For about forty years, the site now known as Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial was not even marked on maps - it was that secret. While the DDR was in power, this prison complex was where people simply vanished.
As I stood there on a sunny day, listening to a young American guide tell us about the many cruelties that occurred here it all seemed unreal. The semi-abandoned buildings looked derelict, not sinister.
But there is little doubt that this place still inspires interest in East Berlin's dark past. Since the memorial’s establishment in 1994, over 2 million people have visited.
History of Hohenschönhausen
The site was opened as Hohenschönausen Remand Prison in 1946. The Soviets used it to interrogate suspected Nazis and collaborators. Once a “confession” was extracted, many of the prisoners were sent to nearby Sachsenhausen Prison Camp.
In 1951, the prison became the property of the Stasi. People turned on their neighbors, friends and family with one informant for every 180 citizen. Many of the people turned in by informants ended up in Hohenschönhausen.
Political dissidents, critics, and people trying to flee East Germans were subjected to physical and mental atrocities. Abducted from their homes without a trial, they were considered guilty and psychologically brow-beaten until admitting their wrongdoing.
If you need help imagining this, picture the confession scenes of “The Lives of Others” which were based on the real life happenings at the prison.
The site was closed on October 3rd, 1990 and unlike many institutions in East Germany, Hohenschönhausen was initially left intact. Unfortunately, this gave prison authorities time to destroy much of the evidence of the prison's history.
Most of what we know about the site comes from the eye-witness accounts of former prisoners.
In order to preserve what was left, former inmates formed a foundation to list it as a historical site in 1992 and it re-opened as a memorial in 1994.
Tours of Hohenschönhausen
Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen is now available to visit by guided tour. Visitors can see the grounds, rooms where prisoners were kept and interrogated and hear first-hand accounts from former prisoners who occasionally give the tours.
Sections of the Prison
Transport – Psychological games began while before suspects entered the prison. Vehicles used to capture soon-to-be prisoners are on display. They appeared to be typical grocery or service vans, but were specially equipped to lock suspects inside without windows. It was a common ploy to pick people up directly off the street and drive hours around the city to confuse prisoners. Not only did they have no idea where they were, their friends and families would have no idea where were taken.
U-Boot - Known as the submarine because of its underground, damp location, this is the older section of the prison used primarily by the Soviets. Up to twelve prisoners were packed into small cells with one large wooden bed to share, a trash can for a toilet and no access to the outside world.
Stasi Prison – A new building added in the late 1950's, built by prisoner labor, became the Stasi prison. It’s grim, grey interior contains 200 prison cells and interrogation rooms. Long corridors are equipped with red lights and alarms which allowed guards to signal when the hallway was in use so prisoners never encountered each other. In the cells, books, writing, and talking were not allowed.
Central Console - All aspects of the prison could be controlled from this area. Guards frequently used the controls to psychologically manipulate the prisoners by turning lights off and on, flush toilets and generally deprive the prisoners of any rest.
- Website: http://www.stiftung-hsh.de/
- Hours: Guided tours in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Danish and Norwegian, daily between 9:00 and 16:00. English speaking tours daily 10:30, 12:30 and 14:30.
- Admission: 5 Euro (2.50 for university students, senior citizens, handicapped persons or Berlinpass-holders or 1 Euro for students)
- Address: Genslerstraße 66, 13055 Berlin
- How to get there: Trams M5, M6, 16 or the 256 bus. It is between a 5-10 minute walk from the stops.
- Telephone: 030 98608230