Socialist Paradise or Hell on Earth? An afternoon at the Stasi Museum

Walking around Berlin in the last couple of weeks, it’s hard for me to remember that this was once a city so divided.  Back in 1991, when I lived here, there was a clear ‘demarcation’ between the East and the West, even though Berlin was, by now, reunited.  The wall might have come down but the economic, social and cultural divide was in real evidence. Back then, I’d spend Sundays wandering aimlessly in the Old East, in streets like Frankfurter Allee, lost in philosophical thought about the old communist regime, how people felt about its demise and what lay ahead for them.

Entrance hall with the obligatory bust of Karl Marx

Entrance hall with the obligatory bust of Karl Marx

Today, I returned, to visit the Stasi Museum, set in one of the buildings (there is an entire complex) that - until 1990 - served as the headquarters of East Germany’s notoriously ruthless and brutal internal security service (the Stasi).   The exhibits are extensive (letters, photographs, the exact same furniture) and for anyone interested in the politics of the Cold War, and the tactics that can be used to manipulate or ‘break’ a person psychologically, they are a must-see.

At the height of its power, the Stasi employed around 91,000 personnel, as well as having 180,000 informers on its books. The lengths they went to to suppress political opposition, harass civil rights activists and imprison ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies’ of the state were terrifying.  Undercover agents were everywhere - the workplace, the church, youth clubs, schools and universities.   One recent study estimated that for every 6 citizens in the DDR, one of them was an informer or agent. 

Uniform and kalashnikov...

Uniform and kalashnikov...

Many people were betrayed by their close friends or family (in some awful instances, by a spouse)  And with no end of resources at their disposal (3% of the national budget was allocated to state security, compared to the 1% allocated for the maintenance of the Wall) the Stasi tore families apart and shattered endless lives with their ruthless methods. 

Beginning on the ground floor, with the windowless prison van that captured citizens (driving them around in the dark for hours first to disorient and distress them), walk up to the first floor.  There you can read stories of those who were recruited (there was an a lengthy recruitment process, with endless tests that needed to be passed), and see examples of signed pledges on display - the ethos of the Stasi was that the party was the state and the state the party, and that agents needed to be prepared to give their life to the cause.

Prison van (inside are five tiny, windowless cells, just big enough to stand up in.  It was common to drive arrestees around for several hours in the dark.)

Prison van (inside are five tiny, windowless cells, just big enough to stand up in.  It was common to drive arrestees around for several hours in the dark.)

Burglary,  blackmail, imprisonment were just some of the methods used to maintain ‘morale’ in this socialist/Marxist-Leninist state, and the exhibits give you an idea of just how paranoid agents were.  It was routine to bug homes and ‘persuade’ people to inform on their neighbours by, for instance, promising that their child, in return, would be admitted to University.  One chilling story involved the Stasi denying a man medication for his chronic illness unless he agreed to inform upon his neighbour.   'Crimes' that were punishable included listening to western music, joining a peace group or, in any shape or form, criticising the party or the Soviet Union (on which the DDR based its political philosophy).

Poster - learning from the Soviet Union.

Poster - learning from the Soviet Union.

There’s also a fascinating second floor, given over to the private rooms of Erich Mielke - the long-time head of the Stasi.  Known for being both arbitrary and angry, he was not a man to whom one could say no.  From his fastidious breakfast habits (eggs boiled for precisely 4.5 minutes, tray laid out in a certain way every day) to his infamous red suitcase (in which is was rumoured he held incriminating material on Erich Honeker, the President of the State), the dour, beige decor and 60’s style tv makes you feel as if you’re in a time warp.

Part of Erich Mielke's suite of private rooms

Part of Erich Mielke's suite of private rooms

After the Stasi was disbanded, many of its members, although legally forbidden to work for the government, were re-employed in different guises, since they had such 'unusual' skill sets (including picking locks and bugging phones).  There was also the matter of the files left behind (those that hadn't been shredded at the eleventh hour).  There were millions of them - enough to fill entire buildings.  Ironically, ex-Stasi operatives were ultimately employed to work in the deciphering of them, since only they were really in a position to decipher their contents.   

Pledge signed by Stasi agent, swearing to be loyal to the party and state until death

Pledge signed by Stasi agent, swearing to be loyal to the party and state until death

The museum is well set-out and easy to navigate (with all exhibits well-labelled) and I’d allow yourself a good 2 hours (minimum) to see it.  However, there are also guided tours in English that run certain afternoons - I took one led by the witty Frenchman, Mr Nicolas LeComte and I’d highly recommend it (it’s about 90 minutes long and included in the ticket price of 6 euros).  He is engaging, extremely knowledgeable and kept the constant attention of our very large group - a truly excellent guide.

To sum up, an afternoon at this museum is sobering, disconcerting, and even chilling but very much worthwhile. (I”d also recommend watching the movie: ‘The Lives of Others’ - incidentally, Mr LeComte told me, some of the scenes were filmed at this very building).  If you have any doubts as to how repressive life in East Germany could be for anyone who didn’t tow the party line, a few hours here will dispel them.

Haus 1, Ruschestraße 103, 10365 Berlin

www.stasimuseum.de

Directions: Take u-bahn number 5 (direction Honow) to Magdalenstrasse and from there it’s a 5 minute walk.   From Alexanderplatz it's 15 minutes by car or cab.