Trees line the street and a dog barks somewhere in the distance. A mother and her friend walk slowly down the street pushing a pram whilst her other child plays in a pile of raked leaves upon the front yard of a bland apartment block on Freienwalder Straße. A man farewells a woman standing upon a balcony before getting into a VW and driving away. All is well, all is normal.
But it is exactly that which made the visit to Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial even more sinister.
As you continue down Freienwalder Straße, you arrive at a collection of abandoned buildings. In the land of the urban explorer’s dream, these buildings are unsuspecting, bar from small signs which indicate that it was part of the site, ‘Special Camp 3’. The signs are scarce, and you pass by a hostel where backpackers smoke upon the veranda, laughing with a beer in their hands.
But as soon as you reach the end of the street, the kindness of the quiet urban dream ends and before you stands a prison: Hohenschönhausen.
The first thing that you notice about the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial is how little it represents a traditional memorial: there is no statue or monument to which you’re immediately drawn, and you err at the sight of the large barred gate with only a small man-sized barred entrance where a man who looks like he could lift twice his immense body size smokes on his third cigarette in a row. Behind the monolithic grey-cement wall and the barbed wire coils, you notice a watchtower, its floodlights still in position.
Following the fall of Nazi Germany, the Hohenschönhausen Prison was opened in 1945 as the Soviet Secret Police took over the area as an internment and transit camp for victims heading towards Sachsenhausen, or further into eastern Europe. Though it was only used for a year, more than 800 deaths were recorded from sickness, disease, malnutrition and dehydration, and in maintenance of the wartime practice, the bodies of the dead were disposed of in bomb craters.
In 1951, Hohenschönhausen reopened under the Ministry of State Surveillance – the Stasi – as a remand prison, but was incorporated as what we would now know as a ‘black site’.
Officially, the prison did not exist.
The complex was in an exclusion zone, which effectively precluded it from state jurisdiction, and there are no known aerial photographs of the complex taken by non-GDR.
The Soviet Union became a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966 which altered the way in which the Hohenschönhausen operated, and walking into the prison, this distinct divide is embodied in how the prisoners were treated. Whilst some say that practices prior to 1966 were barbaric in the use of violence towards those at the prison, however post-1966 is characterised entirely my psychological torture.
The complex is operated and maintained almost exclusively by those who had previously been interred. As one of the very few English speakers visiting the complex (it is very off the beaten track…), I was taken on a tour by a wonderful guide who took us through the complex chronologically, and if you’ve watched Bridge of Spies or Deutschland 83, you will absolutely recognise some of the areas of the facility.
The building above houses the most notorious areas of the prison: the ‘Uboat’.
The ‘Uboat’ gained its name from its terrifying characteristics: each of the cells was claustrophobically small, and held no windows and lacked adequate ventilation. As one prisoner reflected, she was given the option of a ‘hot cell’ or a ‘cold cell’, and these were in the most literal sense: the hot cell was stationed directly beside the generators of the facility, whilst the cold cells received no heading at all. To add salt to the wound, the temperatures of the hot cells typically remained around 38°C, and with little to no ventilation, that in itself was excruciating.
The Uboat was also notorious as it was the isolation block, and if you’ve been to the Andrássy út 60 also known as ‘The House of Terror’ in Budapest, you will be familiar with the shockingly creative incarceration methods of the Easter Bloc. Like Andrássy út 60, the Stasi employed the use of different cells to exacerbate the discomfort of those interred:
- The ‘fridge’ – a disciplinary cell for barely one person. It measured 80×50 cm and was 200cm high. Light bulbs were installed at eye-height in order to disorient the interred.
- Water cell – a cell with no drainage at the bottom which would be flooded with a maximum of 15cm of water for a long period of time.
- Fox hole – a prison cell with no lighting inside with a lowered ceiling to prevent full extension of the body.
These cells were all since destroyed due to the 1966 International Covenant, but inside, the complex is marked with placards with the testimonies of all those who suffered through them.
However, for a most part, a majority of those interred were kept in isolation cells, often for months at a time, and made to adhere to strict rules within the prison whilst they were interrogated for ‘antisocial’ activities. Most of those interred at Hohenschönhausen did not know where they were, let alone what antisocial activities they had performed.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights imposed stringent minimum requirements on the treatment of prisoners, resulting in a change of practice at Hohenschönhausen.
Hohenschönhausen underwent significant changes after the International Covenant was introduced. The imposition of minimum standards in the rights of prisoners brought about alterations to conditions of incarceration and the treatment of prisoners at the complex. However, as with a majority of the Soviet regime, was carefully designed to achieve an outcome.
Incarceration from the 70s onwards was designed to take a psychological toll upon the prisoners. The minimum standards of the International Covenant did not address the psychological wellbeing of those interred, and as such, much of the treatment became orchestrated to lead to confessions – false or otherwise. The Uboat fell into disuse, and instead became a storage facility within the complex.
The Stasi was created a surveillance state, and kidnapping of both people from the West and East was common.
The Barka B100 became notorious not only for its reliability within the GDR, but its frequent usage in the kidnapping of individuals. Members of the Stasi, dressed in common clothing, would often swoop upon individuals upon their way to work, cuffing and blindfolding them inside the van, and keeping them in individual cells created inside of it. Up to five kidnappings could occur, followed by hours of driving to disorient the victims.
I didn’t take a photograph of it, but the garage in which they arrived was nothing but blinding white light, designed entirely to maintain the disorientation of the victims once they were produced from the van and hurried down the gaudy brown-wallpapered corridors into the new prison block.
Interestingly, and this is probably just me being knit-picky with Bridge of Spies, but this was the corridor used by Spielberg in the film – and had not yet been constructed. The film takes place in 1957, but this block was only built in the 1970s. Yes, I am fun at parties.
Conditions were better in the 1970s onwards than they were in the 1950s – hygiene was better, and all prison cells had access to sunlight. The view was sacrificed by slab-glass which prevented those interred from seeing out. We were told of one gentleman who visited the complex, only to recognise that he had been interred at the prison back in the 70s because of the interior, as he had no clue where he had been taken as he had no view of the outside.
The prison was also a silent prison, and thus guards communicated with sets of emergency cables down the walls; if there was an emergency, the guard would pull the wire and set breaks joints would set of an alarm in the switchboard room. Thus, if there was an incident, mob mentality would not exacerbate the situation.
Throughout the day, prisoners were not allowed to do anything; they were given no materials to read, and were not allowed to exercise, talk, tap, whistle or strafe the room. It was designed to be mind numbing.
Interrogations by the Stasi were designed to destabilise the victim. In Deutschland 83, Thomas is interrogated in the above interrogation room, but with the addition of intermittent blinding lights in his face. From what we were told, this wasn’t too far from the reality as lights and sounds were designed entirely to push the boundaries of comfort and distress for all whom were there.
Interestingly, each room had two recording devices; one which could be controlled by the interrogator, and another inside a cupboard which was designed not only to catch any admissions not recorded by the interrogator, but to monitor the interrogator for any sympathies he or she might have for the victim – another exemplar example of paranoia and surveillance under the Stasi.
Another interesting note, which I didn’t document too well, was the positioning of the chairs. At the table, the victim would sit at the end of the long table, opposite the interrogator, and they would sit upon a stool, whilst four much more comfortable chairs would surround them. The expectation of accompanying visitors often was used against the victim, in saying that someone they knew would be coming to help provide evidence against them, pushing them into an admission.
Tremendous credit needs to go towards those who operate and maintain Hohenschönhausen. Those who work there are brave to return again after sometimes long lengths of incarceration with no end in sight. I was fortunate enough to meet two men who had been incarcerated there as mere teens. Frank had been 19 when he had attempted to leap the Wall upon the outskirts of Berlin, and had been interred for 11 months before being sent to prison for another 7 years. Another was the stocky gentleman at the gate.
Matthias was 17 when he had the plan to ride his bicycle to the Czech border so that he could escape via Austria. Unable to get the whole way there, he hid in bushes and observed the border patrol for days, observing their timed checks of the border. Calculating the intervals, he dug under the fence only to hit a buried pressure alarm. He was caught and arrested, and sent to Hohenschönhausen. He was apparently a mouthy kid, who, when given a bucket and mop to clean his cell, used the bucket as a pumping weight to do bicep curls. He was harshly disciplined for ‘misappropriating prison property’. Two weeks later, when he was given the bucket and the mop again, he did bicep curls with the other arm. When asked why he did it again during a ‘disciplinary session’, he said that he didn’t want his muscles to be uneven.
Hohenschönhausen is a glimpse into the (in)justice system of the Stasi-controlled GDR.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hohenschönhausen was not raided like most government offices in the city, and subsequently, many of the files were destroyed by the Stasi before they could be recovered by the people. However, what has been recovered was shredded, and there is an ongoing project by the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial association to piece together all that was destroyed.
The Stasi’s surveillance state kept a concerning amount of data on each and every individual in the GDR, and many people who were subject to this battle with the decision of whether or not to review their files. Their files reveal a huge amount of information, often revealing why an individual has been incarcerated, and whom was the one to ‘give them up’. For some, it was a ‘friend’ or a colleague. For others, it was family, a husband or wife, a father or child.
Though many choose to review the files as a cathartic process of healing, many choose to leave it as a page unturned.
Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial / Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen
Address: Genslerstrasse 66, 13055 Berlin
Opening Times: 10am to 4pm
English Tour Times: April to October – Daily at 11.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m; November to March – Daily at 2.30 p.m.
Cost: Regular Admission – €6, Concession – €3, Student – €1.