Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday flea market and a visit to secret police headquarters

On Sunday we joined Berliners and tourists as we headed towards Mauerpark, famous for its huge flea market. It was jam-packed with people buying second-hand clothes, new clothes, parts for motor bikes, old furniture and record players that pumped out loud music, antiques, plants and even an old fashioned metal washing board. You could find anything you could imagine here in Mauerpark. Seamus even found his long sought after 'perfect' hat, while I bought a beautiful olive-wood ladle. 

Finally, we left the crush and sat in the adjacent park listening to five young men playing klezmer music. There were lots of people just enjoying the sunshine here. Nearby was a man singing the blues. We decided to leave the park and not wait for the karaoke, which is a big draw.

Back on the Ubahn we headed to the Stasi museum. Unlike other places we had visited, it wasn't well marked. We were in an area of nothing but block apartments with very little green space. Some was old Soviet style block housing but the new apartments looked pretty similar.

After asking for directions we finally arrived at Normenstrasse. That name we knew from Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunter novels. Normenstrasse would always put a shiver down Bernie's spine. We had reached the home of the Stasi. Since we hadn't had lunch we went to the cafe for a coffee and cake. It was the cheapest we'd had in Berlin and served by the only person we encountered who didn't speak English. Russian was her second language.

The building appeared like any other older office complex you might have been in, although this certainly had a sense of evil about it. It was from this compound that the Stasi conducted its nearly 40-year-long fight against the so called enemies of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. We were in House 1, constructed in 1960 and built as the seat of the offices of the Minister for State Security, Erich Mielke. To show you how vast it was there were over 22 hectares in the compound. At the end there were 91,000 full time employees and 189,000 unofficial informants.

The exhibition shows how the party leadership justified its dictatorship with Marxist-Leninist ideology. It used these political ideas to promote complete control of the population. The exhibition showed the methods with which the Stasi persecuted and suppressed dissenters. Finding themselves in a system built around rewards, threats and persecution, many residents of the DDR chose to conform, at least outwardly. Some did not conform and the party leadership was very sensitive to this segment of the population. They used the secret police, the Stasi to deal with them.

On the ground floor was a prisoner wagon complete with individual cages. Often these were disguised as laundry vans. There were displays of tiny cameras, cameras in ties, briefcases, purses and even petrol cans used for spying. Tiny miniature microphones were used as bugs for listening. Throughout the building were photos of individuals who ended up in the Stasi prison, many for what we would see as no offense at all. We saw Mielke's office area as well as other offices throughout the building.

On January 15, 1990, citizens forced their way into the building. This was the beginning of a unique historical process. The Ministry for State Security's accumulation of 111 kilometres of paper files, 1.7 million photos and 28,000 recordings were laid bare. Although records were lost in the initial invasion of the building, now a Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records preserves the safekeeping of the documents as well as making them accessible. 

An event in my life makes much more sense now that I have seen this building. A friend, who had defected from East Germany and lived in the West for six years emigrated to Canada. After she had been in Toronto for only two days her old East German coach had said to her father in Berlin, " I see that....has moved to Toronto." The Stasi had a long arm. I remember clearly a phone call for my friend on a Sunday morning. When I told her there was a German man on the phone she literally turned a ghostly white. She had me ask what the person wanted but it was only someone offering her a job. After the call she went to the bathroom and was physically sick. That is the effect the Stasi could have even from a long distance. I might add that my friend was no shrinking violet.

After our fairly grim afternoon we had to end the day on a lighter note. This involved eating a lovely steak pie and chips in an Aussie pub restaurant back at the Sony Centre in Potsdamer Platz followed by a movie, Olympus Has Fallen, in English, in a wonderful modern cinema. What a treat. And a normal ending to a strange day.

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