There are lots of things to do on a Sunday in the German capital. My friend Michael Beckmann and I originally planned to go to the Technical Museum, a good place for a couple of Transport Geeks. But a couple of days earlier, friends told me about the Stasi Museum in the former Hohenschönhausen prison in what was East Berlin. The Stasi was the short name for the East German Ministry for State Security, a notoriously nasty group of people who reigned from the late 1940s until the collapse of the GDR in1990. There were a lot of Stasi: at the end 91,000 full-time employees and an estimated 189,000 collaborators – this meant 1 in every 50 East Germans was a Stasi.
We spotted the guard towers on Genslerstrasse, parked, walked into the grounds, and bought tour tickets. We had some time before the 3:00 tour began, and wandered the grounds, including a visit to the “tiger cages,” small open enclosures where inmates could get a bit of fresh air and perhaps something close to exercise, and a 1982 railway car used for transporting prisoners. It looked like a regular passenger car, and that was the point.
The hourly prison tours are led by former inmates. It would be hard to envision a more qualified leader. At 3:00, we met Gerhard, a big fellow in his late 40s. The tour was in German, but a combination of bilingual display boards and Herr Beckmann’s whispered summaries gave me almost the full experience. I made it a point to stand close to Gerhard, to see his face and gestures. Even with my limited German, I could hear the pain in his voice as he told his story: he was a young S-Bahn driver, a suburban-train engineer. His brother betrayed him. In 1986, plainclothes Stasi grabbed him after work, put him in an unmarked van, and drove him to Hohenschönhausen. His crimes were twofold: 1) he attempted to flee the “workers’ paradise”; and 2) he asked his bus what the “democratic” meant – the middle word in the name of his country.
I guess Gerhard was lucky, in that he was only imprisoned seven months. But he attempted suicide several times, and more than two decades later was still traumatized. The tour led us through the especially bleak basement cells that the Soviets used 1945-51, some equipped with the water-torture device. We saw Gerhard’s cell, 101, the room where judgment was passed, a van similar to the one in which he rode, and more.
It was grim. No thinking American could help but conjure the images of Guantanamo and water boarding. Why do people do these things?