) was founded in 1950. It was secret police, central intelligence agency and bureau of criminal investigation all rolled into one. Called the 'shield and sword' of the SED (the sole East German party), it put millions of GDR citizens under surveillance in order to suppress internal opposition. The Stasi grew steadily in power and size and, by the end, had 91,000 official full-time employees and 189,000 IMs (inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, unofficial informants). The latter were regular folks recruited to spy on their coworkers, friends, family and neighbours. There were also 3000 IMs based in West Germany.

When the Wall fell, the Stasi fell with it. Thousands of citizens stormed the organisation's headquarters in January 1990, thus preventing the shredding of documents that reveal the full extent of institutionalised surveillance and repression through wire-tapping, videotape observation, opening private mail and other methods. The often cunningly low-tech surveillance devices (hidden in watering cans, rocks, even neckties) are among the more intriguing exhibits in the Stasimuseum, which occupies several floors of the fortress-like former ministry. At its peak, more than 8000 people worked in this compound alone; the scale model in the entrance foyer will help you grasp its vast dimensions.

Another museum highlight is the 'lion's den' itself, the stuffy offices, private quarters and conference rooms of Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi for an incredible 32 years, from 1957 until the bitter end. Other rooms introduce the ideology, rituals and institutions of East German society. Information panels are partly in English.

Few words are needed to understand the purpose of the van in the foyer. Outfitted with five tiny, lightless cells, it was used to transport suspects to the Stasi prison a few kilometres from the ministry. The prison, too, is a memorial site today – officially called Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen – and is, if anything, even more creepy than the Stasi Museum.

Tours, sometimes led by former prisoners, reveal the full extent of the terror and cruelty perpetrated upon thousands of suspected political opponents, many utterly innocent. If you've seen the Academy Award–winning film The Lives of Others, you may recognise many of the original settings. An exhibit uses photographs, objects and a free audioguide to document daily life behind bars and also allows for a look at the offices of the former prison administration.

Old maps of East Berlin show a blank spot where the prison was: officially, it did not exist. In reality, the compound had three incarnations. Right after WWII, the Soviets used it to process prisoners (mostly Nazis, or those suspected to be) destined for the gulag. More than 3000 detainees died here due to atrocious conditions – usually by freezing in their unheated cells – until the Western Allies intervened in October 1946.

The Soviets then made it a regular prison, dreaded especially for its 'U-Boat', an underground tract of damp, windowless cells outfitted only with a wooden bench and a bucket. Prisoners were subjected to endless interrogations, beatings, sleep deprivation and water torture. Everybody signed a confession sooner or later.

In 1951 the Soviets handed the prison over to the Stasi, who ended up adopting its mentors' methods. Prisoners were locked up in the U-Boat until a new, much bigger cell block was built, with prison labour, in the late '50s. Psycho-terror now replaced physical torture: inmates had no idea of their whereabouts and suffered total isolation and sensory deprivation. Only the collapse of the GDR in 1989 put an end to the horror.