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.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Dresden - Baroque Capital of Saxony

The Baroque opulence of late 17th century Dresden owes its existence to one man, August II der Starke (The Strong), Elector of Saxony and twice King of Poland.

Or to give him his full Latin title: Augustus Secundus, Dei Gratia rex Poloniae, magnus dux Lithuaniae, Russie, Prussiae, Masoviae, Samogitiae, Livoniae, Kijoviae, Volhyniae, Podoliae, Smolensciae, Severiae, Czerniechoviaeque, necnon haereditarius dux Saxoniae et princeps elector etc. That's quite something to fit onto your driving licence.

Here he is, depicted as Goldner Reiter in a golden equestrian statue just north of Augustusbrücke on the Neustädter Mark in Dresden.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Goldner Reiter, Dresden
We visited the city August II had created on a sunny October Saturday with My Beloved's Mother and Sister who were over to stay with us for a few days.

We have been to Dresden a few times since moving to Berlin, first of all back in 2009, and each time we return the City has built and renewed and renovated itself immensely. There is no need to point out that the centre of Dresden was totally, and shamefully, flattened by British and US bombing in February 1945 and the resultant fire-storms is there? Well, read about it on Wikipedia if you want to know more.

Our first tick on the must-see list was Pfunds Molkerei, 'the most beautiful dairy shop in the World'. Then we walked back across Augustusbrücke, passing the Goldener Reiter, and headed to the famous Semperoper, home of the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden (Saxony State Opera).

Standing in Theatreplatz in front of the opera house is another equestrian statue, this time showing King John of Saxony (Konig Johann I. von Sachsen).

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Statue of King John of Saxony
The Semperoper was built by the architect Gottfried Semper in 1841, and again in 1869 after it burnt down. There have been many operas that were premièred here, including Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer (the Flying Dutchman) and Tannhäuser, and loads by Richard Strauss, such as Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra. I would so love to go and see a performance here one day!

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Semperoper
Also overlooking Theaterplatz is the main Catholic Church (Katholische Hofkirche), where August II The Strong's heart was interred (the rest of his body was buried at Wawel Cathedral, Kraków, Poland).

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Statues on the skyline of the Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden
From the Semperoper it is just a Katzensprung to the Zwinger, a palace, orangery, and fun place to hang out for the Dresden Court back in the day. It still is today, though probably much more sedate and now not requiring membership of the Saxony nobility and hangers on. A 'Zwinger' by the way is the name for the outer wall of a mediaeval fortress, the bit where the cannons were put on; it's not the name of someone who goes to parties where they put their car-keys in a bowl.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Französischer Pavillion at the Zwinger, Dresden
The main entrance into the Zwinger gardens is through this neoclassical portal in the long Sempergalerie, built by that Semper guy again.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Sempergalerie, the Zwinger, Dresden
I like the Frantzösischer Pavillion (French Pavillion) best at the Zwinger; it uses light so playfully and has witty adornments of no use whatsoever except to give pleasure.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Französische Pavillion
Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Französische Pavillion again
Even more fun, it has hidden behind it the Nymphenbad (bath for nymphs) who can be found seductively disporting themselves whilst having a good scrub down.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
the Nymphenbad
Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
the Nymphenbad
Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
entrance to the Nymphenbad from above the Bogengalerien
From on top of the walls you get a good view of the Zwingerteich, lovely in its Autumnal colours.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Zwingerteich
Another entrance to the Zwinger, over the Zwingergraben, is the Kronentor (Crown Gate). Sadly it is still being renovated at the moment, but it is topped with an impressive golden Polish crown symbolising August II's accession to the Polish throne.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Kronentor, the Zwinger, Dresden
From up here you also get great views of the Sempergalerie:

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Sempergalerie
... and also the Wall Pavilion

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
The Wall Pavillion.
Walking along, you soon get a view of the Deutscher Pavillion (German Pavillion):

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

And there in the background are the towers of the Dresdner Schloss (Dresden Castle).

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Dresdner Schloss, behind the Deutscher Pavillion
The Deutscher Pavillion is adorned with playful statues too, though not as many as on the Französische Pavillion :

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

From up here there are great views back into the Zwinger ...

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
The oldest Zwinger in town
There, I've said it.
... and also over the walls towards the Dresdner Schloss. That will be our next visit.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Dresdner Schloß from the Zwinger
Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Part of the Dresdner Schloß


Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Inside the Dresdner Schloß, near where you buy tickets for the exhibitions.
The Dresdner Schloß has some wonderful and fascinating exhibitions (I hear), not least the sometimes over-the-top bonkers treasures of the Grünes Gewölbe. They would need a day to look around though, and we are already short of time, so we shall leave a visit there until another day. Instead, we head off towards the Frauenkirche, looking at the sights of Dresden on the way.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

One piece of mural art to check out is the Fürstenzug, or 'procession of princes', showing a horse-mounted procession of all the rulers of Saxony back through time. Originally commissioned in 1871 to mark the 800th anniversary of the Wettin dynasty, it depicts the ancestral portraits of the 35 margraves, electors, dukes and kings of the House of Wettin between 1127 and 1904, all hand-painted onto 23,000 Meissen porcelain tiles. It is considered the largest porcelain artwork in the World.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
The Fürstenzug
Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Fürstenzug: detail
Soon we come upon the impressive Frauenkirche, its dome towering high above us.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Frauenkirche, Dresden
The 12,00 tonne sandstone 'steinerne Glocke' dome of the Frauenkirche is echoed in the 'lemon squeezer' glass dome of the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, topped with a golden statue of Pheme (goddess of fame and renown).

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Pheme/Fama on the dome of the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts (HfBK)
The Frauenkirche is certainly an impressive building. And to think it was totally razed by the bombing of 1945, and the foundation-stone for its rebuilding finally laid in 1994. It was finished in 2005. The golden cross on the top of the dome was funded by "the British People and the Royal House of Great Britain" and was crafted by a goldsmith whose father had been one of the bomber pilots responsible for the destruction of the church. It would be trite to say 'it was the least we could do'.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

Standing outside this protestant church is a statue of Martin Luther. I am reminded that August II The Strong converted rather cynically from Protestantism to Catholicism  in order to be eligible to become King of Poland.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour
Statue of Martin Luther in front of the Frauenkirche in Dresden
We had a not particularly satisfactory meal at the Bistro Ecke Frauenkirche (ask me about it - bad though the experience was, I am not going to publish anything about it in case of getting tangled in litigation. Just to say, this bistro that is part of the Hilton hotel is not recommended), then wandered around the Frauenkirche and to the Elbe and the Brühl Terrace, which Goethe gave the name 'the Balcony of Europe'.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

Brühl's terrace gives a lovely view across the Elbe to the Saxony Finance Ministry (left) and the Staatskanzlei (right of the bridge):

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour


And here's another view of the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts:

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

From a photographer's point of view, Brühl's terrace could have done with facing South instead of North, as the buildings are always in shadow and a bit chilly from the river. Anyway, it was a nice stroll and back again to the Frauenkirche.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

This is the Transport Museum:

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

And then we are back again at the Frauenkirche, just in time to catch the light of the setting sun.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour

We finished our visit off with a horse-drawn double-decker carriage tour of the inner city. Sitting on the top, our other travellers were a family of Chinese. The German (only) speaking guide joined us on the top deck and began giving us the tour 'spiel', only to find none of his customers were fluent in German. He was very sweet about it though, and we had an enjoyable but strange tour of the Innerstadt where we translated his German description of the sights into English for my Mother- and Sister-in-law, whilst the Chinese mother translated into Mandarin for her family.

One last photo before we leave back to Berlin. I have concentrated on the Baroque part of Dresden that was built (and then recently rebuilt) to the vision of August II The Strong, but the legacy of the DDR years has not been wiped away. For example, here is a Soviet Era mural, preserved on the side of the Dresdner Philharmonie 'Kulturpalast', a protected building from those times. I believe that it is important to preserve not just the architectural fantasies of a 17th century Saxony noble, but also the socialist idealism of Dresdners who contributed just as much to the spirit of a city that rebuilt itself from the horrors of the Second World War.

Dresden. Photo by Andie Gilmour