Arriving at Hohenschönhausen prison memorial in Berlin I don´t really know what to expect. The last time I visited a prison for a tour was at Belmarsh in the UK and there were actually prisoners walking around which made me a little nervous even though the guard assured me I would be alright. And so me and our guest blogger Sherry Ott spent an afternoon at the former Stasi Prison. It would turn out to be one of the most interesting tours either of us had taken in Berlin to date.
Soviet occupation and the ´submarine´
Established in 1945 by the Soviet NKVD, which would later become the KGB, Hohenschönhausen special camp was originally used to hold Nazi prisoners. Some 16,000 Nazi prisoners were held at the remand centre and made to try and survive in the most atrocious conditions. Many did not make it given the malnutrition, disease and torture. Those that did survive were sent to military or working camps in Siberia. The horrors of the Nazi regime were replaced by the new Soviet occupation which almost seamlessly it appears continued the culture of horrific conditions, brutality and inhumanity. Our guide Gritt told us that the aim at the remand centre was no less than the ´disintergration of the soul´.
In 1946 the camp was closed down and a cellar previously used for catering was turned into underground bunker cells which became known as the “submarine”. Prisoners in the submarine were sometimes 5-7 people in a cell, no talking or sitting on the bed allowed, the light on all day, being constantly checked by the guards and beaten. They were put through physical and mental torture which would become a trademark for the establishment throughout its history.
Stasi established, dissent and enemies of the state
In the early 1950s the Ministry for State Security and subsequently the Stasi was established and the prison became a holding centre for anyone considered to have anti GDR party sentiments. This could range from political opponents to ordinary people on the street. If you were perceived to be have acted in a ´subversive´ manner in any way it did not matter if it was real, the perception was enough.
The Tour, mind games, interrogation and climate of fear
Taking the tour you are really given an insight into the psychology behind the variety of manipulation strategies and interrogation techniques that were in operation in the daily running of the prison. In one room we were shown an innocuous looking plain blue jump suit and slippers. It was only when we were told how prisoners who wore such oversized suits in isolation for long hours lose their senses, start tripping out and believe that they are becoming one with their shoes.
You get to see the rows of interrogation rooms all laid out exactly the same, again designed to manipulate. We were told how the Soviets had brought with them knowledge of the leading interrogation techniques and how so much was carefully planned. Also some of the latest surveillance technology of the time in the control rooms from which everything was videotaped. The waterboarding room looked particularly haunting. We also saw one of the lorries and even a train carriage that brought and took away prisoners. Mainly though it was through our excellent guide Gritt and her stories that really gave us an idea of the things that went on at Hohenschönhausen.
You can read Sherry´s thoughts about the tour at Otts World.
The Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison tour vividly brought to life for me what happened under the GDR and Stasi regime and the consequences for East German citizens. The award winning and highly acclaimed movie The Lives of Others which had scenes set (but not all filmed) at Hohenschönhausen, although fictional, did marry up with a lot of information given on the tour and really highlighted the terrible spectre a visit to Hohenschönhausen played in those residing in the city. It will also be of particular interest to those familiar with Anna Funder’s book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall which details the role the Stasi secret police played in the lives of East Berliners, and includes interviews of those who spent time at Hohenschönhausen.
Our guide Gritt told us many stories relating to the prison including anecdotes and factual info about prisoners and Stasi employees after the prison was shut down. In fact Gritt well overran the allotted time for the tour and was still happy to spend time after answering our questions.
Overall an absorbing tour which I can confidently say was one of the best I have taken in Berlin. If you do visit the Hohenschönhausen memorial we would really like you to share your thoughts about the tour with us.
Contact and Tour information
Genslerstr. 13 A, 13055 Berlin, Germany
Telefon: 0049 – 30 – 98 60 82 – 30
Fax: 0049 – 30 – 98 60 82 – 34
Please note, that it is only possible to view the extensive prison complex on an official guided tour.
English speaking tour daily at 2.30 p.m.
Regular fee 5,00 Euro, concessions* 2,50 Euro, Students 1,00 Euro
* university students, senior citizens, handicapped persons, Berlincard-holders
Guided tours for non-German groups
The Memorial offers guided tours in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Danish and Norwegian, daily between 9am and 4pm.
Due to the growing demand, groups are requested to register as early as possible.
If you are planning to visit the Memorial as a group, you can register with the Visitors’ Service either by phone, letter, or email. The Visitors’ Service then appoints a guide for your tour and coordinates the times with you, confirming the planned date of your visit and providing the details for payment.
Regular admission: Every 25 participants per group pay a fee of 75 Euro.
School groups: Every 25 participants per group pay a fee of 25 Euro.