The first time I tried to find the Stasi headquarters in Berlin I got lost. About 10 years ago, a group of five of us battled through gray East Berlin streets, lashed by icy wind and sleet.
We eventually abandoned our spy hunt in favor of coffee and radiators. It turned out the street number was misprinted in our guidebook. We imagined a possible conspiracy.
Since then I’ve visited the Stasi Museum a few times. It recently reopened after a refurbishment funded with 11 million euros ($14 million) from the government’s 2009 economic stimulus package. It’s next to a building that houses Stasi files stretching for kilometers. Citizens can apply to consult them.
Visitors to Berlin seeking an insight into the communist dictatorship should go to the museum. Choose a cold, wet day for full effect. The former Ministry for State Security is a concrete complex in the dingy district of Lichtenberg, a labyrinth featuring the worst of East German architecture -- oppressive, uniform, dreary, cheap and indifferent to its surroundings and occupants.
The buildings are numbered with no obvious logic: House 1 adjoins House 7, and faces House 22. From House 1, Minister for State Security Erich Mielke oversaw what was known as the world’s most omnipresent national spy network, with 91,000 permanent employees and another 190,000 informal collaborators.
As an organ of state-sanctioned terror and repression, the Stasi had unlimited access to information about East German citizens. Suspected enemies of the communist state included churchgoers, environmentalists, punks and artists.
Yet anyone could become a target of the Stasi’s methods. Its operatives steamed open mail and resealed it, conducted secret apartment searches for incriminating evidence of dissent, planted listening devices and cameras and recruited acquaintances, friends and even family to report the most banal details and conversations.
The ministry was sealed from the outside world until 1990, when protesters stormed and occupied the complex. What they found was surprisingly modest, given Mielke’s power. The archaic equipment and dismal decor are on public display in his former offices in House 1 -- flimsy furniture, yellowing lace curtains, ill-fitting rugs and depressing greenish walls.
This presented a challenge to those behind the recent renovation. How do you freshen up something whose very trademark is drabness?
The answer is to approach it as a heritage site and work discreetly, even going so far as to recreate the nasty linoleum, analyze the chemicals in the horrid paint and replace crumbly bits of gray plaster on the grim facade. The barely perceptible additions include new fire escapes, insulation, plumbing and heating and wheelchair access.
There is a basic interim exhibition in House 1 until a permanent show takes its place in 2013. The display includes cameras disguised behind coat buttons, a pile of Stasi wooden stamps and short biographies of Stasi agents and their victims.
I was disappointed that the sinister jars of smells that used to be there were gone. Bizarrely, Stasi agents sought to capture people’s scent by surreptitiously attaching little pieces of cloth to suspects’ clothing or their chairs. These samples then were stored in carefully labeled jars so that, should the need arise, dogs would be able to track them.
I found out that the smell jars have gone to a newly opened permanent exhibition at an “Education Center” near Checkpoint Charlie, at Zimmerstrasse 90. Though chiefly targeted at German school groups, a good chunk of the display is translated into English for tourists.
The rooms are too sanitized to give any sense of atmosphere. It feels strictly educational. Yet there are some gems -- like Mielke’s locked red briefcase containing papers incriminating the East German leader Erich Honecker.
The Stasi chief carried it around with him all the time; evidence that no one was exempt from paranoia in that regime of fear. Mielke, who was 82 by the time he left office in 1989, was sentenced to prison in 1993 for murdering two policemen before World War II. He died in 2000 at 92 after being released from prison ahead of schedule in 1995 because of ill health.
Stasi surveillance films capture punks hanging out on street corners and congregations milling outside church after services. A guide to disguises worn by Stasi spies portrays a model in a wig so bad you’d think people would stop in the street to stare at it, a chunky cable-knit cardigan and goofy spectacles.
To get a full overview of the extent of the Stasi’s terror, go to the prison at Hohenschoenhausen in the suburbs of Berlin. Access is only via a guided tour, usually conducted by former prisoners. Tours in English are available once a day.
For more information on the Stasi Museum, go to http://www.stasimuseum.de. For more on the Bildungszentrum, see http://www.bstu.bund.de/DE/Wissen/Bildung/. For more information on Hohenschoenhausen, go to http://en.stiftung-hsh.de/index.php.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)