The Stasi were the state security service, or secret police, in East Germany and they were run along similar lines to the Gestapo under the Wehrmacht.
Overnight almost, the East German people had swung from the far right of the political spectrum to the far left: from fascism to communism. But in the end, the two weren’t that different and one thing remained constant: it felt like you were always being watched.
At it’s height, the Stasi’s operation was immense; more fearsome than even the SS and more intrusive than the KGB, they had eyes everywhere and over a quarter of a million people were employed to spy on each other as they went about their daily business.
For more information and a beautifully evocative history of what actually went on behind the Berlin Wall during the years of 1950 and 1989, I thoroughly recommend Anna Funder’s book, Stasiland. It’s a deeply personal account, looking at the lives of a handful of individuals who were wrapped up in the system on one side or the other, including the man who actually drew the line across the city where the Wall should be built and several people who suffered at the hands of the Stasi, plus a few who actually worked for them.
When the Wall was finally pulled down, thousands and thousands of documents were shredded and burned by the members of the secret police but it wasn’t enough: many of the agency’s records survived and are still being pieced together today by a team of “jigsaw workers” in Leipzig as they attempt to bring closure to a few lucky family members each year. It’s impossible for many relatives to ever know what happened to the loved ones who were snatched by the authorities, but piece-by-piece, this painstaking task goes on …
One upshot of the revolution was that overnight the offices and buildings of the Stasi were left vacant, so fearful of revenge were those who actually worked in them.
In both Berlin and Leipzig, it’s possible to visit them to get a taste of what it was like on the other side of the Wall. We went to the Stasimuseum in Lichtenberg, in the eastern part of Berlin, and joined a tour group to see the facility. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an English-language tour so we didn’t get the full benefit of it. My German’s okay, but I politely explained that we were English at the beginning and the rest of the group seemed happy enough for us to loiter and wander off if we felt like it and in fact it proved to be much more rewarding for us to do so.
You don’t need words to explain the horrors of what went on …
There was a main block of living quarters and interrogation rooms with some padded cells underneath, plus a hospital building, a small exercise area, and also a kind of intake processing area that was mostly underground. Throughout the complex there was a system of red and green lights that signaled to allow prisoners to be moved around. If your side was red, you were made to face the wall while the person being moved on the other side, or the green lane, was allowed to walk by. In this way, you couldn’t see the faces of your fellow inmates, which was deliberately designed to enhance your feeling of isolation. One of the methods used to extract “confessions” was simply that: you’d go for days without seeing a soul and in the end would crave your next “interview” just to hear someone else’s voice and by then you’d be willing to sign anything.
I can’t begin to imagine the horror of being taken by the Stasi.
So many of the tales seemed to detail trivialities such as listening to a western radio station illicitly or moving your TV aerial to pick up a different signal. For that, you could be snatched and never seen again …
I’m glad the facilities have been left the way they were: it’s a rare glimpse at life under a harsh regime that hasn’t been hushed up or papered over. It should never be erased from the history books … we need to learn from the past to be better in the future, after all.
The exterior of the Stasimuseum:
… and from the inside, looking out:
The interior of the “Receiving Area”:
For scale purposes, my friend Ian, resident of Salisbury, is 6’5″, but even so those doorways were pretty small:
The high-tech reception area in the main living/interrogation block:
… and one of the distinctly low-tech cells:
… but at least the beds were fairly long:
Again, there’s a certain elegance in construction in evidence here. This is the country that gave us the Bauhaus school of design, after all, but I really wouldn’t be surprised to see something like this in Ikea:
The floors all looked like this:
… while the interrogation rooms themselves mostly looked like this:
Ian getting to grips with his new answerphone system:
Terry, 53, from Chippenham, was rather taken by the wallpaper which had a pleasing retro feel about it:
(possibly my favourite photo of the entire trip, by the way)
The red and green traffic system in full effect:
One of the many stairways between floors:
Ian surveying the padded door system featured in most of the interrogation rooms. The colours are clearly for disoriented inmates who may not know if they’re coming or going, while the double-wall insulation is probably to sound-proof whatever was going on in there:
This medical examination room brought to mind the classic scene in the first episode of Porridge with the fantastic line “What? With these feet?”
We weren’t being flippant when we talked about it at the time; it really was just one of those occasions when if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry:
The decor was staggeringly and uniformly beige throughout, apart from the odd splash of colour provided either by a chair or some curtains:
Delivery train and watchtower:
Hospital block on the left and main building on the right:
The view from inside one of the small exercise areas known as the “Tiger’s Cage” because all you were allowed to do was prowl around – strictly no running and it was always a solitary activity:
The exterior of the facility as you leave:
… and a view from inside the prison camp of the residential street next door. These were all recently built properties and they looked quite pretty so long as you didn’t notice the big wall and the machine gun tower opposite. I began to think about house prices at this point and also about who would actually choose to live there … but like I said before, Berlin is an open and honest city. The place is a museum now, so at least it would be quiet …