When you exit the M5 Strassenbahn at Freienwalder Straße, you find yourself in a quiet residential neighborhood east of Alexanderplatz. Private residences with saddle roofs alternate with conventional apartment buildings, some dating back to the public housing projects of the 1930s, some quite obviously reminiscent of the GDR Plattenbau. Nothing here provides a cue that just down the street was one of the GDR’s most notorious remand prisons, Hohenschönhausen.
Already in 1945, the Soviet NKWD, precursor of the KGB, used the buildings of a former canteen to interrogate and torture people suspected of collaboration with the Nazis, of espionage, or of anti-Communist activity. After the founding of the GDR, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit took over the site and used it as a remand prison.
Visiting this site is a chilling experience. In great detail, the guides describe the methods used by the Stasi to break the prisoners and make them confess “crimes” they’ve never committed. Most depressing are the accounts of psychological forms of torture, such as complete isolation and false information about dying family members etc. As our guide mentioned, while accounts of strong resistance existed, on average it took 72 hours for the Stasi interrogators to obtain the information they wanted, regardless of whether it was the truth or not.
Since our group consists of US and Chinese students, the guide felt prompted to point out that quite a few of the methods used at Hohenschönhausen have been, and perhaps are still being used at Guantanamo and other, unknown sites of interrogation, and he also criticized the human rights violations in China.
While US colleges such as Agnes Scott are usually very vocal about human rights issues on an abstract level but shy away from difficult discussions that might involve students’ feelings about their respective home countries, the guide’s non-pc attitude was quite refreshing and it led to good discussions afterwards.