Founded in 1950, the DDR’s Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security, aka Stasi) had about 91,000 registered employees and up to an estimated total of 189,000 informelle Mitarbeiter (informal collaborators) by the time the Wall came down in 1989. Conceived as a Soviet-style secret police, the Stasi was headquartered in Berlin-Lichtenberg and maintained city and rural precincts throughout the DDR, observing every aspect of private and communal life with methods that ranged from garbage analysis and operating a brothel, to torture and murder. It all came to a grinding halt with the end of the DDR, but not before efforts were made to destroy Stasi files. Around 2.75 million people, mostly former DDR citizens, have put in requests to see their own files.
BEST URBEX EXPERIENCE
THE ABANDONED STASI HOSPITAL IN BUCH
You won’t find it mentioned in guide books, but this sprawling mess of a clinic, conveniently located in the Berlin borough of Pankow, is just a breezy one-hour ride from the city centre, tucked away behind the S-Bahnhof Buch. Originally opened as a top-secret hospital back in 1980, the clinic once had 650 staff members dedicated exclusively to the treatment of Stasi members, their relatives and decorated former employees.
The clinic became part of Buch’s adjacent municipal hospital after reunification and was sold in 2001 to the Helios Group, who constructed a snazzier and more modern facility down the road, ultimately abandoning the formerly exclusive site in 2007.
Approaching the building, you’re struck first of all by the waste; surely, there’s a better use for it. Most of the windows on the bottom floors are smashed, but many in the upper floors are still intact. But then the site begins to weave its web of zombie charms: graffiti and dangling wires in wind-swept corridors, whispers, brought in on a breeze, of secrets and medical treatment for elite officers. It’s seriously creepy, with smashed washbasins and tiled rooms in private wards. Former operating theatres hide in the dark, the surgery light a ghost of its former self. Broken police tape flutters in the wind as you steal your way up the stairs. A few signs still lie in the corridors nestled between creative art work, including a floor sprayed in neon orange.
Though many of the historical artefacts have gone, it’s definitely a fun day out, wandering around the corridors, trying to listen to who stayed there and wondering what secrets still lie in wait. There are now plans to demolish the site and build 3000 apartments within the next couple of years. If you want to check it out, it might be worth doing it now before it’s all torn down. But do so at your own risk: trespassing is illegal!
- Take the S2 direction Bernau to S-Bahn Buch, thereafter on foot to the south side of the site.
BEST BLAST FROM THE PAST
THE STASIMUSEUM BERLIN IN DER ZENTRALE DES MFS
Located slap bang in the former Stasi HQ, the museum provides a comprehensive overview of the endless minutiae behind the DDR’s unparalleled network of spies. These buildings are also where the former Stasi chief, Erich Mielke, had his offices, all in browns, yellows and 1960s fonts. The offices, and seeing the extremes to which the Stasi went gathering intelligence and information as they spied on East German citizens will stay with you.
Highlights include phone tapping devices and cameras cleverly hidden in doors and light switches, and our favourite: a “photo sniper” consisting of a zoom lens attached to a gun that allowed spies to balance the heavy lens and take photos in quick succession. In fact, cameras are the museum’s real stars, with Stasi designs for devices that took up to 100 shots a minute from clothing, bags – even watering cans – offering up some mouth-watering voyeuristic catnip for the pre-smartphone era.
Spying is a labour-intensive process and here you’ll learn from the experts exactly how much work was involved. The officers deployed here developed techniques that were ahead of their time and methods that are still used today, including taking photos of apartments and rooms before ransacking them so they can be put back together as if untouched.
After the fall of the Wall, protesters stormed ministry buildings in early 1990 to stop mountains of records and documents from being destroyed. Museum tours started at the end of 1990.
- Stasimuseum, Normannenstr. 20, Lichtenberg. Mon-Fri 10-18, Sat/Sun/holidays 11-18 (€8); guided tours (€4) Mon, Wed/Fri/Sat in German at 13:00 and English at 15:00.
BEST INTERACTIVE HISTORY
GERMAN SPY MUSEUM
For 40 years, the international business of spying played out on inner-German territory, as this museum proves by taking a closer look at the methods used by both the Stasi and the Bundesnachrichtendienst (Foreign Intelligence Service, aka BND).
The interactive approach at this museum might appear more modern but make no mistake, the level of creepiness that jumps out at visitors from screens detailing listening devices in shoe heels, hidden compartments in glass eyes, and cameras in an array of objects including lighters and cigarette packets, is off the charts. Visitors also get a chance to sweep rooms (aka hunt for bugs – the electronic kind), look for codes and put destroyed documents back together. You can even get creative and try to bust your way through a laser maze, before you get pushed out the way by other enthusiastic visitors. And there’s a Trabi that once took photos with an infrared camera through its door.
The Stasi knew no limits when it came to clever ways to conceal information or intelligence-gathering devices, and this museum, opened in 2015, guarantees you’ll never look at a nail or frying pan in quite the same way again. The gift shop is also worth a mention, where you can get your hands on wares including clocks, batteries and lighters with secret compartments to stash your clandestine belongings.
- Deutsches Spionagemuseum Berlin, Leipziger Platz 9, Mitte. Open: Mon-Sun 10-20 (€7).
BEST MINI EXHIBITION FOR HISTORY GEEKS
A temporary exhibition in Tempelhof Museum shows images and videos recorded by the Stasi of the Tempelhofer airfield, which it had under surveillance between 1951 until the Wall fell. The former airfield, now (famously) a public park, is located close to the southern border between East and West Berlin, and was used by all three western allied powers but mainly the US. The photos range greatly in quality and scope, opening up a dialogue between observer and observed: What’s being photographed and why? Great for a short escape into Stasiland.
- Tempelhof Museum Alt-Mariendorf 43, Mariendorf. Tue-Sun 13-18; Thursdays 10-18 through Nov 9. Free of charge.
BEST IMMERSIVE TOUR
BERLIN’S STASI PRISON IN HOHENSCHÖNHAUSEN
The intimidating Hohenschönhausen Memorial, whose oldest buildings are just under a century old, boasts a remarkably short but ghoulish history of detention and intimidation. Before WWII, some of the buildings were used in food production for Nazi soup kitchens. Ironically, the Soviets transformed those buildings after WWII into a transit and remand camp from which more than a few Nazi grandees found themselves en route for distant Soviet camps, where warm soup was a rare treat. From 1946-47, forced labour was used to construct some 50 new subterranean prison cells and interrogation rooms, collectively known as “the submarine” (das U-Boot).
The DDR’s Ministry for State Security took over the premises in 1951. The old subterranean cells were used for storage, and a new facility was built next door. Upward of 11,000 people are believed to have passed through its unnervingly bland doors.
Guided tours in English and German are often led by former prisoners able to recount with chilling objectivity the details of their incarceration and the methods used to extract information. The route takes you through rooms where Soviet-style methods were used in dark rubber-lined spaces, and cramped cells in which 16 prisoners lived cheek by jowl.
By comparison, the newer part doesn’t seem all that bad. Our tour guide, a Canadian historian, explained how (physically) violent interrogation methods had fallen out of fashion by the 1950s, to be replaced by psycho-terror methods that left no physical marks, but deep mental scarring: being forced to sleep in specific positions, endure solitary confinement or having to ask a guard for permission to flush the cell toilet. Inmates were brought to a point where they looked forward to interrogation as an opportunity for talk. Many prisoners were accused of Republikflucht (fleeing the DDR). When it became legal to do so, in November 1989, some prisoners held in solitary confinement weren’t informed of ‘developments’ until December.
Throughout the 1960s, the Stasi got creative with a van, still on site today. Disguised to look like a fruit and veg truck, it was used to kidnap prisoners and drive them around the block, messing with their sense of time and space before delivering detainees back to a brightly lit room and more ‘talk’. In 1992, the museum was given listed status as a historical monument and opened to the public in 1994. Visits, available daily, are only possible as part of a guided tour but it’s hands-down the best immersive Stasi experience in Berlin. Book early – it’s worth the effort. Even if you’re a Stasi history buff, those 90 minutes, with plenty of time for Q&As, are sure to give you a much more visceral understanding of this dark period in German history.
- Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, Genslerstr. 66, Hohenschönhausen. Visits only as part of a guided tour; in German every hour 10-16; English tours at 10:40, 12:40 and at 14:40. Bookable for €6 at online-buchung.stiftung-hsh.de