Last Friday (14 August) we visited the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, a former Soviet and East German prison. It's a very ordinary-looking place where very awful things happened.

To keep this simple, there's an old building and a new building.

The old building was a Nazi-era kitchen. The Soviets then took over the building and turned the basement, designed as a food warehouse, into a prison. Known as the U-Boot, or submarine, prisoners were held 24 to a room with barely any circulating air and no natural light whatsoever. A bucket functioned as the prisoners' shared toilet, and if you were fortunate, they emptied it once a day. Prisoners had to stand all day, had no beds, and sleep was essentially impossible. They wore whatever clothes they came in. If you were arrested in summer in light clothes, that was nevertheless how you spent the cold, unheated winter. Because so many people were crammed together, there was significant condensation.

If that wasn't awful enough for you, maybe you'd enjoy the water torture room where it drip-drip-drips on your head until you can't stand it, at which point your option is to plunge your head into a bucket of water, at which point, in the interest of not drowning, you go back to the drip-drip-drip.

I asked the guide if there was a lot of mental illness amongst the prisoners. She said that every single person who made it out alive suffered permanent mental damage. Sie haben überlebt, aber nicht überstanden. (They lived through it, but they didn't survive it.)

Control of the camp passed to the East German secret police, the Stasi, who used it to hold political prisoners. The East Germans were marginally more enlightened, and built a new building where comparably awful things happened, but which was designed such that European observers would have nothing to pin on them. Thus there was natural light (though no view of the sky), a toilet, a bed, etc. But prisoners were kept in absolute isolation, and the Stasi had sneaky tricks. For example, they could shut off your water or heat as punishment, and plausibly deny any malicious intent. Prisoners, who had nothing but time, attempted to communicate by knocking on the wall in a simple code. But doing so was risky. The Stasi could take a prisoner out of a cell, and from that cell knock on the wall as if they were a prisoner. Any information gleaned this way could be used against you.

You had to stand all day. At night the light came on every five minutes so you were in a constant state of sleep deprivation.

Prisoners were transported to the prison in what looked like a plain delivery vehicle that might have been carrying flowers or bread. Inside, there were 6 cramped transport cells. After picking you up, the truck drove around and around so you had lost all orientation and had no notion where you might be. When you got to the prison you were let out inside an enclosed, brightly lit garage so that you would be instantly blinded as your eyes adjusted. The only place where a prisoner could see the sky was in the so-called tiger cage, and for psychological reasons the sky was obstructed by a chain-link barrier. There was no way to see what buildings were nearby, no way to say where the prison was. The site was highly off-limits, and didn't even appear on East German maps.

Getting your photo taken took an unusually long time. As you sat their you were actually getting a dose of radiation designed to give you cancer eventually. I asked out guide if then the purpose of the camp was to kill the detainees. She hemmed and hawed a bit in answering. Yes, from the Stasi's point of view, it would certainly be best if you died, but they wanted you to die in a way that couldn't be pinned on them.

There was a simple red light / green light system (sort of like radio station's "On Air" light) that the Stasi followed so that the prisoners would never see anyone they weren't intended to see.

None of the guards wore weapons, which meant that there were no weapons to steal, which meant that no one ever escaped. There was a wire strung along the hall. Pulling the wire would break the cicuit and trigger an alarm, resulting in reinforcements showing up quickly.

The West German government regularly "expatriated" prisoners (that is, they bought their freedom). When that happened, the former prisoners had no useful information to provide. They couldn't say where the prison was, they couldn't say who their interrogators were, they couldn't demonstrate that the prison violated European norms.

The Soviets' method of operation was violence. "According to Soviet statistics 886 people died here [the submarine] between July 1945 and October 1946. However, it is estimated that more than 3,000 detainees actually perished in the camp."

The East Germans' method of operation was psychological. Our guide gave us the example of a prisoner she knew who was shocked upon going into the interrogation room to find that his interrogator was his father. It wasn't really--it was someone chosen for this particular interrogation based on his resemblance to the prisoner's father, and made to look as much like him as possible. Later, when the Stasi files were opened, the former prisoner learned that the Stasi psychologists knew that he was very close to his father, and that this would be the way to push his buttons.

Hohenschönhausen only closed 20 years ago. It's a sobering place to visit as an American. I doubt that anything that happened there is uniquely unlike the so-called harsh interrogation techniques Dick Cheney and his little friend W. brought upon us. The explicitly violent Soviet prison brings to mind Abu Ghraib. The by-the-book legality yet sheer awfulness of the Stasi prison probably gives you a good idea of what the CIA does these days.

The photo on the right shows a room where the Stasi kept an eye on operations. It looks ordinary, and I am reminded of the concept of the "banality of evil."

If you were released, you couldn't go back to your prior profession, and had to settle for lesser work. If you were an interrogator, you were well paid by East German standards. It's essentially impossible to charge them with crimes, since the prisoners never knew their identities, and since norms were maintained. It's a safe assumption that they are now living prosperous lives--during reunification, the exchange rate for East German Marks to West German Marks was 1 to 1.


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