In Prison

I had heard mainly negative things about the way the Gedenkstätte Stasi-Gefängnis Hohenschönhausen dealt with history and actors opposing their strictly anti-communist way of remembrance. Still, I was interested in seeing the place myself when we went, thought I am not sure what I expected, really. After all, a prison without inmates is not much different from any other abandonded concrete building – unless it contains some “special” rooms as well, which, to be honest, I’d rather not see.

Hohenschönhausen turned out to be just that. A bleak, intimidating wall of concrete, a big gate and some buildings without any special traits. From the tour, which was not given by a former inmate but by an energetic young historian, many details could be learned: what type of food was served, how prisoners had to behave day and night,  privileges and punishments… Historical background was not touched upon too much, and when the conversation with the guide turned to comparisons of this particular prisons with other ones in different times and places it became tangible that there is really not that much to learn in Hohenschönhausen, except that the GDR wasn’t exactly nice to the people they incarcerated (but then again, where have prisons ever been nice), and that arrests were often made at random and prisoners rarely had the chance to get a proper trial and legal advice (again, not exactly unique in history and in the world).

What bothered me about the presentation was not so much the perceived waste of time (I would never recommend a visit to the place to anyone), because in our context it still made some sense to see the prison, but the lack of questioning in the presentation. We, like all the other groups who go to this place, got a complete story presented, without grey areas, open questions, or space for controversy. Not a very good way to deal with historical places and events, in my opinion. Especially because in connection to the space around the prison Hohenschönhausen has the potential to open up new perspectives on the organization and functioning of the Stasi, without demonization and ideological prejudice.

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