What’s the difference between the National Security Agency (NSA) Museum in Washington DC and Stasi (the Ministry of State Security) museum in Berlin? One is a celebration of victory, while the other is a commemoration of defeat. One is bright and cheery, the other is dull and grey. The NSA displays and exhibits tell you how the unbreakable German cipher machine enigma worked and how a team of dedicated cryptologist were able to decipher it’s working to turn the tide during the Second World War. They also give you a history of Cold War counter intelligence operations. The Stasi Museum tells you in graphic details all tricks of the trade that the State’s secret police employed to monitor its citizens and eliminate those not found to be ‘politically correct.’
I guess all intelligence agencies use similar tools of the trade. Bugging devices, hidden cameras and in modern times cyber attacks to hack into hostile computer networks. At the end of the day, it’s not the means but the end result that counts. If it is against a genuine enemy (a state actor or a non-state actor) the end will justify the means but if it is to keep tab against your own people it would be resented.
There is nothing fancy about building number 1, the former HQ of Das Sicherheits Minesterium – the Ministry of Democratic German Republic’s State Security. It’s a practical nondescript building that appears dark and forbidding. The furniture is Spartan and the walls are painted in cheerless colors and have simple pictures of heroes of Marxism-Leninism as adornments.
Erich Mielke the Stasi head from 1957 to 1989 sat here on the second floor that was called the first floor to keep him in good humor. Mielke wielded enormous power and was won’t to flaunt it by appearing regularly in the news of the state controlled radio and TV. He had a fetish for military uniforms and an insatiable appetite for medals and decorations. He had several rows of ribbons on his uniform because the party kept recognizing him for his ‘services’ at regular intervals. His schedule was strictly regulated from early morning till late in the night. His secretary of thirty years had memos and notes to remind her of what her boss wanted e.g. his breakfast had to be exactly laid out in a standard manner and there were to be no deviations to it. Not only was the crockery and cutlery to be placed in certain manner but also the bread and butter. The newspapers in the morning were also to be laid out precisely in the same order. His idiosyncrasies apart, Mielke ran a tight ship and even maintained a dossier on his boss Erich Honecker. Nothing new there. FBI’s long serving director J. Edgar Hoover (1924-1935 and 1935-1972) is said to have closely follow the flamboyant JFK. Conspiracy theorists claim that he had a hand in the assassination of the young president. Some presidents also eavesdropped on political opponents. Nixon illegitimately bugged and taped the Democratic Party HQ in Watergate Hotel. He was ultimately forced to resign and leave the White house. Even today President Trump is being investigated for his role in the manipulating the results last elections by former director FBI Robert Mueller.
What Stasi did was no mean feat. It is said to have monitored a population of 17 million through an elaborate system of spies and informers. 5 per cent of the people were formally or informally part of their network. Not only your neighbors, colleagues and friends could be reporting on you, even the spouse, children and parents could be willingly or unwittingly informing the secret police about your movements and activities if these were not in line with party ideology.
One wonders, however, if the Soviets had won the Cold War? What then? Would the Stasi still have opened up its premises to the public to celebrate victory over the decadent West?
Berlin is an extremely interesting city. It’s a mix of the old and the new and the true representative of the old East and the new West. Amidst the all the amazing sights and sounds of this cosmopolitan capital of Germany, there is nothing as interesting as a visit to the Alexanderplatz in the heart of old East Berlin. For me a pilgrimage to this culturally happening place is more important than visiting iconic places like the famous Brandenburger Tor, the Reichstag (parliament house), the victory column, the east side gallery (a potpourri of graffiti and street paintings on the remaining traces of the Berlin Wall), Check Point Charlie commemorating the Cold War’s relic of passage from the West to the East and many other places that draws a tourist.
On one of the last days of October as the trees of Berlin wear the brilliant gold colors of autumn (Herbst) to bid farewell to summer and to brace for the winter that in any place in North Europe can be cold and grey, Alexanderplatz hums with life and diversity. Surrounded by malls proudly displaying famous brand names on their storefronts, the ugly fountain in the middle threw up jets of water as the famous Berlin Fernsehturm (TV tower) and the global watch erected by the communists to showcase their progress stood sentinels on the historic public square bearing the name of Czar Alexander I to commemorate his visit to the Prussian capital in 1805. The square is now a major transport hub and passengers from the city’s underground spill-out of the subterranean station as others hurry down the moving escalators to catch a U Bahn home. The famous trams of Berlin in their festive yellow colors girdle the square and stop to disgorge or pick up their human cargoes.
On the cobble stoned square, street performers play their musical instruments or give enthusiastic and vigorous display of their virtuoso dancing skills and pass the hat around to collect coins. The Roma woman in her long skirt and dark visage begs for alms and a inebriated white man asks empty bottle so he get a refund on it and feed his drinking habit. He then rummages in the dustbin for used bottles. Other beggars by choice have cardboard signs asking you for a coin so they can buy lebensmittel (foodstuff). Some have well fed dogs to give them company. A homeless man in a sleeping bag huddles behind a door to keep away the cold wind. He has placed his mug in front of him so you can drop a coin. A musician with oriental features has a card in his open guitar case proclaiming that he Steve Lin from Taiwan. He is singing English songs. His sole spectator is a very young child. I suspect he has Vietnamese parentage. People from Vietnam represent the second largest immigrant population in Berlin after the Turks.
I hear snatches of Punjabi as I lazily wander around to soak in the scene. Muhammad Khalid is sells trinkets like old Soviet era peak caps and other symbols of the Cold War but admits these are made in China. Khalid comes from Rawalpindi and used to live in a house near the old airport. He is not willing to be photographed but lets you stand behind his stand and takes your picture. Other simply takes selfies in the spirit of the times. Fellow Pakistanis sell Lichtballoons or light balloons with long glittering stems to young children accompanying their parents for an outing. I often come across Muhammad Khalid or other people from my country selling stuff at Alexanderplatz. “How are things in Germany?” I ask a random question to make conversation. His reply is thoughtful and incisive. “Things are always good here because unlike our leaders, theirs are sincere to the nation.” Well said, I think and move on. Perhaps I would come here again.