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  • Writer's pictureHester Vaizey, PhD

A Brief History of the German Spy Museum

What is the German Spy Museum?

The German Spy Museum, or Deutsches Spionagemuseum in German, is an interactive, user-friendly museum that opened in 2015 and tracks the history of spycraft with a particular focus on the Second World War and Cold War.

German Spy Museum

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German Spy Museum History

When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, East Germany’s Ministry for State Security (commonly known as the Stasi) had 91,000 full-time employees and a further 189,000 ‘informal helpers’ or informers. It also commanded 17 secret prison facilities. One of the largest secret police agencies in the world, the Stasi spied on people by tapping their phones, bugging their houses, and even collecting ‘smell samples’ in jars, the logic being that trained sniffer dogs could tell where suspects had been. It kept files on six million of the country’s 16 million citizens, collecting more paper files in its 40 year existence than had been collected in Germany from the Middle Ages to the end of the Second World War. Such files typically reveal the shocking intimacy with which the Stasi’s operatives could know their targets, such as what brand of toothpaste they bought, their particular eating habits and when they dropped their children at school.

When the wall fell, East Germany was thick with spies, and their institutional protection by the state suddenly vanished. Most of them, however, escaped punishment: Helmut Kohl and the politicians that followed him in leading the reunited Germany decided to prioritise integrating East Germany into the unified country, rather than punishing those who ran it. Therefore only 182 Stasi officers were subsequently charged with a crime, only 87 were convicted, and just one of them was jailed. As a result, most East German spies reinvented themselves as businessmen, academics and politicians, no doubt drawing on the deception they had learned in their former profession.

Berlin’s ‘German Spy Museum’, which was founded in 2015 by former journalist Franz-Michael Günther, is situated, appropriately, right at the heart of an enormous Cold War spy network. Given its history, Berlin could rightly be called the capital of spies. Indeed, Günther himself declared that ‘no place symbolises the Cold War more than Berlin’. The museum certainly lifts the lid on this intriguing chapter of Germany’s past, but it also tells the story of spying in general from ancient times to the present.

Who was the first spy? How do you kill someone with an umbrella? Who knows more about you – the Stasi, MI5 or Facebook? This museum presents its answers to these fascinating questions in an engaging, user-friendly way. It offers a fully immersive multi-media experience where visitors can see, feel, read, hear and smell for themselves what happened over thousands of years of espionage. From over 1,000 exhibits, you can learn about a cipher technique invented by Julius Caesar, which is still being used today; you can discover secret service methods used by Oliver Cromwell, and Napoleon, as well as the techniques for spying employed by both sides in the First and Second World Wars and in the Cold War. You can try your hand at spying too, be it deciphering secret codes, negotiating a laser maze, testing the security of your preferred password or learning how to hack a website. You never know, it might come in handy. Careful who is watching, though!

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