A Few Remains of Nazi Grandeur in Germany

Architecture is possibly one of the disciplines where the ringleaders of the Nazi dictatorship invested most, for it provided a direct mean to display and impose their ‘new aesthetics’ to the German people and to foreign visitors from abroad.

The victory of the Allies in WWII wiped out the Nazi apparatus, but nowhere as in Germany did the new post-war leadership take the  deletion of all traces of the Third Reich so seriously. Even in museums of military history – there is an excellent example in Ingolstadt,  Bavaria, perhaps one of the most beautiful museums on the topic in Europe – there are just a handful of Nazi insignia. Swastikas, Nazi uniforms, weapons and memorabilia can be found to an incredibly greater extent elsewhere in Europe, especially in Britain, or in museums in the US. They are really also abundant in the countless exhibitions about the Great Patriotic War – WWII for Russians – in the former USSR, and generally beyond the Iron Curtain.

Concerning architecture, especially in Berlin many buildings of all ages were totally demolished as a result of US/British air raids, and during the last battle for the city opposite the Red Army. Similarly, the town centers of many larger towns were severely damaged. In the reconstruction process, little care was taken in keeping trace of this dark page of the German history, and the reborn downtown districts assumed in many cases a new face, where 1950-styled buildings shared the stage with medieval cathedrals and public schools from Bismarck’s time – pretty much nothing from the 1930s.

Yet of course some creations of Hitler’s architects have come to these days. Despite the evil ideology behind them, some are remarkable works of art, displaying a clear relationship with functionalism, typically found through various interpretations also in many realizations of great architects of the Thirties, in the US as well as all around western Europe. Examples are those buildings connected with infrastructures, like airport terminals or railway stations – much needed in the post-WWII period, and preferably restored instead of being demolished. More items of this kind survive than possibly of any other from Hitler’s era in todays German cities. A majestic example is the terminal of the now closed Berlin-Tempelhof airport.

Most of the surviving buildings hold a public function – like departments of the government or sport arenas. In a very few cases, buildings strongly connected with the devious ideology of the Third Reich have been preserved – albeit not greatly publicized – as museums. A first notable example is the complex around the Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg, with the unfinished huge congress hall for the conventions of the Nazi Party. A second one is the disturbing ‘spiritual center’ of the infamous SS in Wewelsburg.

This chapter collects a few photographs from these three places. Of course, it is far from a complete review of the architectural heritage of the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. It just provides an insight on a relatively unknown group of relics from Hitler’s era in Germany.

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Sights

Berlin-Tempelhof Airport Terminal

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Possibly the most complete and grandest example of Nazi architecture, the airport terminal of Berlin-Tempelhof is interesting both from an architecture standpoint and for its historical significance. The terminal was designed and built in the late 1930s and completed in 1941, greatly enlarging a preexistent construction.

At that time, nothing comparable existed in the world. The terminal is more than a mile long. It was built with a direct access from the land-side buildings directly to the long side of a narrow hangar on the air-side, which basically ran all along the terminal. Considering the small size of the aircraft of the day, this ‘hangar-terminal’ configuration could be exploited to simultaneously load and unload a high number of flights, with operations taking place directly in, or just outside, of a covered hangar. During WWII, parts of the hangar were used to manufacture military aircraft, exploiting forced laborers from a concentration camp prepared nearby for the purpose.

But the features of the terminal turned also extremely handy during the Berlin blockade of 1948-49, when Stalin tried to force his former western Allies to withdraw from Berlin by cutting off the western sector of the city. The western Allies set up the famous airlift, supplying the western sector with basically everything that was needed for a population in the order of a million, for 15 months! Tempelhof was the major airport in Berlin – the other being the British airbase in Gatow, near Potsdam – and laid in the American zone of the city. Thanks to its peculiar structure, it could manage the immense flow of goods flown in by more than 1’000 flights per day.

In the Cold War years, the airport was operated as a logistic base by the US forces. In the meanwhile, the construction of a larger airport – with a smaller terminal, but longer runways – was started at Tegel, and this was promoted to the main airport of West Berlin for civil air traffic. State flights still were operated in and out of Tempelhof, President Reagan’s Air Force One 27000 notably operating from Tempelhof on a famous state visit in 1982. After the German reunification the airport went on working as a civil airport, but the relatively short runways and noise issues led to its closure in 2008.

Sadly, today this glorious airport has been turned into another city park. It is rather difficult to use it for the scope though, as all the cement and asphalt of the apron, runways and taxiways are still there, there are no trees, and the terminal is an imposing presence on one side. Moreover, it is really a surplus for a city like Berlin, scattered with plenty of beautiful and immense green areas. The terminal building has not yet found a new occupation, and is basically a well-guarded ghost. Plans for reopening it as a convention center are apparently consolidated in 2022, but renovation works are going on still at very low pace.

Most recently, a small but well-designed, mainly pictorial exhibition has been located in the old terminal building, retracing with beautiful historical pictures, technical schemes and essential explanations the history of Tempelhof Airport.

Pictures from the year 2015 – but luckily not much had changed in 2022, the date of my latest visit – show the main building giving access to the terminal on the northwestern corner of the airfield still in a rather good shape. The empty parking ahead of the passenger entrance with nobody around gives a lunar aura to the place.

The neat lines of this part of the building deceive its actual size. From a former visit still in the days of operation – year 2006 – you can notice the roomy check-in hall, right beyond the main entrance.

Close by one of the glass entry doors you can spot a memorial to General Lucius Clay, the American mind behind the Berlin Airlift.

The grand perspective leading to the entrance is really an architectural masterpiece. Also noteworthy is a series of covered passages leading to lateral courtyards to the sides. These service passages are not visible when approaching the terminal from the distance, preserving the general sense of order without renouncing to the functionality of the construction.

There are two surviving marble eagles from Hitler’s time, on the front walls of the buildings to the sides of the main perspective.

The eagle head ahead of the parking is from the eagle sculpture originally standing on top of the main façade in Hitler’s times. That eagle was taken away after the capture of the city and the end of the war. The head went to the Army Academy in West Point, NY as a spoil of war, and was returned after the German reunification.

Moving along the wings of the building you can appreciate the size of the construction, really uncommon for Europe in the Thirties. The quality of all materials is also really striking. Their cost must have been really high.

To the extreme northeastern tip of the building you can spot some former radio installations, likely connected with air traffic control or military operations. From there you can get access to the former air side of the airport. At the time when the pictures were taken it was possible to walk around freely, but unfortunately not close to the hangar. Most recently, a branch of the Allied Museum in Berlin has taken responsibility for a preservation effort, and is keeping the place off-limits, opening it to the public on rare guided visits in German only – but I could not join in any of them.

There is also a historical propliner ahead of the iconic ‘Berlin Tempelhof’ sign on top of the hangar. Anyway, walking on the apron and runways produces a ‘history was made here’ feeling, and it is worth trying! Again, a few shots from the days of operation show the hangar from inside the terminal building. Historical pictures from local panels show the use of the hangar for the production of aircraft and technical parts.

As said, a recent exhibition of special interest for getting an accurate historical perspective, retraces the timeline of the airfield, since its pre-Third Reich era, through the colossal redesign in the shape we see today carried out in Hitler’s time, and down to the Cold War era, when Tempelhof had a crucial role in the Berlin Airlift, and was operated for long as a regular city airport.

Remarkably, in April 1945 the airfield fell in Soviet hands – since the Soviet Army conquered Berlin – and was later ceded to the US, following the Potsdam agreements in July 1945, which split the capital of the Third Reich in four sectors. It is likely Stalin regretted his own ‘fair-play’ concerning Tempelhof at the time of the Airlift, just a few years later…

A picture portraying general Keitel, in custody, arriving at Tempelhof to sign the instrument of surrender in the Soviet headquarters (see here) together with other top-ranking Nazi officers, shows a Lisunov Li-2 in the background. This was the licensed Soviet copy of the Douglas C-47. Also interesting the demolished German fighters found on sight by the conquerors.

The US, having taken control of the field, organized open-days for the general public once per year – reportedly, mostly appreciated by the local population.

Actually, the years corresponding to the sealing of the Inner Border (see here), from the Berlin crisis of 1961 (which saw the construction of the Berlin Wall) until specific accords partially reopening the land borders especially to Westerners in the early 1970s, were those of the most intense activity for Tempelhof – reaching West Berlin was more convenient by flight. But soon after, the better infrastructure of Tegel, with longer runways and less surrounded by high-rise buildings, took over most of the airline connections to Berlin. Tempelhof went on hosting state flights, general aviation flights, and commercial flights to a lower scale. There was also a permanent presence of US Army forces.

Evoking pictures include one with Willy Brandt greeting general Clay, and much later, President Reagan and the First Lady on a state visit in 1987. In another, you see one of the former Third Reich top-ranking staff Albert Speer – who also contributed to the design of Tempelhof – leaving for Western Germany by flight, following release after serving a long sentence in the prison of Spandau. He had been sentenced in Nürnberg.

The closure on grounds of noise issues, as noted, left the infrastructure unused for some years. Plans for re-opening as a convention/exhibition centers have been prepared as of 2022, and partial updating works are being carried out.

Getting there and moving around

The former airport is not far from downtown Berlin, around 3 miles south from the Brandenburg Gate in the former western sector of the city. Access to the terminal is from Tempelhofer Damm. Parking is possible along this major alley, or on the many roads around the airport – parking is rarely a problem in Berlin. Be ready to walk though, as usual when touring an airport.

Access possible also with public means of transportation. The front terminal can be easily reached from the U6 stops ‘Platz der Luftbrucke’ or ‘Bhf Paradestrasse’. Access from the east is easier from the U8 stops ‘Boddinstrasse’ or ‘Leinenstrasse’. There is finally an S-bahn station on the southwestern corner of the airfield – ‘Bahnhof Tempelhof’ – where U6 meets with several S-bahn lines.

My last visit to the place dates back to 2022, and as the area was undergoing renovation with a consolidated plan for changing its role and shape – and some works having started in the southernmost part of the terminal building.

Anyway, at the time of this visit the terminal was closed to the public, with limited chances to visit inside on guided tours. The only chance to access the terminal is for the small – yet totally recommended – photo exhibition. The latter can be reached to the left of the main facade of the terminal building. Website with contacts and timetables here.

Touring the exterior is possible on your own, and there are also a few descriptive panels along the perimeter. There are multiple entrances to the former air side, which is a public park with many people around.

Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg

Nuremberg is an ancient imperial city in the heart of Germany, taken over as the symbolic capital of the ‘new kingdom’ by the theorists of the Nazi doctrine, due to its historical significance in German history. This town became the focal point of Hitler-led Nazi Party (NSDAP is the acronym of the party name in German language) well before the fateful general elections of 1933, when Hitler was elected chancellor of the German Republic. Among the activities of the NSDAP since the Twenties was a yearly rally, where for a few days all sections of the party met in Nuremberg for a series of group activities, including political speeches, commemoration of the fallen soldiers of the German wars, sport, camping, dining, etc.

In the years preceding Hitler’s raise to power, these rallies took place in the Luitpoldhain Park, to the southeast of the town center. The park had at its center the Hall of Honor, a memorial to the soldiers of German Wars, erected at the end of the Twenties. Today, leaving behind some construction works carried out by the NSDAP in the 1930s – including a massive Luitpold Hall and a tribune, today completely demolished – the place has regained its commemorative function, and is still used as a nice and sober city park. Yet historical photographs of Hitler celebrating the fallen German comrades ahead of the very monument you can see today produce a strange feeling.

In the years of the dictatorship, the rallies turned into a megalomaniac ostentation of power, with hundreds of thousands participating in the reunions. Correspondingly, the area involved in these parades was greatly enlarged, and a plan was made to realize a group of dedicated buildings.

The most famous of them, thanks to the historical movies of the parades recorded at the time, is the Zeppelin Field. This was a parade ground designed from scratch by Nazi architects. The white tribune with the huge swastika on top, in the background of an immense, perfectly ordered and disciplined public, crowding the arena and listening to the voice of the Führer, is one of the permanent symbols of the Third Reich monstrous machine. Actually, the same tribune is the subject of another very famous movie, where the swastika is blown up with dynamite after the capture of the city of Nuremberg by US troops, marking the end of the Nazi rule in Germany.

The tribune and the constructions along the perimeter of the Zeppelin Field underwent major post-war deconstruction works, as the area came to host a car racing circuit and later a rather minimal sporting ground. What remains of the building is still rather massive, yet the top colonnade is gone, and as of 2016 the place looked little guarded and partly abandoned – eventually making it even grimmer! You can be on the exact podium where Hitler stood in his golden days admiring his evil creation.

The final and most prominent part of the plan is the congress hall of the NSDAP. Like most of the gigantic construction project for the area, this building was never completed, yet it reached a rather advanced state of completion. It is a U-shaped, three floors building, clearly inspired to the ancient Roman architecture. It should have been the building for the congresses of the NSDAP.

Today, this is the only preserved building of the complex, and hosts an extremely interesting museum and documentation center on the history of the Nazi Party and of the rallies. Really an interesting insight in the aesthetics of Hitler’s era and in the strange history of this strange political movement, which has been instrumental in shaping the face of todays Europe – and possibly of the world. Surely worth visiting.

A somewhat off-topic note, yet fitting in this chapter, concerns the hall of the Nuremberg Trials. These post-war trials were held in Nuremberg soon after the end of the war, mainly because of the significance this city had gained for the NSDAP. The courthouse, used as such also under the Nazi dictatorship, survived the war rather undamaged. Today, it is home to the Memorium, a very interesting museum documenting the trials from an anecdotal perspective, as well as from a more elevated viewpoint, describing its significance for international law – it was the first time an international conflict ended up in a trial.

Besides the museum, which is mainly centered on panels and photographs, you can see the famous Courtroom 600, where the trials took place. This was a bit altered since the years of the trials, yet some peculiar features, like the artistic doors, are exactly those you can see in the famous video recordings from the time.

Getting there and moving around

The area of the NSDAP rallies can be found about 2.5 miles southeast of the historical district of Nuremberg, Bavaria. It can be conveniently reached by car, or with public transport. Tramway line 8 departs the central railway station and has several stops in the area of interest. The S-bahn station ‘Nurnberg-Dutzenteich’ is 0.3 miles from the congress hall.

Today the area is mainly green, with much room for relaxing with a good walk. There are some explanatory panels with maps outlining the scheme of the Nazi master plan, including the buildings which were actually erected, those which were later demolished, and those which were just planned.

The centerpiece is the museum ‘Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände’, in the unfinished congress hall. Despite the distance from downtown Nuremberg, this is a major attraction for foreign visitors, hence the museum is prepared for large crowds. Visiting is possible with an audio-guide in many languages, and it is really worth the time and price. Website here.

The Memorium Nuremberg Trials, is hosted in a still active section of the Courthouse and is conveniently reachable by car of with the U-bahn U1, stop ‘Bärenschanze’, about 1 mile west of the historical town center. It can be visited on a self-guided basis, with audio-guides in many languages. This exhibition is really well designed and very interesting, and may take a couple of hours for a complete exploration. Yet due to the relative absence of tangible ‘hardware’ it may turn out unbearable for smaller children. Website here.

Spiritual Headquarter of the SS, Wewelsburg

The castle of Wewelsburg is connected to one of the most obscure aspects of the Nazi ideology – magic practices. The castle was founded centuries before the advent of the Nazis. Soon after the rise to power of the NSDAP, the head of the SS Heinrich Himmler got fascinated by the triangular perimeter of the castle, which appears to point towards the North. This is nothing special for a normal mind, but the SS  were the treasurers of the German race culture, and they were trying all the time to establish a solid link between basically themselves and the ancient settlers of Greenland – the Thule people – described in some legends as the most ancient northern population. This was instrumental in sustaining that the world belonged to the SS, which had been there since before everyone else.

This apparently silly idea represented for this group of fanatics a sufficient motivation to trigger a world war, were they saw themselves as the leaders of a liberation movement, regaining a rightful control over Europe (just to start) to the German race, after centuries of undue occupation by other races.

Wewelsburg gained more and more importance as the Nazis started preparing for war. The northern tower of the castle was declared the center of the world, and the heart of the SS soul. The School of Wewelsburg represented the spiritual leadership of this military organization, which enjoyed a surprising independence – and an extensive budget – even in the suffocating bureaucratic apparatus of Hitler’s political dictatorship. As such, Wewelsburg came in the middle of a visionary master plan, where it had to be at the center of a circular construction with a radius of 1 kilometer. Construction works started on this project, satellite concentration camps for forced laborers being opened on site for the purpose. The work did not develop much though, due to the intervening war events and things evolving differently from the Nazi plans.

The castle underwent some modifications under the SS. It was generally refurbished to host regular reunions of the comrades of the School of Wewelsburg, with SS-themed furniture which can be seen in the local museum devoted to this incredible story.

Furthermore, the northern tower was largely modified inside, with two round rooms appearing one above the other on two levels. The top one was completed as the ‘Room of the Black Sun’. It is centered on a mosaic pavement with a swastika motif. A disk made of pure gold, disappeared after the war, represented the sun in the center of the pavement, and marked the very center of the world.

The bottom room is basically a crypt, receiving little light from the outside, and resembling a chapel. At the center of the room you can find a basin like in a baptistery. All around there are little stands, possibly provisions for thrones. On top of the vault, just beneath the sun in the top room, there is a rare stone sculpture of a swastika.

The real use of these rooms is rather mysterious. It seems likely that Himmler with the School of Wewelsburg wanted to create a kind of ‘elite of the elite’ in the SS. The crypt might have been a place for ritual initiation ceremonies, and the top hall a kind of meeting area for the group. Selected officials and intellectuals of the SS met regularly in Wewelsburg, but basically no documentation exists of the content of these meetings. Yet the well-known mental inclination and conviction of the components of the group, the symbolic significance of the Wewelsburg site for these people and the temple-like setup of the northern tower suggest some sort of esoteric ritual might have taken place here.

The area reportedly fell into disrepair soon after WWII, and even worse, conceived by some as the shrine of the still alive ‘spirit of the SS’, it rapidly became the stage of black masses, magic practices and satanic rites. To contain the drift, the top hall was turned into a Christian chapel and an altar was put in place. This was later removed when castle opened as a museum on local history, a youth hostel and more recently as part of a very interesting museum and documentation center about the SS.

Getting there and moving around

The castle of Wewelsburg is located on top of a cliff in the homonym village, about 8 miles southwest of the medieval town of Paderborn, immersed in a beautiful north-German landscape. It appears to be about 2 miles south of the Paderborn-Lippe local airport. The castle can be conveniently reached by car, parking available nearby the entrance.

There are several exhibitions, including a museum about the ancient history of the castle, a documentation center and museum on the SS, which provides access to the Northern Tower and its mystery rooms, and a space for temporary exhibitions – at the time of my visit, there was one on the racial aspects of Nazi ideology. All museum are very modern and extremely interesting. There is also a hostel right inside the castle.

The site is really interesting to visit and a good destination for a nice half-day trip for everyone. Yet despite the nice panorama and the pleasant 16th century architecture, the association of the castle with dark activities in the dark years of Himmler and the SS makes this castle mysterious and somewhat grim, adding to the experience.

Surrender Sites of Nazi Germany – Reims & Berlin-Karlshorst

Differently from what one is usually taught in schools, World War II in Europe did not stop in one moment with the death by suicide of the Führer, on April 30th, 1945.

As soon as the advancing Western Allies established strongpoints within the original borders of Germany – as these had been before the war – in 1945 the chain of command in Germany began to vacillate. Rumors about contacts between top-ranking Nazi officials and the SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) have lived to this day, and they are reasonable even though not well documented – as a matter of fact, Hitler dismissed both Göring and Himmler just before his death, on account of unauthorized contacts with ‘the enemy’, promoting Admiral Dönitz to the rank of president of Germany.

The understandable confusion of those days at the ‘top of the pyramid’ is reflected by the local autonomous surrender of substantial parts of the German armed forces around Europe, against the will of the Führer, and even before his death. Literally millions of soldiers were disarmed on both fronts in April 1945, and the process culminated in the surrender of all German forces in Italy on April 29th, the day before Hitler’s death.

The new German president Dönitz acted with the same authority of the Führer in the last stormy days of the collapsing Nazi rule, early May 1945. Under Dönitz’s mandate, between the 1st and 7th of May 1945 some separate surrenders took place, including all German forces in Austria, North-West Germany, Holland, Denmark, Berlin – who surrendered to the Soviets -, Mecklenburg and Pommern north of Berlin, and Bavaria. The German navy ceased war operations on May 5th, by direct order of admiral Dönitz.

All this preceded the ‘official’, authorized, unconditional surrender which was signed on behalf of acting president Dönitz separately by General Jödl in the headquarters of the Expeditionary Force in Reims in the early hours of May 7th, and by Feldmarschall Keitel in Berlin-Karlshorst on May 8th, in presence of General Zhukov of the Red Army. The capitulation called for quitting all military operations at 23:01 CET, May 8th. Both of the signers were arrested soon after, as were Dönitz, Göring and other top German players of the war in Europe.

Today, the two locations where the unconditional surrender(s) were signed are open for visitors. The following photographs were taken during visits in 2015 and 2016.

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Reims – Musée de la Reddition

The headquarters of the SHAEF where the ‘instrument of surrender’ was signed on the western front occupied the building of a high school.

Today, the building has returned to its original function, but a small part of it with the original room and table have been preserved inside of a museum on-site. The walls of the room are covered with original maps from the time, resembling how it looked like in 1945.

Other rooms are packed with showcases, where you can see many items, including an official copy of the document signed by Jödl, authenticated by Dönitz, uniforms, original flags and other memorabilia.

The museum is rather small, and can be toured in about 30 minutes at most. This excludes the video presentation, which I had not the chance to watch.

Getting there and moving around

The historical place is located to the north of the city center in Reims, very close to the railway station. The exact address is 12 Rue du Président Franklin Roosevelt, 51100 Reims. There is chance of public parking nearby. If you parked somewhere else for visiting historical Reims, I suggest not moving your car, as the museum can be easily reached with a short 5 minutes walk from Porte de Mars, right on the northern edge of the center. Website here.

Berlin-Karlshorst – Deutsch-Russisches Museum

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Soon after the end of the war and the division of Berlin, with the district of Berlin-Karlshorst falling under Soviet rule, the Soviets converted the building where the capitulation was signed for hosting their headquarters. After the birth of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) at the end of the Forties, the place was turned into a museum.

Besides the very room where the document was signed, you can find some dioramas dating back to the first years of the museum, as well as a specifically designed foyer and a stained glass window portraying the statue of the Soviet Soldier in Treptower Park – dating from the same late Stalin’s era.

More recently, the museum has been refurbished and enlarged with very interesting and well prepared exhibits, including many memorabilia items, findings and relics not only from the events of May 1945, but more in general from WWII and the less known eastern front.

Compared to the museum in Reims, this is much broader and richer, going well beyond the preservation of the room and the evocation of the last stage of the war.

Getting there and moving around

The museum is in a nice residential area in southern Berlin. This is not a touristic area, so you’d better go there only if you are interested in this specific museum, cause there is not much else to see. Yet if you are interested in WWII and especially to the eastern front, I would say this absolutely a must – all in all, there is not so much information in the touristic areas of Berlin about WWII, so this might fill the gap.

Anyway, the exact location is Zwieseler Strasse 4. This can be reached with bus 296 from the S-3 station Karlshorst or from U5 stop Tierpark. Alternatively, from S-3 Karlshorst it is a walk of about ten minutes. Finally, if you are going by car – the most convenient way – there is a parking right in front of the building. Website here.

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.