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.|
|The prison van in the unloading bay.|
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.|
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|
|The hot, rubber-lined cell|
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|
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.
|Corridor with cells.|
Lovely linoleum I must say!
|Cell in the 'new' cell block.|
|Solitary Confinement Cell|
|Room 101 - well, cell 101|
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|
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|
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|
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.