The city of Leipzig in Saxony is universally regarded to have been the starting point of the “Peaceful Revolution” in 1989 which led to the emergence of democracy in what we now refer to as the former GDR. During the period of the communist state, the “Runde Ecke” was a symbol of state oppression as it was the headquarters of the “Ministerium für Staatssicherheit” (MfS) – the term “Staatssicherheit” (state security) is better known by its abbreviated title – the Stasi.
The building takes its name from its distinctive shape at the junction of the Dietrichring and the Töpferstraße. Originally built as the headquarters of a local fire insurance company just prior to the First World War, it was occupied briefly by the American army just prior to the end of the Second World War. It then became the property of the Soviet occupying force and was used by the Soviet secret police, the NKWD and the predecessor of the Stasi known as “K5”. In 1950 it assumed the rôle it was to fulfil until 1989, the local Stasi headquarters. Over the years the building was extended, reflecting the ever growing part played by internal espionage. The district headquarters of the “German People’s Police” was also very conveniently situated nearby.
During the period 1950 – 1989 opinion was starkly divided as to the function of the “Runde Ecke”. For some it was the “Schutz und Schild der Partei” – the protection and shield of the Party. For others it was the headquarters of the “Schattenarmee einer Diktatur” – the shadow army of a dictatorship. By the time of the Monday Demonstrations” which began on 15th January 1989, the slogan ran: “Krumme Ecke – Schreckenshaus: Wann wird ein Museum d’raus?” Literally translated, but without being able to do justice to the German play on words: “Bent corner: when will it become a museum?” On the 4th December 1989, a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the building was taken over in a peaceful demonstration. An instantly formed “Bürgerkommittee” – citizens’ committee – was established. Amongst its immediate aims was the determination to ensure that nothing was to be allowed to disappear from the offices and that interested parties were to be allowed access to the files that were housed there. As a result, the question asking when it would become a museum was rapidly answered by August 1990. Today, on going up the steps behind the main entrance, the corridor goes in two directions: to the right to where the files are stored, to the left where the permanent exhibition entitled “Stasi – Macht und Banalität” (Stasi – Power and banality”) is housed.
In her superb account “Stasiland – Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall” the Australian journalist Anna Funder describes two visits to the “Runde Ecke”, firstly in 1994 and then later in 2000. My first reading of Anna Funder’s book was in part the inspiration behind a visit my wife and I made in September 2011 to a number of key Leipzig locations in the “1989 story” such as the Nicolaikirche, the birthplace of the Monday Demonstrations and the Runde Ecke itself. The former radiates a sense of peace and tranquillity in the middle of a busy city; the latter, a museum, which as Anna Funder describes might appear slightly amateurishly mounted but is harrowing and extremely thought provoking. Neither of them are to be missed.
The exhibits on show may be but a small selection of the total collection but they range from fascinatingly graphic tools of espionage – listening devices, cameras, disguises, forged rubber stamps, devices for opening letters, forged documents including passports, a workshop for preserving smells to the detailed development and structure of the structure of the machinery of state and in particular the Stasi itself. The visitor very rapidly gains a comprehensive view of the nature of the organisation, its ideological roots and its modus operandi. The state’s efforts to keep as extensive a watch over the people of the GDR by telephone surveillance, observation, investigation and interrogation are vividly portrayed. The sections which deal with punishment, in particular the executions carried out, are harrowing and gruesome. Also on view are the machines which pulped a number of the files the Stasi destroyed in the frantic attempt to destroy evidence in late 1989, together with the preserved piles of pulp which are beyond re-constitution and re-construction. A faithfully reconstructed prison cell for those awaiting trial and a reconstructed office of a full-time Stasi official could be taken for sets for a film – but they belong in the world of reality. Many of the exhibits speak for themselves, needing little or no explanation. However, a relatively recent innovation to help the visitor is the use of hand held guides with detailed yet unemotional commentaries. These are available in a number of languages, including English. As the descriptions of the artefacts are all in German, these are indispensable for the non-German speaker.
Like Anna Funder I too bought a book as a memento: “Rüdiger Knechtel, Jürgen Fiedler: Stalins DDR: Berichte politisch Verfolgter” (“Reports of the politically persecuted”). For those who are interested in the topic and who read German – as far as I am aware no English translation exists – the themes are extremely close to those recounted by a number of the interviewees of “Stasiland”. Written as early as 1992 it is stark and brutal – with the sobering thought that a number of potential interviewees declined to participate for fear of a return of the régime that had so oppressed them.
As foreign visitors to the then DDR are now permitted access to files which may have been compiled and which may be intact – ie not awaiting the attention of the “puzzlers” (apparently much greater use of computer technology has been introduced since Anna Funder’s book was published) or to be found amongst the mounds of pulped documents – my curiosity was aroused as to whether my own visit to the DDR in August 1971 (the tenth anniversary of the construction of the Wall) would have merited any attention. At the time of writing the bureaucratic process has just been put in to motion! More soberingly, my mind turned to the disappearance without trace in 1965 of a brilliant West German university student of Mathematics and Physics who was known to me at the time. His family feared that because of his intellect and subject specialism he had, in all probability, been kidnapped and removed to the other side of the Iron Curtain. I am left wondering whether the answer to the question of his disappearance will ever be resolved.
For those interested in the theme of life in the former DDR, films such as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar winning “The Lives of Others” or Christian Petzold’s “Barbara”, both available on DVD, are very powerful evocations of the time and provide compelling supporting material to Anna Funder’s themes.
Related Internet Links
- The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer – Ian Mortimer - March 6, 2013
- Das Museum in der Runden Ecke - January 28, 2013
- Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall – Anna Funder - January 16, 2013