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.
Top Five East Side Gallery Murals
You'll most likely find your own favourite among the 100 or so murals, but here's our take:
- It Happened in November (Kani Alavi) A wave of people being squeezed through a breached Wall in a metaphorical rebirth reflects Alavi's recollection of the events of 9 November 1989. Note the different expressions on the faces, ranging from hope, joy and euphoria to disbelief and fear.
- Test the Rest (Birgit Kinder) Another shutterbug favourite is Kinder's painting of a GDR-era Trabant car (known as a Trabi) bursting through the Wall with the licence plate reading 'November 9, 1989'. Originally called Test the Best, the artist renamed her work after the image's 2009 restoration.
- Homage to the Young Generation (Thierry Noir) This Berlin-based French artist has done work for Wim Wenders and U2, but he's most famous for these cartoon-like heads. Naive, simple and boldly coloured, they symbolise the new-found freedom that followed the Wall's collapse. Noir was one of the few artists who had painted the western side of the Wall before its demise.
- Detour to the Japanese Sector (Thomas Klingenstein) Born in East Berlin, Klingenstein spent time in a Stasi prison for dissent before being extradited to West Germany in 1980. This mural was inspired by his childhood love for Japan, where he ended up living from 1984 to the mid-'90s.
- My God, Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love (Dmitri Vrubel) The gallery's best-known painting – showing Soviet and GDR leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker locking lips with eyes closed – is based on an actual photograph taken by French journalist Remy Bossu during Brezhnev's 1979 Berlin visit. This kind of fraternal kiss was an expression of great respect in socialist countries.