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  • Writer's pictureHester Vaizey, PhD

A Brief History of the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial

What is the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial?

The Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial is a former East German prison that held political prisoners during the Cold War, now converted into a museum and memorial.

Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial

Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial History

Hohenschönhausen prison is best known for holding political prisoners during the Cold War. Between 1951 and 1990 it was run by the East German secret police, the Stasi, who conducted widespread surveillance throughout East German society intended to catch any deviation from the diktats of the socialist state. East German non-conformists who refused to toe the party line, such as those who disagreed with the government’s socialist outlook, Christians and environmental activists, were subjected to intensive scrutiny.

The Stasi was founded in 1950, and within a few decades had 91,000 full-time employees and a further 173,000 so-called ‘informal helpers’ or informers. This was far more than the Nazis’ infamous Gestapo, which only had 7,000 workers at its height. Added to this, over East Germany’s 40-year period as a distinct country, the Stasi gathered more paper files than had been collected in the whole of Germany from the Middle Ages to the end of the Second World War!

Between 1948 and 1989, 250,000 East Germans who broke the laws of the state, or who were suspected of having done so, were hauled in for interrogation and detained in political prisons, such as Hohenschönhausen. The Stasi had many ways of gaining information: they tapped phones, wired houses with listening devices, trailed suspects, and collected smell samples in jars so that sniffer dogs could track people’s movements. Stasi files reveal that they knew when suspects ate their main meal, when they took their children to school, and even what brand of toothpaste they bought!

Inmates at Hohenschönhausen were subjected to extensive questioning. Interrogators tried to get prisoners not only to confess to their crimes, but to implicate others too. The Stasi recognised that information was power in this context: if the interrogator demonstrated a detailed knowledge of a suspect’s life, it would seem futile for them to withhold information – the Stasi easily gave the impression they already knew everything.

Interrogators used many other psychological tricks to weaken the resistance of prisoners. Often, for example, they were kept in solitary confinement for days on end, so that it was ultimately a relief to talk to someone when they were hauled into the interrogation room. Some interrogators also offered bribes, such as better food than the standard prison fare, in exchange for information about other suspects.

The prison at Hohenschönhausen was the Stasi’s central detention centre. All of the most famous opponents of the East German state were held here, and thousands of people passed through its cells. Today, former inmates guide visitors through the prison, each of them telling their story to remind people of the brutal side of the East German regime, which perhaps surprisingly is remembered by some with nostalgia as a paternalistic state providing employment and a welfare safety net for all. Many parts of the building and the equipment used by the Stasi have remained untouched, giving visitors a real insight into what life was like as a prisoner there.

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