On the trail of the GDR

Plattenbauten at the former Stasi headquarters, Image credit: Kate Docking.

By Lucy Steenbock and Alexandra Tornow, students at the University of Hamburg, translated by Dr Kate Docking.

Many people associate the GDR with high rise Plattenbauten tower blocks, the Stasi and years of waiting for their own Trabi. But the former state left far more profound traces, which can still be seen today in East Berlin and Eisenhüttenstadt. We took a short journey to historical places and present-day memories…

In the Berlin district of Lichtenberg, tall Plattenbauten of the former headquarters of the Ministry for State Security cast long shadows on the concrete. Where the Stasi Museum welcomes visitors today was once the hub of the State Security. Here, people observed, documented, archived and speculated. A large part of the 111-kilometre-long line that can be laid with Stasi files, according to the BStU, was produced at this location. 

Erich Mielke’s office still stands furnished in the middle of the building complex. On the third floor, between typical GDR wooden furniture, lace curtains and shades of brown, yellow and orange, it looks as if Mielke had just walked out the door. As he worked, he had the opulent desk in front of him, the monstrous steel door of a safe behind him. The homely décor of the adjoining rooms makes it clear that Mielke spent so much time in the Stasi headquarters it was considered his second home ever since he moved into the office in 1963.

People with a mission

Today, a visit to the building complex helps to understand the people around Mielke, who tried every day to record each susceptible move amongst the population. In 1989, about 91,000 full-time employees worked for the Stasi, while many more served as unofficial collaborators. The highest ranks were filled exclusively by men loyal to the SED; women were not promoted to the top levels. In the MfS, the main officers had to be transparent first and foremost, preferably from the beginning of their recruitment in the seventh grade of school. In long and psychologically elaborate processes, additional unofficial collaborators were recruited to pass on insights and information from particularly suspicious circles. One became an IM out of conviction or blackmail. There was no pay, but an involuntary double life.

“It was not a job, but an order or a mission,” says a museum employee today. This was evident down to the last detail. Nothing was to be left to chance – not even the way in which staff members had to arrange the items on Erich Mielke’s breakfast plate, as a sketch in the museum shows. That’s why it took years to find out as much as possible. The ingenious spying and surveillance techniques of the Stasi seem almost impressive because of their creativity, with cameras in car doors, watering cans or buttonholes, although they leave a queasy feeling. Only in this way was it possible to record information about the majority of GDR citizens in 39 million index cards. 

With Barkas into custody

Those who were once suspected naturally remained under permanent surveillance. People who were expected to confess were sent to pre-trial detention a few kilometres’ north. However, the Berliners concerned did not reach the Hohenschönhausen prison within a few minutes’ drive. The political prisoners were driven for hours through Berlin in darkened Barkas vans (vans manufactured in the GDR) which were disguised with inscriptions such as “Fresh fish!”. The reason was to make them lose their bearings. Inside the high prison wall, it was then no longer possible to realise that they were actually still in the middle of the capital. 

Even before the GDR, the grounds of Hohenschönhausen were used as a prison. Until 1951, Soviet prisoners were still housed in the U-Boot, a name chosen by the prisoners for the windowless, cold cellar beneath a large kitchen. Here, three to six people were crammed into a few square metres with a wooden bed and a bucket for excrement, initially without a lid, later with one. Numerous people died here under inhumane conditions such as malnutrition and sleep deprivation. 

Operational psychology professionals

When the GDR government, and therefore the Stasi, finally took over the use of the grounds, a new building was erected with about 200 cells and interrogation rooms. Instead of physical violence, operational psychology and thus psychological torture methods were used: people were worn down, psychologically broken and confessions – regardless of the truth – were extracted under duress. The stress began as soon as they arrived: complete undressing, the removal of personal belongings and the examination of every bodily orifice were among the first humiliations. Women had no right to be ‘examined’ by women.

The inmates were controlled to perfection. A traffic light system regulated prisoners walking in the corridors. No one was supposed to meet, see or even smell each other, so that recognition became impossible. It was only with the introduction of toilets in the 1980s that it was possible to communicate with each other by talking through the pipes or using the knocking alphabet. Otherwise, they were completely isolated from each other and could hardly occupy themselves. They were only allowed to sleep on their backs, have their hands open over the blanket, the lights were turned on every ten minutes and guards constantly checked on them. 

At any time of the day or night, at completely random intervals, the prisoners were taken out of their cells and interrogated. The furnishing of the interrogation rooms, like so much else in the prison, was an attempted demonstration of power: imposing chairs for the interrogators and small stools for the prisoners. Inmates were told contrived stories that their close relatives had been involved in a bad accident and that they would be allowed to visit them if they confessed to something. The training and use of operational psychology set the Stasi apart from other secret services around the world.

Political prisoners spent an average of three to six months in Hohenschönhausen. An image that does not leave your mind quickly after a visit here: Erich Mielke as a prisoner in his own prison after the fall of the Wall. The extent of the Stasi activities caused a great stir after the collapse of the GDR and left serious impacts on the victims, as eyewitness accounts in Hohenschönhausen show. However, not everyone in the GDR perceived the repression as omnipresent, as is demonstrated by the recollections of an elderly resident of Eisenhüttenstadt: “It is always said that there was a Stasi employee behind every one of us. But not all of us felt that way. My family, for example, had a completely normal life.”

Contrasts of time

Eisenhüttenstadt, which used to be considered a socialist model planned city, is now somewhat lifeless. The contrast between decaying buildings and districts renovated with EU funds is great. While the average age in 1953 was still 24.5 years, young people have been moving away for years after leaving school, the tour guide and architect Martin Maleschka explains. Only a few come back. There are no job prospects and a lack of cultural activities. 

That was not always the case, the elderly resident continues. She has lived here for 60 years and has witnessed the changing times herself. “The city used to be beautiful. Great to live in. Back then there were still many people here on the streets, many children playing.” The infrastructure was better. Each of the seven housing complexes at that time had at least a grocery shop, a school, a day-care centre and a telephone booth. People could meet their neighbours in such places; there was a certain sense of community. The typical GDR apartment buildings were considered ultra-modern and well-equipped. “A paradise at that time,” says the resident. Back then, she paid 48 marks a month for rent.  

Stalinist architecture in Eisenhüttenstadt, Image credit: Kate Docking.

Industry at heart

An industrial site was the decisive reason why the GDR leadership wanted to build the town near the Polish border. In a huge area that is no longer open to the public, the production of pig iron was in full swing. Six blast furnaces towered over the city at the time – a sign of the flourishing industry in the GDR, or how it was supposed to look like. Construction of the seven housing complexes then began right next to the furnaces. Some of these districts are now listed buildings; the principle of the socialist planned city can be clearly seen here. The settlement with the name Hüttenkombinat Ost first became Stalinstadt between 1953 and 1961, before the current name Eisenhüttenstadt was adopted. 

A wall painting in Eisenhüttenstadt, Image credit: Kate Docking.

Symbols of industry can still be found everywhere in the city today. Anyone entering schools, the hospital or the town hall in Eisenhüttenstadt often encounters art history in the entrance areas and stairwells. Socialist realist wall paintings and mosaics, which can be found in almost all public institutions, show what was or should have been important in the GDR: red flags, families, industry, images of reconstruction and fertility. 

The planned city in transition

Today, even on a Saturday afternoon, you meet only a few people on Lindenallee, the city’s promenade. Many buildings that were important at the time, such as the Hotel Lunik and the glass car pavilion, are now in West German hands and are empty. There are hardly any renovation plans for the future or ideas about how these buildings might be used. Unfortunately, some of the listed buildings now look as if those responsible have not cared for them for a long time. Former schools and department stores have become so-called ‘lost places’ – buildings that are decaying without use and are only visited by the few who climb through the broken windows.

Martin Maleschka, an architect and photographer interested in the architectural landscape of the GDR, is – together with the Museum for Utopia and Everyday Life in Eisenhüttenstadt – attempting a balancing act between the past and the future. On the one hand, the historical sites should not be forgotten. On the other hand, Maleschka wants to bring them back to life and is planning many creative workshops for the forthcoming summer, with the aim of filling the Platz der Jugend with people again.

You leave Eisenhüttenstadt and East Berlin with mixed feelings: Thoughtful about what GDR citizens experienced in such places, and more aware of the traces a place leaves – from the past up to the present.