39 things you might learn if you visit the Stasi Museum with a 10½ week old baby…

Adam Butler pays a visit to the Stasi Museum with his new baby, and learns a few things along the way…or just on your own.

1. That the word barrierefrei when used in reference to e.g. U-Bahn stations, rather than meaning that there are no barriers and you therefore don’t have to buy a ticket, actually means that this is theoretically a place that you can traverse with a pram, wheelchair, broken-hipped aunt, etc. without having to worry about stairs; and that although the nearest station to the Stasi Museum isn’t barrierefrei, Frankfurter Allee, which is only a short walk away, is.

2. That the U5, which runs east from Alexanderplatz, is probably the most ticket-inspected line on the whole Berlin U-Bahn system—at least if your correspondent’s experience of being checked once in each direction (which in total equals the number of times said correspondent has had his ticket inspected in the last six months) is in any way representative.

3. That just because a station is marked as being barrierefrei, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the alleged lifts—once you’ve finally managed to track them down—will actually turn out to be in Betrieb.

4. That fortunately there is a good old fashioned escalator in the shopping centre that adjoins the Frankfurter Allee station—a fact that makes you idly wonder whether capitalism doesn’t perhaps have its uses after all.

5. That the Stasi Museum is housed in the campus of the erstwhile Stasi headquarters, and that after everything you’ve read about the horrors that they perpetrated, the torture and harassment and executions (preferred method: in the early years, guillotine; thereafter, a bullet to the base of the head), it’s difficult not to wince when you set foot in this campus for the first time.

6. That the campus is now also being used by (among others): Deutsche Bahn, a bank, a physiotherapist, a stand selling Thüringer sausages.

7. That the main building of the campus (i.e. Haus 1, which housed the Minister of State Security, the Workgroup of Ministers [AGM] and the office of Administration [BdL]),  is currently under renovation, and that the museum has been temporarily relocated to a considerably smaller building (i.e. Haus 22—guesthouse and conference room).

8. That the price of admission is €10.

9. That the Stasi’s motto was Schild und Schwert der Partei (Shield and Sword of the party).

10. That the museum itself is emphatically not barrierefrei—since the building is lift-less and the main exhibition is on the first floor—although the museum staff (average age somewhere north of sixty) are incredibly friendly and helpful and willing to pitch in with pram-carrying assistance (although whether this would also be the case with a broken- hipped aunt is beyond the scope of your correspondent’s experience).

11. That the architecture of the campus could potentially be used as a serviceable synecdochical metaphor for the DDR as a whole, i.e. somewhat rickety; hurriedly put-together; not exactly what you might call pretty; over-endowed with ambitious lighting (a recurring theme in DDR architecture: the Palast der Republik, which was the parliament building, was sometimes referred to as Erichs Lampenladen [Eric’s {i.e. Erich Honecker’s} light shop] because of its exuberant attitude to lighting); liable to exhibit severe toxicity as soon as you scratch beneath the surface (the aforementioned Palast der Republik turned out to be riddled with asbestos).

12. That the main man behind the Stasi was another Erich—in this case Erich Mielke—who was deputy head from 1950 (year of its inception) to 1957, and then head from 1957 to 1989.

13. That many of the DDR’s main men seemed to think that if you use the word ‘democratic’ often enough in proclamations, you can actually convince yourself (and, it is presumably intended, other people too) that you actually are democratic, without having to encumber yourself with inconveniences such as e.g. elections.

14. Likewise ‘scientific’, mutatis mutandis.

15. That ‘main men’ is the apposite term, since the Stasi was eighty-five percent male.

16. That in any given photographed group (of eighty-five percent men), Erich Mielke always seemed to be the shortest—despite the fact that he was always at the front of the group and thus theoretically had the advantage of foreshortening.

Image courtesy of the Stasi Museum

17. That, according to the Museum’s information and explanations in English, the single central paradox of the DDR was that The Party ‘presumed an agreement of its interests with those of the state, society and individual, but at the same time mistrusted the population’, and that it was this paradox that necessitated the Stasi’s existence.

18. That ‘the total wealth of the Stasi, the whereabouts of which is in part still unclear, is estimated to have been sixty-five billion Marks’ (ibid.).

19. That depending on who you believe, 1 in 100, 1 in 40 or 1 in 6 of the population of the DDR were Stasi informers (or inoffizielle Mitarbeiter).

20. That the present-day Berlin childcare system—consisting as it does of many state-run and independent kindergartens or Kitas—is the direct descendant of a carefully constructed system of DDR indoctrination whereby children were spoon-fed propaganda from a very early age, evidence of which is on display in the museum in the form of picture books about tanks, soldiers and the importance of defending the state from the fascism and imperialism of the West.

21. That one particular aspect of the childcare system which wasn’t inherited: the closed Jugendwerkhöfe (youth work stations) for sozial auffälligen (socially peculiar) children, where it was forbidden to sing, whistle, look out of the window, or – during daylight hours – to lie down or read, and where twelve-year-olds were routinely condemned to spend up to twelve days in the Fuchsbau (fox-hole), a pitch-black cellar too low-ceilinged to stand up in.

22. That the Ministry of Education, which was responsible for the picture books and the Jugendwerkhöfe, was run by Erich Honecker’s wife, Margot (who was known as the lila Drache [purple dragon] due to her somewhat extravagant hair-dye).

Image courtesy of the Stasi Museum

23. That running a Ministry of State Security requires a surprisingly large desk and an equally surprisingly large number of telephones.

24. That much of the Stasi’s surveillance technology was imported from the fascist imperialist West—specifically cameras by the West German company Robot and miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders from the Swiss company Nagra (bonus fact: these are the selfsame miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders that Steve Jobs claimed to be the main design influence for the iPhone 4).

25. That a miniaturised camera in the form of a lipstick was recently stolen from the Museum (your correspondent was unable to confirm whether or not Steve Jobs has recently visited the museum).

26. That the Stasi had a complex filing system of body odours, made up of small cloths which were placed on the chairs which subjects sat on while being interrogated, and which were then carefully tweezered into numbered, named and dated specimen jars.

27. That the best way to see the museum is by loitering inconspicuously at the back of a group who are being given a guided tour, which tours are—based on the your correspondent’s admittedly limited experience—filled with many personal anecdotes and insights.

Image courtesy of the Stasi Museum

28. That ‘loitering inconspicuously’ is not that easy when you’re the only person in the building who happens to be wielding a pram.

29. That the Zionskirche, just off Kastanienallee, housed in its cellar a centre of dissident literature called the Umwelt Bibliothek, an intersection of two of the main nuclei of opposition – i.e. the Protestant church and Ecological groups –, and that this cellar was also itself a publisher of samizdat material, producing in particular the Umweltblätter (later Telegraph) which was probably the main convergence point, publication-wise, of 80s opposition.

30. That the museum has an extremely soporific effect on ten-and-a-half-week old babies.

31. That–according one of the incredibly friendly, helpful, generationally-advanced staff–one child is not enough; everyone should have at least two.

32. That by the time the campus was stormed by a thronging mass of protestors on the evening of 15th January 1990, the Stasi had amassed approx. 185 kilometres of files—which means that if piled up, the files would reach more than half way to the current orbiting altitude of the International Space Station.

33. That the 40 people currently charged with piecing together the remains of the not insignificant portion of this 185 kilometre of paper that the Stasi managed to shred before the campus was stormed estimate that, at their current rate of progress, it will take them approximately 375 years to complete the task.

34. That they do a pretty good Streuselkuchen in the museum café (although you might have to smile good-naturedly at remarks about your insufficient level of procreation while you pay for it).

35. That the only English-language book for sale in the Museum bookshop costs a paltry sum, and will turn out, once you get it home, to be so good that it will make you wish you’d dropped a Fünfer in the donations box.

Image courtesy of the Stasi Museum

36. That–despite the bank, physiotherapist, and sausage stand—the campus is actually quite eerie, in a banal 50s pebble-dash kind of way, particularly if by the time you exit the museum it’s all dusky and foggy.

37. That, judging by the tattered remains of bill posters visible on a junction box just outside the gate, the invocation of Marx and Engels in order to advocate anti-capitalist demos is given pretty short shrift in the museum’s purlieu.

38. That during rush hour, you may well have to wait for four or five U-Bahn lifts to come and go before there’s enough space for you and your really comparatively modest-sized pram.

39. That, based on your correspondent’s experience, there’s a 100% chance that you’ll get home to discover that the incredibly naff Italian restaurant that used to be in the ground floor of your building has suddenly turned into an as yet unnamed designer lighting store that appears to specialise in freakishly oversized desklamps.

Note: when disembarking at Magdalenenstr. U Bahn, be sure to check out the splendid GDR murals.

For more info, check out the museum’s website.