Aircraft Carriers of the West Coast

Among the countless interesting places and sights the States of the West Coast have to offer, even aircraft carriers need to be mentioned. There are three ‘capital sites’ that will surely appeal to war veterans, pilots, seamen, historians, technicians, children and everybody with an interest for ‘CVs’ – an acronym for ‘carrier vessels’. Two are super-museums in California, where the USS Hornet and USS Midway are permanently preserved and open to the public, and a third is the Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, which is an active installation of the US Navy in the premises of the Naval Base Kitsap, where maintenance work is carried out on the current CV-fleet, and where part of the reserve fleet – including most notably some aircraft carriers – is moored.

Here you can find some photos of these sites from visits of mine in 2012 and 2014.

USS Hornet (CV-12) – Alameda, CA

This ship is an Essex-class carrier commissioned in late 1943. Since then, she saw extensive action throughout WWII in the Pacific theatre, being involved in frontline operations leading to the defeat of Japan. As a matter of fact, aircraft from this ship totalled a number of downed aircraft ranking second in the general list of aircraft carriers of the world, behind USS Essex – which enjoyed a full year of service more than Hornet during the war with Japan.

The original appearance of the ship was much different from today’s, first and foremost due to the straight-deck construction of the Essex-class – just like all other carriers until the Fifties. For Hornet the current shape of the deck is the result of SCB-125 modification in 1956, introducing an angled landing deck. This feature, which came along with other major changes to the overall structure also resulting in a significant weight increase, allowed independent take-off and landing operations. Differently from other ships of the class, Hornet wasn’t upgraded in the late-fifties with steam-powered catapults, retaining hydraulically powered ones instead, thus being incapable of launching heavier aircraft like the Phantom, Intruder, Vigilante, or even the Hawkeye. It was then assigned to a support role as an ASW carrier, equipped with Tracker aircraft and helicopters for anti-submarine missions.

In the late Sixties Hornet was involved in the race to the Moon, serving as a rescue platform for the first moonwalkers returning from the succesful Apollo 11 mission, and subsequently in the same role for the astronauts of Apollo 12.

Similarly to all other Essex-class vessels – with the exception of the venerable USS Lexington, operated as a training ship until late 1991! – it saw limited action in the Vietnam War, when much larger and more suited carriers had become available for war operations, and it was retired in the early Seventies.

During your visit you are basically free to move all around the many well-preserved areas under the flight deck.

There you can see the striking proportions of this relatively ‘small’ carrier. The mechanism of the central elevator can be seen to the bow of the ship. An impressive table with the number of targets hit recalls the primary role this ship had in WWII.

On the main aircraft storage level there are some preserved aircraft, not all from the history of this unit. Among the many interesting features in this area, a replica of the helicopter which took the astronauts of Apollo 11 on board. This very helicopter was used in Ron Howard’s movie ‘Apollo 13’ starring Tom Hanks. Also the mobile quarantine facility for the astronauts can be found here. Neil Armstrong’s very footsteps from the helicopter to the quarantine facility are marked with white paint.

Moving back to the stern of the ship it is possible to visit a very interesting technical area for aircraft maintenance and servicing, as well as for mission preparation. It reminds the primary role of aircraft carriers as a frontline-deployed, moving airbases, with everything that is necessary for operating the aircraft onboard on a regular basis for offensive missions. A hatch leading to the compartments on the lower levels has been left open, and this allows to appreciate the actual size of the ship, really huge, with multiple storage levels for aircraft spare parts and ordnance.

Also very interesting are the big fireproof sliding doors for cutting the aircraft storage deck into compartments in the event of fire – possibly due to some ordnance piercing the deck of the ship, as well as to accidental causes.

Further interesting sights in the self-guided part of the visit include the operational briefing room, some service rooms, dormitories and a large area for the anchor moving mechanisms.

A second part of the tour is guided. You move around is small groups and you access the flight deck and the ‘island’, the command and control center of all operations – deck management, flight mission control, and ship control & navigation. The guides are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic veterans, able to tell you detailed explanations of what you see as well as anecdotes from the history of the ship.

The Presidential Seal has been placed where president Nixon was standing to oversee the recovery of the moonwalkers from Apollo 11.

This part of the visit will be extremely interesting for more technically minded subjects – you will see original wind signals for landing aircraft, an original LORAN navigation device for sea navigation, the normal and emergency arresting systems, the Fresnel optical landing aid system, and tons of other extremely interesting items which were actually used in real operations.

From the stern of the ship and the flight deck it is possible to take fantastic pictures of downtown SFO.

Extra Feature – Treasure Island Pan Am Terminal

A little ‘extra’ you can find on your way if you are travelling from San Francisco via the SFO-Oakland Bay Bridge to the site fo the USS Hornet is Treasure Island. This artificial island was taken out of the water at the end of the Thirties for the Golden Gate International Exhibition in 1939. Coincidentally, Pan Am, which had recently inaugurated its trans-Pacific ‘Clipper’ air service with the huge Boeing 314 seaplane, built a facility on the island, with a passenger terminal and service hangars for maintenance. Operation of the Clipper were moved here for good, and the aircraft took off and alighted on water between Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, the smaller natural island to the south – the cove is today called Clipper Cove. Later on the service was relocated to Alameda as the island was taken over by the military.

Unlike most of the buildings dating from the exhibition, wiped out soon after it, the terminal survived and it is a proportionate, nice example of the airport building style of the late Thirties.

Also the foundations of some of the original passenger pier, as well as concrete slides for seaplane operations on the shore of Clipper Bay, can be seen still today. The Pan Am terminal building was used to simulate the terminal at Berlin Tempelhof in Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’.

Treasure Island is also a good place for taking pictures of downtown SFO, as well as the most famous items on the bay – Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Getting There

The ship is permanently anchored by one of the piers close to the former Alameda NAS, on the southern side of the island of Alameda. It can be reached very conveniently and quickly from downtown San Francisco via the Oakland bridge (I-80), and from Oakland, Berkeley, San Leandro and all districts on the eastern side of the bay. Full explanation and info on their website. Treasure Island is located roughly mid-way along the Oakland Bridge. Visiting the Pan Am terminal is a quick detour from the interstate. Large parking nearby both sites.

USS Midway (CV-41) – San Diego, CA

This is the first and the only remaining of the three Midway-class ‘super carriers’ – which included USS Franklin D. Roosevelt and USS Coral Sea. The origin of the class dates back to WWII, when it was decided that larger, armored, metal decks were to replace the vulnerable wooden decks of the Essex-class carriers. USS Midway was commissioned in September 1945, immediately after VJ-Day, with a straight deck, albeit steel-made. The steel construction was considered a relevant asset for jet aircraft operations, and all three carriers were kept in active service following the progressive transition to the new type of aircraft propulsion, with only minor modifications needed to the flight deck.

USS Midway was involved in the early stages of US missile experimentation, with the first tests of sea launched V-2 rocket clones, originating from the German design, and Regulus I air-breathing cruise missile.

The current shape of USS Midway is the result of subsequent major modifications. Program SCB-110 in the late Fifties added the angled deck to enhance simultaneous launch and recovery operations and flexible flight deck operations. Also the curved ‘hurricane-proof’ bow was added, together with steam-powered catapults.

In 1966 this ship was the only of the three of her class to receive the very expensive SCB-101.66 modification, resulting in a lengthening of the flight deck, the adoption of more powerful steam catapults and a new arrangement of the higher-load elevators. All three ships were on active duty in Vietnam, USS Midway apparently launching the first and last US air attacks of the war.

Even though USS Midway – the largest and best equipped of the three – could not operate the Tomcat, it could take four squadrons of Hornets, thus remaining effective in frontline service well into the Gulf War in the early Nineties, the last major operation in which she was involved before retirement and re-opening as a permanent exhibition – notably among the most popular in San Diego alongside the zoo.

Similarly to the USS Hornet described above, the tour of the Midway starts with a self-guided exploration of the aircraft storage deck and of the air deck. Among the tons of interesting sights here, to the bow you can find under the air deck the steam reservoir for the catapults and the system for moving the anchors.

Further back the main hangar for storing the aircraft is really huge. You can get an impression of the size of the ship by looking at the lower storage levels, where jet engines and air-launched ordnance are still visible.

With respect to the USS Hornet the exhibition is somewhat more ‘lively’, also with some reconstructed scenes, notice-boards, prepared dinner tables and so on. On the cons side, the place can get really crowded.

You can explore the crew areas, with dormitories, kitchens, canteens, medical services – including a fully equipped surgery compartment.

Most interesting is the propulsion system. Midway-class ships, as well as the later Forrestal-class, were all conventionally powered – non nuclear. Oil was supplied to burners, heating water and generating steam. By supplying steam to turbines mechanical power was obtained and transferred to the propeller shafts. This involved monstrous reduction gears. You can see the control room of this very complex system as well as burners, turbines gearboxes and propeller shafts, all explained with technical schemes – this will be extremely interesting for technically minded people. Close by, the similarly important air conditioning and ventilation system – an ancillary system at a first glance, it is absolutely necessary for all computers and electronics.

Other interesting sights are the briefing rooms for both flying and non-flying personnel, the chapel, and the inertial navigation system – buried close to the buoyancy center of the ship to reduce the influence of oscillations.

On the deck there is a collection of aircraft, most of them from the operational history of this unit. Also visible is the Fresnel optical landing aid.

Similarly to the USS Hornet, you can join a guided tour for a visit to the ‘island’. This is much roomier than that of the older Essex-class ship. You are provided clear explanations by very competent guides as you tour the navigation room, flight control and ship control areas.

From the deck you are offered a view of North Island NAS. Until she left for her new home port in Yokosuka, Japan, you could often see here USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), a nuclear powered, Nimitz-class carrier commissioned in the 2003 and home based in San Diego at the time of my visit.

Other Nimitz-class carriers are currently based here.

Getting There

The USS Midway museum is among the best known museums in Southern California, and it’s really hard to miss it due to the prominent place on the waterfront next to downtown San Diego. Large parking on the pier nearby. For planning your visit have a look to their website.

Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Naval Base Kitsap – Bremerton, WA

The Naval Base Kitsap with the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard are major installations of the Navy. The Shipyard dates from before WWI, and albeit a small museum on the topic exists close to the ‘civil’ port of Bremerton, clearly the installation is not possible to visit, for it is surrounded by the base. Luckily, the Shipyard is neither much hidden nor far from the street running along the waterfront, and the size of aircraft carriers makes them rather difficult to deceive… This leaves the opportunity to take a look at what is moored here by simply moving around a bit in the hilly area of Bremerton until you find a suitable spot for taking pictures. You can also walk to the waterfront, and find some isolated spots from where you can take some impressive shots without even coming close to violating the perimeter of the base.

Some pictures can be taken from the sea if you are leaving or arriving with a ferry-boat.

The Shipyard is where modifications are carried out on most vessels. Besides running the Shipyard, the Naval Base Kitsap acts as a home port for some ships, including some active aircraft carriers and many submarines. The Shipyard facility has been used for storing vessels in a mothballed condition and for stripping those to be sold for scrap of some lighter hardware. The latter are those placed in the most peripheral area of the base, and the easiest to see.

When I visited in 2012 the base was very busy.

In the pictures you can see two Forrestal-class ships – USS Independence and USS Ranger – and two ‘Improved Forrestal’, Kitty-Hawk-class ships – USS Kitty Hawk and USS Constellation. As of late 2016 Ranger and Constellation have been transferred to Brownsville, TX for scrapping, while Independence is to follow and is awaiting towing for early 2017.

USS Kitty Hawk remains in a mothballed status and there is some interest to preserve it as a museum somewhere, for together with USS John F. Kennedy they remain the only Forrestal-class ships still in a relatively good shape.

The eight Forrestal/Improved Forrestal-class aircraft carriers were the first conceived with an angled deck. They constituted the backbone of the US carrier fleet of the Cold War in the late Fifties, Sixties and early Seventies, when the nuclear powered USS Nimitz was commissioned. Many of them were deeply involved in Vietnam operations. All of them remained active until the Nineties and were involved in operations all over the world, a true icon of the might of the US Navy.

Besides the mothballed or scrapyard-due fleet, you can find in Bremerton some carriers on active duty at the Naval Base Kitsap. At the time of my visit, I could see the Nimitz-class USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) – the latter is the one undergoing maintenance in the pictures. Kitsap is a huge base of the US Navy, among the largest in the US, and home port for many strategic submarines.

Getting There & Moving Around

The most convenient way to see the mothballed fleet is from Charleston Boulevard, approaching from the west along the waterfront. There is chance of parking in a somewhat deserted area out of the perimeter of the base. When leaving with the ferry from Bremerton port, you are allowed a view of the easternmost part of the base.

STASI Prisons and Headquarters in Berlin and the GDR

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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 – STASI stands for ‘STAat SIcherheit’, or state security -, this organization was responsible for the capillary control over the behavior of the citizens of the GDR, to the aim of counteracting 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 East-German 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 institution was among the most feared and hated – as well as expensive to run – in the GDR, and soon after the reopening of the border and the demolition of the 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 governmental agencies 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 over the years from 2013 to 2023.

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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 reported. Envelope-opening devices and rags for preserving the odor of those arrested for watchdogs are displayed 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. Many original directional offices have been preserved and nowadays 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 comparatively 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 exterior of other buildings in the citadel, today mostly unused, abandoned or partially occupied by private businesses – 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 East Berlin. Old photographs of the area clearly show that this part of the town was interdicted to visitors not connected with the business of the STASI – 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 the German capitulation in 1945, 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 through 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.

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.

Also visible are some cells with open top for spending half a hour per day in open air.

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.

Interrogation rooms are aligned on a corridor, and are extremely essential, featuring a shabby furniture. Greasy traces on the wallpaper and the smell of old fake leather heated by the sun is make the original atmosphere come alive.

A further wing is where a clinic for inmates was located. The clinic was of good level, with much technical instrumentation to manage several regular or emergency situations. The office of the director of this wing is another example of pure East German design. Most notably, the once omnipotent Erich Mielke appears to have been interned here following his arrest after 1989.

A one-of-a-kind exhibit is a railway truck for inmates. Besides the rather uncomfortable compartment design, with small chairs in a very little space, this transport was made really inhumane through the lack of air conditioning, the windows with bars and even a white glass, which deliberately created disorientation. These trains were artificially put on the lowest priority, so as to make traveling a painstaking experience for inmates.

The memorial 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 serious bookshop. Before taking the tour you are offered a movie telling the history of the prison in brief and showing 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 0.4 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 under the Nazi rule, some sections of the courthouse in central 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 the GDR 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 very elegant.

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 working 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, state bonds used to pay informers, and more.

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.

STASI Maximum Security Prison ‘Bautzen II’, Bautzen

Originally designed as a pre-trial and short-term court jail by the local government, the prison of Bautzen II was erected under the Kaiser to the back of the courthouse in the homonym town in the southeastern corner of Saxony, today very close to the border with both Poland and the Czech Republic. A larger penitentiary, named Bautzen I and originally conceived as a juvenile jail, was built around the same time in town.

With the advent of the Nazi dictatorship, both facilities began to be exploited for the prosecution of political dissidents, or to isolate elements of ‘inferior races’. Violence, intimidation and extorted confessions began to be the rule. Both branches of the prison of Bautzen fell under Stalin’s control at the end of WWII, and this corresponded to an exceptional increase in the number of inmates, which included a substantial share of former Nazi staff and opponents of the Soviet regime.

After the creation of the GDR, the facilities in Bautzen went on working as primary centers for the confinement of political prisoners, together making for possibly the largest detention center in the country. The smaller jail of Bautzen II, with slightly more than 200 single cells, was turned into a maximum security prison intended for the most dangerous ‘subversive elements’ of the whole state. While Bautzen I is still an active state prison of todays Federal Germany, Bautzen II has been opened to the public as a memorial.

The dreary access from outside is through three gates, and this adds to the perception of the place as really ‘no hope’.

Similarly to the prison in Potsdam (see above), Bautzen II can be toured on a self-guided basis, without a group. Most parts of the prison are opened, and several cells can be accessed.

Some of the cells retain the original furniture, even shabbier than the usual communist standard. The metal staircase in the middle of the prison building allows to better appreciate the size.

Besides rigor cells with additional bars and an incredibly small walkable area, some groups of cells are separated from others, with armored doors splitting the corridors in contiguous isolated sections. This was possibly a special feature of this maximum security prison. You can experience an unreal silence when sitting in a cell closing both the doors of the corridor and of the cell.

There are also some ‘common areas’ for inmates to work and stay, and an external courtyard divided in sectors, to allow inmates to spend some time open air, but without the chance to meet or see each other.

Getting there and moving around

The prison of Bautzen II is open as a national monument, a website with full information about visiting is here. I noticed that there are descriptions in German only throughout the prison, so you would better go prepared at least on the history of the place – starting for instance from the website – to get the most from your visit. The location is Waigangstrasse 8a, which is behind the courthouse of Bautzen, 0.8 miles to the east of the historical town center, conveniently reachable walking from the railway station and also by car. The area around the courthouse is mainly residential and parking can be found easily. Bautzen I is still today an active regular detention facility and cannot be visited.

A vital center of the Sorbs, an etnic group of Saxony and Brandenburg recognized by the German Federal Government, the town of Bautzen is nice to visit and rich of historical content. It is about 45 miles east of Dresden, and bolsters a picturesque, perfectly refurbished town center with medieval to baroque architectural elements.

STASI Headquarters, Dresden

The STASI headquarters and prison in Dresden have been developed starting 1945, originally as a prison for the Soviet NKVD (later KGB), on the premises of a former factory not far from the river Elbe and the historical district of the town – which would lay destroyed for decades following air raids in WWII. Similar to the prison in Lindenstrasse, Potsdam (see above), the underground floor of the former factory building was turned into a prison, with provision for a number of very basic cells typical to Stalin’s era, aligned on a narrow corridor.

Until the facility was handed over to the newly-formed GDR in 1952, the Soviets interned here mostly German citizens accused of cooperation with the defunct Nazi regime, as well as subversive elements, unfriendly with the Soviet controlling forces. As usual within a dictatorship, indictment was largely arbitrary and sentences extremely harsh – following arrest, most people were deported to forced labor camps of the Gulag system in the USSR, some were brought to Moscow to be hanged, and many were sent to provisional camps established in the ‘Soviet occupation zone’, later to become the territory of the GDR.

In this part of the exhibition it is possible to step in most of the cells, very small and essential.

A room is dedicated to the Gulag system, whereas another is a memorial for those taken to the Dresden prison and who reportedly did not survive the ordeal of the Soviet detention system, or where sentenced to death on the base of political reasons.