Sunday, 12 May 2013

On a Visit to the Stasi Prison, Berlin

Mauerpark, Berlin



The graffitied remains of the Berlin wall look sternly out at the aptly named Mauerpark, today the sight of a heaving flea-market; then the sight of the so-called 'death-strip'. On a balmy Sunday in June we sit below it and watch increasingly drunk karaoke singers belt out Queen as people pick from an inexhaustible supply of bargains in the nearby market. This lazy comfort in the presence of old wounds feels particularly representative of contemporary Berlin: at ease not only with itself but also with the living remainders of its tumultuous history.


Berlin, not far from the sight of the wall, taken by my girlfriend


A fact seldom recalled about the Berlin Wall is that it didn't so much divide East from West but rather encircled the West. Although this fact changes nothing about the brutality of the separation, it is a reminder that, at least in a formal sense, dissidents from East Berlin weren't so much crossing a line but hopping inside a ringed camp, a mysterious, secluded compound. This alters my 'cognitive mapping' of the Cold War, in which the very symbol of the Iron Curtain is a jagged lightning-bolt scorching the face of Europe and dividing it from itself. To envision the 'Anti-Fascist Protective Measure' not as a zig-zag but as a circle is to cease envisioning an iron curtain and to see instead a great wrap-around shawl, there to hide this outlying capitalist suburb from prying Eastern eyes. There remain some, however, for whom forgetting is not an option.

Hohenschönhausen Prison


The day before we had paid a visit to the Stasi prison memorial in Hohenschönhausen. Unlike Stasi HQ the prison was never stormed and most of its disastrous treasure-trove was hastily destroyed. I remember it like this: On the short walk from the tram stop we pass retired dog-walkers and an extensive-looking branch of Lidl. A lazy, leafy housing estate leads up to an innocuous looking entrance gate. A dull hollow rectangle with a grey frame and poky grey door next to it suggests the entrance to a small library. That was perhaps the point. While everybody would have known it was there, such things weren't to be advertised. A blue sign for coaches stands adjacent to the gate. A single, rectangular security light peers down from above the eight-foot entrance, curiously expectant, as if, come night, anybody might walk out. Size, as the Wall's peculiarly modest stature itself attests, was by no means everything in the DDR.



A Stasi agent played by the late Ulrich Muhe The Lives of Others
In its heyday the Stasi was one of the biggest employers in East Germany. "At the end," Anna Funder explains in her book Stasiland, "the Stasi had 97 000 employees... But it also had over 173 000 informers among the population."1 This vast machinery utterly dominated East German life. By operating control over many of the unofficial levers of power, it formed a kind of sub-state institution capable of bypassing the state itself. It didn't so much enforce the law as usurp it. According to a memo quoted by Victor Sebestyn, agents were directed to seek the "systematic organisation of professional and social failure" of any perceived enemy.2 Though basically a form of institutional sadism, the Stasi's work was most often given expression in the prosaic tones of everyday, petty officialdom. On occasions this 'postal department speak' could be cranked up to a pitch of absurd pathos:

W.B had sexual relations with a woman. Afterwards he asked her if she was hungry... she replied that she would like a drink of cognac. She is Eva Hagen. Then it was quiet inside.3

This bizarre Pinteresque understatement is captured perfectly in the film 'The Lives of Others' (Das Leben der Anderen, Donnersmarck, 2006). As the beautiful, bohemian couple placed under surveillance are swept up in passionate reconciliation, the agent listening types: "She returns. They make love passionately." While one corpulent agent makes cheap jokes to pass the time, the other, on the surface more devoted to his work, becomes deeply involved in the lovers' story. The film suggests more than just the consonance of erotic attachment and surveillance. In fact, the intensity of the agent's attachment derives from his very ruthlessness. Commitment to the task, at a certain extreme, turns into devotion to the object. You are left wondering how many voyeurs fell in love with those they watched.

Despite the glaring, almost comically despicable villainy, the DDR developed a reputation as a great source of schlocky, noirish menace. West Germany officially described it as the "most perfect surveillance state there ever was" - although arguably, such shrillness only credited the enemy with an omnipotence it wasn't entirely able to summon. Western hysteria did nothing to dampen the East's ego. After the abduction of Dr Walter Linse, a prominent civil rights campaigner, by Stasi thugs, a translation of a press statement made by the West Berlin police commissioner verges on pulpy, paperback horror:

Every move, every plan, every step, every report, every observation made by the four principal kidnappers and their 13 accomplices... constituted a major crime in themselves.

Whatever the tone of the western response, the sheer brazenness of the scheme merits a certain grudging awe. Dr Linse emerged from his house at 7:30 one morning to begin his daily commute to work. As he walked onto the pavement he was set upon, punched in the face, bundled headfirst into a car and rushed swiftly across the border, to what was still at that time known as the "Soviet-occupied zone". He died in a Moscow prison one year later. Evidence links him with the Hohenschönhausen prison. One inadvertent advantage of the wall was that outright abduction from the West became significantly harder to pull off.

It's quiet in the baking grey prison courtyard. A middle-aged woman approaches, looking at us with a mixture of scepticism and curiosity. My girlfriend tells her we are here for the three o'clock tour. We don't have a group. We'll have to wait. She gestures at a café. There's no shade around. In the mid-afternoon heat, a chubby American boy occupies the only outdoor chair, swinging his legs as he finishes off a runny ice lolly, its remains plastered like snail trails down his arms. Looking at him, I begin to feel grumpy. We have no choice but to stand in the sun, waiting. I fidget and shift my bag straps, feeling the damp collecting underneath them and becoming increasingly impatient. Dimly, I remember to chide myself for my pettiness. Others suffered here.

When our guide for the afternoon arrives he looks like he got dressed for safari. His socks are pulled very high, partially concealing two thick, pale calves. He's tall with the broadness that comes from playing a lot of rugby but not being naturally good at it. He wears combat shorts and his hands are glued to his hips. The t-shirt he's wearing is purplish and emblazoned with a faded yellow slogan. He's wearing a slightly oversized sun hat to shield a pale, still awkwardly adolescent face. His glasses are thick rimmed rectangles with an overgrowth of black eyebrows. His eyes appraise us coolly.

"Now then, listen up..."

At this we jump to attention, the murmur of complaints suddenly hushed. In the mid-afternoon quiet I see a cat drop down from the barrier wall and stretch itself lazily on the warm concrete. The American boy points at it and goes to speak but his mum hurriedly silences him. As I watch the guide come towards us I wonder about his connection to the place. Many of the guides here are motivated by a certain vocational attachment, but he seems far too young to have direct experience - a failed academic perhaps?

"English language tour?"

There is something ever so slightly affected about his army corporal English. Siobhan and I exchange glances which mean - "privately-educated". Or at least "would like to have been". But he's not British. It takes us some time to establish this, so immaculate is his English. But that's just the problem: like a starched, pressed shirt there's no give. It's wound too tight, too clipped.

He introduces himself as Alex and marches us hastily through the courtyard. I imagine he's done this a lot. But that's not the cause of his impatience. The first thing he sees fit to tell us, as we finally reach some much-appreciated shade, is this: "Now, the first thing you should know is that these were absolutely serious guys, OK. You know, it's tempting to view them all as a bunch of mafioso types, but no..." (He talks as if dispensing with lazy preconceptions, not seeming to realise that most of those in the party haven't come equipped with intimate knowledge of Communist ideology) "...they really believed in the dictatorship of the proletariat. They really thought Marx was correct. They were a hundred percent Communist. Don't be mistaken..." (He is admonishing us for our perceived errors with a wagging finger) "...they took that theory of Marx's about capitalists exploiting labourers and thought they were making a worker's state where all the capitalists could just be got rid of. Now you can have your debates about whether they really felt they achieved all that, but nevertheless that's what they all really wanted and what they tried to do."

We obediently, even gratefully, accept this and cautiously follow him through a heavy iron door and into a vast cellar. Inside the place is barren. The walls are stripped and cracked. Sheer concrete peeks through the crumbling plaster. The place reeks of old fear.

Alex shows us an unkempt cell which, in a kind of tribute, has been sparsely refurbished. A cold rock of a mattress on a creaky wooden frame has had two tatty slippers placed delicately next to it. A complex series of levers and pulleys is revealed as a permanent water torture cell. An alcove buried in the foundations, which looks more like a design flaw than a room in its own right, turns out to be a standing torture cell which was filled with ice in winter. Some prisoners had to stay inside for over a week. The cells used by the Communists (and the Arrow Cross) in Budapest look remarkably similar. Yet this is a far more sombre experience than Budapest's polished 'House of Terror'. Here there are no immersive special effects or 'soundscapes of fear'. Instead there is largely bare stone and a lone voice elaborating how it was manipulated to inflict pain.

As our guide, who has told us nothing about himself besides his name, shuttles us swiftly from the basement to the well-preserved offices above - from the grotesque to the banal - it becomes apparent that the very unadorned appearance of the building is crucial for its preservation. It is as if the place's conversion into a 'House of Terror'-style attraction would signify its reduction to the level of mere history. But for him, of course, it remains a contested site, the meaning of which is still to be secured. As we wander through rows of identical Stasi offices he tells us about other tours he's done when, like some prodigal son (they're all men), some former Stasi agent or bureaucrat steps forward into his own office, happily confessing his former association and openly regretting his long leave of absence. Some bark gruffly about "the lies" being told by the new government. I imagine outraged little men, faces red and puffy, jabbing their fingers at Alex the tour guide and all the other invisible "snobs". In this picture bemused tourists stand awkwardly in their summer sandals watching the scene play out. It is for this reason, and the fact that supporters of the prison memorial must constantly fight for funding (he doesn't name names, but implies the local PDS is none too keen on the place), that Alex - whose connection to it I will never understand - will continue to keep the prison empty of everything but the recollection of what happened there.

(Thank you to Siobhan for editing/re-writing bits of this!)

1Funder, Stasiland, 57
2Sebestyn, Revolution 1989, 122
3ibid., 127

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