The Reality of the STASI State in East Germany
Such was the truth about the old DDR, so revered by people like Slavoj Zizek and Katrin Bennhold, and certainly many others who pine away for the good old days of socialism. With this background, one can really appreciate the STASI Museum. It was developed at the actual site of the Stasi headquarters, after the regime fell in 1990. As the Museum’s brochure notes, until 1989 “the whole building complex was highly secret.” That it is now accessible is thus “of symbolic significance to a lot of Eastern German citizens and others who encountered the country in one or the other way.” Enraged ex- citizens of the DDR, working with West Berlin supporters, saw a need to inform Germans about the reality of the old dictatorship and the role played by the Ministry of State Security in propping it up. Its purpose, they declare, “is to encourage the critical examination of the system and the history of East Germany as well as the actual threats to freedom and democracy.”
Accessible, however, is not entirely accurate. When you exit the nearest subway stop, you can see a large sign with an arrow pointing to the site. Following the arrow, you immediately enter one of those Stalinist era apartment complexes, composed of grey stone look-alike dwellings that are massive, non-descript and somewhat intimidating. There is not one sign as to where the museum can be found. We asked some people where the museum could be found. Several didn’t know. Finally we found someone who pointed to the building rather disdainfully.
Within the walls of this unidentified building sat the headquarters where the repressive regime developed its powerful surveillance techniques on which to spy on the citizenry of the DDR. The STASI was run by its longtime chief, the hated Erich Mielke. To our eyes, his office appears staid and simple; to the postwar residents of East Germany, this was one of the fanciest offices. The brochure tells us, “every detail reflects the atmosphere and the spirit of this machinery of power.”
The museum is festooned with every type of propaganda-- posters and exhortations nowhere to be found in the popular DDR Museum. For example, here is a poster extolling the career and example of Felix Dzierzynski, founder of the original Soviet secret police, the CHEKA.
One can also find examples of the brave citizens who risked their freedom by publishing opposition material:
One can also see the extent to which the STASI went to snoop on the DDR’s citizens. Here is a recording device hidden in a book.
And yet another concealed in a simple log, so that those roaming in a park would never be out of sight.
Yet others were in secret cameras, and even a man’s necktie, so that one could be recorded completely unawares, and even in a common button.
At home, one was expected to always have proof of one’s loyalty, such as doormats, photos, and the like, such as these
For those caught, of course, this was the final outcome, the STASI prison cell, in which you could be confined for years, and from which you would be led to continual interrogation.
Like any totalitarian regime based on ideology, the regime’s most threatening opponents were those who saw themselves as Marxists, but wanted Gorbachev style reform in the DDR. One exhibit shows the propaganda against the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, whom I wrote about yesterday, and the Marxist theorist, Rudolph Bahro, who became popular in the West when he penned a treatise called The Alternative in Eastern Europe, for which he was tried, and found guilty in 1978 of “treasonous collection of the news” and of course, “betrayal of state secrets.”
Sentenced to eight years in prison, Bahro was released in 1979 and like Biermann, expelled to West Germany.
There is an incredible amount of material in the Stasi Museum. Unfortunately, for non-German English speakers there is little that is translated or interpreted in English, but as you can see from my visuals, a picture speaks a thousand words.