Fighting Over the Past: Former Stasi Headquarters Provide Headache for Berlin

By Wiebke Hollersen

The former Berlin headquarters of the East German secret police, the Stasi, are in a sorry state of disrepair, but no one can agree on what to do about it. Civil rights activists, the federal government and local politicians all have their ideas in a dispute that revolves around how to deal with the communist past.

Photo Gallery: The Fate of Stasi HQ Photos
DPA

Maybe the police will show up, says Jörg Drieselmann, sounding as if it might not be such a bad thing for the authorities to come and evict them. For the last 20 years, he and his colleagues have been occupying the former office of Erich Mielke, who was head of East Germany's feared secret police, the Stasi, for more than three decades.

Drieselmann looks nervous as he perches on the edge of the old couch in his conference room in Berlin's Lichtenberg neighborhood. He glances at the window and the yellowed curtains. The curtains, the light switches, the linoleum -- all the furnishings, in fact -- are "all still genuine East German." Drieselmann, 53, is a gaunt man with a gray beard. As a teenager, he spent time in a Stasi prison in the East German city of Erfurt. Since German reunification, the office of Erich Mielke, the former East German minister of state security, has been his museum.

But now he is being asked to get out, and to take his exhibits with him. According to a letter that Drieselmann and his organization, "Anti-Stalinist Action" (Astak), have received, they are to vacate the building "immediately, by no later than May 31, 2010, complete with your personal effects." As of Thursday, however, Drieselmann had not been evicted.

The Right to Interpret History

The German government wants to take over the building where Mielke had his office, Building 1 in the former Stasi headquarters complex. The government plans to renovate the building and turn it into a national memorial.

The government's plans have civil rights activists and the Chancellery's culture specialists battling over every detail. Ultimately, they are arguing over who has the right to interpret East German history. Government officials are worried about things like water damage and fire safety, and they have threatened to shut down Building 1 if it is not renovated. Civil rights activists, on the other hand, are concerned about things like light switches and linoleum. They want to make sure that everything will look the same after the renovation, and that the building isn't turned into yet another slick, modern museum.

What should happen to the former Stasi headquarters complex? How much of it should offer a glimpse into history? Who should do the work? And what will happen to the many other Stasi buildings, most of which are now empty and dilapidated? Twenty years after citizens stormed the grounds in January 1990, the two sides are fighting over the past and future of the buildings that were once at the center of the East German surveillance state. The government no longer wants private initiatives to be in control of the monument to the East German state and its apparatus of control. But the activists are unwilling to allow the federal government to simply take away their life's work. A third group, in the form of local politicians in Lichtenberg, is anxious to finally shed the district's image as the home of Stasi headquarters.

Associated with the Stasi

The people of East Berlin associated certain street names-- Magdalenenstrasse, Normannenstrasse, Ruschestrasse -- with the Stasi. The organization's most important buildings were located between these streets, and Building 1, where the minister's office was located, was at the center of the complex. The office of Markus Wolf, the former head of the General Intelligence Administration, was in Building 15. At the other end of the complex was Building 18, with facilities catering to the needs of Stasi employees, including cafeterias, a supermarket and a travel office.

The headquarters complex consisted of more than 20 office buildings that housed the offices of Mielke's and Wolf's organizations, as well as another 13 auxiliary buildings. A total of 7,000 full-time employees worked there, where they managed the business of keeping all of East Germany under surveillance.

After reunification, Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway, took over the Soviet-era building once occupied by Wolf's foreign division. The federal agency responsible for the Stasi archives now uses Buildings 7 to 11 to store its files, and the Finance Ministry and a medical center now have offices in Building 2, the former counterintelligence headquarters. But now the biggest tenant, Deutsche Bahn, is moving out, and others have already left. The facades of many of the buildings are beginning to crack, and there are no prospective new tenants.

What should be done? This is the burning question for Jörg Drieselmann, the civil rights activist, for Helge Heidemeyer, an official who works for the agency that oversees the Stasi archives and who represents the government in the dispute, and for Andreas Geisel, the Lichtenberg city council member in charge of urban development.

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