The Hohenschönhausen Memorial is a museum and a memorial located in what was the main prison in East Berlin, which was run by the Stasi, the secret police. The story of the Stasi is a fascinating one that shaped East Germany and that is not as well known as other stories of German contemporary history. Here’s an insight.
August 13th, 1961, Berlin. It has only been fifteen years since the Soviet troops entered Berlin and ‘freed’ it from the Nazi regime. The city had then been divided into four sectors, the American, the British, the Soviet and the French just like the whole of Germany had. However in Berlin it was different because the whole city and all of North-West Germany was controlled by the Soviets, a communist state. Suddenly, East German troops suddenly began to line up at the border of East and West Berlin, the Soviet part and the part controlled by the three other countries, and a wall started to rise, thus dividing the city in two and forbidding anyone to cross it. This was a move by the East German government to prevent fascism from entering the socialist state, but it was also about preventing the mass immigration from the East side to the West side that was going on en masse.
The wall stayed up until 1989 and East Berlin and East Germany were alienated from the West, dividing families, friends and lovers. East Germany, what was the German Democratic Republic (GDR or DDR in German) was a communist state and, as such, had a high espionage and surveillance system under place to counter the espionage system from the West. This espionage system was the Staatssicherheit, which means State Security, but it was known by all as the Stasi. Not only the official officers worked for the Stasi, they also had a great valuable asset that was, in theory, naked to the population’s eye, the informants. The informants were normal people who were recruited (usually by blackmail) by the Stasi in order to give information about the other citizens. Here are some stats that are useful to grasp the magnitude of the Stasi and its informants: the Soviet KGB had one agent for every 5800 citizens, the Stasi had one agent for every 160 citizens, a number that with full-time and part-time informants goes down to one agent for every six citizens.
This turned the GDR into a state of paranoia, and people were regularly brought in for questioning regarding defection to West Germany, helping others to do so or treason. These people were regularly kept in Hohenschönhausen Prison, where they could be kept for many weeks, even months, for no apparent reason until they confessed their crime, which often was nothing. The torture wasn’t as much physical as psychological, and many prisoners cracked under pressure and lied about the facts that they knew just to get out. The Stasi kept files on every citizen in the GDR thanks to their agents and informants so they knew everything that went on, regularly updated.
When the Wall came down, the GDR and the Stasi were dismembered but the scars and the memories of this totalitarian state still remain in the streets of Berlin and in the minds of the people. The Hohenschönhausen Prison is now a museum and a memorial that give us an excellent insight on life in Berlin during the times of the Wall, something essential to understand the city and its history.
Further reading and viewing for when we rent Berlin apartments:
Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Fundner (2003)
The lives of the others (2006) dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Take the chance when you stay in apartments in Berlin and find out about the fascinating story of the Stasi at the Hohenschönhausen Memorial Museum, a thrilling story that is essential to understand contemporary Germany and Berlin.