The Berlin wall came down in 1989, reuniting East and West Germany. But though the German Democratic Republic is no more, there is still, in the city of Leipzig, one chilling reminder of the dreaded Stasi (SSD), the secret police of the GDR. It is the Stasi Museum and it encompasses the original rooms of a Stasi headquarters.
Located in the stately 19th century building known as “Runde Ecke” — the Round Building — the museum features a powerful permanent exhibit called “Stasi – Power and Banality.” Walk through the rooms where the secret police operated a sinister network of spying and terror and it becomes clear how the Stasi infiltrated every aspect of the everyday life in the GDR.
The Stasi had agents in the post office, opening and reading mail; they routinely broke into homes and planted bugs; they had a network of “safe houses” from which they monitored what went on in people’s homes. They photographed citizens going about their business and punished expressions of discontent with the GDR regime.
Though living standards were much lower in East Germany than in the West, and though there were chronic shortages of basic consumer goods, the discontent was more about the loss of personal freedom than the lack of personal comforts.
Some of the tools used to keep track of citizens were very James Bond: tiny cameras, sophisticated bugging equipment, devices for opening letters, forged rubber stamps, number plates and passports. Some look almost comical: disguises, including false noses, wigs, glasses — the false stomach made of padded fabric with a hole in the middle for a hidden camera. Or the jars containing the preserved body scents of potential suspects, gathered by summoning them to Stasi headquarters, having them sit on a cloth for 10 or 15 minutes, then storing the cloth in sealed jars-so if the suspects dropped out of sight, they could later be tracked by dogs.
There is an eeriness to the ordinary-looking office of a Stasi official, the interrogation room, the cells where prisoners awaited trial. The outcome of the trials generally turned out as the Stasi wished; the death penalty was carried out in Leipzig for the entire 40 years.
After East Germany’s Erich Honecker signed the Helsinki Agreement on Human Rights in 1975, the Stasi often became more subtle in the persecution of its enemies, spreading lies and rumors and using tactics like anonymous letters and anonymous phone calls.
Suddenly people found their careers stalled, their jobs terminated; divorces occurred after wives received letters purporting to be from mistresses. Opportunities for education disappeared. In short, anyone who was not a “good” citizen of the GDR found his life under siege in a dozen different ways.
The Stasi boasted that it had “helpers” everywhere, and that included children as young as 13. But to achieve this “honor,” the children had to have been brought up in a home with solid GDR values; they could not have any close relatives living in the West. Once accepted as part of the SSD family, they were put to work-spying on family and friends. Those who performed well eventually became part of the Stasi hierarchy.
While the use of children recalled the Nazi era’s “Hitler Youth,” the Stasi operation took much of its inspiration from the Russian secret police of the post-Stalin years, and there is a room devoted to the icons of communist Russia, including Stalin and Lenin.
Yet in spite of the risks, grassroots opposition to the GDR regime grew and intensified. In Leipzig, people gathered on Mondays to pray in St. Nicholas Church. By 1989, the prayer services had become political protests in the square, growing in number-and spreading to other cities. The number of protestors peaked to 300,000 on October 30.
In a last-ditch attempt to maintain power, the entire government resigned. The tactic failed-and the so called “Peaceful Revolution” brought an end to the GDR.
Tens of thousands of people stormed the Stasi headquarters. Many records had been destroyed; when SSD officials saw the end coming, they shredded and pulped as much as they could. But there remains some 30,000 items documenting the “work” of the Stasi.
Many citizens found their own dossiers-and when they saw how their lives had been crippled, not by bad luck but by deliberate design, they broke down and wept.
Today both tourists and locals visit the exhibit; on any given day, you’ll see clusters of students, taking in the lessons of the past. Some longtime residents say that the smell associated with GDR offices still lingers in the place where they were robbed of their basic freedoms.
Admission to the museum is free, but as all the placards explaining the exhibits are in German, visitors might wish to use the excellent audio guide, which costs 3 Euro.
Check out photos from the museum: