The leisurely walk through a nice residential area makes it difficult to prepare for our visit to Hohenschönhausen, the former remand prison of the GDR’s secret police–STASI. At the same time it underscores the secretive nature of this project: Over fifty years, this large compound in the Eastern outskirts of Berlin could not be found on any map. Residents of the area were told that a police training facility and a large kitchen are located behind the walls. The prison was first used by the Soviet Union, which had occupied Germany’s east after WW II and then functioned as protector of the newly created state, the GDR, from 1949 on. In 1959, the GDR’s secret police took over and, over the decades, “treated” at least 7,000 prisoners in this facility. In other words, they used a wide range of psychological forms of torture to manipulate prisoners–political dissidents, intellectuals, artists, etc.–into confessing “crimes against the people.”
Obviously, the main reason for our visit there was to learn more about the various facets of Germany’s twentieth-century history and to better understand the criminal nature of the GDR’s “communist” dictatorship. However, without making too facile a comparison here, there are several aspects which raise important questions for our present time as well. The practices of surveillance, the construction of special tribunals for the trial of people without evidence, and the supposed legality of the entire process–secret GDR judges certified the various forms of torture and surveillance–don’t appear that far away considering the revelations about the CIA’s practices of extraordinary rendition, the secret courts justifying surveillance, and drone-assisted killings of US citizens. And, of course, the tour guide’s reference to the STASI’s capacity of opening the letters of thousands of East Germans results in mild amusement among people who know that the NSA can piece together an even fuller picture of our lives than the STASI ever imagined. The major difference is the fact that free societies can eventually discuss these misuses of police power and try to correct them–as our guide, who grew up under the STASI regime, emphasized repeatedly.