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6.4.2010 Former Stasi Headquarters Provide Headache for Berlin

By Wiebke Hollersen

The former Berlin headquarters of the East German secret police, the Stasi, are in a sorry state of disrepair, but no one can agree on what to do about it. Civil rights activists, the federal government and local politicians all have their ideas in a dispute that revolves around how to deal with the communist past.

Maybe the police will show up, says Jörg Drieselmann, sounding as if it might not be such a bad thing for the authorities to come and evict them, the people who, for the last 20 years, have been occupying the former office of Erich Mielke, East Germany's head of state security for more than three decades.

Drieselmann looks nervous as he perches on the edge of the old couch in his conference room in Berlin's Lichtenberg neighborhood. He glances at the window and the yellowed curtains. The curtains, the light switches, the linoleum -- all the furnishings, in fact -- are "all still genuine East German." Drieselmann, 53, is a gaunt man with a gray beard. As a teenager, he spent time in a Stasi prison in the East German city of Erfurt. Since German reunification, the office of Erich Mielke, the former East German minister of state security, has been his museum.

But now he is being asked to get out, and to take his exhibits with him. According to a letter that Drieselmann and his organization, "Anti-Stalinist Action" (Astak), have received, they are to vacate the building "immediately, by no later than May 31, 2010, complete with your personal effects." As of Thursday, however, Drieselmann had not been evicted.

The Right to Interpret History

The German government wants to take over the building where Mielke had his office, Building 1 in the former Stasi headquarters complex. The government plans to renovate the building and turn it into a national memorial.

The government's plans have civil rights activists and the Chancellery's culture specialists battling over every detail. Ultimately, they are arguing over who has the right to interpret East German history. Government officials are worried about things like water damage and fire safety, and they have threatened to shut down Building 1 if it is not renovated. Civil rights activists, on the other hand, are concerned about things like light switches and linoleum. They want to make sure that everything will look the same after the renovation, and that the building isn't turned into yet another slick, modern museum.

What should happen to the former Stasi headquarters complex? How much of it should offer a glimpse into history? Who should do the work? And what will happen to the many other Stasi buildings, most of which are now empty and dilapidated? Twenty years after citizens stormed the grounds in January 1990, the two sides are fighting over the past and future of the buildings that were once at the center of the East German surveillance state. The government no longer wants private initiatives to be in control of the monument to the East German state and its apparatus of control. But the activists are unwilling to allow the federal government to simply take away their life's work. A third group, in the form of local politicians in Lichtenberg, is anxious to finally shed the district's image as the home of Stasi headquarters.

Associated with the Stasi

The people of East Berlin associated certain street names-- Magdalenenstrasse, Normannenstrasse, Ruschestrasse -- with the Stasi. The organization's most important buildings were located between these streets, and Building 1, where the minister's office was located, was at the center of the complex. The office of Markus Wolf, the former head of the General Intelligence Administration, was in Building 15. At the other end of the complex was Building 18, with facilities catering to the needs of Stasi employees, including cafeterias, a supermarket and a travel office.

The headquarters complex consisted of more than 20 office buildings that housed the offices of Mielke's and Wolf's organizations, as well as another 13 auxiliary buildings. A total of 7,000 full-time employees worked there, where they managed the business of keeping all of East Germany under surveillance.

After reunification, Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway, took over the Soviet-era building once occupied by Wolf's foreign division. The federal agency responsible for the Stasi archives now uses Buildings 7 to 11 to store its files, and the Finance Ministry and a medical center now have offices in Building 2, the former counterintelligence headquarters. But now the biggest tenant, Deutsche Bahn, is moving out, and others have already left. The facades of many of the buildings are beginning to crack, and there are no prospective new tenants.

What should be done? This is the burning question for Jörg Drieselmann, the civil rights activist, for Helge Heidemeyer, an official who works for the agency that oversees the Stasi archives and who represents the government in the dispute, and for Andreas Geisel, the Lichtenberg city council member in charge of urban development.

Part 2: The Silent Terror of the Stasi

Heidemeyer is sitting in the high-end restaurant Borchardt in Berlin's Mitte district, wearing a dark suit. He is friendly and cautious, like a diplomat discussing a difficult part of Southeast Asia. He talks about the old Stasi headquarters, which, though less than half an hour away by subway, feels very distant.

Heidemeyer heads the Department of Education and Research at the Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives (BStU). His agency will be responsible for developing the new memorial in Mielke's office building after renovations are complete. "Building 1 will be the place where we address the subject of repression in the East German dictatorship," he says. For Heidemeyer, it is important to point out that the federal government and the German parliament, the Bundestag, have passed an official "memorial plan," and that Bernd Neumann, the German government's commissioner for culture and the media, is charged with implementing the plan. In a certain senses, Heidemeyer has come to this meeting at the restaurant as a representative of the entire German government.

The German capital already has a Berlin Wall museum at Checkpoint Charlie, a colorful museum of East German culture and sightseeing tours in the iconic East German Trabant car, all of which are privately run. Together, they make up a sort of East German theme park for tourists in the German capital. The federal government does not want to leave the task of interpreting history completely up to entrepreneurs and private associations, which is why it has introduced its strategy for the Stasi memorial. "No other place in Germany symbolizes the silent terror of the Stasi in quite the same way," the strategy paper states, referring to Building 1, and Heidemeyer says that this is the guiding principle for his work.

But neither does he want to be Drieselmann's adversary. No one does. He says that planning something in collaboration with Drieselmann's organization is "a great opportunity." He talks about "interactive elements" and says that the BStU has an exhibit that would be very well-suited for Building 1, as well as a wide range of education programs. Unfortunately, he says, Anti-Stalinist Action is currently unwilling to cooperate with his agency with the planning.

Another Government Agency

Drieselmann, sitting on his couch in Lichtenberg, laughs hoarsely when he hears this. He is convinced that the government wants to turn him and his agency into a mere appendage, possibly even part of its exhibition: the last civil rights activists.

He is skeptical about a documentation and education center created together with the BStU. "One government agency shouldn't be replaced with another," he says.

Drieselmann picked a fight with East Germany early in life. He went to prison at 18, and the West German government later paid for his release. Although he was no longer living in East Germany, he still considered himself an East German dissident, and he returned shortly after the end of the dictatorship.

Perhaps this is why he is so attached to the role of someone who opposes authority. If he had his way, nothing would change. He would simply like to continue running his museum, with the 34 people in his group -- but not with the government agency -- and continue to conduct tours of the building in his own way. Although Drieselmann lacks modern museum technology, he is a good storyteller. The "interactive elements" in his museum are the tours he and his colleagues conduct.

And they have been successful at it. In 2009, 100,000 visitors came to his museum. The numbers have been going up every year, particularly after 2006, when the Stasi-themed movie "The Lives of Others" was in theaters. Some of the scenes in the film were shot on the floor where Mielke had his offices.

Drieselmann bristles at the federal government and its "memorial plan." He has written angry letters, made demands and refused to comply with the order to vacate the premises. But the officials from the Chancellery have coldly reminded him of the parliamentary resolution. As of June, his museum will no longer receive public funding, which represents two-thirds of its budget.

Part 3: Alternative Plans for the Complex

For all too long, hardly anything happened in Drieselmann's quarrel with the German government. Meanwhile, the grounds surrounding Building 1 have become dilapidated, creating a burden for the Lichtenberg administration.

"A city needs to continue to develop," says Andreas Geisel. He is standing next to a snack bar across the street from the museum, wearing jeans and a blue jacket. This is his district. A member of the center-left Social Democrats, Geisel grew up in Lichtenberg and has been a member of the district council for 15 years. He is responsible for urban development, which to him means the future, not the past. He wants to see his district finally shed its old image of being home to "the Stasi, neo-Nazis and Soviet-era tower blocks," as he himself puts it.

The district itself has developed relatively well, he says. He points out that most of the old tower blocks have been renovated, there is a lot of green space and many families are living there. Then he looks at the surrounding Stasi buildings: 101,000 square meters (1.1 million square feet) of office space, with a 50 percent vacancy rate that is likely to soon rise to 90 percent. Things cannot continue like this, says Geisel, who points out that vacancy leads to deterioration and vandalism. "This affects the surrounding community," he says.

Bold Ideas

Geisel has already heard many proposals. Students from the Technical University of Cottbus, southeast of Berlin, have just designed plans for the site, which include turning the offices into apartments and putting in a park. Other ideas have included artists' studios and rehearsal space for bands. Geisel shrugs his shoulders, and says: "First you'd have to find that many artists and bands."

Geisel is more in favor of a large government agency using the space in the office buildings. Installing the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, as the Stasi's successor would be a bold and rather defiant idea. It is, however, entirely unrealistic: The BND is already building a new €1.5 billion headquarters complex in Berlin's central Mitte district.

Instead, a completely new way of thinking is needed. Geisel wants to have the complex declared an official redevelopment area. If all goes well and Berlin's Senate approves the plan, it could happen as early as this summer. One of the first steps then would be to hold an international architectural competition.

Geisel doesn't want to anticipate the outcome, particularly as the German capital, plagued by a high vacancy rate for commercial buildings, is having a tough enough time with investors at the moment. For this reason, Geisel could imagine entire buildings being demolished, leaving very little of the old complex standing. In his opinion, the best solution would be to simply tear down the entire, useless former Stasi complex.

Money Available

However, Building 1, which contains the museum with Mielke's office and which has protected status as a historic monument, will undoubtedly remain standing. Drieselmann and the federal government will have to come to an agreement soon, because the roof is leaking and the basement is already under water. Besides, money for the renovation happens to be available now, in the form of €11 million from the government's economic stimulus program. The construction work will have to begin soon, or the money will go to another project.

Members of culture commissioner Bernd Neumann's staff are now trying to reach a compromise. In a new "rough plan," they propose that Drieselmann and his group, as well as the BStU, each receive one floor in Building 1, and that the Drieselmann group manage the floor where Mielke's offices were. Besides, they have suggested that both sides work together to develop a new overall strategy that they can agree on. It looks like a relatively good offer.

But Drieselmann, the old civil rights activist, is still putting up a fight. Now he wants to see the construction plans and have a say in the renovation, "down to the last detail," as he says. He simply has a hard time trusting the government.