Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The colour of evil is grey

One of my favourite places in Berlin is the Neue Wache, a former guardhouse that is now empty except for a sculpture. It's called Mother With Dead Child and is by Kathe Kollwitz, who encouraged her son to go and fight in World War One. He never came back. Nor did her grandson from World War Two.

The sculputure is the centrepiece of a memorial to the victims of war and tyranny. It's hard to think of a city where it's more appropriate to have one.
During our trip to Berlin, Martin, Janka and I went out in to the depths of the former communist eastern part of the city to see some of that legacy of tyranny, at a secret interrogation centre for the Stasi, East Germany's secret police. It was a grey, grim place that radiated a kind of drab evil.

We were shown around by a former prisoner who as a young man tried to escape to the West. He told us of the two phases of the prison. The first was in the days of Stalin, when prisoners were tortured and sometimes murdered. There was a cell coated in rubber that they used to fill with water so the inmate could not lie down or sit without getting soaked. Then there was the punishment cell, a hollowed out wall where there was not enough space to even move. They used to keep people in it until they collapsed.

He then showed us the area where he was kept. These cells were much 'nicer' and there was no physical abuse, as it had been decided that psychologically torturing people was better for East Germany's image - it left no visible scars.

Prisoners were kept in complete isolation from each other and the outside world, unless when it suited the methods of torture. Three people were assigned to each prisoner to work out how to break them down. As an example of how they did it, the Stasi had our guide's wife write him a letter of separation, then left him in his cell with nothing to read but love stories.

"You can break someone with books," he said.

It seemed even worse than the torture cells. I think brutality is easier to understand than the calculated, bureaucratic destruction of people. It's like the Rwandan Genocide compared to Auschwitz.

After visiting the prison we went to the Stasi HQ, a colossal and completely soulless complex. Anyone who's seen The Lives of Others (and if you've not, you really should) will know the kind of ugliness and colour scheme of greys and browns that marked the East Germany government.

The size of the place reinforced just how much money and effort the communist governemnt spent on monitoring and repressing their own people. There was one cool part though - the exhibition on the secret weapons of spying. Fake rocks with recorders inside, guns built into briefcases, cameras inserted into hollowed trees or handbags, or ones like below that could be hidden in clothing. Real James Bond stuff.

In the age of the microchip it makes you wonder what they've got now!

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