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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Traveling to Stasiland

Twenty-two years ago this week, the Berlin Wall fell. Thousands of people danced around it and straddled the top, celebrating the demise of one of the most significant symbols of oppression and division ever. In an instant the gates were open and the Berlin Wall, still sprawling for miles in either direction throughout the city, was just that – a wall. The oppressors, the East German Ministry for State Security – also known as the Stasi – still remained, though.

It is no longer so obvious, but life in East Germany was a lot different from that of the West. Looking out the window of the bus as we drove through the former GDR from Berlin to Dresden, it looked no different than so many other places I’ve traveled; parts of the Midwest United States look just like the eastern German countryside. Had I not known otherwise, I honestly could have thought I was in Wisconsin.

I was partaking in an international fellowship organized by the RIAS Berlin Kommission. In preparation for my trip, I read a lot of books. That is a constant when I travel; I always pick up a stack of books to learn about where I’m going, so I’m better prepared to understand what I’m seeing and experiencing. One of the books I purchased, and the last I read, was Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. It is an historical biography about some of the people whose lives were affected by the Stasi – which was much like the Soviet Union’s KGB – and those who worked and informed for the government.

The Stasi were a tyrannical organization focused on oppression and control of the East German population. At the height of their power they had more people working for them, including informants, than any other regime in history – including the Soviet Union during Stalin’s purges. Their control was absolute and horrific.

The day before leaving Berlin, walking into the forty-some building complex near the Magdalenastrasse train station in East Berlin, I imagined what life must have been like as everything – if you got into school, which job you could have, and so forth – was decided by others you didn’t know and sometimes because those you most intimately did – husband or wife, family member, or best friend – informed on you to the Stasi. Nothing was sacred or safe, not even your thoughts. It was all controlled by the Stasi.

I better understood this by reading Stasiland, but still could not completely grasp the concept. Having grown up in the West, such a life is unfathomable to me; I struggle even to comprehend the possibility of it. Still, I was curious an wanted to learn more in an attempt to better understand what happened. So I skipped out on a group outing to Potsdam and instead made my own way by train to the former headquarters of the Stasi and, what I perceived as, the heart of East German terror and oppression.

The Stasi buildings were not difficult to locate. The drab communist architecture that I supposed housed the ministry’s offices was immediately identifiable, even among so many dreary-looking apartment complexes of a lesser intimidating design. Today though, instead of being occupied by other governmental offices or apartments, they are partially filled by banks and pharmacies. I walked passed them on my way to the Stasi Musuem.

House 1, the location of the Stasi Museum, is under renovation for another year, so the museum is temporarily being housed in the old canteen for high-ranking Stasi officials – House 22. It was a squat, two-story structure dominated by monolith-like offices stretching several stories into the sky. Their presence suffocated the already gloomy afternoon, as I skipped up the stairs and into the museum.
Welcomed with a loud shout that was followed by the German precision of paying and being handed a guidebook to explain the museum, I began on the first of the two floors. Exhibits included a handful of historic items, but were generally made up of poster-board displays detailing the life of the regime, significant people involved or those who had particularly interesting stories, or details about group-specific oppression; a permanent exhibition on the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the German Democratic Republic is presently tucked in a back room on the second floor.
The prize display was Minister Erich Mielke’s office, arranged just as he had it in House 1. While I found the display of furniture curious, what interested me most were the scent jars. The materials sealed in the jars were samples of scents obtained by Stasi suspects. They were used in cases where the ministry needed to track the people with the help of dogs.
On the evening of January 15th, 1990, the Stasi headquarters fell to demonstrators who occupied the buildings. Stasi officials knew for months, since before the Berlin Wall fell, that their days were numbered. So, in preparation for the inevitable, documents were shredded and burned; as much incriminating evidence as possible was destroyed. Some of what was shredded is still methodically being pieced back together, according to Funder in Stasiland, so those who are mentioned can read about what happened to them and who informed on them.

Standing on the steps of House 22, I looked out into the courtyard of the complex. House 1 was indeed undergoing renovations. I was tempted to try to find my way in to explore the heart of the ministry, knowing I would likely not be bothered since it was the weekend. My curiosity was high and I wanted to see more than what was presented in the few exhibits, taking no more than 90 minutes to thoroughly review.
In the end, I chickened out and made my way back to the Magdalenastrasse train station and to the center of Berlin. I arrived back at Alexander Platz with the intention of strolling along the Spree River to Museum Island. It had become a warm day, the sun shining high, and I was feeling unusually fortunate; how different my life could have been, I thought, if I were simply born someplace else.
Standing across the river, looking up at the magnificent Berlin Dome, I saw a sign pointing to the DDR Museum. Maybe I had my acronyms backwards, but I thought East Germany was the GDR – the German Democratic Republic – and not the DDR. Could I be this lucky to find a museum about East Germany that I had not previously seen? Yes.
The Deutsche Demokratische Republik Museum exhibits what life was like for the citizens of East Germany, just from a more domestic point of view than that of the Stasi Museum. Information on nudity protests and prison interrogations are also on display, but the DDR Museum largely deals more with everyday life in the DDR than that of oppression and revolt. Of particular curiosity for museum visitors, who were more than plentiful, are the Trabant P601 automobile – a hilarious display of clowns in the car was taking place when I stopped – and a model East German living room, complete with the original smell.
I hurried through the museum, unable to take the crowds. It was near impossible to move without bumping into another visitor, making my time in the exhibition less than pleasurable. Still though, it was interesting and educational to see what life was like in East Germany. I left realizing East Germany wasn’t all about oppression and difficulty – people constantly wanting to escape to the West. Circumstances may have been different and more difficult, but that didn’t keep the vast majority of East Germans from trying to make the best of what they had and enjoy life.
The bus took me down Unter den Linden toward the Brandenburg Gate. I chewed on my thoughts from the day. There was a lot to digest. I had learned a lot about East German life and gained new perspectives from what was fed to me as a child in school. Head ducked, tossing my thoughts around as I walked under the gate, I saw the cobblestones of where the Berlin Wall once stood running off in either direction. Seeing the path, I picked a way and followed it.



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