Columnist Lara McMahon recalls a trip to one of East Germany’s most brutal fromer- prisons and details the dark history of its oppressive regimes.
I got lost on my way to Höhenschönhausen; the East German secret police’s main prison complex. In the unbearable heat of a July afternoon, I found myself walking aimlessly in circles around this barren part of old East Berlin. I looked to Google maps for guidance, however, my disorientation wasn’t down to a bad sense of direction. The prison I was looking for is notoriously difficult to find. When it was in operation it wasn’t even marked on any maps, such was the extent of its security.
When we eventually reach it, I shuddered. The building is a wide expanse of bleak, boxy Soviet architecture, cold and uninviting. Its crumbling brick façade is tattooed with square windows covered by cold metal railings, while a jagged barbed wire fence surrounds its perimeter, discouraging the mere prospect of escape. Decaying grey concrete towers loom ominously in the background on either side of the building, their frosted windows as smashed and broken as the prisoners they used to monitor. If it weren’t for the various tour buses parked on the footpath, I would feel as if I had been transported back to this bleak period of German history myself.
The Stasi was one of the most hated and feared institutions of the East German government. In its ruthless quest to exercise control and prevent dissidence against the regime, it sought to infiltrate every institution of society and aspect of daily life, including even personal relationships. It accomplished this goal both through its official apparatus and through a vast network of informants and unofficial collaborators who spied on colleagues, friends, neighbours, and even family members. By 1989, the Stasi had one informer per six people.
The Stasi’s main prison is now a popular sightseeing destination in Berlin and features on the bucket list of any eager tourist, somewhere after the Berlin Wall or the Jewish museum. An energetic tour guide named Carolin greets us on arrival. Sporting sunglasses and a dark tan, her emerald green dress and glitzy embellished Birkenstocks shimmer starkly against the desolate buildings behind her. She brings us into the main building where we’re led into a musty old underground corridor with chipped plasterwork and heavy steel doors. It’s been over seventy years since the Soviets used this basement to lock up Nazi prisoners after they liberated Berlin, but it feels like nothing’s changed. We’re led into one of the cramped, damp cells. A hard wooden platform is propped up on one side of the cell, which was used as the bed. There wasn’t enough space for every prisoner on the bed so they would have had to take it in turns to sleep. Not that they knew the difference between night and day – the fluorescent lights were kept on all the time, and there were no windows in sight. Prisoners often felt compelled to confess to even false accusations due to the combined effects of sleep deprivation, standing still for hours on end, or being detained in water cells, in which cold water was poured on prisoners in complete darkness. It’s important that people see such terrible conditions, Carolin tells us, not just as a reminder of the past, but to highlight that people have to endure such living conditions nowadays, too.
“I recently brought a family from Syria around here on a tour” she says quietly. “When they entered the cell they all burst into tears. It was far too reminiscent of what they’d gone through in the refugee camp”.
The Stasi began to use this building as a prison in the 1950s. While they initially used violence to punish their victims, by the 1970s, their punishments had become more psychologically abusive. Prisoners weren’t allowed to do anything during the day, often forced to stay in their rooms. No books or newspapers were permitted in their rooms, unless they were being used with the aim of wearing down the prisoner’s morale. Many divorcees, for example, were given romantic love stories to read. Even prisoners’ sleep patterns were monitored. At night, they were ordered to sleep on their backs with their two arms placed over the bed covers. Officers would yell at those who didn’t comply, waking up entire corridors full of prisoners to do so.
One of the most heinous methods of psychological warfare used by the Stasi was known as Zersetzung, which had originated in Nazi Germany. This German word is a term borrowed from chemistry, used to describe decomposition or biodegradation, just like the Stasi would wear down the mental state of its prisoners. It was usually applied to political opponents in an effort to undermine their self-confidence and ultimately, to leave them too unnerved to have the time or energy for anti-government activism. Beginning with intelligence obtained by espionage, the Stasi exploited personal traits, such as homosexuality, as well as supposed character weaknesses of the targeted individual, such as divorce, alcoholism or dependence on medication.
The final room we visit is an interrogation office. The interior of the room is enough to make me feel nauseous: the scratchy wallpaper is a sickly yellow, the maroon carpet is grimy and stained. We edge behind the long mahogany tables where the interrogators and psychologists would have sat. “Their favourite trick was to interrogate people all night and then put you back in the cell in the morning, so you would spend all day not being allowed to sleep,” Carolin recalls. “Then they’d pick you up at night and interrogate you again.” The air is heavy and clammy, punctuated by a faint whiff of bleach which does nothing to mask the smell of dust and sweat accumulated over the past half century; the smell of terror and panic.
Tactics employed under Zersetzung generally involved the disruption of the victim’s private or family life. This often involved breaking into homes and moving furniture, removing pictures from walls or replacing one variety of tea with another. This resulted in mental breakdowns or even suicide. “Imagine,” Carolin begins to speak, her eyes vacant, her expression twisted – “imagine some stranger accusing you of trying to go against the state. All you wanted was for your family to have a better life, to not be spied on, to get out of this… sadistisches System”. Her voice trails off. “But now some random stranger who knows every single detail of your life, from what your favourite tea is to what medication you’re on, is threatening that your daughter won’t get into college if you don’t admit to these accusations.” Beside me, a middle aged mother begins to well up, blinking back the tears.
As I travel on the S-Bahn back to Mitte, the cityscape of former East Berlin with its Soviet tower blocks and industrial warehouses spools past in a concrete blur. There is a wizened old woman sitting opposite me. With papery hands she clutches a black handbag propped up on her lap, her sunken eyes gazing off into the distance. Beside her, a Turkish teenager with a mohawk has his eyes closed, bobbing his head in time with the beat coming from his headphones. Life goes on. But in Berlin, you don’t have to look too far to see how life once was.