I have always been interested in political extemes (not in an active capacity I must add!!) and such extremism is very well represented in Berlin. The Stranglers too have over the years expressed an interest in the communist politics of the former DDR (Chronicles of Vladimir, Bear Cage etc).
Having done a walking tour to the better known sights, we took the tram out to the suburbs of East Berlin to visit one of the lesser publicised tourist sites. The Hohenschönhausen prison complex is the real deal, representing as it does nearly a quarter of a century of communist mistreatment of the ideology's critics and opponents.
For the total sum of €12 the four of us experienced a tour of the complex with first hand experiences relayed by our guide.
Here's the history then.
The Centre of Communist Repression
The location of the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen memorial embodies like no other the 44-year history of political persecution in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the German Democratic Republic. A Soviet internment camp was set up there at the end of World War II and subsequently transformed into the main Soviet remand prison for Germany. In the early fifties, the secret police of the SED (the ruling party in the GDR) took over the prison. Until 1990 the Ministry of State Security (MfS) used it as its main remand prison.
The MfS or ‘Stasi’, being the ‘shield and sword of the party’, was the most important instrument in enforcing the communist dictatorship in East Germany. At the end 91,000 full-time Stasi employees and 189,000 unofficial collaborators ensured the blanket surveillance of the population. Thousands of people offering resistance or trying to flee the country were banished to one of the 17 MfS remand prisons, which were controlled by the headquarters in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen.
Originally, the area of the later remand prison in the north east of Berlin housed a large canteen for the National Socialist People’s Welfare Organisation (NSV). In May 1945, the red-brick building dating from 1939 was confiscated by the Soviet Occupation Forces and transformed into ‘Special Camp No. 3’ which served as an assembly and transit camp. From here, about 20,000 prisoners were transferred by foot or by truck to other Soviet camps, including also the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp of the Nazis.
The living conditions in the camp were catastrophic- sometimes holding over 4,200 inmates penned in like animals. Hygenic conditions were equally abysmal, food rations totally insufficient. Due to the lack of blankets, prisoners were constantly exposed to the elements in the unheated factory building. Conditions were further aggravated by the fact that internees were kept in the dark with regards to their ultimate fate. Many of them fell ill and died. According to Soviet statistics, 886 people died here between July 1945 and October 1946. However, it is estimated that more than 3,000 detainees actually perished in the camp. Their remains were buried in bomb craters and rubbish dumps in the camp’s vicinity.
The basis of internment was justified by Soviet Directive No. 00315 issued on 18th April 1945, according to which spies, subversive elements, terrorists, Nazi party activists, police and secret service personnel, administrative officials and other ‘hostile elements’ in Germany faced mandatory arrest. Many of those detainees were only slightly- if at all- involved in the Nazi system. The internees included not only a large number of non-Germans (mainly Poles and Russians) but also women and adolescents. Unsubstantiated denunciations often resulted in arrest and detention, as was the case with the famous actor, Heinrich George. In 1946, he was brought to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he died shortly after.
Many internees were incarcerated for years on end without recourse to legal proceedings. An increasing number of political enemies of the Soviet occupation forces disappeared in the camp – notable casualties included Karl Heinrich, the social democratic commander of Berlin’s police force, who died there at the end of 1945. Not at least because of the anxious enquiries of the citizen’s of Berlin, the camp was dissolved in October 1946. The prisoners were moved to other places.
Shortly afterwards the main Soviet remand prison in East Germany was set up in the vast factory building. Prisoners had to construct a maze of subterranean, bunker-like cells in the basement of the former canteen – known as the ‘U-Boot’ of submarine. The damp and cold cells were equipt with a wooden bed and a bucket serving as a lavatory. A light bulb was burning 24 hours a day. Interrogations were usually held at night in an atmosphere of physical and psychological violence. Former prisoners described being forced to sign confessions due to the combined effects of sleep deprivation, standing still for hours on end, arrest lasting for days or being detained in the water cells.
A Water Cell in the 'U-Boot' Basement
Cells in the 'U-Boot' Soviet remand Prison
The prison population included both alleged Nazis and suspected political opponents such as supporters of the democratic parties (SPD, LDPD and CDU) along with communists and Soviet officers who had been regarded as not toeing the official party line. Most of them were sentenced to many years of forced labour by Soviet Military Tribunals. Almost each former prisoner, who at the end of the SED dictatorship in 1990 filed an application for rehabilitation, has been subsequently declared innocent by the Russian authorities.
The Stasi Prison
After the creation of the Ministry for State Security (MfS) the underground prison came under its jurisdiction in March 1951. Numerous opponents of the communist dictatorship were detained here during the fifties. The list of those arrested reached from leaders of the uprising of 17th June 1953 to members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses movement. Disgraced polititions had to endure many months in tomb-like cells such as the former GDR Foreign Minister, Georg Dertinger (CDU Party), or the former SED Politburo member, Paul Merker, as well as reform minded communists such as Walter Janka, the head of the Aufbau publishing house. Even critics of the SED in the West were abducted by the MfS and taken to Hohenschönhausen such as Walter Linse, a lawyer from West Berlin, kidnapped in 1952 and executed in Moscow one year later.
At the end of the fifties prisoners from the adjoining MfS labour camp had to construct a new building with more than 200 prison cells and interrogation rooms. The vast prison complex was part of an extensive secret area – no ordinary citizen of the GDR was allowed to enter. Most of the prisoners had tried to flee of emigrate from the GDR or had been persecuted due to their political views, such as the dissident Rudolf Bahro and the author Jurgen Fuchs.
Physical violence became psychological cruelty – methods and techniques to break the prisoner’s resistance and will. It was prison policy not to inform newcomers of their exact whereabouts. They were systematically subjected to the feeling of being helpless at the mercy of an almighty authority. Being completely cut off from the outside world and their fellow prisoners, they were subjected to months of questioning by expert interrogators aimed at coercing them to make incriminating statements. The peaceful revolution in the autumn of 1989 overthrew the SED dictatorship and resulted in the dissolution of the State Security Service and the ultimate closure of its prisons.
Cells in the New Block (STASI Prison)
Cells, Solitary Cells and Interrogation Rooms (curtained)
New Block (STASI Prison)
Our guide, was an unassuming East Berliner who was arrested as an 18 year old in 1984 and held on remand in one of the 17 Stasi prisons under the administration of Hohenschönhausen. His crime? Suspision of an attempt to escape East Berlin to the West. He was arrested in the street and taken away in a 'delivery van' (see photo behind him) and subjected to the kind of interrogation methods outlined above.
Our Guide and Former Inmate Describes His Arrest by the Stasi
The fact that he was only 3 years older than me and yet had experienced such suffering under the regime was especially poignant. He was keen to point out that given that fact that only 20 years have passed since the collapse of the SED and GDR, it is a reality that former victims of the regime live cheek by jowl with their oppressors in the same suburbs. He informed us that the former head of the Hohenschönhausen STASI prison, lived in retirement in an apartment no 200m from the gate of the complex. Similarly, the infirmary psychiatrist continued in practise from a surgery 500m from the prison.
He relayed an anecdote that indicates that hard-line party members still yearn for the days in which the old regime held absolute control over East Berlin. As a city tour guide he was waiting to meet a school party ahead of a planned tour when he overheard two old men discussing the 'good old days'. The guide was felt compelled to interject and contradict the old man's opinion that the machine ran better under the SED. The old man took umbrage and accused the guide of being a West Berliner. When the guide explained that in fact he was born in East Berlin and had been imprisoned by the Stasi, the old man exploded 'They should have done a better job and killed you!'. This exchange happened in the centre of Berlin in 2009.
Following the unification of the two German states, the prison in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen was closed in October 1990. Former prisoners spoke out in favour of establishing a memorial at the site. In 1992, the prison complex was listed as an historical monument. The Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial Site was established two years later. Since 2000, it has been an independent foundation under public law. The memorial has been charged with ‘exploring the history of the Hohenschönhausen prison between 1945 and 1989, informing by exhibitions, events and publications and inspiring visitors to take a critical look at the methods and consequences of political persecution and suppression in the communist dictatorship’.