I can’t imagine this museum is to everyone’s liking. If you don’t have an interest in Stasi history, it’s pretty much like walking around an old communist East German office building, with just enough history thrown into exhibit rooms to make it a museum.
If you keenly study Stasi history, as I do, there’s no way to visit Berlin without coming to the Stasi headquarters turned museum. And, if you’re interested in walking these halls, but don’t know much about the time or ideology, I’d suggest watching Das Leben der Anderen and Deutschland 83 first. Both have scenes filmed on location at the Stasi Museum, and will provide context (without leaving your couch).
Walking from the U-Bahn station, through the streets of Lichtenberg, I marvelled at just how residential the area surrounding the infamous Stasi headquarters is. I recall making a mental note to check whether the apartment blocks were exclusively reserved for Stasi personnel, or if ordinary citizens lived in them. Now, after all this time, I can’t recall if I learned the answer – or what it is.
This is good news. Now, I’ve got something to research. And, an excuse to envelop myself, once again, in history. Which is exactly what I was doing when I walked to the front entrance of Building 1, which houses the museum.
I opened one of the gold and black doors with a strange sombre glee, and proceeded to the reception, where I couldn’t help myself and purchased a DDR history book as well as admission (once again, again making full use of my Berlin Welcome Card discount).
What will you see at the Stasi Museum?
The first thing to see is a delivery van, repurposed as a Stasi arrest vehicle. These were commonly used to disappear dissidents in East Berlin. Such methods may not have been necessary outside large cities, but I, surprisingly, do not know.
What I do know, thanks, in part, to the vivid description provided in Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, is that sitting in total darkness in one of these mobile cells was terrifying. You’d have no way of figuring out where you were or were headed, but you knew it wasn’t going to be any good.
If you lived in Berlin, there’d be a good chance you were headed to Hohenschönhausen, but just what that meant would’ve been a question mark. (And, I’ll try to talk you through that soon.)
Between the space provided, my eagerness to proceed and my average photography, my pictures don’t illustrate the concept well enough. These images, from the Hohenschönhausen Memorial website, do a much better job than I ever could.
© Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen / Gvoon
And, really, I suggest reading Stasiland if the material interests you at all. Understanding a ride in Stasi capture-mobile is a mere taste of what you’ll experience.
I wasn’t, however, at the Stasi Museum to check out what was done to your average subversive. My interest lie with the power wielded within these walls.
But, before I could get on to DDR styling and period switchboards, there was no way to avoid the brilliance of the lift (elevator, for my American readers).
Meet the Paternoster Elevator
My picture, once again, doesn’t tell the full story. The Paternoster elevator was a continuously moving lift, which was dangerous as hell. And, the Babylon Berlin series is how I first became cognisant of such machinery.
If you’ve not seen it (another strong recommendation, I might add), this short video will give you an idea of how it works.
Obviously, I had to marvel at the lift before moving on to the task at hand on the first floor (second floor, for Americans), which I did eagerly.
Though the Stasi wasn’t the government, only the Shield and Sword of the Party (the party being the Socialist Unity Party), they were the visible front of the control.
And, this was where Erich Mielke, the party’s leader worked. Its leader? As in singular? Pretty much. Mielke was in charge from 1957 to 1989. It’s clear from the styling, that the 70s and 80s were a high point for Mielke and his organisation.
It might just look like a room to you, but I felt as though I was walking through a dream, at the very least the set of the movies and shows I’d watched over the months and years of planning my German excursion.
The Stasi kitchen that shifted my views
The feeling persisted as I ventured into secretarial rooms, and Mielke’s private kitchen. Staring into this cordoned-off room, the counter edge near the window caught my attention.
There’s something about the installation of what looks like a domestic kitchen against the backdrop of office block windows.
You’ll find similar juxtapositions in older office blocks in South Africa as well. Usually, office kitchens are carved out of an odd bit of space, with small windows – if there’s any natural light at all.
On top of that, it wasn’t so much the outdated look of the kitchen, as it was that I had seen almost exactly the same kitchen at the DDR Museum earlier in the day. In fact, it’s the same kitchen seen in just about every East German apartment. And its ubiquity is actually important here; it’s representative of communist ideals and utilitarianism.
And, you might think it would be expected of a kitchen in the offices of the organisation better at enforcing communism than the KGB itself, except it wouldn’t. On the same property, there was also a private grocery store offering West German goods unavailable in the rest of East Germany. That’s a little more what I would’ve expected in the back, hidden kitchens in this building. Then again, it’s not a typical office kitchen, with a single bulb shining over an assortment of mismatched mugs.
The devil is in the detail - sometimes literally
From there, I turned my attention to the smaller details as I moved through conference rooms, museum exhibits and video screenings. I wanted to understand the minutiae that dictated daily operations. It made imagining this switchboard lighting up with emergency messages from the field and the choreography of spy games.
Past quotidian objects, however, I paused at this smell sample.
Yes, it’s a smell sample. The Stasi collected people’s body odours – either during surveillance or interrogation – for dogs to use should someone need to be found in the future.
There are a few things of importance here. First, this sample represents someone’s life; a life that was overshadowed by control. Perhaps they couldn’t get the job they wanted, or a university position for their child or a holiday visa for Czechoslovakia, without knowing why. On its own, that’s a little scary.
The second interesting aspect of this sample is that it survived. When the wall came tumbling down, there was a rush to dispose of as much evidence as possible. Imagine walking into a museum and seeing your grandmother’s smell sample.
As I crossed through the clubroom reserved for senior party members, which I’d seen on screen before, I felt both empty and full. I’d been able to take in so much, to see the places described in books, seen in films. It wasn’t just seeing; I had experienced them, interpreted the sensations for myself.
Yet, there was so much more I wanted to know, to do. And that’s when I discovered it was possible to visit Hohenschönhausen Prison – and that, if I hurried, I’d still make it that afternoon.
What you need to know about the Stasi Museum
Normannenstraße 20, Haus 1 | 10365 Berlin
- U5 | Magdalenenstrasse Station
- Mondays| 10h00 to 17h00
- Tuesdays to Fridays | 10h00 to 18h00
- Saturdays and Sundays | 11h00 to 18h00
Closed on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve
- Adults | € 8.00
- Concessions | € 6.00
- Pupils 12-18 | € 3.00
- Under 12 | free
Concessions include university students, trainees, senior citizens,
unemployed persons and persons with disabilities.
- Audio guide | € 2.00
I was also charged a small fee for the privilege to take photos. I can’t recall the cost, but I did receive a Stasi Museum button to wear (which I still do from time to time).
Get 25% off adult admission with the Berlin Welcome Card.