Hohenschönhausen Memorial – Reliving the Stasi prison Berlin horrors

by Sep 24, 2018Berlin Region

The dreaded former East German Hohenschönhausen prison in Berlin is a memorial, where you tour the bleak cells guided by former inmates sharing stories of Stasi interrogation and psychological torture.

“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 Memoria), 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.”

Guide Koerner showing empty space on the East Berlin Map that is the Stasi Prison

Former prisoner and my guide for one tour, Friedemann Körner, showing a map of East Berlin with an empty space that is, in reality, the Stasi Prison.

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.
A unmarked, windowless, transport van that brought prisoners to Hohenschönhausen Stasi memorial prison with metal doors that slammed shut before they were taken out.
The U-boot hall at Hohenschönhausen Stasi memorial prison. Hot, crowded, often wet, miserable conditions.
Former prisoner and guide Michael Bradler sits where his interrogator sat (a practice guides seem to enjoy) in an interrogation room at Hohenschönhausen Stasi memorial prison
Hohenschönhausen Stasi memorial prison simple memorial plaque and stone in the courtyard, which prisoners never saw.
From where the transport vans dropped off a prisoner, through the doors and into the prison.
A padded rubber cell at Hohenschönhausen Stasi memorial prison where prisoners were put in isolation.
Red light warning system at Hohenschönhausen Stasi memorial prison. When the light came on, it alerted guards that a prisoner was being moved so they could put other prisoners in a temporary storage cell or be sure they stood around a corner at a red line to prevent prisoners from ever seeing each other.
Guide Körner toes a red line where prisoners must stop if another was coming -- to be sure none saw another human.
Blue prisoner suit shows how prisoners were forced to sleep in their cells at Hohenschönhausen Stasi memorial prison -- face up, hands visible. If prisoners moved in their sleep, they were awakened to return to the approved position.
An intake room at Hohenschönhausen Stasi memorial prison.

Another Stasi museum outside of Berlin

Leipzig, located south of Berlin, is where the Stasi had another of its headquarters. Leipzig was one of former East Germany’s most important industrial cities. The Stasi Museum Leipzig is well worth a visit. To learn more, read our story Stasi Museum Leipzig – Inside the Stasi reign of terror.

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