Among the most unequivocal signs of the oppressive communist dictatorship in the former German Democratic Republic (‘GDR’ or ‘DDR’ in German) are probably the many buildings once operated by the STASI, the German cousin of the well-known Soviet KGB.
Being a state security service by its very name, this organization was responsible for the capillary control over the behavior of the citizens of the GDR, to avoid any threat to the communist rule. It was mainly composed of a para-military staff and of an extensive network of informers – so extensive that actually about 1 out of 180 in Eastern Germany worked for the STASI, while by comparison in the USSR 1 out of 595 worked for the KGB. The main goal of this agency was keeping the statu quo, hence any suspect behavior of citizens, deemed subversive with respect to the communist rule, was reported, investigated and usually suppressed.
People found guilty of acts against the State – i.e. against the communist government – were often sentenced to years of imprisonment. This meant that prisons and camps flourished in the GDR, as people got arrested and at least kept for interrogation just for having received western newspapers or having colored their rooms with posters of American pop singers. How the STASI came to know of similar ‘violations’ was by means of informers, who triggered secret investigations carried out with ‘James Bond gear’, like cameras and microphones hidden in coat buttons and bags. Microphones and cameras were also usually installed in the walls, chandeliers and doors of the houses of suspected subjects.
This huge organization was among the most feared and hated – as well as expensive to run – institutions in the GDR, and soon after the opening of the border and the demolition of Wall in Berlin in 1989 many of its buildings were occupied by the population. To deny responsibility in the unfair trial, imprisonment and confinement of many citizens, the staff of the STASI began ‘burning’ its archives immediately, but they were so extensive that this rapidly turned out to be impossible. The STASI was disbanded among the first institution of the GDR in the early months of 1990, even before the two halves of Germany were merged. Finally the archives were made publicly available during the process of the German reunification. Many people came to know they had been carefully observed and spied in every movement during their everyday life.
Today, some of the most prominent buildings once operated by the STASI are open to the public and represent an interesting and worrying memento of this chapter of the history of Germany. The following photographs are from some such sites I visited in 2013, 2015 and 2016.
STASI Headquarters, Berlin-Lichtenberg
The headquarters of the STASI occupied an extensive citadel composed of many big, multi-storey buildings. Like the KGB, the tasks of the STASI weren’t limited to internal state security, but also to border protection – a very serious business in Eastern Germany, as you can see from another page of this site dedicated to the German inner border – and espionage activities abroad. The various directorates occupied their respective buildings in the citadel. The place is in a semi-peripheral district of former East Berlin named Lichtenberg.
The main building hosts a museum of central relevance on the topic, where you can find much data about the history and the impressive size of this agency, as well as spy gear – for instance mimetic microphones for listening to conversations in private houses. The stories of some of the victims of the communist surveillance machine are also presented. Envelope-opening devices and rags for preserving the odor of those arrested for watchdogs are visible in showcases.
Probably the highlight of the museum is the apartment and office of Erich Mielke, the director of the STASI from 1957 – well before the wall was erected in Berlin – up to the dissolution of the GDR. Various original directional offices have been preserved and nowadays they can be visited.
The place is very evocative and retains much of the disturbing ‘GDR atmosphere’, typical to this and other similar installations. The number of visitors is much lower than close to Checkpoint Charlie and the DDR museum near the Berliner Dom, which are mostly cheesy tourist attractions with little content. On the contrary, in this museum you can still easily perceive the commitment of the GDR goverment towards its own survival, and the proportion of the oppressive apparatus that was created to this aim – here you clearly understand the STASI was a serious business and changed the life of many people.
After visiting the museum in the central building you may have a look around to the exteriors of other buildings in the citadel, today mostly unused, abandoned or partially occupied by private business – I guess the place still retains for many people a very negative aura.
Getting there and moving around
Today the citadel can be reached very conveniently by car or with the U5 (between the stops Magdalenen Strasse and Frankfurter Allee). The museum is fairly modern and well presented, but as of 2015 when I visited the ticket could be paid only cash and some explanations were in German only. Inside the museum there is no air conditioning, and it can be very hot and uncomfortable in summer. Parking is not a problem in front of the main entrance or nearby. Website here.
STASI Prison and Restricted Area, Berlin-Hohenschönhausen
The second largest quarters of the STASI are located in yet another outer district of former Eastern Berlin. Old photographs of the area clearly show that this part of the town was interdicted to visitors not connected with the STASI business – there used to be fences and gates all around, cutting some of the roads entering the district. Besides some directorates and administrative buildings, this citadel hosted a prison and a labor camp. The former was the main STASI prison in East Berlin, and those who were arrested on account of suspect activities against the State were usually carried here, where they had to withstand interrogations.
This place is really grim and appalling. It looks like the staff of the prison had just left. Everything from what you see to the smell of the cells, offices and interrogation rooms is totally evocative of the original GDR atmosphere.
The STASI became the owner of the place in 1951, after the Soviets, who had managed the occupied territory directly after German capitulation, left control of many administrative functions following the creation of the GDR. Under the Soviet rule, in the years of Stalin between 1945 and 1951, a labor camp was set up here and the main building of the prison – a former canteen for Nazi staff – opened for business. More than 20’000 people passed in this installation between 1945 and 1951, many of them on their way to deportation to the USSR.
Under the control of the STASI, the camp was dedicated to non-political prisoners, where the prison, enlarged in more instances as the STASI citadel was growing up, was for the ‘enemies of the State’. More than 20’000 people were imprisoned here between 1951 and 1990.
The place can be visited only on guided tours, offered on a regular basis also in English. Following the tour you can see various imprisonment cells. The worst – and really inhumane – from the times of the Soviets are in the basement of the main building, with no windows and no ventilation, where many people were crushed together waiting for interrogation or deportation.
The majority of the cells date from the era of the GDR, and are more modern. As the main business of the prison was that of extorting confessions, the prisoners were progressively brought in a state of psychological prostration. Preventing any form of communication was part of the ‘treatment’, so most cells for newly arrested people were for one person only. To isolate those arrested even more, when moving from the cell to the interrogation rooms and back the wardens observed special red and green lights, telling when there was somebody else in the corridors. This way the inmate would not see anybody except for the warden and the officer who interrogated him during all his or her stay in the prison.
Also visible are some cells with open top for spending half a hour per day in open air.
Padded cells with straitjackets like in asylums were used in the process of extorting confessions, when the inmates were treated with drugs causing hallucinations and loss of physical control. These can be seen in the basement of one of the buildings.
An interesting item presented in the exhibition is a minivan that was used for taking people quietly to the prison. The appearance and markings are those of a normal cargo van for transporting goods, whereas the interior is structured with micro-cells for arrested people.
The place is not central, so only those really interested in the history of the GDR, and of East Berlin and the STASI usually come here. Nonetheless, it is managed like a good level international museum, with guided tours, facilities for groups and a bookshop. Before taking the tour you are offered a movie telling the history of the prison in brief and offering the testimonies of former inmates. All in all a very interesting – and instructive – experience, surely worth a detour from the more touristic districts.
After visiting the prison, you may have a look around to the other buildings in this citadel. You can find a map in a cheap but interesting booklet they sell in the bookshop (‘The prohibited district’, by Erler and Knabe).
Getting there and moving around
The correct address of the prison building is Genslerstraße 66, Berlin. You can reach it easily by car. The neighborhood is primarily residential and not central, so parking won’t be a problem. If you have not a car, you can arrive conveniently with the tram line M5 from the most central districts. The correct stop is Werneuchener Strasse, and from there it’s about .4 miles to the gate of the prison. Website here.
STASI Prison Lindenstrasse, Potsdam
Behind an elegant façade like many others you can find in central Potsdam there is a prison comparable in size to the ‘main’ prison in Berlin Hohenschönhausen described above, and mostly unknown to the general public crowding this small and beautiful historical town.
This building was used as a prison by the Kaiser, the Nazis, the Soviets and finally the GDR. It was renovated and modified in many stages during its long history, and during WWII and under the Nazi rule, some sections of the courthouse in Berlin were transferred here, when the original buildings of the Nazi courthouse got damaged as a result of Allied air raids.
Differently from Hohenschönhausen, the prison in Potsdam is not part of a ‘citadel’, even though the KGB headquarters in Eastern Germany were not far – actually they can be found close to Schloss Cecilienhof, Potsdam, now partly converted to luxury apartments and villas.
Another difference with respect to Hohenschönhausen is the style of the building, which dates back to older times. This is reflected in the plan and in many details of the construction, which at least from the exterior is less shabby.
Inside you can find Soviet cells in the basement – also here the most inhumane – and other cells packed along narrow corridors on several floors. In the inner courtyard there is a central block of open top cells for ‘recreation’, and traces of the original cameras and surveillance systems.
Something you may appreciate is the fact that you can visit the place on your own. Paneling with data or telling the stories of former inmates are totally in German, but you are given a leaflet with explanations and a map of the place at the entrance. Also a few original interrogation rooms have been preserved and can be seen.
The entry price is very reduced, so visiting is of course a must for the committed tourist and interesting also for the general public. The place is ‘mimetic’ and not much advertised, so you won’t find the usual flocks of visitors, unlike the royal estates in Potsdam… Much recommended.
Getting there and moving around
The precise address is Lindenstrasse 54, Potsdam. It is in central Potsdam, so you may park at your convenience for visiting the district and have a stop there if you like. Similarly, if you are coming with the public transport system just go to the central district and walk to the place. Website here.
STASI Pre-Trial Prison, Rostock
Similarly to the prison in Potsdam, the anonymity of the façade of this building in central Rostock, placed to the back of a section of the courthouse still in function today, is really deceiving. A prison capable of hosting more than 100 inmates can be reached today via a small door leading mainly to the offices of the faculty of the local university. Once inside the building you will notice a worrying fence on the side of the stairs going to the first floor, where you can get access to the prison.
Besides the many cells, it is possible to find a very interesting exhibition on the history of the GDR and of the STASI, with much data and stories from the time. Also many artifacts can be found, like spy gear, rags for preserving the odor of inmates for watchdogs to make capture easier, bonds used to pay informers, and other interesting items.
The main function of the prison was that of keeping those arrested for interrogation until they were sentenced. More than 4000 people spent some time in this prison, mainly for ideological crimes, in the years of the GDR.
The place can be visited for free with an audio guide also in English. Some parts, including the open-top cells outside and the rigor cells in the basement can be visited only in a guided tour – as far as I understood, these are offered in German only.
On the top floor you can see an interesting exhibition on people who escaped or tried to flee the GDR by sea.
Getting there and moving around
Centrally located in Rostock – a lively city on the coast of the Baltic Sea – at a walking distance from Rosengarten. If you are moving by car, you can park on Hermannstrasse, and reach the door to the back of the courthouse block (opposite a small market). The door is heavy, so press it hard, it may be open even if it looks closed. Website here.