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Save Berlin: Wrestling with ghosts

Dan explores buildings with sordid histories in the East.

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Ex-Stasi jailin Keibelstraße. Photo by Anna Agliardi

Dan explores buildings with sordid histories in the East.

Rummelsburg is part of Berlin, but just barely. After Berlin was reunified, this strip of land wedged between Lichtenberg proper and the Spree was transformed into an upscale residential enclave for the expected flood of corporate and government workers from other parts of Germany. No döner shops, drug dealers or doggy-doo here, just neat rows of suburban-style townhouses with geranium-draped balconies above, and late-model BMWs and Audis below. It’s Berlin for people who don’t like Berlin.

The district’s picturesque heart is a long, cobble-stoned square. Along both sides are rows of renovated 19th-century brick apartment blocks. In the centre, blonde kids play ball below a tall, pointy-roofed tower, weaving between metal markers placed around the plaza. They’re steles with blurry photos of faces and, below, names and biographies that include details of torture and starvation, often ending with mysterious train rides and deadly showers. This was once the notorious Rummelsburg prison, a buzzing hub of human cruelty for over 50 years. The last prisoners – most political dissidents – were released in 1990, making way for the luxury loft conversion. You can turn your back on Berlin, but its dark past will come back to haunt you.

In June 1953 – 65 years ago this month – Berliners who’d survived the Nazi regime rose up against their new oppressors, the Soviet-backed East German government, with two days of strikes. The authorities struck back, leaving hundreds dead and thousands imprisoned. West Berlin’s Straße des 17. Juni marks the date of the protests’ tragic climax. Less conspicuous and more chilling reminders are the network of detention and torture centres built across Berlin’s former East to literally choke out that rebellious spirit. Many of these buildings still sit in limbo while the city’s government debates a key question: is there a “best way” to spotlight mankind at its worst?

Memorial to an enigma

After the Berlin Wall fell, victims of the East German Ministry of State Security (MfS) or ‘Stasi’ stormed and occupied their Lichtenberg headquarters to prevent destruction of incriminating evidence, but not the Stasi’s main jail in nearby Hohenschönhausen – they couldn’t find it. Elderly locals still toe the party line: the prison, once surrounded by a restricted military zone and erased from maps, never existed. But since 1994, it’s firmly caught in the spotlight, reborn as a museum that details the detention center’s dark 40-year history. Most records were destroyed, so the Hohenschönhausen Memorial relies on survivors’ moving accounts of a time when off hand comments could land you in solitary confinement and psychological abuse could prove worse than physical pain.

Mothballed movie set

If the Hohenschönhausen Memorial can draw 440,000 visitors a year to deepest, darkest Lichtenberg, it’s surprising that a similar and arguably more dramatic landmark has sat idle just metres from Alexanderplatz. After WWII bombs destroyed Berlin’s police headquarters, a former Karstadt warehouse on Keibelstraße was drafted into service as command centre of the East. Many celebrity GDR dissidents, including painter Norbert Bisky and musician Toni Krahl of the band City, passed through its doors and into its crowning jewel, a seven-storey tower of cells so photogenic it starred in the film Goodbye Lenin. In February, Berlin’s Education Department announced that, later this year, a learning centre will open on the first floor. It’s hopefully a step toward converting the whole complex into a memorial à la Hohenschönhausen.

Hotel on a lake

The 1990s condo rehab of Rummelburg’s detention centre has all but erased its history, but it’s still possible to take in the lockup experience firsthand. The prison’s Haus VIII is now a boutique hotel overlooking the Spree. Guests sleep in redecorated cells that hosted thousands of Stasi victims and, after East Germany’s collapse, its disgraced Chairman Erich Honecker and Stasi boss himself Erich Mielke. It’s an ironic echo of the jail’s cruelly euphemistic nickname in its Stasi heyday: Hotel am See.