by Patrick Molligo
Yesterday I visited the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen). I’m currently auditing a B 2.2 language course to sharpen my German skills, and one of our assignments for this week was to visit a memorial in Berlin and write up an account of our general impressions. Among the list of possible locations were the Holocaust Memorial, Jewish Museum, and Checkpoint Charlie, all of which are relatively central and have become rather touristy in recent years. Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, however, is in north-east Berlin in a more-or-less uninteresting part of town. If the name sounds unfamiliar, I had no idea what it was either until very recently.
The memorial is made up of the former prison grounds of the Stasi (the East German secret police). I honestly put off visiting the place for quite a few days because I expected it to be nothing more than a few abandoned buildings from the DDR period. As it turns out, the excursion has proven to be one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had since arriving in Berlin.
To quell the spread of anti-socialist ideas during the time of the DDR, the East German government employed the Stasi to spy on citizens it suspected to be enemies of the state. After collecting enough incriminating evidence, the Stasi would kidnap these citizens in a small, often disguised truck, and drive them to a secret prison for interrogation. Das Leben der Anderen (“The Lives of Others”) is a fantastic 2006 German film that deals with the subject (it also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film). I had already had some prior knowledge about the Stasi but seeing the prison honestly shocked me.
There are actually two separate prisons: one used directly after WWII and one built in the early 1950s when the Stasi was officially formed. The post-war prison, known as “The U-Boot” is located in the basement of the compound. The small cells consisted of no more than buckets, which served as toilets, and small windows, which let no light in. It therefore became impossible to keep track of day and night, and since the prisoners were so often disturbed and woken by guards, insanity and exhaustion quickly set in.
In the 50s conditions improved considerably, but the treatment of prisoners was arguably just as torturous. For approximately 17 hours per day, inmates were required to either sit in a chair or pace back and forth in their cells. No talking, sleeping, whistling, or writing. Just thinking.
Periodically the prisoners were taken to one of 120 different interrogation rooms where Stasi officials would attempt to coerce the signing of written confessions. The interrogation techniques were varied but extraordinarily effective. For instance, the rooms were often painted with warmer colors and decorated with landscape paintings in order to remind the prisoners of home and how much nicer it would be outside of their cells, if they would only cooperate. The interrogators even had buttons beneath their desks to make their phones ring. They would stage fake phone conversations in which the names of family members and friends were mentioned, as if to suggest that the prisoner’s actions have put his/her loved one’s in danger of arrest. Most astounding is that these interrogators were university-trained for nine years.
Every detail of the prison layout, from the design of the floor to the curtains in the interrogation rooms, was precisely planned out to disorient prisoners so that they would have no idea where they were and what to expect next. All in all the memorial is both fascinating and eye-opening. Definitely one of the more overlooked parts of Berlin.
This post was originally published on Mehr ein Weltteil als eine Stadt and was used here with persmission of the author.