"Themed restaurant" is how Willi Gau categorizes his pub. East German youth group shirts and porcelain plates with the Stasi symbol hang on the wall, and a mock security camera monitors the entrance. A mannequin next to the door is decked out as a East German riot policeman, complete with night stick and shield. Black red and gold signs advertise East German cooking with the slogan: "Come to us, or we'll come to you."
Zur Firma, ("the Company") is the name of the new bar in Berlin's Lichtenberg neighborhood that has modelled its décor after the secret East German police known as the Stasi. Subtitle: "the conspiratorial club." The air is already heavy with the smell of alcohol on Saturday afternoon, and three men hunker down in silence at the bar with large beers.
After years of unemployment, 60-year-old Gau hopes to secure a new livelihood here along with his co-partner Wolle Schmelz. "If you open a new bar in Berlin, you have to come up with a new idea," he said. When his pal Wolle told him about the empty store on Normannenstrasse, Gau immediately hit on the idea of a Stasi bar. "Stasi and Normannenstrasse, they're one and the same for East Germans." The former Ministry of State Security lies only a few meters away.
A bar occupying this same lot was formerly an infamous Neo-Nazi gathering point. Skinheads and leaders of the far right scene frequented "Café Germania," in spite of the dogged protests of residents and leftists. The landlord did not renew Café Germania's contract in 1998 -- the place shut down after only a year of operation.
Stasi Artifacts from E-Bay
Ten years later the tiny bar is again dipping its toes into German history. A plastic trash bag labelled "criminal documents, hand shredded" shares shelf space with tape recorders, a confidential handbook with lists of criminals from the DDR -- shorthand for German Democratic Republic as East Germany was officially known. There is also an urn labelled E. H., the initials of Erich Honecker, who ruled East Germany from 1971 until just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A DDR-made typewriter is on hand to transcribe interrogations.
The typewriter was also used to produce old-fashioned bound menus for the bar. Open the red folder labelled "medal for fighters against fascism," and you'll see the chef's tape recording protocol. More palatable eats include Russian soup with sour cream (€2.80) and homemade aspic with fried potatoes (€5.70). The owners mostly found DDR and Stasi artifacts through friends or bought them on eBay, but customers occasionally bring in memorabilia to help decorate. Regulars sign a form and receive an ID card under the alias "guest," entitling them to a 10 percent discount.
"We're dealing with the Stasi issue both satirically but also seriously," asserts Gau. On his shirt, he sports a badge of honor for 30 years of Stasi work, in reality, though, Gau claims he never actually was employed as a state snitcher. The Mecklenburg native says he was a member of the SED for 30 years, having joined the state party to improve his odds of getting into university. The party threw him out in 1989 for comments that didn't toe the Communist line. Are there Stasi files on him? "No idea, I don't want to know," says Gau.
But Gau's partner, Schmelz, has done some research. Apparently the Stasi had its eye on the native of Bremen, who fell in love with a young DDR citizen at a conference in Leipzig. "There's a file," says Schmelz. But he has no desire to read it. "Back then I thought it was all terrible, now I laugh about it."
"Unbeatable for Tastelessness"
Those spied on by the Stasi, though, are likely to find the bar much less amusing. Over two decades the secret police employed about 90,000 fulltime spies and more than 100,000 "unofficial" citizen collaborators. The "shield and sword of the party," as the Stasi was known, harassed and terrorized critics of the Communist regime. Kilometers upon kilometers of surveillance logs, about 18 million file cards as well as hundreds of thousands of photos, videos, and audio tapes sit on the shelves at Normannenstrasse in the Archive of the Federal Commission for Stasi Records, directed by Marianne Birthler.
"This bar idea is unbeatable for tastelessness," bristled Birthler in the Leipziger Volkszeitung. Those who have learned about Stasi practices in her archive, she said, "would definitely not enjoy the beer in that bar." Peter Alexander Hussock, head of an organization for victims called HELP, told the tabloid Bild, "many people still tremble when they think about the Stasi, are afflicted with sleeping disorders and still suffer physically." The topic, he says, is far from a laughing matter.
The deputy director of the Stasi Memorial Hohenschönhausen, Siegfried Reiprich, spoke of "insulting the victims" and of misinforming the younger generation. A few weeks ago, a new poll revealed German students' appalling lack of knowledge about DDR history. Frank Henkel, Secretary General of the CDU party in Berlin, criticized the transformation of "a criminal dictatorship into pop culture and themed restaurant" in the daily Die Welt. The bar consciously provokes to gain attention and money, he said.
In light of its rather sad décor and surroundings, the operation may not rake in the cash in the long run. But the owners made a calculated choice in stirring up debate. "Obviously we provoke people," said Gau. "But we don't want to vilify nor glorify anyone." Twenty years after the collapse of the DDR should one just hide the "Stasi cudgel" and turn the past over to historians? Says Gau: "In Germany we are slowly returning to a monitored state, and if things continue this way we will soon have a Stasi situation again."
Guests' reactions are predominantly positive, maintain the co-owners. They've heard some critique, but most visitors have "accepted" the bar's theme, they claim. Or, as one resident standing outside the bar pragmatically said: "The main thing is you can get drunk there."