“Thorny Issue” – the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial Centre
In GDR times (German Democratic Republic), all those who stood in the way of the GDR dictatorship were imprisoned and blackmailed. Following reunification former prisoners campaigned for the previously unknown site to be turned into a memorial. Today it is the most significant memorial site commemorating the victims of the communist dictatorship in Germany.
Place of remembranceThe corridor is unexpectedly bright and wide. The walls are bare and half-painted in a yellowy beige, the floor is a brownish colour. It is supposed to give the impression of parquet or at least laminate flooring, but it is not the least bit homely. The corridor is long. There are endless rows of cells right and left. Every few meters, at almost every turn, there are prison bars. There is a row of switches at every cell. Here, at the former central prison in Berlin Hohenschönhausen, it all looks fairly similar to the interior of a regular German prison. But there are subtle differences here, as former prisoner Michael Bradler points out to us during his guided tour. “For a long time we didn’t know what one of the switches at every cell was for. Until we realised that it was for regulating the light in each individual cell.” In other words, sometimes the prisoners were tormented with sleep deprivation by the guards, who would leave the lights on all the time. Or they would check several times during the night if the prisoners were sleeping on their backs with their arms on top of the covers. If not, they were awoken immediately. And there’s something else you don’t see at first glance: white lines on the floor in front of every cell. They represent a secret message that only the guards can read - they mark the line between those doing the guarding and those being guarded, between the supporters of the GDR regime and its enemies. A Stasi officer who saw someone stepping over the line, for example during the morning roll call, could decide completely arbitrarily whether or not to punish the offending party. The prisoners also had to live with the horrible thought that they could be taken from their cells at any time, day or night - although night-time was the preferred time - for hours of questioning in the sparse interrogation rooms. “When you’re suffering from sleep deprivation and you’re getting nothing, or very little, to eat, when you often don’t even know if its day or night anymore, sooner of later you will confess to or sign anything. That is the systematic, psychological grinding down of prisoners and it borders on torture”, Bradler says.
The prison - a place that didn't officially exist.Neither the prisoners nor the public knew where the prison was or what exactly happened there. The grounds of the Hohenschönhausen prison were not marked on GDR maps, even though it was the second largest complex of MfS (Ministry for State Security) buildings after the MfS complex in Normannenstraße, also in Lichtenberg, where the Minister for State Security, Erich Mielke, lived. The Stasi had taken over the former restricted area in 1951 from the Soviet state security service, which had also questioned and tortured detainees in the cellars in the old building, known as the “U-Boot.” There were numerous other state security buildings on the grounds besides the prison, such as a work camp, the operative-technical sector, which, for example, made false passports and bugging devices, and a unit which dealt with electronic espionage in the West. The complex also had a hospital and a canteen. The detainees were taken to and from other Stasi prisons (every part of town had one), or the place where they were captured, in unmarked, converted delivery vans to Hohenschönhausen - often in a roundabout way so that when they were released they didn’t know where they had been, and they didn’t even have the slightest idea which part of Berlin they might have been in. “Even when you had to go the hospital on the grounds, you were loaded into a vehicle and driven round about first so that you lost your orientation,” Bradler says. And yet the hospital was right next to the new building with the cells and interrogation rooms.
Dealing with the GDR legacy still controversialAfter the wall was built in 1961, the situation even became more critical. Practically anyone who said they thought about fleeing or who submitted an application for an exit visa could be imprisoned. Even a few uncomfortable SED critics from the West were detained at Hohenschönhausen. Many former prisoners are still traumatised by their experiences at Hohenschönhausen to this day. Some still don’t even know exactly what they were accused of. But most of the records that could provide this information, and a great deal more, are missing, because the Stasi officers had enough time in between the fall of the GDR regime and the discovery of the secret buildings to destroy the files. That also makes it difficult to make known the brutality and arbitrary nature of the GDR regime’s actions.
Most of the resistance comes from the many ex-officers who still live in the same area as the former prison. They want the Stasi to be recognised as a completely normal secret service. Even the conduct of the government towards the GDR dictatorship in the two decades following reunification has been ambiguous: what should be done with the files? How should they be processed and made accessible to the public? What issues should be highlighted? How do you make sure the picture of the GDR is not distorted after the event? A special government office with a Commissioner for the Records of the National Security Service of the Former GDR appointed by the federal government – also called the “Birthler Agency” after its director, Marianne Birthler – is responsible for dealing with these questions. There is also an expert committee appointed by the government charged with making sure, with the help of state funding, that daily life and politics are portrayed in a balanced way.
Strengthening the culture of remembranceHowever, both these bodies have relatively few funds at their disposal and the negotiations on their future have been deferred until after the next federal elections in 2009. Instead the government seems to be banking on a new memorials concept presented by Germany’s Minister of State for Culture, Bernd Neumann (CDU), in June 2008. It has set aside 35 million euros for work on the memorials until 2010. The aim of the concept is to strengthen the culture of remembrance, meaning remembrance of the victims of both Nazi and Stasi crimes. It includes the memorial sites at Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Flossenbürg and Neuengamme as well as sites relating to the GDR such as the former border checkpoint at Marienborn, the German-German Museum in Mödlareuth, the Berlin Wall Memorial in Bernauer Straße in Berlin, the Hohenschönhausen Memorial Centre as well as the so-called “Tränenpalast” (Palace of Tears) at the Friedrichstraße train station. In addition, the federal government and the state of Berlin have agreed to have the Hohenschönhausen Memorial Center remodeled by renowned architects hg merz from Stuttgart by 2011 to make room for a foyer and a permanent exhibition as well as a cafeteria for the 200,000 plus visitors per year.
Art project “In the Restricted Zone”That aside, Hohenschönhausen has already set about raising its profile: in April 2008 it installed an architectural model of the former restricted zone opposite the entrance to the Hohenschönhausen Memorial Center at the corner of Freienwalder Straße and Genslerstraße. A map of the site on the ground also shows the magnitude of the former prison. Streets and important buildings are indicated with black granite slabs and the former border is marked with a band of LED that lights up at night. The model is the result of an architecture competition organized by the district responsible, Lichtenberg, in 2006. However, all these efforts are still probably not enough to silence the old functionaries. That will require more of the fighting spirit of Dr. Hubertus Knabe, the Director of the memorial.
is a freelance journalist.
Translation: Marsalie Turner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion
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