Yesterday we’ve learnt all we need to know about how life was in the DDR and how the Stasi operated, today it’s time to dip into the thick of it, visiting what were the neuralgic centres of the feared secret police. Once to blank spots on the Berlin map, now the former headquarters and police are open for visits. Despite their remoteness – for obvious secrecy reasons they’ve been set up in the desolate Lichtenberg – and they scarce advertisement they enjoy, they were bustling with visitors mainly school kids.
Today schedule is pretty intense, physically and emotionally, and there is some travelling involved so an early start is recommended.
At my arrival I thought I’ve been victim of a bad joke, or that I wasn’t informed that the Stasi was back to their headquarters, fully operational. The museum and former offices occupy a whole block of a cube of concrete so big that makes your neck hurt, so grey it make you grasp for air. The enormous yard hidden inside this square of buildings, was the deserted with the exception of a man briskly walking and the occasional tumble weed, everything was quiet as if some very secret business is carried on. Probably what happened here was so tremendous that walls, windows and the ill-looking shrubs, preserve a sort of memory that is transmitted to the visitors in form of intimidation. I walked hesitantly through the door and I had a confirmation that my fears were real when the cold glare of the desk receptionist struck me like a laser icicle.
The museum can be visited independently but the vastity of the exhibition and the signs written mostly only in German make a guided tour desirable. There’s no extra cost but tours are organised for groups of at least 10 people. I recommend writing them at least a couple of weeks earlier, so that they can set something up for you, perhaps joining a few lone travellers and small groups together. I emailed them only two days before and, after being told off in typical German fashion, I was said I could join a group at 10am. The group was in fact a class of teenage English students – as the austere receptionist pointed out – I was panting and perspiring (it’s a short walk from the U-Bahn unless you get directed to the opposite direction by an ill-willing citizen) and I sidled up to one of the teacher who jumped as I had attacked her on a dark rainy night in Brixton. Not a good start. For a while I stuck to them, mostly hiding behind corners or pretending to be looking elsewhere, receiving suspicious looks from teachers and students.
The guy was passionate and competent, and I would have listened to him forever, but he was spending hours in each room and the situation was getting dangerously awkward, so I left them at the first floor, which was dedicated to the historic context, and moved upstairs to the perfectly preserved offices. This is where the higher ranks of the Stasi used to work, and it’s quite obvious that the aim – and possibly the results – of the interior designers were to make everyone feel an anonymous, grey, insignificant part of a bigger machine. The absence of colours is striking, everything is in every hue of grey: brownish-grey, dark green-grey, mustard-grey. And, of course, forget computers, posters and USB rocket launchers. Everything in those offices is simple and essential: a typing machine, a telephone, a box with some buttons. And lots of empty space. Even Erich Mielke’s office, despite being the Supreme Master of Evil, was identical to the others, except for the fact that it gives you the creeps thinking of the viciousness that dwelt here for four decades.
The upper floor is more entertaining and if possible more crude. Here are displayed the advanced technologies used to spy the population’s everyday life and the smuggling techniques employed to counterfeit the terror.
There are some weird things such as cameras hidden in bird boxes, or cameras in dust bins triggered by the pedal opening the lid, but also shockingly advanced pieces of tech:a camera hidden behind a coat button which is as old as me and as big as my mobile phone. All this courtesy of Siemens, and it comes natural to think that the technology behind the devices we carry in our pockets today came at cost of many lives. On the other hand carrying people out of the DDR or smuggling in books and other western goods was all a matter of creativity and little means. It’s like a battle between cunning, bold humans, and deadly robots from the future. Like Terminator.
Stasi Prison: Hohenschönhausen
Of all the stops in our “Stasi tour” this is one not to be missed. Try to pronounce the word “Hohenschonhausen“; if you get it right you might give yourself a cold shiver down the spine. This terrorising prison can only be visited with a guide, and tours in English are run once a day at 14.30. If you understand German not only you can enjoy more flexibility but you are likely to get a former inmate as a guide and I’ve been ensured it’s pretty intense.
The tour starts with a 30 minutes video delivering interesting facts and shocking figures. The next step is the infamous U-Boat, the submarine. Originally used by the Nazis as food storage it has been turned by the Soviets into a fearful underground jail, like those you might see in Rambo movies, where prisoners were kept for days in few inches of ice-cold water, or in a padded, dark and isolated room, without food or even a bucket. It’s quite gripping to know that someone here managed to be even more evil and sick than Hitler’s troops.
Our tour leads next to the newly built prison block, despite being slowed down by a big Iranian man who stops at every cell looking around lost as if he was thinking of how to decorate it. The building is, in typical soviet fashion, grey and depressing. It reminds me the hostel where I stayed in Bratislava, except for the rooms which are way better here.
The cells in fact look like single room, with a large bed (where the Iranian man sits with loud creakings, probably considering a nap), a basin and a cupboard, luxury. Someone points that out to our guide, which agrees and explains why. This was all a cunning psychological trick to make the inmates remember how it was to be alive: in fact they didn’t have any belongings to put in the cupboard, they couldn’t sit on the bed during the day, nor they could do any exercise if not standing, the window is bright but the thick glass impedes any sight of the outer world. And so on, down to details to clever and sick to make you doubt of the good nature of the human race. At the end of the tour we reach the “tiger cage”, where well behaved prisoners were taken for a glimpse of sky and fresh air and the Iranian man is invited to talk. He explain to us how he’s been through the same treatment and torture in his country, just 3 years ago before managing to escape to France. This made me think of how deeply these horrors belong to the human nature, wondering how many people are being tortured right now. It also explains the strange behaviour of this man in the cells and make me consider what a massive dick-head I’ve been judging him.
This was a very intense day, I couldn’t leave the building without first smoking a cigarette next to two old guides, wishing I could speak enough German at least to express my sympathy. I also couldn’t leave Lichtenberg before finding my way back to the tram, which proved more difficult than I thought. Just remember to walk straight ahead as you leave the gates, in case you don’t have a map with you.