The power of remembrance: The Stasi Prison in Berlin, Hohenschönhausen
By Bénedicte Heleeger
Hohenschönhausen, East Berlin, November 1984. Red lights go on in the hallway. “Stehen bleiben, Blick nach unten,” (Stand still, look down) the guard says to a prisoner. When the lights go out, the prisoner is brought into the interrogation room…
So begins the film Das Leben der Anderen* (The Lives of Others, 2006) about the Stasi, the Ministry of State Security, during the German Democratic Republic (GDR). If the movie didn’t have an impact on you, a visit to the Gedenkstätte Hohenschönhausen, the Stasi Prison, definitely will.
Located 30 minutes outside of Berlin’s city centre, the prison is not an easy place to find. This was the intention, however, as even during the German Democratic Republic it was not printed on any map and very few people knew its precise location. The first thing that caught my eye approaching the prison were the watchtowers on the top corners. At the entrance, large steel bars, the keepers of the history inside, greet you.
Before the Second World War the prison site was an industrial area. A canteen was later built for the National Socialist People’s Welfare organisation. After the war, the Soviet occupation forces occupied it, and it became a transit camp, renamed “Special Camp №3”, which was closed in 1946. Not long after, the main Soviet remand prison in East-Germany was set up. The basement of the former canteen was converted into an underground prison area called the U-Boot (submarine). The cells were cold and damp, and out of necessity the prisoners used a bucket as a lavatory. In order to confuse the prisoners so that they wouldn’t know whether it was night or day, a light was kept burning 24 hours a day. Visiting the prison today, you can see the different types of cells: hot cells (where the temperature could climb up to 53 degrees Celsius), isolation cells, standing cells (where there was only enough room for one to remain standing), water cells (where water was dripped on the heads of the prisoner whilst in total darkness).
The Stasi Prison
The U-Boot came into the hands of the Stasi not long after it’s foundation in 1950. At the end of this decade, the prisoners were forced to construct a new prison building and from this point on, the U-Boot was mostly used for storage. Prisoners were brought to the new prison building awaiting trial. Even the smallest suspicion of someone being an opponent of the GDR could mean capture and imprisonment in Hohenschönhausen. The people who were brought to the prison were transported in a van that was usually disguised as a fruit and vegetable delivery truck. Once in the prison, the prisoners were subjected to many months of interrogation for which psychological intimidation techniques, such as sleep deprivation and total isolation, were used. The prisoners didn’t know where they were and although there were windows in the new building, they were opaque. Contact with other prisoners was forbidden. According to the guide, prison cells for two people existed, but nobody was trustworthy and your fellow inmate could turn out to be an informant. Expert interrogators aimed at coercing the prisoners into making incriminating statements.
Visiting the prison today, you can see that little has changed over time. During the guided tour, visitors get the chance to visit the cells and the interrogation room, both of which are almost perfectly preserved. A silent alarm hangs in the hallways, used by the guards to inform each other if something was wrong without the prisoners knowing.
After the unification
The prison was closed in October 1990 after the fall of the Berlin wall. It became a historical monument two years later. In 1994, the prison was established as a Gedenkstätte (memorial site), which the former prisoners where in favour of. Since 1994, the amount of visitors has continuously increased. In 2015, 440 000 people visited the prison and recently, I became one of them. Of all the memorials dating from the GDR time, this one has by far had the biggest impact on me. For people interested in Socialist/Cold War history, it more-than merits a visit and you are confronted by a time that really is not all that long ago. It gives you a good insight into life and imprisonment during GDR times, and a special feature is that many of the guided tours are given by former prisoners. A thought-provoking experience, this place will still occupy your thoughts for many days after your visit.
*Although the prison can be seen in the beginning of Das Leben der Anderen, the movie wasn’t actually filmed here. This is because the film director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, failed to obtain permission from Dr. Hubertus Knabe, the Director of the Memorial Site. Dr. Knabe argued that von Donnersmarck wanted to make a Stasi man (Captain Gerd Wiesler, the film’s main protagonist) into a hero, to which von Donnersmarck used Schindler’s List to try and justify his plans for the film. To this Dr. Knabe allegedly replied: “But that is exactly the difference. There was a Schindler. There was no Wiesler.”
Source: Guided tour and the brochure at the entrance
More information: http://www.stiftung-hsh.de
You can only visit the prison as part of a guided tour, but the exhibition is open to everybody and is wheelchair-friendly.