“Here was my cell,” says our guide, pointing to No. 119. Then he turns and walks on. On a visit to the Stasi Prison Berlin (Hohenschönhausen), you don’t just look at artifacts and signs, you listen to former prisoners telling about the horror of this Stasi secret prison that didn’t even exist on East German Berlin maps. You walk the same bleak halls that they did in blue jumpsuits. You sit at the interrogation desks they did. You relive the persecution of East Germany’s “Ministry of State Security,” or “Stasi” for short. My first guide Michael Bradler, now in his 60s, spent nine months in the Stasi secret prison in Berlin, today officially known as the Hohenschönhausen Memorial. He ended up there, as many did, because he tried to escape East Germany. “I knew I was in Berlin, but I didn’t know where,” he says of his time in the prison.
Psychological torture and persecution
At this prison, most of the torture was psychological, including total isolation. Even taking prisoners to and from small cement cells was timed meticulously with a system of lights so two inmates never saw each other. And guards only said things like “come,” “stand,” or “move,” to ensure prisoners lost their sense of humanity, never calling them by name, only numbers. Former prisoner Friedemann Körner, a successful tenor singer in East Germany and my second guide, ended up there along with his wife because a friend met a girlfriend at Körner’s house, unbeknownst to Körner, to plot an escape. “I thought it was a mistake,” he says on a tour about his imprisonment. “I always had the thought, this can’t last long…. I just started going nuts.” Then, after about four months, he was sentenced to another 5½ years at a work camp where he was forced to labor as a lathe operator. There, he says he lost his voice because of the steam and conditions. His wife, too, ended up in prison and a work camp, and their two children in a Stasi home. Körner is an optimist and says he hung onto small things to keep him going – like a passing waft of fresh air. And after being released to West Germany, he did learn to sing again. Bradler, who had ended up in the Stasi memorial prison by applying to leave East Germany seven times, was “sold” to West Germany – a custom East Germany developed since it direly needed money.
Death, disease and isolation in Stasi prison Berlin
Many hundreds died in the Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison during its operation, with several hundred thousand spending time there as prisoners over its approximately 40 years. Although there were guard towers, the area it occupied was an unmarked spot on city maps in the middle of an area called the “Prohibited District.”
Prisoners arrived in windowless vans which often drove around town first to confuse those inside. At the prison, the van was driven into a windowless room with solid doors that were closed before the prisoner was taken out, from a totally dark van to a brightly lit room. The blinding effect was part of the disorientation. “The tactic here was to make you fall apart psychologically,” Körner says. The prison was closed after Germany’s reunification and former inmates began to advocate for a memorial site by 1992. The memorial prison was established two years later. Today, nearly a half-million people visit the site each year, with half of those being young people and school groups.
Former prisoners as guides
Some former prisoners come back to be guides (take a look at the list here) without much convincing, such as Bradler, today an author, who is droll, seemingly dour, and always dressed in black. His humor is dry and sardonic. Körner, on the other hand, retired in 2010, and is cheerful and friendly. When he was called by the foundation that today runs the Stasi prison memorial in Berlin, he turned down the request to become a guide. But by 2015 he decided he had to do it. “It’s not easy sometimes,” he says to his group, sitting in a small interrogation room of the prison, bowing his head for a quiet moment. Bradler too says, “I can’t walk through this place alone even today. It’s eerie.” But they both do it to teach the Stasi prison’s visitors about the past so the past does not repeat itself. Ironically, Stasi boss Erich Mielke was the last prisoner held at the Stasi prison Berlin. The prison memorial site can only be visited on a guided tour. Most (but not all) guides are former inmates, while the others are historians or researchers (often for the English tours). Tours are available in both English and German, and special group tours can also be arranged. Download a flyer in English by clicking here.
A visual journey through Hohenschönhausen
Enjoy a gallery of images from our tour in Hohenschönhausen. Click each one to open it and read a caption. Be sure to watch the video at the end of the gallery to fully experience the horror of the Stasi Prison.
Guided Tours of Berlin