|Heading to Berlin or the former GDR? Looking for traces of the Cold War open for a visit?|
A Travel Guide to COLD WAR SITES in EAST GERMANY
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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 in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
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- STASI Headquarters, Berlin-Lichtenberg
- STASI Prison and Restricted Area, Berlin-Hohenschönhausen
- STASI Prison Lindenstrasse, Potsdam
- STASI Pre-Trial Prison, Rostock
- STASI Maximum Security Prison ‘Bautzen II’, Bautzen
- STASI Headquarters, Leipzig
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Similar to its cousin in Berlin-Lichtenberg, the former headquarters of the STASI in Leipzig has been opened as a memorial. In this case, the building was not made on purpose, but converted from a pre-existing one. A decorated, elegant palace in the city center was chosen for the local brain of the repressive apparatus. The building features an angled facade, since the name ‘on the round corner’ – ‘in der Runden Ecke’ in German.
The entrance hall to the former headquarters has retained much of its original appearance.
The main part of the exhibition is immediately reached through the original reception office, which has been left willingly untouched since the pre-1989 era – including now dead CC-cameras, and two elaborated majolica murals with emblems of the STASI and some decorations.
The exhibition takes the ground floor of a wing of the building, i.e. only a small part of the original site. The office of a clerk has been mothballed preserving at most its original, shabby appearance, with a portrait of Honecker.
In an adjacent room, many rigs for covert mail and communication interception and inspection activities are displayed. These range from steam-pumping envelope openers, to fake postal stamps from Federal Germany, or even from abroad (to send false communications), and even fancier machines for reproducing signatures, looking inside parcels, etc. – every design betraying a really paranoid attention to details, and a true waste of exceptional engineering abilities.
A complete cell and photo studio – for mugshots – from the now demolished STASI prison in Leipzig has been spared for this exhibition, not much dissimilar from others on this web page (see above).
More artifacts on display include audio and image gathering stuff, ranging from micro cameras and recorders, to exceptionally compact, high-precision zoom lenses. Archived rags with the smell of repression victims in case of escape – for dogs – are another specimen from the STASI crazy inventory.
A room is devoted to the STASI huge paper archive, and to the silly, titanic effort to destroy the evidence of years of illegal spying activity as quick as possible, following the re-opening of the border. The solidified slime obtained from paper fragments is on display. Some very evocative pictures show the immense Leipzig archive and its conspicuous remains after the destruction attempt.
Two more rooms tell about the immediate post-WWII history in Leipzig, with pictures from 1945 with Nazi officials who committed suicide, as well as from the first stage of Allied occupation and Soviet administration – before the GDR was founded.
An interesting collection of artifacts concerning the Soviet-GDR friendship and alliance is really evocative of a luckily bygone era.