Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Stasi Museum: The Secret Police Up Close and Personal

Berlin has more than 170 museums and approximately 300 privately and publicly owned galleries. In addition, there are over 150 national historic buildings and palaces within the city. A person could spend nearly 2 years visiting one of these attractions every day. 

One museum that often gets overlooked by tourists is the Stasi Museum. The Stasi was East Germany's notorious secret police. It was modeled after the Soviet Union's KGB, and it's estimated that the Stasi employed approximately 500,000 people (including paid and unpaid informants). That was 3 percent of East Germany's population!

The Stasi was headquartered in Berlin-Lichtenberg, not from where I live. In East Germany people were imprisoned for trying to leave the country, telling political jokes, reading politically unacceptable books, or watching western TV.  Prisoners were interrogated, tortured, and imprisoned at the Lichtenberg complex. Stasi executions were carried out in strict secrecy, and were usually accomplished with a guillotine or single pistol shot to the neck. 

The Lichtenberg Headquarters is now the Stasi Museum. You can look at prison cells, the office of the Stasi Chief Erich Mielke, and see various bugging and information gathering devices. There's even an East German café where you can taste East Germany goodies, including its version of Coca-Cola (not bad). Some Stasi Museum employees are former inmates. The documentation is in German, but English guided tours are available with advanced notice. The day I was there, I was lucky to have a museum docent and former inmate give me a tour. 

Next to the Museum is the Stasi Archives where people can view their Stasi files, which include the names of informants. People are surprised to discover that friends, spouses, and even their own children provided information to the Stasi. The Stasi was an integral part of life in the former DDR. For those interested, there's an outstanding movie about the Stasi, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen).

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