Public Television from Indiana University

A Look into Old East Berlin

Thursday June 8, 2006

BERLIN, GERMANY - The last few days have been so amazingly busy that I’ve had a hard time finding a chance to write down any thoughts. Over and over again, I’m struck by the thought that I can’t believe the things I’m seeing.

Stasi isolation cellsToday was certainly one of those days. We toured a former “Stasi” prison. The Stasi is what East Germany’s secret police were called. Essentially their job was to root out political enemies. In the extreme paranoia of the former communist government, that meant enemies around every corner, in every home. In fact, we met a former inmate today who learned only a few years ago when she was able to review her Stasi file that her own husband was a Stasi informant. He (still very much alive) hadn’t told her.

Our tour guide through the prison was another former inmate. The nearly 80-year old Eberhard Zahn’s story is typical of the old East Berlin days. As a West Berliner in his twenties in 1953, the Stasi caught Zahn in East Berlin and arrested him on suspicion he was a spy for the U.S. (he wasn’t, and said he had no reason not to admit such to a group of American journalists fifty years later). Although the authorities never found any evidence of his being a spy, they convicted him for writing anti-communist papers in college. He served seven years, including ten months in the prison we saw today.

The Stasi used psychological techniques, Zahn said, actually only physically beating an inmate on occasion. Their main goal, he said, was disorientation and trying to distort an inmate’s thinking. For example, all windows to the outside were made of glass bricks, so an inmate could never see where he was. Inmates never saw another inmate, never spoke to anyone, and never could turn off a light in their cells. Interrogators hoped to break prisoners into admitting some crime, although many had committed none, like Zahn.

The prison was within two walls, and its streets weren’t reflected on East Berlin maps of the time. Zahn’s family had no idea where he was for many years, even receiving a denial from the East German authorities when the family asked directly if they had him in one of their prisons. He had a girlfriend who committed suicide one year before he got out of prison in 1960.

This remarkable man practically bounced across the prison yard to show us the facility today. Zahn says he has great admiration for the United States because he says without U.S. efforts during the Cold War, West Berlin certainly would have become communist. He says he actually knows the former commander of the prison, who still says he did what he had to do for the “good of the peasants and average workers” at the time. Zahn thinks former Stasi should be held accountable for their actions. Still, he doesn’t exude any bitterness, despite the ordeal. Instead, he says the experience makes him appreciate freedom so much more. Freedom is not on the consciousness, he says, much like air. But when you lose your supply of air, you notice it, Zahn says, adding that freedom is much more a conscious thought when it’s gone.

The prison closed only when East Germany fell in 1990.

Yesterday I visited ZDF, one of Germany’s public broadcasting stations. It is like PBS in the U.S., in that it has a mission to have higher cultural standards for its programming. But its public funding is mandated—drawn from monthly fees paid by every German. The station’s primary political correspondent told us that this is a constant point of contention with the German public, and it’s a very big deal when public broadcasting asks for a fee hike. Most of Germany’s television is public television. Commercial stations started here mostly in the last decade.

I was impressed by the fact that they have a morning show that focuses largely on politics and current events for three hours each day. That is because it is what the German public demanded. Seems the Germans don’t really need cooking tips and Brangelina sightings or other fluff on their morning news.

Cultural sightings and a tie to home…I caught Sesame Strasse on television this morning.

I felt my Germany trip reached an important point the other day when as I drove my rental car, the radio played “99 Luft Baloons,” the U.S. crossover hit by the German artist Nena.