Tam Eastley traces the ghosts of Erich Mielke, head of East Germany’s notorious secret police, and visits the newly renovated Stasi Museum…
Smack dab in the middle of a complex of grey and scary buildings so large they make your neck ache and your head spin, lies the desk, shredder, tape recorder and office chair of a man whom Anna Funder in her (brilliant) book Stasiland described as “the most feared man in the GDR”.
He’s also, for many, the most hated and from a Berliner perspective – be it Ossi or Wessi, it’s not hard to see why. Mielke was the head of the Secret Police in East Germany (the Stasi) for over thirty years. He oversaw approximately 92,000 spies and 170,000 normal civilians who secretly watched and reported on their fellow countrymen.
It’s estimated that in the GDR, there was one informer for every seven people, and every one of them answered to Mielke, the man at the top. He ran the Stasi using fear as a primary weapon and routinely executed informers and traitors to the government without court processes.
In 1989, right before the wall fell, he was considered one of the most important men of the Communist Block, a man whose future would no doubt have continued along a path of power, intimidation and so-called “success.” But like so many of the higher-ups of the Communist party, Mielke’s history and associations betrayed him in the end, and not without cause.
In Berlin, where it all happened, it’s possible to follow a posthumous Mielke trail through the city, imagining where it all happened – and where it all went horribly wrong.
Rosa-Luxemburg Platz (U-Bahn Station Rosa-Luxemburg Platz Line U2)
Mielke was born in Wedding, a district in the northern part of Berlin, on December 29th 1907. His parents helped found the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), and Mielke was very active in the party from his teens onwards.
His involvement often put him in the middle of clashes with the police and the Nazi Party. It was a rough and tumble time in Berlin, after the first world war and before the second, when politicians were fighting for power, and citizens fighting for something to believe in.
In 1931 the street fighting turned personal when a member of the KPD was killed. Walter Ulbricht, head of the KPD was enraged, and ordered the killing of two police officers as revenge, Paul Anlauf and Franz Lenck. Two members of the party planned the attack, and Mielke, an up-and-coming young communist, was asked to carry out the dirty work.
On August 9th, 1931, the two policemen were on hand at a demonstration at Bülowplatz, now Rosa-Luxemburg Platz, and were followed by Mielke and an accomplice. Mielke gunned down the two men at point-blank range directly in front of the Babylon Theatre; a third police officer, Max Willig was also injured.
To avoid identification by the surviving victim, Mielke fled to Russia. Until 1950 there stood a monument to the murdered police officers at Rosa-Luxembourg Platz. However, when Mielke later returned to Germany, he had the monument destroyed.
Stasi Museum Berlin (Ruschestrasse 103: U-Bahn Station Magdalenenstrasse Line U5)
Mielke didn’t return to Germany until 1945. The fourteen-odd years of his absence were spent studying at various schools in Moscow, serving in the Spanish civil war, and interned in France. When WW2 ended, Mielke was brought over to the Soviet sector of Berlin and installed as a police inspector.
Funder states that “from the mid 1930s, wherever he was, Mielke was a hatchet man in Stalin’s secret service,” which explains how he so easily climbed the ladder of Soviet success and helped to build East Germany’s secret police, culminating in 1957 when he was awarded the position of Minister for State Security.
The newly renovated Stasi Museum is a terrifying reminder of how all-encompassing the Stasi really was. The entire block is a series of grey labyrinthine buildings, all hunched claustrophobically together. A city within a city, the Stasi offices came complete with a movie theatre, canteen, a supermarket – and were surrounded by apartment buildings housing the people the Stasi liked to keep a close and paranoid eye on.
The main building (Haus 1) is home to Mielke’s recently opened office and looks exactly how you’d expect it to look: carved busts of Marx and Lenin lining the hallways and the foyer, brown marble columns, off-white almost yellow walls, tacky gold-coloured railings.
Whereas the first and third floors host a series of exhibitions about survivors of the GDR regime, methods of surveillance, propaganda and general history, the second floor was entirely Mielke’s. The abundance of space the man must have enjoyed on this luxury floor is nauseating considering how much the citizens of East Germany suffered under his watchful eye.
There are a series of meeting rooms with fancy worn maps hanging on the walls, long tables, comfortable bright blue chairs, and a secretary’s desk complete with a telephone switchboard with oversized comical buttons like the kind you’d see in an old James Bond movie. There’s a bed, a small kitchen and a bathroom, which suggests that Mielke must have spent the vast amount of his time working, rarely going home to his wife and son.
Lastly, there’s his desk, which features his phone, a chair, wood-panelled cupboards (everything is wood-panelled), and a shredder, an ominous nod to the frantic efforts of the Stasi to shred secret documents of the citizens they spied on for an entire generation.
Mielke served his post until the wall fell. On November 9th when the wall was accidentally declared “open” at that famous press conference which changed history, the Stasi freaked out and started destroying files as everyday citizens rushed the Stasi offices and demanded to see what had been written about them.
Mielke was kicked out of the party on December 3rd, almost certainly an attempt by the communists to wash their hands of those who committed unspeakable crimes. No longer shielded by his fancy role in the corrupt government, Mielke was arrested for the murder of the two policemen back in 1931.
In 1992 he was sentenced to six years in prison, and served four of those six years at the Moabit prison before being released for medical reasons. Mielke, his lawyers argued, was senile and had forgotten what he had done.
Mielke’s Apartment (Prendener Strasse 92: S-Bahn: Hohenschönhausen)
Until a month before his death at age 92 on May 2, 2000, Mielke lived in a small apartment in a cookie cutter plattenbau. To be perfectly honest, it’s not a particularly exciting place to visit, but communist housing architecture rarely is. You can’t go inside and it’s not a museum. All you can do is stand outside and look up at the rows of identical windows. The surrounding areas are very typical of the East, and vastly different from the hubbub of Berlin’s city centre.
The streets are wide and the apartments spread out one after another, only varying slightly in their try-hard pastel colours. There are a few restaurants, grocery stores, and a large shopping centre down the street. Wandering this seldom visited area of the capital, the best thing to do is let your mind wander and imagine how life once was.
Did Mielke stroll down these streets? Shop at this grocery store? Look out over the children filing out of the Fritz-Reuter Oberschule across the street? Did he scoff as he made his way past the church on the corner? It’s an odd feeling, attempting to see Mielke’s post-communist world – a world he no doubt despised in those brief moments when he could remember.
Municipal Central Cemetery Friedrichsfelde (S-Bahn Station Friedrichsfelde Ost)
This cemetery is best known for its Memorial to the Socialists, unveiled in 1951. It’s the final resting place of many important political contributors to German history, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The cemetery is open to visitors, providing them with a series of suggested walks to take them past the graves of artists like famed sculptress Käthe Kollwitz, scientists like astronomer Friedrich Simon Archenhold, and a former Berlin mayor, Martin Kirschner.
But what you won’t find on any map, is Mielke’s grave. It’s touted as the last known resting place of Mielke, and also home to other anonymous cremated remains. It’s possible that Mielke’s burial spot has been kept secret for the same reason that Hitler’s bunker remains hidden beneath Berlin’s office buildings: fear that it will turn in to some sort of memorial for a regime and organization that terrorized and destroyed untold numbers of people. Indeed, shortly after being buried, the grave was vandalised.
Near the Memorial to the Socialists, against a fence that runs at a 90-degree angle against cozy little Schrebergärten, is a tombstone with the relief of a woman, hunched over, her head in her hands. She’s crying. The tombstone, generally supposed to belong to Mielke’s grave, is inscribed with the poem “Erinnerung und Hoffnung” (Remembrance and Hope) by German poet Karl August Förster:
Was vergangen kehrt nicht wieder: Aber ging es leuchtend nieder, Leuchtet’s lange noch zurück!
Which can be loosely translated as:
Whatever has passed shall not return. But what has passed in glory will shine throughout the ages!
It’s a confusing poem given Mielke’s history. Even more confusing are the bouquets, candles, crosses, and toy angels that have been left on the plot. A small stone heart reads “loved and not forgotten.”
Someone has spray painted a smiley face on the neatly trimmed hedges that encircle the space. I wonder if people know that he’s there, or if the grave is seen as a place of remembrance for families who have lost loved ones to his industry of fear, and don’t know where else to go to pay their respects.
Regardless of the meaning behind this bizarre shrine, it’s highly representative of Berlin, a city that constantly struggles to define its past, attempting to memorialise what some would rather forget completely.