Stasi Prison Exposes Terror, Trauma in Berlin Compound

East Germany’s communist-era secret police, known as the Stasi, produced a heavy leather-bound volume embossed with gold in 1970 to mark its 20th anniversary.

Packed with advice for interrogating dissidents, it includes a chapter on how to prevent prison suicides. Black-and-white photos warn of hidden razor blades and makeshift nooses.

The book is in a new exhibition at Hohenschoenhausen prison in eastern Berlin, a place where 40,000 political captives were interrogated and tortured as Stasi agents wrung confessions out of them and cooked up grounds for indictments.

It’s not in an inviting part of town. From the hub of hip boutiques and trendy coffee shops at Hackescher Markt, the M6 tram plunges deep into East Berlin, through bleak vistas of concrete blocks and that brand of featureless gray drabness that East Germany perfected.

Step off at Genslerstrasse, a dozen stops down the line, and it feels like entering another era. The whole compound surrounding the prison was a sealed-off hub of secret activity, with factories making wire-taps, cameras, copies of keys for covert house searches and mail-opening devices. It was a white space on East German maps before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Only carefully vetted Stasi officials were allowed to live on the upper floors of nearby blocks in case residents got a glimpse of prison activity. The blank windows retain an aura of guarded watchfulness.

Prisoners’ Tours

Today the prison site is open to everyone, and a sizable number of visitors -- a record 351,000 in 2012 -- trek out east to learn about the terror the Stasi inflicted on those who didn’t toe the official line.

Former prisoners give tours of Hohenschoenhausen to groups of visitors, a lot of them schoolchildren.

Interestingly, those who lived under the dictatorship seem the most indifferent to its cruelty -- or perhaps the least able to come to terms with it. Most of the visitors come from western Germany. The number of Berliners who paid a visit in 2012 was the same as the number of Danes. More people came from Norway than from the rest of eastern Germany.

The prisoners won’t be there to tell their own story forever, and that is part of the reason for the new exhibition. It includes photographs, video interviews and biographies of individuals, their descriptions of the torture and their attempts to defy interrogators.

Truncheon Trolley

A trolley for storing truncheons testifies to brutal methods. A photograph of prisoner Guenter Schau meditating during an interrogation to resist questioning was taken by Stasi officers to document this unusual form of rebellion. The exhibition points out that not a single Hohenschoenhausen interrogator has served time in jail.

The average stay there was six months, though some dissidents were held captive without trial for years. The interrogators were trained psychologists who knew everything about the prisoners and families and used sophisticated methods to break down defenses.

They were largely successful: By the 1980s, a third of prisoners were informants. Anyone sharing a cell could be almost certain their roommate would be reporting conversations.

The exhibition is wisely housed apart from the cells and interrogation rooms. The forbidding corridors, lined with little windows into the cells so guards could check on prisoners, speak for themselves. Even the cell toilets are visible through those spyholes.

Sleep Rules

Cell lights were turned on at regular intervals through the night. Prisoners would be woken up by the guards if they didn’t sleep in the approved position.

Then there is the smell that permeates the entire building -- a lingering, sour waft of institutional East Germany that transports anyone who remembers back to the pre-1990 era. “Like Proust and his madeleine,” press spokesman Andre Kockisch says.

It emanates from a cleaning fluid for linoleum floors that Kockisch swears hasn’t been used in the prison for 25 years. Like the traumatic memories of those held captive at Hohenschoenhausen, it’s impossible to eradicate.

An English tour of Hohenschoenhausen prison takes place every day, and tours can also be arranged in other languages including French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch. For more information, go to

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Jason Harper on cars, Rich Jaroslovsky on tech, Lance Esplund on U.S. art and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.