All too soon it was our last morning in Berlin.
We continued our exploration of the East, taking a metro, a train and a bus to Hohenschönhause Prison. The prison was the main Stasi centre for internment, interrogation and research into surveillance methods. It used to be a factory away from the city centre; it had road and rail links. The area was left completely blank on maps of the city at the time; no one knew it was there.
We arrived around 10:00. We had a bit of time to look round the courtyard before our guided tour – in English – began at 10:30. Our guide was a historian who had studied human rights and became interested in what had happened in the prison. She was extremely knowledgeable and informative.
We began with a short film that explained a bit of background to the prison. The tour proper began with the oldest parts – here the cells were very basic; below ground level and the only light was from small windows at the top of the walls, which had frosted glass bricks so nothing could be seen. The basement had a couple of cells that were no more than cupboards where a person could just stand up. People were put in there for days. There were also water torture cells, the same as we’d seen used by the KGB in the Baltic Republics a few years ago. A prisoner would be left to stand in ice-cold water in a freezing, damp cell for days on end. As the DDR became more paranoid, the number of prisoners grew, the level of surveillance and the amount of interrogation increased. The newer cellblocks were a little more pleasant, but not much. We saw a delivery lorry, marked as a bakery delivery but used to carry prisoners. Those inside couldn’t see out, long circuitous routes would be taken to ensure no one knew where they were taken. There was a hospital on the site, prisoners would be driven there from their cells, taking an hour long drive around the city so they thought they were elsewhere.
As well as the usual catalogue of physical tortures, the Stasi put a lot of effort into perfecting techniques to unsettle prisoners mentally. Favourites included choosing a room with décor as close as possible to that in the home of the prisoner (same wallpaper) and offering the prisoner a drink and ensuring that their favourite brand was on hand without asking them what that was… just to show that they knew a lot about you. Even the layout of the interrogation rooms was carefully considered. The interrogator would always have their back to the window and sit higher than the prisoner. The prisoner could see a little of the outside world to remind them what they were missing. Furniture was always angled diagonally to unsettle the prisoner. They were forced to sit on their hands – this allowed a good sweat sample to be collected from their chairs which could be used as a scent for dogs in the case of escapes. When the prison finally closed in 1991, a lot of files were opened to the public. You could find out who had denounced you to the Stasi. The guide asked us if we would have wanted to know. ‘Consider’, she said, ‘that one woman found out it was her husband – and divorced him immediately’. A young man was betrayed by his late father who would never be able to explain himself.
After a fascinating couple of hours, the tour finished with the guide reminding us that although the prison closed 25 years ago, there are still many places in the world where similar activities – and worse – are still going on and that we shouldn’t forget that.
The ‘reunion’ of Germany was seen as a very important political and social priority. The former East is still much poorer than the West. Billions of Euros are spent every year in trying to close this gap. Despite all the changes since 1989, there is nostalgia among some people – particularly the older generation – for the DDR, known as Ostalgie. The reasons include ideology, nationalism and a lost sense of social status and stability.
Our final destination was the Russian War Memorial in Treptower Park in the south east of the city. We retraced our steps to the bus and train, carrying on a few stops further to the south of the river.
Russian war memorials are never subtle but this one is larger than most. There are three in the city; this one commemorates 7,000 of the 80,000 Soviet troops that died in the Battle of Berlin. The entrance is through two huge dark marble portals. Beyond this, two lines of stone panels depict scenes of Soviet servicemen, peasants, heroes and leaders. At the end, there is a massive statue of a soldier on top of a small mound overlooking the whole site. He holds a sword and a German child, at his feet is a broken Swastika. It was a grey morning, a few people wandered around, some Russian, had they lost relatives here? Maybe just interested in their country’s history.
Against the clock, we hurried back to the apartment to collect our bags.
The journey home was quick and easy. The change in time zone and flying to City airport got us home at a good time – we’ll be doing this again, soon.