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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Stasi Prison Memorial: Into Psychological Horror

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

The Stasi Prison Memorial provides a chillingly authentic environment: that of a former political prison during the GDR era. Accessible only by guided tour, the site promises an intense and contemplative experience.

A Visit Is a Highlight

The Second World War concluded in Europe in May 1945, and the Allied and Soviet liberators took responsibility for apprehending and prosecuting the criminals of Hitler's regime. In the Soviet occupation zone, a network of prisoner-of-war camps was established, which quickly transitioned from military administration to the arguably more insidious oversight of the political police, the NKVD. In 1951, authority over former special camp no. 3 was delegated to the newly-formed East German state, under the stewardship of the Stasi.

The political police repurposed the original premises and enhanced them over time, erecting new buildings to transform Hohenschönhausen into a restricted area, closed to the public, which officially never existed. Initially dedicated to confining political adversaries, the prison evolved from the 1960s onward to intern those considered potential future opponents. Some of these detainees were fortunate enough to be purchased by West Germany. Over 40,000 individuals passed through this facility until December 1989.

Abandoned in 1990, the former prison was transformed into a memorial, with some of the supporting staff being former inmates.

A Journey into Dehumanisation

Located on the edge of a district of former East Berlin, the Memorial resides in the original premises, untouched and spared from destruction. The bleak aura radiating from the buildings and the site's layout induce a sense of oppression. Two complexes stand opposite each other and complement each other. The first prison, in use since the late 1940s, is confined to the basements of a former refectory, converted into the most rudimentary cells possible. In contrast, the second prison, opened in November 1960, just months before the construction of the Berlin Wall, offers a modern high-security complex for its time, where inmates were subjected to daily, systematic sensory deprivation.

The harshness of the confinement transitions from decade to decade into a terrifying psychological dismantling. Visitors trace the journey of an inmate from their arrival at the garage to their solitary cell. Indeed, walking through the wing where "political" interrogations took place brings home the unique nature of this prison, which was no ordinary penitentiary. The downfall is inevitable, culminating in a sobering visit to the walking cells.

A Guided Tour Is Mandatory

The Prison Memorial can only be visited in the company of a guide from the educational teams. For those uninterested in a guided tour, there is a freely accessible and free-of-charge documentation center. In my opinion, this strict approach ensures mature and educational discourse, avoiding the pitfalls of a tourism industry seeking sensational experiences. Guided tours in German and English are offered daily at very affordable prices.

The original locations have been preserved, and navigating them is an intense exercise in introspection. The visit also underscores the fact that, far from being a symbol of the state, the prison primarily served the GDR by selling off prisoners, far removed from the ideological considerations of either side. This is a shocking and revealing narrative. It's not a place one would consider visiting with young children.

Reasons to Visit

  • The excellent preservation of the buildings

  • Systematic guidance

  • A perspective beyond the historical framework

  • A freely accessible documentation centre

Reasons to Skip

  • The rush caused by the accumulation of groups

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