During my trip as chaperon in Berlin at the end of October 2017, most of our visits in the German capital were around the subject of separation between East Germany and West Germany. So we visited a STASI prison, the secret police of the GDR, where political opponents or people trying to go to the West were imprisoned.
As explained earlier, the STASI was the secret police of East Germany. Moreover, this prison did not exist to the eyes of the rest of the world, when it was in operation, because it was secret. The official role of the STASI was to protect the East by espionage.
The STASI prison experienced two completely different periods with accordingly two different buildings, which were never used at the same time.
From 1945 to 1960s, the period of physical torture
The building that was used in the early years was a building with a gigantic basement, and that’s where the prisoners’ cells were. They called this prison the submarine, because there were no windows and the prisoners never saw daylight during their imprisonment.
Each cell consisted of a wooden structure as a bed and a bucket as a toilet. They were between six and eight prisoners per cell.
The prisoners were generally opponents of the communist regime or people who wanted to leave East Germany. Normally, it was supposed to be a prison for interrogation. In fact, the prisoners remained for months and months to be tortured and then confess. In addition to the prisoners’ cells, there were special torture cells. Here is a small list of these different cells (no details):
- Refrigerated cells
- Heated cells
- Water cells
- Cells to stand upright (so narrow that one could not sit.)
The daily lives of prisoners
During the day, the prisoners were not allowed to sleep or lie down and the interrogations took place at night. They could never sleep. The conditions of imprisonment were extremely difficult: they had little food, there was little oxygen in that basement, the air was humid and warm. The prisoners had very poor hygienic conditions because they could not wash. There was a lot of death from suffocation or starvation. There are very few exact figures on this period of the prison, because the STASI tried to destroy all the documents to keep as little evidence as possible.
The anecdote that struck me most about this period of the prison is the story of a young girl. At the age of 14, she was imprisoned for 9 years and tortured to admit being a dangerous political opponent. You know what she did to get into prison? She thought Stalin’s portrait was sad, so she drew a knot with a red lipstick on the moustache! Released at the age of 23, she would still be alive today and should be in her 70s.
From the 1960s to 1989, the period of mental torture
For this period of the STASI prison, we went to another building, built to replace the old one, with better life conditions. The individual cells, this time, are equipped with a bed, a washbasin and a toilet with running water, a window and electricity. There were showers, and the prisoners were entitled to a uniform change once a week. They had access to medical care and enough food.
Today, when you visit this building of the STASI prison, everything is original, it is only about fifty years old. 80% of the prisoners had been arrested for trying to escape from the GDR. Usually, the sentence was seven years in prison. There were trials and tribunals, but they were only held in order to give the impression that there was a justice. It was in fact the STASI who decided on prison sentences and not judges.
The people were arrested in the city, in the centre of Berlin. The STASI would take them in a van (camouflaged as a food delivery truck), in the dark, in small cells. Then, they drove around for 2 to 3 hours in Berlin, while the STASI prison is only 30 minutes from the city centre, in order to disorient the prisoners. They could have been anywhere in East Germany. Arriving at the prison, the van would park in a shed with direct access to the cell corridor so that the prisoner would never see what the buildings looked like. Even when he left the prison, he couldn’t see anything!
Once arrived, all the prisoners had to stand bare naked in a cell for a complete inspection. Then, they changed into uniforms and took as their identity, the number of the cell in which they were going to “stay” in. Depriving them of their identity was one of the means of dehumanizing them and was part of their psychological torture. The prisoners were then in total isolation. They never saw another inmate except on a very special case, that I will explain further.
The STASI guards
For their own safety, the guards never had weapons on them. When a guard had a problem, he pulled on an electric wire hanging on the wall. This alerted the other guards with a red light system that ignited in the buildings. There was no alarm so that the prisoners were not aware of anything.
The guards controlled everything. In front of each cell, there are numerous switches to control the light, the electricity, the heating, and even the toilet flush. The inmate had to ask the guards to operate the switches and depending on the mood of the guard, he accepted or not. It was also a way of psychological torture.
The daily lives of prisoners
The daily lives of the prisoners were punctuated by interrogations. They were woken up at 6:00 in the morning for breakfast and then the interrogations started. While waiting for a guard to come and get them to go to the interrogation rooms, they were not allowed to sleep. At night, they were allowed to sleep, but only on their backs with their hands visible on the cover. If they ever moved or changed positions, they were awakened by deafening noises from the opening/closing of the metal latch of their cell.
As mentioned earlier, the prisoners were in isolation except in cases where they were placed in double or triple cells with “spy” prisoners. These prisoners collaborated with the STASI in order to have privileges (showers, food, etc.). They thus shared cells with other prisoners to try to have information about them in order to tell them to the guards.
Communication between prisoners
To communicate with each other, prisoners in isolation had a very simple communication code. They slapped on the wall once for an A, twice for a B, three times for a C and so on until they finish their sentence. It took a long time, so they went to the basics (first name, age, reason for imprisonment, …) and it occupied them. Otherwise, they could communicate through the toilet. After removing the water, they could talk through the pipes which were connected from cell to cell.
The STASI interrogations
When the prisoners were taken to the interrogation room, they were seated in a very uncomfortable way on a stool with a cloth between them and the seat. That cloth was in order to soak up the sweat. After the interrogation, which could last for hours, the STASI would put the cloth in a closed jar. They kept it for police dogs to smell in case the prisoner, once out of prison, decided to escape from East Germany.
The purpose of the interrogations was to make the prisoners go crazy so that they no longer knew who they were. Guards threatened them, intimidated them, played with their minds, played good cop/bad cop. The STASI had a rule in interrogations: if the prisoner always tells the same story, it is that he is lying.
Dissolution of the STASI prison
This prison and the STASI were dissolved in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the German Separation. Since then, no ex-STASI has gone to prison, there has been no effect on their lives after 1989. They live normally, have a job and no moral concern.
The anecdote that struck me most about this period is that the STASI also penalized the population that was not incarcerated and non-opposing. If a resident of East Berlin, who lived his normal life, had to say “no” to the police for any reason or did not want to cooperate, the STASI withdrew certain privileges or rights such as going to university, having a career, etc.
The example of our guide was that the STASI had asked her parents to give the names of their neighbors who went to church. At the time, religion was forbidden because you had to believe in the government and not in God. They refused to give the information by saying that it was not their business. For them to understand that they had not made the right decision by refusing to cooperate, the father was forced to return to the army when he completed his military service a long time ago.