On a recent trip to Berlin I wanted to research a couple of old Stasi sites so, waving good-bye to the rest of the family at Alexanderplatz (they preferred to go up the TV tower rather than visit disused offices) I headed east on the U-bahn, emerging way off the tourist trail at Magdalenenstrasse. Standing by the motorway-sized Frankfurter Allee, I unfolded my huge Michelin Berlin Stadtplan and tried to work out where I was.
Seeing me struggling with the gigantic map, a young woman came over to help and, when I explained that I was looking for Normannenstrasse, pointed me in the right direction. A young English couple were standing on the street corner studying their guidebook so I asked them if they too were looking for the Stasi Headquarters. They were. The map in the their guide book didn’t extend that far east. I showed them where we were on the Michelin map and we set off in search of the former Headquarters of East Germany’s Secret Police, now a museum.
Now I’d seen pictures of the Stasi Headquarters before coming to Berlin so I knew what the building looked like, and it’s not a small construction, but could we find it? No. The sign to the museum had directed us into an open area with huge cuboid buildings on all sides, but it wasn’t until I enquired at a nearby sandwich kiosk that the building we wanted became apparent. Despite being so large Haus 1, as it is called, was dwarfed by its surroundings. The East Germans didn’t build anything small if they could build it BIG.
Haus 1 was at the centre of a complex of Stasi departments which infiltrated every aspect of East German life. It is now a museum, exhibiting anything and everything to do with the communist state of East Germany and the Stasi’s methods of control. As the “Sword and Shield of the Party” the Stasi spied on their own citizens, and arrested, incarcerated and interrogated anyone they regarded as an enemy of the state. You can see tiny cameras installed in handbags, watering cans and other everyday objects. Glass jars contain cloths which those being interrogated had to sit on – the personal scent collected on the cloth could be used later by sniffer dogs to hunt that person down. In the entrance hall is a prisoner transporter – on the outside an innocuous looking beige van, but on the inside are five tiny, windowless cells in which prisoners were transported. They were usually disguised as delivery vans. On the second floor are the offices of Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi from 1957 until the collapse of East Germany in 1989. Seen through modern eyes, the old-fashioned décor belies the fact that these offices were no doubt the height of East German luxury. This is a museum for those who like to take their time and study things in detail. It does a good job of presenting both sides of the argument – the aspirations of the socialist state in terms of housing, education, health care etc., and the extreme measures employed by the Orwellian state to control its citizens.
Next stop was the Stasi Remand prison at Hohenschönhausen. I took the tram from Frankfurter Allee to the Genslerstrasse stop on the Landsberger Allee, yet another motorway-sized road, straight as a die, and with enormous cuboid buildings on either side. Genslerstrasse itself is a surprisingly green and leafy, quiet street of apartment blocks and detached houses. It all seems perfectly pleasant until you reach the end of the street where a sign marks the start of what used to be the restricted area. This was a large sealed-off area which was not printed on East German maps. At the heart of the restricted area was the prison, which is now a memorial site.
Hohenschönhausen is the place to visit if you want to understand just how far the Stasi was prepared to go to root out any form of dissent to the ruling Socialist Unity Party. The guided tour (in English at 2.30) starts with a half hour film on the post-war history of Germany and Berlin. The film is followed by an hour long tour of the prison and a detailed explanation of Stasi incarceration and interrogation methods which included solitary confinement and sleep deprivation. This is a thought-provoking place that shows we should never take our freedoms for granted.
I joined the rest of the family in the evening at Potsdamer Platz and heard all about the exciting trip up the TV tower and how they got lost in the Tiergarten. With its futuristic Sony-Centre and modern sky-scapers, Potsdamer Platz is unrecognisable from the days of the Berlin Wall when it formed part of the death strip. It’s good that Berlin has moved on and Potsdamer Platz is perhaps the best example of that, but it’s invaluable that the Stasi Headquarters and Hohenschönhausen have been preserved as reminders of the past.