Allowing the walls to talk, Erfurt

On the top floor of the exhibition, arrows guided visitors from the lift and through a heavy metal door. To the right: the guard’s office, still fitted with a small desk, a telephone and a seat. To the left: a corridor, floor polished by the footsteps of countless guards, remand prisoners, democracy protestors and today, visitors to the exhibition. It had been left as was. Exposed pipes and padded cell doors. Bars on the windows. Strip lights and a sink. The cell doors were open, but otherwise this was the view the guards would have had from their command post. Weak winter light shined in from the opposite end of the hall.

From the founding of the German Democratic Republic in 1949 to the dramatic events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall just over forty years later, the remand prison of the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) stood on Andreasstraße in Erfurt, within sight of the main cathedral square and the gingerbread half-timbered houses of the picturesque Old Town. Over those years some five thousand people were held there, awaiting trial for crimes that for the most part amounted to little more than political opposition to the GDR regime. A banner, requesting that the government abide by the human rights agreements of Helsinki. A satirical slogan, spray-painted on the wall. That was enough to land you in these cells. Men upstairs. Women downstairs.

After trials, prisoners would be transferred to the main prisons. For his Helsinki human rights banner, Gerd-Peter Leube was sentenced to three years and six months for “anti-government incitement”. For their slogan painted on the wall, six teenagers (Grit Ferber, Ulrich Jadke, Holm Kirsten, Jörn Luther, Thomas Onißeit and Andreas Tillmans) spent up to six months in prison for the crime of “hooliganism”.

Their names are known because their stories are told within those empty cells at Andreasstraße today. On the 4th December 1989, in that chaotic period following the fall of the Berlin Wall when members of the Stasi desperately attempted to destroy the evidence of their surveillance and other crimes against their own people, citizens of Erfurt occupied the Stasi headquarters on Andreasstraße in Erfurt. Their example would later be followed in Leipzig and across the GDR, including the Ministry headquarters in East Berlin. Today the remand prison is a museum and memorial site, exploring the history of the GDR, the role of the Stasi and the prison itself in maintaining the power of the Socialist Unity Party, resistance the regime and the events of the ‘Peaceful Revolution’ that would lead, by October 1990, to the reunification of Germany.

It is a small but powerful exhibition, with the cell block and stories told via eyewitness testimony in word, picture and print providing most of the images that lingered long after we had returned to Erfurt’s pleasant streets. The idea of transforming the very site of oppression, state violence or crimes against humanity as a memorial and education site is of course nothing new. Visiting sites of memory and conscience, such as Robben Island, far away in South Africa, or the Buchenwald concentration camp, visible from the hill in Erfurt just behind Andreasstraße, help us understand the history and the stories in the very place they happened. They become part of a visitor’s itinerary and the educational curriculum. They give a voice to their victims and can be a fundamental part of truth and reconciliation in traumatised societies. They help us learn from history and question the what, the why and the how things happened.

But I came away from the cells at Andreasstraße with something else. Standing there in the cold corridor, watched over by a friendly member of the museum staff, I tried to imagine conditions in the 1970s and 1980s for the men and women held there. The observation and the isolation. The cells and the shower room. The fear of what was to come and the intimidation of what was happening right then and there. The first question that continued to echo around my head after I left was an obvious one: how could a state do this to people whose only crime was to hold up a banner or make a hastily scribbled joke on a wall? The question that came later was perhaps more troubling, for there was nothing about Andreasstraße that suggested a prison regime different to anything in operation today: how can a state do this to anyone, regardless of what they might have done?

It is important that the walls of Andreasstraße are allowed to talk. It is important that we listen to what they might have to say. But there are other stories being written today. In our prisons. In the prisons of other countries. And we need to listen to those stories as well.

Words & Picture: Paul Scraton

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