How close should you get: visiting the Hohenschönhausen prison

Visiting the Berlin Hohenschönhausen memorial, the main political prison of the former East German Communist Ministry of State Security, the Stasi, cannot be done on your own, but only part of a guided tour.

And on this early November day, our guide is a German historian in her early thirties, with a Club Mate in her hand, friendly and straightforward, and very engaging. We are taken on a tour through this prison which seems to have functioned as a huge mechanism of isolation. The guide has a way of making you aware and curious about the stories, and somehow allowing you to cope with the emotions by not adding extra drama to a context that is dramatic enough.


However, the interesting part comes afterwards, as we gather to talk about our visit at the Hohenschönhausen prison. There is a comment made about the guide having been  a bit disrespectful about those who suffered there, particulary in reference to a comment she made, but also by generally employing a certain distance in her presentation. Thus, a point is made that there is no place for distance when talking about traumatic events.

I disagree with it in the beginning. I’ve appreciated the guide’s abbility to stir your curiosity and envolve you in the story without recurring to emotions. In this case I feel that leaving the real emotions to those who actually suffered is more decent and honest, than actually feeling that you can share a bit of that trauma. Because truly speaking, you can’t. But what I can do is learn more about it, through a good documentation. And that’s what the guide did; in a vividly way, she helped me understand a bit of this big story.

But that was only my perspective. And I’ve slowly understood that just because the guide’s presentation style was right for me and my understanding framework, it didn’t mean that there was no place for dilemmas and debate.


As the discussion went on about the right way/ways to transmit such knowledge about past events , valuable questions arose. Why do we go to these memorial places in the first place?  Is it better to keep a distance when talking about emotion-ridden events, or is it actually ok to involve emotion? What if the guide was an eyewitness, as it’s the case of some tour guides at the Hohenschönhausen prison, that  were actually prisoners there. Is his/her input more valuable? What do we search for in these memorial places?

And then a great point was made. Are we going to these places to feel that the Ugly and the Bad of our history belongs to the past, and we can breathe relieved after the tour ends and we go back to our lives? Or do we want to live these stories the way we experience Hollywood movies, in search of thrill, may it be a negative on?



About Imran Khan

I'm a typical tall brown South-Asian, sub-continental Indian, people call it "Islamic Republic of Pakistan". I study Master of Global Studies at University of Freiburg. Currently, I'm writing my thesis on "Language in Education"

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