After a few days exploring Berlin, we decided to head a bit off the beaten path and check out the Stasi Museum. It was located in an area of East(ern) Berlin that we hadn’t really been to, but looked public transit accessible – what isn’t? – so we gave it a shot.
We stepped out of the Magdelenenstrasse station onto the edge of a complex. Of course a spy organization’s headquarters would be more than just one building, especially if it were as all pervasive as the East German Stasi.
Sometimes referred to as Normannenstrasse in Cold War spy novels, the complex was huge and creepy, all the more so because it clearly had been abandoned in time. What do I mean by that? It’s as if all the people left in 1989, and no one’s been back since. Come to think of it, that might not be so far off the mark.
We walked past the abandoned apartment buildings – probably dorms for recruits and housing for workers and their families – through the parking lot, past a soccer pitch, some vegetable gardens, a cafeteria and several other buildings. One building was labeled Archives, but I’m sure you need an appointment – for academic research or to look at your own file.
Q: Which would be worse, to request your file and find out that close friends and family members had informed on stupid jokes and misbehavior? Or to go and find *nothing* – in a society where everyone was informing on everyone else?
The museum was located in the former headquarters of the Stasi; the top floor was Director Erich Mielke’s offices. The exhibits downstairs were disturbing in their forced conformity, community and conviviality – children’s artwork and essays extolling the virtues of their state, party badges, a photo of figure skater Katarina Witt in her youth party outfit, over the top propaganda posters, etc. It was almost laughable, until you realized the extensive reach of the Stasi and how they enforced their rules.
The spying technology looked like something out of James Bond movies or Get Smart – guns and cameras hidden in all sorts of ordinary items. My favorite was the camera hidden in the garden watering can. You know, to secretly photograph people attending the funerals of dissidents and other undesirables.
There was also list of things that could trigger a report – not belonging to the party youth organization was one, telling off color jokes was another; political jokes were obviously off limits, as was liking punk music (clearly subversive) or adopting a Western style of dress. Drinking to excess was also reportable. No wonder the Stasi needed so many informants.
One of the other visitors remarked that the executive offices look like what he remembered his father’s office to look like. And perhaps that was the most disturbing part, how terribly ordinary it looked – the large conference table, the coffee room, the waiting room, the executive office and switchboard. It was all just like any other office from the 1970s or 1980s, except for the type of work they did, of course.