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Monday, April 14, 2008


A place you need to see in Berlin. Even if you hadn't planned a trip there at all, you need to pick yourself up and go there, soon.

I spent six days in Germany last month. I went to witness the neo-Nazis' ("Nationaldemokratische Partei") participation in the provincial legislature in Schwerin, capital of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. It was worth the trip. The six neo-Nazi members of the legislature performed right on cew, denouncing foreigners in Germany and what they thought were signs of German regret for the Holocaust. But most of all they denounced all the other political parties, who, they maintained (as their Nazi precursors had done in the Weimar period), were part of a vast conspiracy of "the system." It was my impression, as it had been before I made the visit, that the other parties are behaving well in resisting any sort of collaboration with this NPD.

But the highlight of my visit, by any measure, was my visit to Hohenschönhausen in Berlin. It is the site of the former interrogation prison of the Stasi, the secret police of the former East German communist regime. The installation had originally been built in the Nazi period as a food preparation center for the Strength Through Joy organization. After the war the Soviet secret police turned it into a detention center for political prisoners and then turned it over to its East German counterpart, the Stasi, which ran it as its notorious central interrogation center. After the Communist regime ended in 1989, former inmates began to turn the place into a memorial site and to conduct tours. (Most tours are of course conducted in German, but it is possible to arrange one in English. Click on the link above for details.)

The West has known about the horrors of Soviet interrogation techniques at least since the publication of Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" in 1940. I read that, and many other accounts since, but nothing prepared me for the immediacy of the experience of my visit to Hohenschönhausen: seeing the interrogation cells, I could feel the psychological sadism of the interrogators (who worked only at night, every night), the terror of the solitary confinement that lasted for years in some cases, the degradation of man by man. It was a life-changing experience for me to visit this site.

Last year the German film maker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck released, to great acclaim, his movie "The Lives of Others." The movie revolves around Stasi's spying on its citizens in the former East Germany. All those of my friends who saw the movie were greatly impressed. I thought that it was good, but I also thought that parts of the plot were contrived. Now that I watched some clips from it (see below), I notice that Hohenschönhausen gets a mention in the movie. The movie is in some ways unsparingly realistic, but it is of course fiction. My guide at Hohenschönhausen pointed out that one aspect of the movie is completely counter-factual: not a single case has come to light in which a Stasi operative attempted to aid a victim of the regime.

On the contrary, some of these former Stasi members are now engaged in a campaign of vilification against the memorial effort at their former torture site. The site is an official government installation and receives Berlin city subsidies. But for some years the city Senator in charge of museums, and thus of Hohenschönhausen, was a member of The Left, the successor to the East-German ruling party. His name is Thomas Flierl, and, if we trust German press reports about him, he cannot quite make up his mind whether he is in sympathy with the former Stasi or their victims.