Spending any amount of time in Berlin means being unable to ignore history.
Not a single brick of the city today is without a connection to some of the most important episodes of world history and geopolitics throughout the 20th century. Some sites are unmissable; you can walk along the last remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery or play some soccer at Tempelhofer Feld, the massive park at the former airport that was once the only way out of Berlin.
Some are less visible; you can take the S-Bahn all the way out to Teufelsberg, the remains of a former American/British surveillance center that sits atop a mountain of rubble from WWII, or walk around Mitte and see the intact headquarters of the Luftwaffe, the Nazi German air force.
Along the lines of some of these less-pronounced, but still incredibly sobering, historical relics is the Stasi museum. Nestled in the heart of Friedrichshain in East Berlin, surrounded by blocks of monotonous Soviet-Era apartment complexes, the Stasi museum is housed in the former headquarters of the Stasi, or Staatsicherheitdienst, meaning “State Security Service.”
The Stasi was the official state security service for all of East Germany, or Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), and was responsible for all surveillance and intelligence in the DDR, both foreign and domestic. It has been described as one of the most expansive, effective, and repressive agencies to ever exist. After touring its former headquarters, one begins to understand why.
The front door to the museum is in a massive, four-block wide series of interconnected buildings that would seem to the unassuming passerby as a large office park. Upon entry, it feels like you stepped back in time. Everything is devoid of color–there is floor-to-ceiling wood paneling and beige, boring carpets covering solid granite or hardwood floors. The only decorations to be seen are the various stone busts of Marx or Lenin that seemed to be at every corner.
Our first stop on our guided tour was the foyer where a small model of the headquarters stands in the middle of a room flanked by Hammer and Sickle DDR flags showing just how extensive the place is. Outlined on the map were various places for signal intelligence, domestic surveillance, and interrogation cells. In the back of the lobby was a distinctly soviet era contraption that looked like a food delivery vehicle, but was actually a front for capturing and transporting alleged dissidents and enemies of the state.
Our guide explained to us the history of the Stasi; how they were formed upon the establishment of a totalitarian state in East Germany, how many party officials and Stasi leaders were those who were jailed for being communist during the Nazi era, and how they commanded a group of 91,000 official employees, and hundreds of thousands of unofficial informers.
It’s important, presently in 2018, to reflect on those numbers. The guide was talking about a network of nearly half a million spies in a country of around 17 million. That proportion is far higher than the Gestapo or KGB ever were. Stasi informants were your neighbors, your family, and your friends. The Stasi was so concerned about the possible overthrow of its government and defection of its citizens that it had to hire unofficial informants to inform on its unofficial informants. Everyone was always on high alert.
The rest of the tour focused on explaining what people were involved in the surveillance and how it was collected. Housed in the exhibit halls were remnants of devices that you would think came straight from a Roger Moore James Bond movie: cameras hidden inside neckties, mailboxes, and birdhouses. We then learned how lavishly the high-ranking party officials lived while the general populace was forbidden from using Western products and had to wait 15 years (years!) just to get a car.
As I left, I realized just how fresh this memory is for so many current Germans. The Wall fell in late 1989, so anyone from the East who is over 40 has at least some memory of living under a brutal totalitarian state. I also reflected on how much of a difficult transition that must have been for the older DDR citizens who went from living through the Nazi era and the Stasi era, to living in the reunified Bundesrepublik Deutschland, a liberal democratic country. I know that if I had to live with the constant fear of my neighbors and friends spying on me, I am not sure how I could adjust to life in a free society. Besides gaining a newfound knowledge about a major part of German history, I also gained a newfound respect for anyone who lived through the DDR.