Surveillance, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall

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A cell at the Berlin-Hochenschönhausen prison. All photos: Bente Kalsnes

Have you ever been to a political prison?

It’s a chilling experience, I can tell you. Luckily, I’ve only been to one as a visitor, but that was scary enough. The weekend I went to Berlin to run the half marathon, I also went to the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen in East-Berlin, one of 17 political prisons in the previous DDR. This year, it is 20 years since the Berlin Wall was torn down in November 1989, but the first spark started in Hungary, as Hungary opened the iron curtain to Austria earlier in the fall.

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The basement. Mostly used by the Russians between 1945 and 1951. All kinds of bad things took place here.

Hohenschönhausen used to be a cantine block and food store, but was turned into a prison, first by the Soviet Secret Police in 1945, later by DDR’s Stasi (abbreviation for Staatssicherheit or State Security). The Russians preferred interrogation method was physical torture, while the Stasi police developed sophisticated methods for mental torture to force their prisoners to speak. Here are some of the prisoners who was locked up at Hochenschönhausen, either because of something they said, wrote, escape plans, for having pacifistic attitudes, etc.

Until 1989, thousands of prisoners came to the Hohenschönhausen prison, transported in small, white vans, decorated as grocery transporters. The prisoners didn’t know what they were charged for (like Franz Kafka’s The Trial), they had no clue where they were (the Stasi drove around with them for hours), most likely, their family didn’t know where they were either. The Hohenschönhausen was situated in a secret zone, and there was no public information about this political prison that was mostly surrounded by “friendly neighbours” (i.e. Stasi-friendly lawyers and doctors). If any of the neighbours started asking questions about the mysterious building, they might end up as political prisoners themselves.

Even today, the director of the prison and several previous Stasi people live in the neighbourhood, the guide told us.

The Stasi was the crucial instrument in the communist dictatorship in DDR, and employed 91.000 people officially. Unofficially, many, many more people worked for the Stasi as spies, actually 190.000 “informants”. According to Anna Funder‘s excellent book, Stasiland, there was one Stasi officer pr. 63 person -  that is an insane number, and it gets even more insane when you compare it to the Hitler’s Third Reich, 1 gestapo pr. 2000 citizens or Stalin’s USSR, 1 KGB agent pr. 5830 citizens.

If you lined up the Stasi archive about their fellow citizens, it would create a line that was 180 km long…

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Endless rows of interrogation rooms. All looked the same, every room had a chilly picture of Erich Honechker.

For those of you who have seen the incredible movie Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), about the Stasi agent who gets involved in the lives of the couple he is surveilling, you might remember the odour samples the Stasi agent collected. The guide at the prison told us that all the political prisoners had to sit on a piece of cloth while they got interrogated. The cloth was then collected in a jar and archieved. The Stasi had huge rooms full of  these smell samples, organized with name tags, time and location. If the individual did something criminal at a later point, it could be used in a later trial. When you can surveil and collect all kinds of information about a person – why not go for their smell as well?

The Stasi develope a system of mental torture to get all the information they needed from the prisoners (hm, I wonder how many of the Stasi methods are used at Guantanamo…). First of all, everyone had a number, no names were used (less human). The prisoners never saw other other people then their guards and interrogators. If they for some reason saw a familiar face in the prison (their son or a brother), is was for a clear purpose – to scare the hell out of them and pump them for more information.The corridors had “traffic lights”, so if two prisoners had to walk in the corridor at the same time, one got a red light and had to stand towards the wall while the other walked by. If someone pulled a trick, the corridors were covered with wires the guards could pull and trigger the alarm. If the prisoners had to share a prison cell with someone, it was most likely a spy. The prisoners were only supposed to develope a “relationship” with their interriogators (Stockholm syndrom).

Lack of sleep and endless interrogations was one of the ways to break down the prisoners.

If they did say something wrong, they were thrown down in a round cell, without window, padded with black, stinking rubber, and they could be forced to stay there for 72 hours. If was supposed to make them loose all sense of time and place and sanity.

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A few reminders of the Berlin wall at the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin.

The details of life in this political prison are really incredible, and I recommend if you ever go to Berlin, visit this place to learn more about how wrong it can go when you build a surveillance society. Jon Worth has also written about this prison. And remember, this took place only 20 years ago!

That said, I don’t like the surveillance attitude that is developing in so many countries these days. New technological tools combined with terrorism threaths make it easier to justify surveillance. EU’s Data Retention Directive (Datalagringsdirektivet, som Datatilsynets George Apenes kalte “totalitært svermeri“) is just one examples, and whether Norway has to implement it or not is still discussed in Norway.

The last thing I want to see, is a digital Hochenschönhausen.

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One thought on “Surveillance, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall

  1. Thank you for writing this, especially the concluding paragraphs. Incredible. They actually collected the smell of suspects.

    Of course, government surveillance is no problem at all. As long as the current government-in-position happens to be pleased with your particular conduct. And remember, if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear.

    Here is some of the information available to various UK government agencies concerning its individual, identifiable citizens:

    http://www.statebook.org.uk/

    It’s not very hard to construct scenarios where e.g. political activity may be deduced from this information. And knowing that political climate change may be merely one election following a freak disaster away, the horrors of Hochenschönhausen still lurk in the shadows.

    Then again, the trend of young lifestreamers over-sharing information is kind of hard to reconcile with the privacy/civil rights agenda.

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