Painful Memories of an East German Gulag 'I Thought I Was in a Nazi Movie'

Mario Röllig is still struggling to get over his time in a Stasi prison while his jailers enjoy a peaceful retirement. Twenty years after the fall of the Wall, East Germany's former political prisoners want more recognition for their suffering -- and an end to "Ostalgie."

Mario Röllig can remember the day he arrived in East Berlin's Hohenschönhausen jail like it was yesterday. And recalling the three months he spent there in 1987 often makes him tremble.

"When we stepped out of the van there were men in riding boots with riding breeches and rubber truncheons screaming at us to remove our belts and shoelaces. I thought I was in a Nazi movie," Röllig, a 41-year-old Berliner, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

His crime was trying to flee communist East Germany, where he had been harassed by the Ministry for State Security, the East German secret police force known as the Stasi, because he had refused to spy on friends he knew in West Berlin.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Röllig's legs still buckle at the memory of being locked up without knowing where he was, of body cavity searches while naked, of being threatened with indefinite incarceration.

"They said if I didn't talk about my friends they would arrest my parents too or take my sister's child from her. They said 'no one knows where you are, we can do what we want and no one will ever find out. We'll just say you disappeared in the West.' There were moments when I really thought I might not make it out alive."

Plagued by Memories

Röllig still wakes up in a sweat at night wondering if he's broken prison rules by sleeping on his side. The sound of a two-stroke car engine still makes his heart pound because it reminds him of the van that brought him to jail in a five-hour odyssey that was aimed at disorientating him.

Like many of the 250,000 political prisoners held in East German jails during the 41-year communist regime, Röllig is suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder. A noise or a smell can trigger a memory and cause panic.

Röllig can't work and has been in and out of psychiatric therapy and hospitals for the last decade. He had initially managed to suppress the trauma and was enjoying life in unified Germany until one day in 1999 when his world collapsed. A chance encounter with one of his interrogators in a Berlin department store brought all the memories flooding back and overwhelmed him. Röllig tried to commit suicide with sleeping pills that night.

He lost his job and has been fighting to overcome his past ever since. But Röllig keeps on returning to Hohenschönhausen, every month to give tours of the drab, concrete complex of 103 cells and 230 interrogation rooms that now serves as a memorial to the victims of the Stasi.

Why does he come back? For one, it gives him a sense of triumph. "A lot of the old Stasi guys still live in this neighborhood and this place is like a thorn in their side. I like the thought of that."

Warped View of East Germany

But Röllig, one of 72,000 East Germans jailed for trying to escape to the West, has another reason for confronting his past each month: He feels that many Germans have started to look back at East Germany -- also known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR -- with an utterly unwarranted nostalgia that has become so widespread that there's a name for it -- "Ostalgie."

Röllig says the fundamental injustice of a system that locked its citizens behind a wall, spied on them and incarcerated anyone who criticized it or tried to escape is being masked by a growing perception that East Germany had a great welfare system, good schools and virtually zero unemployment -- appealing attributes at this time of economic crisis.

"I really can't stand this sentence you often hear these days: 'Not everything was bad about the GDR.' I'm speechless when I hear people going on about the great child care and the great education system in East Germany. It's a lie. People were indoctrinated there like they were under the Nazis."

Röllig said the Left Party, which emerged from the communist party that ruled East Germany to become a major electoral force in both eastern and western Germany, even sharing power in the city-state government of Berlin, has been propagating a warped view of the past. Left Party officials including Bodo Ramelow, the regional party leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, are on record denying that East Germany was an "unjust state."

Röllig said: "I'm not surprised many young people think East Germany was like the West, just without the freedom to travel and the hard currency. We ex-prisoners have to keep hammering home to people that it was a dictatorship. Only when every school book contains that statement will I stop coming here to give tours."

Former Stasi Officers Regaining Confidence

Röllig and other ex-prisoners are becoming increasingly vocal because Germany is getting ready to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall on November 9. But they're also motivated by frustration at the mounting self-confidence of former Stasi officers and prison guards.

In recent years Stasi members have been writing books about the good old days and taking legal action against newspapers or former prisoners who name them publicly. They have been emboldened by the passage of a statute of limitations deadline in 2000 since when Stasi officers can no longer be prosecuted for any crimes they committed apart from murder or manslaughter.

"They've all been coming out their holes and trivializing what they did," said Röllig. "Sometimes they take part in tours at the prison. They're easy to recognize because they usually have little handbags round their wrists, probably containing tape recorders," said Röllig.

"We've had people who suddenly shout out 'You're lying!' It used to make me angry but these days I ask them to come to the front and talk about their human rights abuses. They usually respond by walking off or just shutting up."

"It Will be Our Turn Again One Day"

The people who imprisoned and interrogated Röllig and thousands like him now live quiet, prosperous lives, many of them in neat terraced houses surrounding the jail in northeastern Berlin. Recently, as Röllig was walking to the prison, one retired Stasi officer called out to him over his garden fence: "It'll be our turn again one day! You'll be among the first we lock up again!"

"Yes but by then you'll be long dead," said Röllig, whose quick wit and eloquence mask the turmoil inside.

Röllig got into trouble with the East German authorities because he refused to become one of the 189,000 "informal employees" the Stasi recruited to spy on friends, colleagues, neighbors and even relatives.

He worked in the restaurant at East Berlin's Schönefeld airport where he met passengers from West Berlin, and he made friends with some of them. "One of them worked in the West Berlin city government and the Stasi wanted me to inform on him and others. They offered to arrange a nice flat for me wherever I wanted.

"But I didn't want to betray my friends for a flat. I said how about a flat in Charlottenburg?" Charlottenburg is a district of West Berlin. After Röllig's cheeky refusal, Stasi agents started tailing him constantly. As punishment for his non-cooperation, the Stasi leaned on his employer to fire him, and he was transferred to a humiliating job washing dishes in a fast-food stand.

Failed Escape

Frustrated with the harassment and the lack of prospects, Röllig, then 19, decided to flee to the West by travelling to Hungary and trying to cross the less heavily-guarded border with Yugoslavia. But he was caught and flown back to East Berlin. He was interrogated in good cop/bad cop routines and told he may be charged with "treason, endangering world peace and provoking a nuclear war."

Röllig was kept in a one-man cell. Prisoners weren't allowed to sit or lie on their bed until 10 p.m. when the lights were turned out. During the night they had to lie on their backs at all times. "The guards would check throughout the night. If you lay on your side they would turn the light on, kick the door with their boots and yell."

Hohenschönhausen was more than a prison . It was a factory for espionage gadgets such as brassiere cameras, electronic bugs, letter-opening machines and false passports for agents. The complex also contained a social club for Stasi officers.

The prison was so secret that the district was left blank on East German city maps. It had two padded cells where problem prisoners would be kept for up to 13 days in total darkness.

Röllig was released after three months and allowed to defect in 1988 under a prisoner sale arrangement with West Germany which the regime used to earn hard currency.

Meeting His Stasi Interrogator

He enjoyed his freedom until his life was overturned by an incident in 1999, when he was a sales assistant in Kadewe, Berlin's flagship department store. He suddenly realized a customer he was selling €750 worth of cigars to was one of his prison interrogators.

"I thought, what do I do now? Do I smash his face in? Then I thought, he's not that old, maybe we can talk about this, he'll apologize and we'll shake hands," said Röllig.

"I told him who I was and said let's shake hands and say you're sorry. He first looked baffled and then it dawned on him and he gave me this look of hatred. He said: 'What am I supposed to apologize for? You're a criminal!'"

"I wanted to hurl myself over the counter at him but colleagues held me back and I was just screaming. He just walked off. Anger, frustration, fear, sadness all the feelings I thought I'd come to terms with suddenly came up again. That night I tried to kill myself because I thought now they've found me, now it's all over." A friend found Röllig in time. He was referred to a psychiatric institution and lost his job.

Calls for Compensation

Röllig is campaigning for an honorary pension for everyone persecuted in East Germany, for easier access to compensation for health problems resulting from imprisonment, and for a large center of remembrance Berlin dedicated to the victims of communist dictatorship.

The law banning people from denying the Holocaust should be broadened to include denial of the crimes of East Germany's communist dictatorship, said Röllig, who gives tours of Hohenschönhausen with 31 other former prisoners.

Some 250,000 people visit the grim site every year, including many school parties. The prisoners' campaign got a symbolic boost this week from Chancellor Angela Merkel, who visited Hohenschönhausen on Tuesday. She said the prison "shows how brutally people's dignity was hurt."

"It's important that this chapter of the GDR dictatorship isn't hidden or forgotten," she told reporters.

Meanwhile Röllig is enjoying victories of his own. Last month he won a libel case against a former Stasi officer who had called him a notorious liar on a Web site.

"He was ordered to pay me €2,785. I'm going to use that money to help fulfil a dream -- a cruise to New York on Queen Mary II," said Röllig with a smile. "And I'll definitely be sending him a postcard."

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.