Inside Berlin’s former Stasi headquarters and notorious prison

At Berlin-Hohen schonhausen, people arrested by the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, were detained and interrogated. Some prisoners were physically abused, but it was the psychological torture that got to many prisoners. Sleep deprived and living in cramped, windowless cells – where the lights were never turned off – it’s no wonder detainees cracked and gave the false confession that their interrogators wanted.

Berlin-Hohen schonhausen

Such was the secrecy of this Stasi prison in northeast Berlin that even some people living in the surrounding neighbourhood weren’t aware it existed. But the secret is now out – after closing as a prison on the day of Germany’s on October 3rd 1990, it opened as a memorial museum in 1995.

One of the buildings that can be visited today on tours was built as part of large complex in 1938 and was used during the Second World War as a Nazi soup kitchen, with 30,000 meals served daily. It was then used by the Soviets in 1945 as a transit camp for around 20,000 interned war criminals who were due to be transported to Siberia. The complex subsequently became the main Soviet remand prison in Germany, before in early 1950s being transferred to the Ministry of State Security and its Stasi.

Prisoners at Berlin-Hohen schonhausen included former senior politicians of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that had fallen out with the regime, as well as those who had attempted to protest again the government.

Tours of Berlin-Hohen schonhausen take in a network of 60 underground bunker-cells that were built by detainees of the Soviet secret police, after the Second World War below the old Nazi canteen. Known as the ‘U-Boot’ (submarine), up to seven prisoners were forced to share small, waterlogged rooms. Detainees were allowed to sit up in the day and talk quietly, but they couldn’t lie down to sleep on the hard, plank bed until they were given permission. The bucket which was the prisoners’ lavatory was changed twice a day and there wasn’t initially any heating, or an air supply.

Underground bunker-cells

Conditions improved when a new block was built in 1961 – cells were just for one person and there was warm water. But tough interrogation methods changed little and, walking through the sparse corridors of the concrete block today, it seems like it would have been a bleak place to be. Downstairs there are padded cells for, which are soundproofed and where people were taken to be ‘calmed down’.

In the garage of the new block, there’s an example of a van that was used by the Stasi to pick-up detainees from their homes and workplaces and bring them to the prison. It looks from the outside like a delivery van, but inside there are five cramped compartments where handcuffed detainees would be transported.

Our guide, Lothar, was a former GDR political prisoner – sentenced to a detention of one year 10 months for what he described as a four-minute anti-regime protest in Alexanderplatz, the commercial heart of East Berlin. Lothar, who worked in the Soviet nuclear weapons industry, described how it felt to be cooped up in a small cell, with the lights left on at all hours of the day. Exercise was prohibited and so he used to listen with one ear to the door for guards as he did push-ups against the wall.

Lothar had a beaming smile on his face for the whole tour, which somewhat surprised me given what he had been through. But it seemed this was all part of his way of dealing with the past and not seeing himself as victim.

After being released, Lothar pledged to launch another protest against the government – on a bigger scale than the last – so the Stasi thought it was more trouble than it was worth to keep him in the country. He and his wife were eventually given permission to move to the West.

Lothar worked as a consultant in countries including the UK and France, but returned to former East Germany for the first time in 1999 and has been giving tours of the former prison for the past five years. He is sometimes confronted by a local man in his eighties who turns up at the site and tells visitors not to don’t listen to Lothar because he says he’s a criminal given his detention by the Stasi.

“I don’t hate the Stasi, I hate socialism,” Lothar said on the tour. He was and is an optimist, giving up on his struggle and thinking it was too late to change his situation was not an option. “Too late is the last day of your life,” he said.

Surveillance society

The Soviets created the German State Security in December 1948 and in 1950 it evolved into the Ministry of State Security – better known as the Stasi. When, seven years later, the Soviets gave the governing Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) a degree of independence it put Erich Mielke at the helm of the department, a position he held until November 1989.

Mielke, who became the most highly decorated man in the GDR with some 200 awards to his name, turned the Stasi into the SED’s most important instrument of power. It had a remit to spy on the population to weed out, and brutally punish, dissidents. The Stasi boasted some 90,000 full-time employees, supported by a further 200,000 informers, and was regarded as the most repressive state security system in the world.

To put things into perspective, it was said that the Nazis’ Gestapo had 40,000 members in at its height. In fact, some have suggested the Stasi had the highest proportion of the population in their ranks of any secret police in history.

Those who provided information to the Stasi were favoured by the organisation, but this came at the expense of denouncing family, friends and colleagues, who could end up in prison or block them from certain career paths as a result.

The detail of information that the Stasi kept on virtually every person in East Germany was staggering. Now that the files have been opened, we can see how everything from mundane conversations to sightings of people going about their daily lives was recorded. The Stasi would made have good taxi drivers, so a joke goes, because they knew people’s names and exactly where they lived. If you put the files in a line end to end it would stretch for more than 110 miles.

“It turned out to be over 3000 pages long,” said one person who requested to see his Stasi file after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Completely mad. And the things that were in there, that they put down on record, you would almost die laughing if it weren’t so insidious and serious.”

And the Stasi’s work was by no means restricted to the GDR. Agents were known to kidnap people in West Germany and bring them back to the East. Some of those detained were taken to Berlin-Hohen schonhausen.

Mielke’s office at the Ministry of State Security

From 1962 Mielke ran the Ministry of State Security from new headquarters in Normannnestrasse, East Berlin. The main building is now the Stasi Museum and on the second floor you can visit what was known as the Minister’s Level, which remains mostly unchanged from when it was in use by Stasi senior leadership. There’s the conference room where important meetings were held at a long table, as well as Mielke office where important visitors were received. On his desk are the telephones with direct dials for reaching senior SED officials and the Soviets. But what I found particularly intriguing was the reproduction of a diagram in his former kitchen that showed exactly where he wanted breakfast items to be arranged on the plate. This was a man who knew exactly what he wanted.

Mielke’s breakfast plate arrangements

The Ministry of State Security’s offices stretched far beyond one building however. By 1989 its campus covered some 54 acres and officially provided workstations for some 7,000 employees. It was a city within a city, providing homes, a supermarket and other shops (which sold Western consumer goods) for Stasi workers and their families. Whole streets were wiped out for the development, but on East Berlin maps it appeared as a blank white space.

An entire department at the Ministry of State Security was set-up to monitor a radio programme broadcast on the BBC German Service called Letters Without Signature. The show featured anonymous letters from East German residents who wrote critically about their experiences of life in the GDR, which the communist regime felt could be destabilising for society. Stasi officers monitored Austin Harrison – the programme’s presenter of 20 years and who provided his own views on the letters on air – as well as trying to trace the letter writers. The Stasi went as far as taking saliva samples (in an attempt to see who was sealing the envelope) and ordering handwriting tests. There are known cases of letter writers being arrested and detained by the Stasi.

What was made apparent in a recent documentary was that there was a secret department at the British Foreign Office called the Independent Research Department that spread anti-communist propaganda to likes of the BBC’s West German service, which it funded. Letters to the programme were shared with the West German and British governments. But in 1974 – following improved relations between the West German and East Germany governments – the programme was scrapped. The BBC destroyed copies of the programme in its archives, but after the show recordings were found in the Stasis stores.

When the GDR was struggling financially, in 1989 the West German government paid 3.5 billion West German Deutsch marks for release of almost 34,000 prisoners. But that still left 200,000 political prisoners in East Germany’s 80 prisons.

In the end not even the Stasi could prevent the GDR from collapsing. “No amount of surveillance will preserve a state that loses legitimacy,” wrote the historian Niall Ferguson. “The Stasi didn’t need AI to know pretty much everything that was going on in the German Democratic Republic: they just relied on a vast network of part-time spies and snoopers known, with truly Orwellian euphemism, as ‘unofficial co-workers’. But knowing what people said in the supposed privacy of their own homes didn’t save that system. On the contrary.”

After the Wall

Demonstrators began occupying Stasi offices in East Germany from December 1989 and on 15th January 1990, just two days after the organisation had been dissolved, thousands of people forced their way into the Ministry of State Security in Normannnestrasse.

In the days leading up to the toppling of the Berlin Wall, Stasi agents started to shred important documents. The priority therefore for demonstrators entering the Stasi’s offices was to prevent any further records from being destroyed. This would allow individuals to see what, if any information, had been collected on them in their files and ensure the overall activities of the secret police could be properly investigated in the years to come.

The newly elected GDR government approved a law in June 1990 to open up the Stasi files. But by the August there were worries that the government of the re-unified Germany wouldn’t honour this pledge. Civil rights activists consequently forced their way into the administrative wing of the Stasi archives (next door to the building which is now the Stasi Museum) and launched a hunger strike in September 1990. “Stasi files belong to us,” they chanted. The demonstrators’ efforts ultimately paved the way for the passing in December 1991 of the Stasi Records Act, which gives citizens the right to see what information had been collected about them by the secret police. Since this passed into law in January 1992 there have been more than three million requests for people to see their files.

Today at the Stasi Museum, as well as seeing the suite of Stasi leadership offices, there are displays of the equipment used for bugging and spying (including hidden cameras in everything from ties to watering cans) on citizens. Agents employed a variety of disguises, including dressing as tourists.

Examples of objects that the Stasi installed hidden cameras in

Other former Stasi offices at the Normannnestrasse developments have found new commercial tenants. Some buildings are now apartment blocks. Others are today derelict.

At the museum I found it interesting reading the stories of people who worked as Stasi informers – even people reported on their so-called friends. There were lawyers who represented civil rights activists betrayed their clients and opposition politicians who campaigned for election in the new Germany that were also informants. Once the files were opened everything about how the Stasi operated has been brought out into the open.


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