A Sobering Afternoon at the Stasi Museum

The 'Runde Ecke' housed the German Democratic Republic Ministry of State Security during the Cold War. (WT-en) Hbar.cc/Wikimedia Commons

LEIPZIG, GERMANY — "Runde Ecke," the Round Building, is a lovely 19th century structure that fits in well with the ancient architecture of this former East German city. Yet for decades, until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the very sight of it was deeply scary to citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

It was here that the East German secret police, the Ministry of State Security (known as the Stasi), had its headquarters. There was virtually no part of East German life that wasn't monitored by the dreaded domestic spying network, put in place when the state was brand new in 1950. Even children were recruited to keep an eye on their parents. Anything suspicious resulted in a visit to Runde Ecke. The building is virtually unchanged from those days, and the interrogation rooms are intact.

It is now free to enter the Round Building, which houses the Stasi Museum, and the glorious thing is that visitors are also free to leave whenever they want. Despite the ghosts that inhabit the space, visitors will want to linger since there's so much to see, and a lot of it is unbelievable.

Always listening

Stasi listening equipment on display in the Stasi museum
The latest in bugging devices, or at least they were in the 1980s. Jim Motavalli

What's that big bottle collection? Each one contains the scent of a known dissident, obtained by having said malcontent sit on a cloth for 10 to 15 minutes. If the suspect was released and then needed again, the German Shepherds would be given the cloth and off they'd go.

And why that big stack of cassettes? The Stasi intercepted decadent pop music sent by relatives in the West and used them to record tapped phone calls. A lot of them were easy-listening German schlager, but Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits was also in the pile.

A collection of fake beards and wigs was straight out of "Get Smart," and youthful agents could also don hippie peacoats outfitted with hidden cameras. The building of spy cameras, some ingenious miniatures, was one of the few thriving industries in Erich Honecker's GDR.

A collection of Stasi-intercepted pop music tapes
Tapes sent from the West were taped over — with bugged phone calls. Jim Motavalli

There are exhibits of censored documents, evidently using the same Magic Marker as the CIA. A preserved bureaucrat's office richly illustrates the banality of evil: It's complete down to the file cabinet, coffeemaker, dial phone, paper shredder and manual typewriter. One whole wall contains surveillance files.

One such file was kept on Johannes Herklotz, a ninth-class student at the Hans-Beimler School in Leipzig. He wrote an (illustrated) essay in which he complained about, among other things, the high prices of the poor-quality cars in East Germany. "Thirty thousand marks for this car [a Wartburg 1.3] are too much!" he wrote. "I protest against the high prices!" Herklotz cared about pollution, too. "Let’s fight for the catalyst," he wrote. There were thoughts on Michael Jackson, too.

This illustrated essay protested the bad cars in the German Democratic Republic
An illustrated essay got young Johannes Herklotz in trouble. Jim Motavalli

The essay got Herklotz on a blacklist, meaning he would have been barred from higher education and restricted to menial jobs. Problem kids could also be sent to the "specialized care homes" operated by the GDR youth welfare service (they doubled as re-education camps). Fortunately for Herklotz — and his whole family — that order was posted about a week before the Wall fell.

A GDR magazine published a list of foods that were more expensive in West Germany, and when someone doodled waggish comments pointing out that much on that list was actually unobtainable in the worker's paradise, the Stasi was watching.

What was left behind

A Stasi office alive and well in the Stasi museum
The banality of evil: A bureaucrat’s office in the Round Building. Jim Motavalli

The Stasi answered to no other agency, and got quite creative in installing bugs, extracting confessions and persuading GDR's citizenry to spy on friends and neighbors. It was all meticulously documented. As the regime began to collapse in 1989 (Leipzig was a center of protest), the Stasi was kept up nights shredding 300,000 individual files.

But events moved quickly. Not only were 68 miles of shelved records saved but also 41 million file cards and 1.7 million photos and negatives, as well as 30,000 film, video and audio records. About 15,000 bags of shredded remnants are now being slowly reconstituted in a painstaking computerized pilot project.

The paper trail "reveals planned and committed injustices, conformity and betrayal, but also civil courage and resistance," says the new Stasi Records Agency, with central offices in Berlin and a branch in Leipzig. The existence of that agency is why many former East Germans visit the Round Building today. Just as Americans are curious about what's in their FBI files, Germans want to know what the Stasi had on them. From 1991 to late 2014, there were seven million requests to view records. The agency stores Nazi-era documents, too.

The chilling 2006 German film "The Lives of Others" was partly filmed in what is now the Stasi Records Agency. If you want to know what life under the GDR's secret police was really like, visit the museum, and then see that movie.

A different Germany

Three women dressed for a goth festival in Germany
The goth festival was a refreshing return to modern Germany. Jim Motavalli

After two hours in the hermetic Stasi Museum, it was a real relief to escape into a sunny day. Back in modern Germany, a whimsical goth festival was in progress. The costumes would have been great for hidden microphones, but nobody is listening anymore.

The Stasi Museum and regional Records Agency office is at Dittrichring 24 in Leipzig, and it's open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., local time. It's worth paying a few Euros for the English translation headphones, too, since all the displays are in German.

(Thanks to Dylan Reid of Spacing Magazine in Toronto for suggesting we visit the Stasi Museum while in Leipzig for the International Transport Forum.)