Cities / Towns Visited: 32
Countries Visited: 11
Steps Taken Today: 17,279
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,289,026
Our day started the same as always, and it wasn’t long before we were on the train, heading off to begin the day’s sightseeing adventures. After yesterday’s foray into the historic Prussian royals it was time to stray back a little closer to present day and spend another day looking into the history of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the Stasi. Our first stop was the Berlin Wall Memorial; a 1.4km site, where the wall used to run along Bernauer Strasse in the centre of the city, and a place where a large number of escape attempts took place. As you arrive at the end closest to the station you are delivered to a short stretch of remaining wall, on either side, following the same line, stand a series of iron rods, standing just as high, through which you can pass into what used to be the ‘death strip’; the space between the inner and outer walls in which was essentially no-mans land. As we stood in this strip, now lush with grass, and watching a bunch of school children walk in between the iron rods, it almost felt surreal. Less than 30 years ago, if you were where we are standing you would be shot, no questions asked, no punishment for the guards who pulled the trigger. In fact, those guards would get a promotion and a bonus.
The first section of the memorial explains the death strip fully. The 150m space of raked sand and gravel to show up footprints with ease was made up of several elements to prevent escape, including: the inner and outer walls, patrol road, guard towers spaced so that there would always be someone within shooting range, flood lighting, signal fence, barbed wire or other sharp strips at the base of the walls, and often dog runs, or automated guns which were triggered by motion sensors. This section also has a few areas which show the foundations of the wall and the path which used to run around the cemetery they built the Berlin wall through, as well as old wiring for the signal fence.
The next part of the memorial holds a wall showing photos with names and ages of the more than 100 people who were murdered while trying to escape, died from injuries or committed suicide due to failed attempts, or were GDR guards who were killed trying to stop escape attempts. It was heartbreaking to see so many young people, in their late teens and early twenties, who risked it all for their freedom. Some of their stories are truly horrific, like Peter Fetcher, who at 18 attempted to escape and was shot while trying to scale the outer wall. He was not killed instantly however, and was left bleeding out in excruciating pain calling for help for almost an hour before GDR guards came and retrieved him. He died later from blood loss. The police and all the people on the West were unable to help as the entire wall was built on East German land and thus they had no rights to be there and risked being shot if they attempted aid. There is also the story of a toddler who fell into the river Spree on the west bank, but because the river technically fell into East territory no one could save him without risking execution by GDR guards. Or finally the story of Ida Siekmann, the first person to die trying to escape. Just after the wall was erected some of the apartment buildings in the east had a west facing wall in which a number of people jumped down to the west onto firefighters nets, although the firefighters had to hide and only come out just before people jumped to not give away the escape attempts. Ida threw a quilt and some personal possessions down from the third floor window, but jumped before the firemen had the net ready, and she was severely injured when she hit the pavement, and died on the way to the hospital.
Further down the memorial strip there is a new church where the old church used to stand between the two walls, that was demolished by the GDR. Although it is small, and in no way resembles the gothic beauty which used to grace the site, there is something fitting about its meek and scantily decorated interior with simple plain wooden seating. The area after this shows the old foundations of the aforementioned apartment buildings from who’s windows many people escaped in the first few weeks of the walls existence, before the windows were bricked up, then they were demolished altogether. There is also a series of metal bars set into the ground that show the routes of several tunnels that were secretly dug to allow escape. Most were dug from the west to the east by west Berlin students or family members and friends who wanted to rescue their loved ones. A few of these tunnels were successful, but only briefly, and were often discovered and closed off after a couple of uses. Along the whole length of the exhibit are numerous information panels, along with a number of pillars which house audio from everyone from escapees, GDR guards, and even a nurse from the hospital that had to treat injured attempted escapees. It was interesting to hear from a former GDR guard who made it quite clear that most of the guards did not enjoy their job, or even want to be there at all. He made it very clear that more often than not the guards would purposely miss when shooting at those attempting to flee. They were unwilling to fulfill their orders simply to get a promotion; they still had their humanity, even in their forced situation, and many of them were beaten or imprisoned should they refuse to fire at all.
The last part of the memorial is a visitor centre. On the ground and first floor is a small exhibit giving information about the wall. You can then climb up to the rooftop and look down over the last remaining part of the wall that stands in its original condition with the death strip in tact. It is a confronting sight to say the least. From up there is seems so small, such a short distance from oppression to freedom, just a tiny strip between two worlds; but oh the pain it caused.
Eventually we had to scurry off in order to reach our next destination in time for the free English guided tour. A couple of trains, and a short walk later and we arrived at the Stasi Museum, housed in the old Stasi headquarters out in a suburb just east of the main city. For those unaware, the Stasi was the GDR’s secret police, and essentially what you would expect the thought police in ‘1984’ to be like. As we joined the tour and walked through the building it was like going back in time. The building remains almost exactly as it was when it was shut down at the end of the Cold War in 1989. The office building looks and smells like a 60’s office building through and through; the furniture, the curtains, the fittings, it was like being back in my grandparents house (although obviously a lot less homely). The entire second floor, which houses the offices and meeting rooms of the head of the Stasi, remains as it was; aside from the clear lack of paperwork and stationary, it looks as though the workers are simply our for lunch.
The floor below has a wealth of information on the running of the Stasi, and to be honest, its terrifying. From having a file on almost ever single person in the GDR; to having civilian spies (many of whom they blackmailed into helping them) who ratted out their friends, neighbours, family, and even spouses; to actively brainwashing the children; to kidnapping and imprisoning basically anyone who said a single bad word about the communist regime, or were even rumoured to want to leave and, at times, making them simply disappear. With display case after display case of phone tapping bugs, hidden cameras, lock picking and key copying equipment, and a full set of equipment from the entire department they had that secretly opened and read everyone’s mail before resealing and sending it on, or simply destroying it, it was mind-boggling to witness . The museum also houses an old Stasi van that looks just like any other white van you would be suspicious of in terms of luring children nowadays, but the back of it is fitted with cells to kidnap three or four freethinking adults.
It was fascinating to find that there is still a department you can go to now that holds all of the files the Stasi held on the GDR citizens and a lot of the people who visited from the west. It was even more interesting to think that my partners father was a foreign minister in Australia at the time and passed into the GDR through Checkpoint Charlie during the cold war, and thus most likely has a file in that office.
To learn that the Stasi members were all military trained, including the administrative staff, and that those who had the highest arrest rates, or discovered possible deserters were given bonuses and perks, like nicer holidays or a car, was truly startling and despicable. The entire system was so paranoid that they would have investigators investigating each other. The whole place was like some kind of dystopic James Bond HQ. It felt so close to George Orwell’s description of Big Brother in ‘1984’ that you begin to wonder if the man time travelled to East Germany at that time and was actually writing an historical work. Unbelievably unsettling is all I can describe it as.
After thoroughly exploring the rest of the museum after the tour, we made our way back into the city centre. We stopped briefly at the Hackescher Markt to buy a couple of bratwurst to tide us over, then wandered off to quickly see the exterior of the Dom Cathedral. As we passed by the groups of goth and alternative kids dotted around the grass beside the cathedral. Their juxtaposition beside a house of god, most often filled with people who would disapprove of their clothing and general look and mindset, we both chortled to ourselves at the fact that we would probably fit right in with them much more so than the average churchgoer. We laughed a little more when we reached the front and read the banner on the front saying ‘Hate hurts the soul’; something we both wholeheartedly agree with, however the church as an institution seems to direct a lot of hatred towards anyone who doesn’t fit into their rhetoric or beliefs. Please note I most certainly do not mean all Christians as I know many open minded and loving religious folk, who would never say a bad word about anyone, believer or not.
Finally it was time to head home for another homecooked meal and a well earned sleep. As I thought back to the Stasi HQ once more, my mind was caught on a question asked by one of the other visitors on the tour, ‘Do the people who worked for the Stasi still get their pension now that many of them are coming into retirement?’. The guides answer was that they do get the minimum pension, but do not get the benefits they were promised during their employment. Apparently this upsets many of them, and they often protest, using the rhetoric that they were ‘just doing their jobs’. To be honest, I think that’s just a cop out. Whether you were actively interrogating and torturing people, or simply filing information or opening and checking mail, just because it is in your government supported job description does not make it morally and ethically right. Most of these people chose to take these jobs as they often provided better living conditions and access to greater benefits, including the higher pension they now call for, despite the fact that the majority of them knew that what they were doing directly resulted in the imprisonment, torture, and murder of people who’s only crime was hoping for freedom from their oppressive government. They may have done this in order to better support their families in those trying times, but they did so at the expense of others. These people were allowed to continue with their lives unpunished for their part in the crimes of the Stasi; this was their reward, and they should be grateful for it. They were self serving in their actions, and those who promised them benefits were rightfully removed from their place of power. Those who saved you from oppression do not owe you the fulfilment of empty promises from a corrupt government, especially when your actions directly or indirectly violated the human rights of others. In the words of Willy Wonka, ‘You broke the rules, therefore you get nothing. Good day sir!’.