When the offices of the East German secret police were stormed by protestors on January 15th 1990, citizens of the ailing DDR state were finally granted access to the inner sanctum of the most feared organisation in the country – the infamous STASI – or Ministry of State Security, as it was officially known. By summer of 1990 this facility would reopen as the Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Normannenstraße – with an exhibition titled ‘Against the Sleep of Reason’.
For more than 40 years, an impenetrable bastion that appeared as nothing more than a black mark on maps of the country – the STASI administrative headquarters was the main address for this terrifyingly bureaucratic behemoth that loomed darkly into the minds of the millions of people who called East Germany home.
The repressive East German secret police, founded in 1950 and based on the Soviet Cheka (predecessor to the KGB and modern FSB), was headed by Berlin-born strongman Erich Mielke – dubbed the ‘Master of Fear’ in the West German press – from 1957 until its demise in 1989.
His office still stands preserved inside Haus 1 of this complex of buildings in Berlin’s eastern district of Lichtenburg. Accessible to visitors and maintained as the star attraction in what is now known as the Stasi Museum.
This somewhat unremarkable looking collection of buildings sits just off Frankfurter Allee, a continuation of East Germany’s showcase Karl-Marx-Allee boulevard – that connects central Alexanderplatz to Frankfurter Tor, in the direction of the DDR’s Socialist sister states in the East.
Fans of German cinema will likely recognize the exterior of the main building, Haus 1, for its starring role in the Oscar winning 2007 film, The Lives of Others. The fictional retelling of the existential breakdown experienced by a Stasi worker assigned a problematic case – tasked with ruining the relationship between a famous East German writer and his actress wife. The latter an unwilling recipient of advances from a prominent party member who commissioned the assignment. Similarly, the popular German TV series Deutschland ’83 used the premises for genuine location filming.
Not only does the complex include what was the main office (Haus 1) of Stasi chief, Erich Mielke, but the former home of the East German foreign intelligence arm of the organisation (Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung), a functioning cinema, mail processing centre, supermarket, cobblers, and archive building.
The main Stasi archive now resides in buildings 7, 8, and 9 of the site – the official office of the Stasi records agency (BStU) – responsible for the safekeeping and accessibility of all the Ministry of State Security records. A massive 50km of files on site, if organised back-to-back, of around 111km of the files remaining that were collected by the organisation and previously distributed throughout the country.
Despite his thirty-two-years as head of the East German secret police, Erich Mielke - when sentenced to prison in 1993 - was not found guilty of anything he had done during his time in power. But for two murders he had committed in 1931, as a young Communist assassin.
At the height of its power, the Stasi is now considered to have been, proportionally, the largest secret police organisation ever in existence.
Larger, by that measure, than even the KGB for the entire Soviet Union. By 1989, this organisation – dubbed the ‘Shield and Sword’ of the ruling Socialist Unity Party – could boast of 91,000 official workers, and an additional 189,000 unofficial collaborators. One for every 90 East German citizens.
Although speculation based on the records destroyed at the end of the organisation’s existence puts the number as much higher.
At the top of this vast security apparatus sat one man – Erich Mielke. His office is now accessible on the second floor of the Stasi Museum, preserved with its distinctive wood paneling and modest blue fabric covered furniture. A man obviously concerned with his public image, Mielke did much to appear as if he were not taking advantage of his position, by maintaining a humble official domain. Contrary to the reality, as a member of the ruling Politburo, beyond his home he also owned a palatial hunting villa, complete with a movie theater, trophy room, and sixty servants.
When the Berlin Wall finally fell in 1989, Mielke was summoned to the East German parliament to justify his position in response to the recent developments – an event that has gone down in German television history as visually rewarding as the destruction of the Wall. Confronted with the boos and catcalls of the sitting members, he could do little but profess his love for all humanity (“Ich liebe – Ich liebe doch alle – alle Menschen!”). An emperor with no clothes; who would not remain any kind of emperor for much longer.
Eventually sentenced to prison, Mielke would become the oldest inmate at the Berlin Moabit jail, descending into senility and passing the time by engaging in conversations with imaginary Stasi officers on a telephone given to him by his guards. Similar to the ones that currently sit on his preserved desk.
Unlike the rest of the Haus 1 building, which is the property of the German Federal government – and maintained as a museum by the same protestors who stormed it in 1990, Mielke’s office has special protected status. Belonging for eternity, rent free, to the German people.
Exploring the Stasi Museum and Mielke’s office now is a matter of revelling in the unprecedented opportunity to access the East German equivalent of the FBI/CIA, MI5 or KGB offices.
An organisation regarded as ‘secret’ not because of its existence – which was made plain and clear to all its real and perceived enemies – but due to the actions it took and the planning carried out behind closed doors.
Those closed doors that now sit wide open – seven days a week.