Sunday, 27 October 2013

Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen - Stasiland


For forty years there was a large hole in the maps of Lichtenberg in Berlin's North-Eastern former industrial zone. During DDR times (the era of East Germany and the Soviet Occupation) there was just a white area of nothingness here amongst the former factories and warehouses, a Bermuda Triangle into which people vanished and lives were wrecked.

The cartographer's blind-spot hid the Stasi-run Hohenschönhausen Remand Prison, a place designed to interrogate and psychologically brow-beat  political dissidents, critics of the SED Party, East Germans trying to escape to the West, outspoken writers and artists, or just those who had the temerity to apply to cross to West Berlin to visit a sick relative.

Even the people unlucky enough to end up at Hohenschönhausen didn't know whereabouts in geography they were. A typical scenario is that you were picked up off the street in a vehicle disguised as a grocery van.

One of the prison vans disguised as a grocery van.
In reality, the van contained a number of small barred cells into which you were locked and you would be driven around and around Berlin for hours in total darkness, except when the doors were opened to lock in another unfortunate.

The prison van in the unloading bay.
By the time the van got to its destination, you wouldn't know where on Earth you were. You felt like you could be in Leipzig, or Rostock, or Görlitz, or even in Soviet Russia. In fact, you were still in Berlin, in a military zone where the roads into it were blocked by barriers and armed soldiers with attack dogs.

But you wouldn't know that. You wouldn't even know by now what time of day it was. The van would drive into an unloading bay brightly lit with fluorescent tubes, the metal-shutter doors drawn down behind it, and you would be unloaded into the glaring artificial light and bundled into the reception area for new prisoners.

Entrance to the prison from the unloading bay.
From now on the process of breaking down your personality begins: your clothes and possessions are stripped from you, you are roughly medically examined, you are given a number and will not be referred to by your name again.

You are treated by everyone as a dangerous enemy of the State, though your only 'crime' might be to want to leave East Germany for the West. What kind of State is so insecure that it criminalizes its citizens who can't bear to live any longer under its regime? One desperate for hard currency, actually; by the end of its existence, the main strut of East Germany's economy depended on selling dissidents to the West in exchange for dollars to under-pin the East German Mark.

Hohenschönausen Remand Prison (and note that word 'remand' - these prisoners had not been proven guilty of any crime in a Court of Law) began in 1946 down in the cellars of a former industrial building as a Soviet prison for holding suspected Nazis and collaborators. Many of those ended up at Sachsenhausen Prison Camp near Oranienburg - the former Nazi Concentration Camp - or in a Gulag forced-labour camp inside the USSR. In 1951 the prison was taken over by the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS, or Ministry for State Security) and operated until being finally closed on 3rd October 1990.

Since 1994 you can now visit the Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen and have a guided tour around the former remand prison (sometimes by former inmates) as we did on a Friday 13th last September. Guided tours in English take place daily at 14:30. Our tour-guide was a young French woman who felt she needed to tell us that she hadn't been a former inmate (we didn't think for a moment that French toddlers had been incarcerated here). Her pronunciation of English was a bit distracting, and she did have gaps in her knowledge that she felt she had to fill with a bit of fantasy, but otherwise did a great job in conveying the grim goings-on at the place.

The prisoners here were tortured into confessions or for information, there is no disputing the evidence of that. The first place our guide took us was down into the cellars that were the former Soviet prison: a place nicknamed the U-Boat because of its darkness, wetness, claustrophobia, and futility to escape from.  Here the Stasi had adapted the cells for their own use.

Down in the U-Boat
Exhibit one: a 'Chinese water torture' cell where the prisoner would be restrained in total darkness whilst cold water would be dripped onto his or her head:

The Chinese Water Torture cell.
A prisoners head would be secured to the wooden stock, face over the bottom pan.
The bottom pan would be filled with cold water - if the prisoner didn't keep their head up they would drown.
Water would drip from the top bucket onto the crown of the prisoner's head.
Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Endlessly.  Until it felt like a drill was boring into your skull.
Exhibit two: a room lined with thick rubber from conveyor belts. Totally dark. Totally silent. Space only to stand up. And maintained at a temperature about 40 degrees C:

The hot, rubber-lined cell
As one female inmate recollected; “When I arrived they asked if I wanted a warm cell or a cool one. It was cold outside so I said I’d prefer a warm one. They put me in a cell where the temperature was maintained above 40°C. I sweated constantly.”

Even the regular cells were barbarically inhumane:

Typical U-Boat Cell.

Yes, the blue bucket is for what you think it is.

All behind a thick metal door with only a peep-hole, that looks like the door to a refrigerated meat-safe:

Cell door in the U-Boat
The Stasi added a new prison building in the late 1950's, built by prisoner labour of course. It contained 200 prison cells and interrogation rooms. Grim, grey concrete with barred windows, whose thick blocks of glass let light in, but couldn't allow the prisoners to look out. The rose garden and lawns must have been for the benefit of the prison staff only.



Inside, the prisoners were initially kept isolated. There were wires running down the corridor for guards to pull if there was a chance of bumping into another prisoner being escorted. On pulling,red lights went on, and the prisoner was bundled out of the way so that they didn't see anyone else but their guards.

Prison corridor
Corridor with cells.
Lovely linoleum I must say!
The cells were a step up from the U-Boat, and actually I have seen worse student accommodation :)

Cell in the 'new' cell block.
Though there was also still the option of solitary confinement in silence and darkness:

Solitary Confinement Cell
And what went on in room 101?!

Room 101 - well, cell 101
On the other hand, if you co-operated with your interrogators, you might be privileged with sharing a larger and more comfortable cell. Though your fellow inmate would in all probability have been placed there as an informer on you.

All aspects of the prison could be controlled from a central console, even down to whether individual cell lights were on or off. They could even flush cell toilets from here, all part of keeping sleep-deprived prisoners awake and in a state of feeling totally powerless over their environment.

Central control room
Sleep-deprivation, rather than electrodes to the gonads, was the instrument of torture of choice for the Stasi at Hohenschönhausen. Also playing with the prisoner's sense of time, like manipulating the cell lighting so that 'days' were actually only twenty hours, or twenty-eight. And of course playing their on fear for the safety of loved ones and family.

Or, there might be more sinister tortures, like dosing with radiation. Our guide showed us the room where prisoners were photographed, and were kept hours at a time waiting, sitting on a stiff-backed wooden chair. Not here, she said, but at another Stasi prison, an X-Ray machine had been found concealed behind where the prisoner had been sitting, dosing the unfortunate person unknowingly with deadly radiation.

Prison record photography room
She couldn't explain why the Stasi would a) want to kill its prisoners, given that they were more valuable alive in exchange currency, or b) do it in a way that would only manifest itself with cancers ten or twenty years down the line, instead of say with a pillow over the face. I read somewhere that in fact the Stasi used low-level radiation to mark suspects before releasing them back into the world. Their agents could then use Geiger counters to determine a tagged suspect's movements by following their radio-active footsteps, or scan an audience at a public event and tell if there were any trouble-makers there who had been through their hands before.

The Stasi had another method of tagging suspects, and that was by concealing a piece of cloth in the seat of their sweaty interrogation chair. The cloth would be kept in labelled jars, and used to give to sniffer dogs if the suspect ever needed to be proved at the scene of a 'State crime' or be tracked down escaping to the West.

The interrogation room we were shown was pretty banal, except that you note that this is the only place where you can see out of the windows. The prisoner, who was being asked exactly the same question the hundredth time and had had no sleep in the last fifty-six hours, would get a tantalising glimpse of the existence of a real world outside the grinding-down, totally controlled, artificial regime of Hohenschönhausen. They might even be surprised to get a clue as to what season of the year it was.

An Hohenscönhausen Interrogation Room
The staff at the prison didn't seem to have a much better working environment, and nowadays could probably get an industrial tribunal to have them compensated for working with such horrible curtains at the window.


Though the prisoners obviously had it a bit harder. For outside exercise they had the so-called 'tiger pen':


In summary, a pretty depressing place. Maybe good to combine a visit here with the nearby Stasi Headquarters Museum on Normannenstraße to get the full picture. My Beloved, who has done a lot of surveying of Police Stations and prisons in the UK as part of her job, relates that, well, it's pretty much to be expected. Except for the Chinese water torture cell and other horrors of the U-Boot though. The only surprising difference is that these facilities were run to extract confessions of attempting to bring about the downfall of the state, or begin World War III, from normal, everyday, bitching-about-the-government citizens. And then either incarcerating them in a proper prison for 'true' criminal activity (albeit their confessions would be extracted under duress) or selling them to the West and deporting them. Of course, you have to factor in that some of the inmates really were true criminals intent on causing loss of life through terrorist activities.

And here's the thing: we all wandered around with our guide, tutting or looking shocked appropriately, and consoling ourselves that this all happened thirty years ago before 'die Wende'. But nobody seems to raise in their mind the much worse abuses committed at Abu Ghraib prison, or what is still going on at Guantanamo Bay detention camp, or water-boarding, or extraordinary rendition. Or indeed the real need to protect the state against genuine terrorists. Then again, I doubt that Guantanamo Bay will ever, ever, be open to the public as a monument to how perceived enemies of the state were detained and subject to torture.

By the way, Hohenschönhausen (and the Stasi HQ) feature in the powerful German film about Stasi surveillance and internment The Lives of Others  (Das Leben der Anderen), and also the moving book Stasiland by Anna Funder. Both thoroughly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Our daughter lives in Berlin very happily and we visit regularly. We thought we have seen everything there is to see but you have given us a few more ideas and will pass this on to her. Next time we come over we will have some new places to go to. I did especially enjoy your blog about Kustrin where my mum came from. Thanks and best wishes.

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