A visit to a Stasi prison
The Stasi, or East German secret police, were the most important instrument for maintaining the communist dictatorship in the former GDR. They ensured blanket surveillance of the population - in the end, there numbered 91,000 full-time Stasi employees and 180,000 unofficial collaborators. The engine room of the Stasi operation was their headquarters in Berlin, which is now open to visitors. It contains a good collection of Stasi surveillance equipment, including cameras disguised as logs, stones and suitcases, and watches serving as voice recorders. The technology was impressive for its time, but now seems a little quaint, as if appearing in a rerun of a favourite Cold War movie. But across town there is a Stasi legacy that could never be mistaken as quaint. It is the building which housed the Stasi's main remand prison, and it serves as a powerful reminder of the terrible suffering that the Stasi inflicted on so many individuals and families across Germany.
The prison population consisted of people who had tried to flee the GDR or were considered to have offered resistance to the regime. Prisoners were held until they signed a confession and/or provided information useful to the regime, and the techniques employed by the Stasi ensured that pretty much everyone complied in the end. In the early days of the prison, the Stasi employed mostly physical methods - prisoners were held in damp, cold cells and subjected to various types of torture, including sleep deprivation, standing upright for several hours and water torture. From about 1960, however, the Stasi began employing psychological methods to break prisoners' resistance. The East German government was concerned about its international image, and it was preferable if information could be coerced from prisoners without leaving marks on their bodies.
The aim of this 'psycho-terror' was to evoke in the prisoners a feeling of complete helplessness, of losing control over thier lives and being at the mercy of an almighty authority. Instead of being crammed into a cell with 20 other people, prisoners now had their own cells and were isolated from the rest of the prison population. Attempts to communicate with the guards or other prisoners were severely punished. Very occasionally prisoners were held two to a cell, but often one of the pair was a spy tasked with gaining the other's trust and eliciting incriminating information. It was forbidden to lie on the bed during the day, so the only alternative was to walk up and down the cell or sit in a hard chair against the wall. The monotony of incarceration was broken only by interrogation. Prisoners were subjected to months of questioning by interrogators expertly trained in coercing incriminating statements. Even the drawing of a curtain during interrogation - giving the prisoner a rare but useless glimpse into the outside world - was a reminder of the power relations at play. If the Stasi had been spying on your family, they might leave copies of your brother's letters on the desk just to let you know that you were not the only one being watched. Or they might lie and tell you that your mother had committed suicide because she could not cope with having a child in prison. Everything, even the offering of a cup of coffee during interrogation, was deliberate, and expertly targeted at breaking your resistance.
Upon release into the community, many prisoners found it hard to describe the terror that had been inflicted upon them - after all, there were no scars on their body. And for many, their personal relationships were destroyed. It was impossible for others to relate to their suffering. And some left with the knowledge that it was friends or family that had landed them in prison. One prisoner discovered during interrogation that she was arrested only after her husband's betrayal. For so many prisoners, normal life could never be resumed. A number of prisoners have returned to the prison and now work as tour guides. For them, it is a form of emotional healing and is a way of passing on their experience to others. This is of no small importance - amazingly, some Germans who lived through the GDR still have no knowledge of the Stasi's activities.
Leaving the Stasi prison, I thought about the senior Stasi officials who, back at Stasi HQ, made the decisions that ruined so many people's lives. It seems almost bizarre that these terrible decisions were made in the mundane Stasi offices, in those yellow cushioned chairs that let off a musty smell and remind me of the furniture in my primary school staff room. How could these people inflict such harm on others? It's a question that has been running through my mind throughout Central Europe, a region that has suffered terribly at the hands of Nazi and communist dictatorships. In the 'House of Terror' museum in Budapest the curators have devoted one room to the 'Hall of Victimisers' - it names and shames the people who willingly played a part in oppressing the Hungarian people over almost half a century. I thought at the time that such a Hall might have a place in museums in dozens of countries across the world. And a good place to start might be Germany, where many former Stasi are still out in the community living ordinary, comfortable lives.
Lots of photos of Berlin