Disclaimer: Sorry for the delays in writing, as my language classes come to a close and I prepare for our three-week seminar and moving to a brand new city, I haven’t had a lot of time to write. So there are a backlog of stories that you will now be getting a few weeks late!
Two weeks ago we went to the Stasi prison in Berlin, Hohenschonhausen. Formerly a smaller Soviet prison used to question and torture people, the prison was handed over to Stasi control after the formation of the DDR and they expanded the prison by adding several new buildings. The prison can only be visited by participating in a tour, and after the tour I’m glad that they require you to do that. Although the posted boards provide information, they are not nearly as informative as a tour guide – particularly one who been in the prison herself.
Our tourguide, a seemingly ordinary, middle-class woman, began the tour by discussing the shape of the buildings, the size and the number of people held there. At the end of the introduction she says, “And this is where I spent three years of my life. But more on that later.” And then walked off to the next building. Talk about a cliff hanger!
We found out the whole story later: She had been a journalist in the DDR and was already publicly critical of the politics and the country’s leaders. During a trip to Budapest, she went to the West German embassy to inquire into the possibilities of moving to West Germany. She said that she wasn’t sure if she’d been followed there or if one of the West German embassy officials reported her, but soon after that her family started being tailed and she was eventually arrested in her home and brought to Hohenschonhausen. She spent three years undergoing psychological strain as the Stasi tried to find out if she had been working against the government, with whom, and just generally trying to punish her for being a critic. After her release, she refused to take a job because she felt that this served the interests of the DDR, a government she had no interest in supporting. In that time period, anyone who “couldn’t” find work within 6 weeks (and everyone could, because the government gave you the jobs) was considered a societal problem and was thrown into other prisons with the “regular criminals” (i.e. thieves and murderers rather than political prisoners). So she then spent another three years in a different prison. She shared a cell with three other women, two of whom had been convicted of murder. After her release she managed to get her family to Munich where she reentered journalism.
The prison itself would not have seemed so creepy without someone like our tour guide to explain the various forms of physical torture utilized by the Soviets and the psychological torture used by the Stasi. I actually have a limited number of pictures because you just could not get the true sense of what had happened there through still photographs and because I felt strange taking pictures of torture instruments...
The whole day left me unsettled. I know that people are capable of inflicting pain and agony on others, but it is always astounding to me how easily the masses can be moved to behave in such ways. Although the majority of East Germans did not participate in these activities, a large number of them did, and did so against people they knew personally. Such behavior is not a uniquely German attribute either – similar incidents have been perpetrated around the world by a variety of groups and could happen again, anywhere. Having the prison there and giving such tours is important to remind us of how easily we can suppress our humanity and emphasize how important it is for us to continue to reflect on these events even as they disappear further into history.
Original Soviet building - Called the "U-Boot" because it was underground and had no sunlight, just like a submarine.
Newer additions built by the Stasi...
Outside in the courtyard of the prison complex...
P.S. this is not to say that all in East Germany was horrible - the Prison definitely highlights the worst of the worst in that time period. The DDR Museum shows some of the more day-to-day activities and highlights what was also positive, although that museum errs on the side of nostalgia. I recommend a day exploring both together, as the contrast between the two different places provides an interesting study of the multifaceted nature of the DDR.