Stasi Museum Berlin brings alive Stasi terror
The Stasi Museum Berlin brings alive the terror lived by GDR’s residents for 41 years before the Berlin Wall fell. Inside the museum walls a visitor is reminded why the Stasi secret police force of former East Germany was one of the most feared agencies in Europe. Its members had to power to track, spy, imprison, discredit, torture and kill – often for only the slimmest of reasons or suspicions or imagined transgressions against the state.
The Stasi Museum is in fact housed in the bleak former headquarters of the infamous agency, formally known as the Ministry of State Security, or “Stasi” for short. Thus, when you visit what was then known simply as “House 1,” you can imagine for yourself how people shivered in their shoes when they climbed the stairs to the drab foyer and were called up to the elegant, burnished wood offices for interrogations. Even the stairs you climb today as a visitor to the upper floors and exhibits in the Stasi Museum Berlin are the same cold, barren steps former East German citizens climbed.
Spend several hours in the Stasi Museum Berlin
Visiting the East German secret police museum in Berlin is part of a mandatory tour for any visitor to Germany’s capital. Inside visitors learn about the sobering history of the division of Germany, the Berlin Wall, and life in East Germany (GDR). There are three floors of both permanent and temporary exhibits, many audio recordings to listen to, videos to watch, real pictures and artifacts to shake your head over, maps used by the Stasi, and graphs illustrating its growth. We toured the museum with a former citizen of East Germany, who pointed out various insider information to us, telling us stories about his experiences in East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down. He said that he knew the Stasi existed but always imagined the agency was more like the CIA or FBI, and “I had never imagined all this.”
Powerful, sobering exhibits revealing secret police tactics
In the exhibits, you read about and see photos of wives recruited to spy on husbands (and vice-versa), “best friends” who spied on friends, and how the Stasi would search somebody’s home when they were out, but leave it looking just as it was before so they would never know. You see an actual door with a wiretap built into it because the Stasi watched and listened to the family for many years – and the family didn’t find out until 17 years after the end of the GDR during a reconstruction project.
There are belts, thermos flasks, shopping bags, ties, and hymn books, all with cameras or microphones.
There are also children’s books touting the glory of East Germany, hand grenades used in physical education classes to practice throwing skills, and bottles showing how the Stasi established a “scent archive” of people so dogs could track them. There are riding toys made to look like GDR tanks, dolls with gas masks, and educational material that showed how to pick a lock or set up camera surveillance.
Brainwashing was sophisticated and subtle. Our friend said they were taught that the Berlin Wall was to protect them from fascism. “We knew all of our letters were read,” he noted. From all of the materials at the museum, it is clear that the Stasi portrayed East Germany as the only thing in its citizen’s lives that would protect them and stand up to the evil and corruption of the Western world. Our friend noted they were taught how the workers in the West were used and taken advantage of.
Tour each of the Stasi Museum floors
On the first floor in the Stasi Museum Berlin, you learn a shocking fact: that an estimated one in every 10 East Germans worked as informers for the Stasi, sometimes not for money but favors and protection. You can read about the Stasi’s mission and director Erich Mielke’s control and power, as well as the power of other Stasi secret police leaders. The second floor of the museum, where the ministers’ offices were, remains untouched, preserved as it was during Stasi operations, complete with polished desks, rows of filing cabinets, chairs, and finely furnished meeting rooms.
Here, you can visit the office of Stasi boss Mielke. In another office, there is an old-style radio high on a cabinet, without any explanation. But our friend pointed out three little tape marks on the tuning dial, noting those were the “approved” stations you had to listen to. One day, in the army, he said, he didn’t lock up his radio and some of us buddies drank too much and then took his radio and listened to Western stations and Western music. He was the one though sent to jail for a short time, though, because he had let it happen.
On the third floor, there are various exhibits, including temporary ones, covering the end of the Stasi as well as many of its covert techniques for “destroying” a person or a perceived troublemaker. You learn how the Stasi would discredit people by planting homosexual items or pornographic materials in their mailboxes or possessions.
Stasi power in action
Stasi, all-powerful in its scope, had the duty of “safeguarding” the East German people as an important tool of the “Socialist Unity Party” of East Germany (SED). Demonstrators took over these headquarters in January 1990 after the wall fell, and the SED party declared its intent to create a memorial and research center there. This permanent exhibit, “State Security in the SED Dictatorship,” was created and opened in January 2015.
Visiting the East German secret police museum
The Stasi Museum Berlin is open daily. Check its website for hours and admission prices. It is easily accessible by public transport, for example from Alexander Platz taking only about 11 minutes on the underground to the Magdalenenstrasse station on the U5 line.
Other Berlin Stasi sights not to miss
As a part of your education on the Stasi, the Socialist SED party, and its activities, you can also visit:
>> the Stasi Prison Memorial site called Hohenschönhausen, where former prisoners lead moving, emotional tours (you can visit this memorial only on a guided tour). It is in the same general area as the Stasi Museum, about 2 ½ miles away, and also accessible on the tram or bus, in an area of town that was called the “prohibited district” since it did not appear on any maps during East German times! Read our story about the Stasi prison memorial site Hohenschönhausen Memorial – Reliving the Stasi prison horrors.
>> the Stasi Archives, also on the same “campus” as the Stasi Museum. Public tours are available, and anybody can also do research into the archives there, be it into your own records, for historical research or as the media. There is some paperwork required. To learn more read our story Stasi archives Berlin – Stash of secret police records now open.
>> there is also an open-air exhibit in this same campus that details the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful revolution Berlin that helped bring about German unity. Read our story “Open-air exhibit traces fall of the Berlin Wall” to learn more.
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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