BERLIN -- More than
16 years after the Wall fell, West Berlin and East Berlin have
melded together enough that a visitor wandering around the city
often can't tell which was which. But at a dingy gray building
surrounded by concrete walls topped with barbed wire, there is
no escaping the creepy feel of communism. This was a prison run
by the East German secret police, the Stasi, which has been preserved
as a memorial to the crimes of the past.
Our guide today is
a paternal figure with the learned air of a retired college professor.
Hans-Eberhard Zahn, who taught psychology at the Free University
of Berlin, learned a lot about the human psyche right here --
as an inmate.
The Stasi was one
of the most ambitious and systematic instruments of totalitarian
rule ever devised. Hitler's dreaded Gestapo terrorized a nation
of 65 million with a force of just 15,000 agents. The East German
version, by contrast, had some 85,000 internal spies -- and more
than half a million informers -- to monitor, harass and intimidate
a people numbering just 17 million.
It compiled dossiers
on one of every three men, women and children in East Germany.
Citizens later granted access to their files were shocked to find
they had been betrayed by neighbors, coworkers, priests, teachers,
friends -- even spouses and children. As Anna Funder writes in
her new book, "Stasiland," "Everyone suspected
everyone else, and the mistrust this bred was the foundation of
Zahn was arrested
while visiting a fellow Free University student in East Berlin,
in the days before the Wall cut off access. Originally suspected
of being an American spy, he eventually was sentenced to seven
years behind bars because of some articles he had written for
a student publication that allegedly "endangered the peace
of Germany and the whole world."
He explains how the
Soviets, who first ran the installation following World War II,
would torture inmates. Over here is a space about 5 feet high
and a foot deep, where prisoners were enclosed for up to 72 hours.
Over there is a cell that could be filled with up to 10 inches
of water, so the occupant could not sit down.
But once the East
Germans took over, they used a different approach. Zahn escorts
a small group to the cell he occupied for 10 months in 1953-54.
It measures about 6 feet by 10 feet, and its only furnishings
are a bucket and a wooden bed with no mattress.
It's not the Four
Seasons, but he was never physically abused, much less tortured.
He got plenty to eat, and the cell was well heated in winter.
"If I had a headache," he recalls, "I got a tablet."
The pressure was
of a different kind: "There was nothing to read, nothing
to write, no one to talk to." The light stayed on at all
times. No prisoner was ever allowed to catch a glimpse of another
prisoner. Guards communicated only in terse commands.
He would sit in his
windowless cell, behind a door whose peephole could be opened
only from the outside, allowing guards to watch him unseen. "You
were entirely alone but also permanently under observation,"
The crushing isolation
affected his mind in strange ways. He found himself yearning to
be interrogated by his captors, or even beaten. Any interaction
seemed better than none. When he was first questioned, Zahn broke
into tears of gratitude at being addressed by name.
Treated with outward
kindness by the officer in charge, "I thought, 'This is my
friend.' I regretted that I couldn't tell him what he wanted to
hear." That reaction, he says, reminds him of the closing
words of George Orwell's novel "1984": "He loved
At the end of the
tour, an Australian visitor asks an obvious question: Does Zahn
see a parallel between the prison and the U.S. detention center
in Cuba? "No," he says firmly. "The inmates at
Guantanamo Bay are very different from those here. We were not
even suspected of being terrorists." Still, it's hard to
imagine any American visiting here without feeling that the similarities
are too close for comfort.
But what is most
striking about the Stasi facility is that it was not an overreaction
to a clear danger. It was a microcosm of an entire system that
made paranoia about its people the central governing principle.
Even East Germans who never saw the inside of this prison knew
what it was like to live as an inmate: always alone, always under
surveillance and always captive.
2006 Creators Syndicate