From political prisons to knights in shining armor, today was quite a program for the Gusties in Berlin. After a hearty breakfast and short walk to the U-Bahn (subway), we hopped on the U2 train to Alexanderplatz. Our first destination for the day was Hohenschönhausen, a secluded prison on the outskirts of Berlin that once served as a place for the Secret Police of the GDR, or Former East Germany, to imprison and interrogate those whom they felt placed a threat on the stringent values of their regime. People could be imprisoned years on end for any number of reasons. One account even tells of a fifteen year old girl who drew a red ribbon on Joseph Stalin’s textbook picture in school to make him look more friendly. She was immediately reported by her teacher and arrested for anti-socialist propaganda. If one disagreed with the system, they were looked at as a threat.
Once receiving a report, the Stazi often kidnapped people using a disguised van and brought them to one of the fifteen prisons they had spread across the GDR. Once in prison, the suspect was stripped of all their clothing and searched before entering their chambers where they were taken from multiple times throughout the day to suffer through hours of interrogation from Stazi practical psychologists. With over 9,000 informants throughout the GDR, the Stazi had access to ridiculous amounts of information on its citizens. They infiltrated people’s privacy to the point where they could destroy suspects’ relationships within their own families. Though the GDR forbade any physically violent forms of questioning by interrogators, a law repeatedly broken, the Stazi placed their detainees through a psychological gauntlet that drove many people insane. By the time we left the prison, I felt drained and bewildered. It was so hard imagining how those things could have happened. What would it have been like to be put into that kind of situation? Isolated from friends and family, constantly hearing threats about what could happen to them and being completely powerless against the web they weaved. One could see how people lost their minds in that place.
In the evening we made our way to the German History Museum. Offering exhibits with information dating back to tribal Germany, we left wanting to come back again another day as there just wasn’t enough time to see everything the museum had to offer. The exhibits we saw gave the group an idea of what people were exposed to in each time period. While each exhibit differed with changing faces, names, cultural values, and living conditions, a pattern of struggle and hardship intertwined with times of peace and social progress remained as we walked through each exhibit.
While the things we saw today were not necessarily the happiest, I felt it gave me an opportunity to reflect on everything I get to be thankful for. Twenty five years ago, our class would have been arrested in East Germany for taking pictures of the Berlin Wall. We walk in a thriving, beautiful city that only seventy years ago was reduced to rubble and crumbling steeples. The experiences we had today were a reminder that we have so much to be thankful for.