Berlin: The Stasi Museum

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I’ve mentioned before how I’m not hugely interested in 20th century history (except FDR, I love FDR), but the Stasi Museum sounded intriguing – a museum on the East German secret police based in their former headquarters, with authentic preserved offices.  I read before visiting that only the main displays were in English, but that was also the case at the Criminology Museum in Rome, and that worked out ok, so I was willing to give it a go.  Since it was obviously located in the former East Berlin, the museum was in an extremely ugly area of town (I’ve heard that Karl Marx Allee, the youngest planned thoroughfare in a major European city, is within walking distance, and is bleakly imposing), though one of the nearest stations is the hilariously named Frankfurter Allee.

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Reviews of the museum also mentioned that they gave you a cloth propaganda patch as your ticket, but after paying my 5 euros, the guy just handed me a receipt, so I guess not anymore.  However, the museum charged an extra fee if you wanted to take pictures (not sure if it’s that well-enforced, but I didn’t want to take any chances (given the venue and all) so I just paid the extra euro – the things I do for you guys!) and they gave us one of the patches as proof we’d paid that fee, so I guess that’s the way to get one (there was also a shop, but it appeared to be shut when I visited, so not sure exactly what they sell in there).  At least they didn’t charge for the toilets, unlike a lot of other museums in Berlin, but of course there was no air conditioning, which made the visit brutal, especially when we got up to the 2nd and 3rd floors. There wasn’t even any windows that opened on one side of the building (so I can kind of see why Stasi agents might have been pissy)!

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As promised, though the walls were lined with colourful propaganda posters with no English translation, the main exhibit in each room was written in English in addition to the German (the museum was divided up in a bunch of small rooms, I’d imagine these were Stasi offices at one time as well).  A lot of the content seemed to be on all the communist organisations that were set up for the East Germans to join, like youth clubs; and the Soviet holidays they attempted to introduce (only the youth day caught on, rather than the substitutes for Christmas and Easter and such).  However, there wasn’t much background information, and the museum seemed to assume the visitor already knew all about the Stasi, including how they were formed, and the names of the main officials, which was definitely not the case for me.  Also, half the rooms on the first floor just contained an ugly chair (and a wall covered with seat cushions, so I guess we were supposed to note the different fabrics used in East Germany for some reason), and a poster with a photo and biography of various people, all in German, which I think was meant to be a tribute to those who were wrongfully imprisoned or killed by the Stasi, but it took me a good few rooms to figure this out.

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There were also an inordinate amount of everyday objects that had been reconfigured as spy cameras on display, so I guess everyone was spying on everyone else at all times.  This did convey, more so than the actual text, some of the horrors of living under communism, and the lengths the Stasi would go through to try to police people’s lives and thoughts.

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Because of this, I expected the preserved offices to be simultaneously utilitarian and formidable, but they turned out to be a surprisingly cozy homage to mid-century style.  I mean, this was furniture any hipster would kill to have in their living room.  It’s certainly not to my taste, but it wasn’t particularly communist looking at all; it actually looked pretty trendy for the time, unlike the dated furniture and clothing they were fobbing off on the ordinary citizen.

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They made a big stink about Erich Mielke’s preserved office being there (I kept referring to him as Eric Milky, because I have no idea how you actually pronounce his surname), and I know he was the head of the Ministry for State Security because the museum told me, but I don’t know anything else about him other than that.  Maybe the average German has heard of him, because the lack of information was puzzling otherwise.

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There were also some kind of crazy lifts that my boyfriend was interested in; apparently they somehow go sideways or on a circular track or something?  I dunno, they weren’t operational so I couldn’t witness them in action.  Anyway, the offices were probably the most interesting part of the museum, simply because of the chance to see the creature comforts that these leading communists surrounded them with, like a mod looking TV, and a radio with (very high-tech) Scotch tape marking the approved Soviet stations, though there was nothing to stop you from listening to Western radio if no one else was around (except of course, for the spy cameras hidden in literally everything).  Though the museum managed to get across the authoritarian leanings of the DDR, as well as the paranoia lurking under the surface of the government, and it was clear that most citizens would have had to be constantly on edge to avoid getting hauled off by the Stasi, I still would have liked to learn more about the history behind the agency, and I don’t feel that the displays were all they could have been.  3/5.

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While we’re on the subject of East Berlin, I of course had to swing by Checkpoint Charlie for a quick photo, which was easier said than done because the place is absolutely swarming with tourists trying to do the same thing, and they also have a couple “American” guards stationed at the checkpoint who pose for pictures (for a fee) so I had to avoid them as well.  I did not go to the museum, because it cost something ridiculous like 15 euros, and all the reviews said it wasn’t that good, particularly as there is plenty of wall-stuff to see for free, like a section of the remaining wall (as seen below) and the Traenenpalast (though they’re both a fair walk away from Checkpoint Charlie).

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Finally, this has nothing to do with anything communist, but I thought this post could use something funny at the end to lighten the mood, and I had to throw these pictures in somewhere.  We kept seeing these stupid bears all over Berlin, since “Ber” means bear in German.  Here are two of the creepiest examples (and I kind of look like a creeper too).  Enjoy!

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3 comments

  1. great entry! Ahh I love Berlin and Germany though, so sad to see abut these museums not living up to much! Did you visit the relatively new holocaust museum underneath the block monument? The bears can look a bit shabby for sure, but its nice pointing them out when you see them!

  2. That looks like a Paternoster lift – the Arts Tower at Sheffield University has one. The cubicles move continuously and you step on and off. You aren’t supposed to go “over the top” but, of course, every student does at least once.

    I’ve been to Berlin a couple of times but not to this museum, though I’d like to (even after your lukewarm review!) If you haven’t seen the film “The lives of others” I recommend it for a view of life under the Stasi. It’s bleak, but I found it completely compelling. And there is a sort of redemption at the end.

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