East Germany’s secret police, known as Stasi, stole secrets out of West Germany and spied on almost everyone in East Germany. Their headquarters is now a museum.
From street level on Normannenstrasse, it’s just a bunch of drab Soviet-style office buildings in the former East Berlin. But from 1950 to 1990, this may have been the most feared address in Europe.
This was headquarters of East Germany’s Ministry of State Security, best known by its German acronym: Stasi.
They called themselves “the sword and shield” of the country’s communist party. Not the nation, the party.
Building 1 is now the Stasi Museum. No markers identify it. No street signs point the way to it. Many who live nearby claim to be unaware of it. But the moment you leave the Magdalenenstrasse U-Bahn station, the whole sinister complex is balefully staring down on you.
If you want a feel for the realities behind the Cold War, you start here.
Stasi thoroughly penetrated West German counter-intelligence, and gave the CIA some black eyes, too.
When the Russians wanted to examine an American air-to-air missile, Stasi agents stole one off the wing of a US jet fighter and shipped it whole to Moscow to be reverse-engineered.
Even West German successes against Stasi tended to rebound against them. One of their most popular heads of state, chancellor Willy Brandt, was forced to resign in disgrace after his closest adviser was exposed as a Stasi agent.
Imagine George Bush waking up one morning to find out that Condoleezza Rice was a KGB “mole.” That’s how big the scandal was.
In West Germany, Stasi spied on the government. In East Germany, they spied on everybody.
As many as one out of every ten East Germans — and one of eight East Berliners — was a Stasi operative, employee, contact or informant. Guided tours, in German or English, will show you how they did it.
Eavesdropping equipment hidden in fake rocks. Miniaturized cameras sewn into neckties and zippered jackets. Cars rigged to shoot infrared photographs through their doors. Submachine guns small enough to fit in a briefcase — and rigged to fire from inside it.
Paddy wagons disguised as delivery trucks, mail trucks, bread trucks, some with fancy curtains fixed to their windows.
They bugged offices, schools, homes, churches, even cemeteries.
They literally sweated “suspicious” people during interrogations and then released them, collecting their perspiration in cloth swatches. Those bits of cloth, cataloged and preserved, were to be used by Stasi dog teams to hunt them down at some later date.
Stasi officers didn’t arrest people. They made them vanish.
Then there are the drains in the floor, in rooms where it makes no sense to have drains…until you remember the Soviet style of execution.
The condemned is led into a room and made to kneel in front of a drain. The executioner puts a gun to his head and fires.
The tour doesn’t tell you about that part.
Stasi had its own 9,000-man armored regiment, separate from the regular East German army. Its loyalties were to Stasi first, the party second.
The East German nation presumably got the bronze.
If Stasi was East Germany’s idea of the FBI, the man who ran it, Erich Mielke, was their J. Edgar Hoover. Ruthless, paranoid and a stone killer from a young age, he had dirt on almost everybody.
He also controlled a fund estimated to be worth close to $40 billion.
IF YOU GO
Take the U5 subway train to the Magdalenenstrasse station on Frankfurter Allee. Walk up Magdalenenstrasse to Normannenstrasse. Turn left at the corner and walk to the first driveway. Turn left into the drive and walk behind the latticework facade to the entrance.
Admission is 4 euros for adults, 2.50 for children.
And yet it was here, not at The Wall, that the division of Germany died in November 1989.
COUNTED TREES, MISSED THE FOREST
When East German citizens, led by a pro-democracy movement called New Forum, began mass street protests, the regime had plans in place that could’ve made Tienanmen Square look like a block party — and at the heart of those plans were Stasi and its special regiment.
But at the moment of crisis, the East German leadership froze. Their Soviet mentors basically told them “You’re on your own.” Angry East Berliners converged on Stasi headquarters. The Wall fell.
East Germany was done.
For all their anal-retentive surveillance, Stasi had utterly missed the unraveling of the East German state — until it collapsed on their doorstep.
They didn’t miss everything, though. Stasi’s secret $40 billion stash has never surfaced.
There are suggestions now that key Stasi officers played both sides in East Germany’s downfall, preventing the government from triggering its doomsday plans while stalling the angry crowds long enough to let their cohorts shred millions of documents.
Today, volunteers using special software are piecing those documents back together. You can read about their work in this 2008 story from Wired magazine (many thanks to my good friend Agustin Armendariz for pointing me to it).
Twenty years on, a reunited Germany is still periodically rocked by the revelations in those documents.