When the offices of the East German secret police were stormed by protestors on January 15th 1990, citizens of the ailing DDR state were finally granted access to the inner sanctum of the most feared organisation in the country – the infamous STASI – or Ministry of State Security, as it was officially known.
A terrifyingly bureaucratic behemoth that loomed into the minds of the millions of people who called East Germany home – with its administrative headquarters an impenetrable bastion that for more than 40 years appeared as nothing more than a black mark on maps of the country.
This repressive state organ, founded in 1950 and based on the Soviet Cheka (predecessor to the KGB and modern FSB), was headed by Berlin-born strongman Erich Mielke – dubbed the ‘Master of Fear’ in the West German press – from 1957 until its demise in 1989.
His office still stands preserved inside Haus 1 of the complex of buildings making up the Stasi administrative headquarters in Berlin’s eastern district of Lichtenburg. Accessible to visitors and maintained as the centrepiece and star attraction in what is now known as the Stasi Museum.
This otherwise unremarkable looking collection of buildings sits on Frankfurter Allee, a continuation of East Germany’s showcase Karl Marx Allee boulevard – that connects central Alexanderplatz to Frankfurter Tor, in the direction of the DDR’s Socialist neighbour states in the East.
Fans of German cinema will likely recognize the exterior of the main building, Haus 1, for its starring role in the oscar winning 2007 film, The Lives of Others. A fictional retelling of a Stasi operative’s case assigned to ruin the marriage between a famous East German writer and his actress wife. The latter an unwilling recipient of advances from a prominent party member who commissioned the assignment. Similarly, the popular German TV series Deutschland ’83 and ‘85 used the premises for genuine location filming.
Not only does the complex include the main office (Haus 1) of Stasi chief, Erich Mielke, but the former East German foreign intelligence arm of the organisation (Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung), what was once a functioning cinema, mail processing centre, supermarket, cobblers, and archive building. The latter, now residing in buildings 7, 8, and 9 of the site, houses the official office of the Stasi records agency (BStU) – responsible for the safekeeping and accessibility of all records for the Ministry of State Security. A massive 50km of files, if organised back-to-back, of around 111km of the files remaining collected by the organisation.
Despite his thirty two years as head of the East German secret police, Erich Mielke - when sentenced to prison in 1993 - was not found guilty of anything conducted in his term of power. But for two murders he had committed in 1931, as a young Communist.
At the height of its power, the Stasi is now considered to have been, proportionally, the largest secret police organisation ever in existence. Larger, in that sense, than even the KGB for the entire Soviet Union. By 1989, this organisation – dubbed the ‘Shield and Sword’ of the ruling Socialist Unity Party – could boast of 91,000 official workers, and an additional 189,000 unofficial collaborators. One for every 90 East German citizens. Although speculation based on the records destroyed at the end of the organisation’s existence puts the number as much higher.
At the top of this vast security apparatus sat one man – Erich Mielke. His office is now accessible on the second floor of the Stasi Museum, preserved with its distinctive wood paneling and modest blue fabric covered furniture. A man obviously concerned with his public image, Mielke did much to appear as if he were not taking advantage of his position, by keeping a humble official domain. Naturally, as a member of the ruling Politburo, he owned a palatial hunting villa, complete with a movie theater, trophy room, and sixty servants.
When the Berlin Wall finally fell in 1989, Mielke was summoned to the East German parliament to justify his position in response to the recent developments – an event that has gone down in German television history. When confronted with the boos and catcalls of the sitting members, he could do little but profess his love for all humanity (“Ich liebe – Ich liebe doch alle – alle Menschen!).
Eventually sentenced to prison, Mielke would become the oldest inmate at the Berlin Moabit jail, descending into senility and passing the time by engaging in conversations with imaginary Stasi officers on a telephone given to him by his guards. Similar to the ones that sit on his desk.
Unlike the rest of the Haus 1 building, which is the property of the German Federal government – and maintained as a museum by the same protestors who stormed it in 1990, Mielke’s office has special protected status. Belonging for eternity, rent free, to the German people.
Exploring the Stasi Museum and Mielke’s office now is a matter of revelling in the unprecedented opportunity to access the East German equivalent of the FBI/CIA, MI5 or KGB offices. An organisation regarded as ‘secret’ not because of its existence – which was made plain and clear to all its real and perceived enemies – but to the actions it took and the planning behind closed doors. Those closed doors that now sit wide open – seven days a week.