Back from a long visit to the former Stasi (State Security) prison in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, I’m still trying to stomach the input. I’ve previously seen the Stasi headquarters in Lichtenberg, a must see destination for everyone interested in history; but Hohenschönhausen is certainly a different experience. The former prison remained mostly unchanged since 1989 and is now a memorial. Guided tours by former prisoners help to understand what happened in Hohenschönhausen and how the Stasi acted until the end of the GDR.
Our guide was imprisoned in Hohenschönhausen because he was involved in a failed escape attempt trying to cross the border. He never knew he actually was in Hohenschönhausen – the Stasi made huge efforts to leave prisoners in the dark about their whereabouts. It was only in the 1990s during a visit in Hohenschönhausen when he recognized his former prison. “A difficult experience”, as he recalled.
Most of the violence was psychological – leading prisoners in temptation with more food or better living conditions; faking severe illness of loved ones; threatening to forward people to even worse prisons.
Imprisonment conditions overall were torturous. Months and years of strict isolation, the narrowness of their cells, a lack of daylight and systematic sleep deprivation were meant to break the perseverance of arrested dissidents.
Today, many of the former prisoners are still traumatized. Our guide recalled how he was brought to a hospital with an ambulance a few years ago due to an injury. Not knowing where he was and where the ambulance was going triggered a full force panic attack he just barely managed to get under control.
He started to work as a guide in Hohenschönhausen in 2009 after retirement. Since then he has received various threats from former Stasi employees and gets insulted on a regular basis. He was even being spat at by people denouncing him as a “Märchenerzähler” (Fairy tale teller).