The Stasi Headquarters: A Nodal Point in Past and Present Topographies of Walls, Escapes, and Access

This November, the former headquarters of the GDR Ministry of State Security (MfS, or Stasi) have begun to accommodate refugees. Twenty-five years after demonstrators stormed this remainder of the East-German dictatorship to secure the accessibility of the innumerable surveillance documents, the headquarters again negotiate the question of open doors.

The bone structure of the infamous Stasi building complex in Berlin Lichtenberg is today the same as a quarter of a century ago. The historical moment is different, yet not without parallels to the past. Both German reunification in 1990 and the 2015 migrant crisis have been labelled as pivotal moments in recent German history, which is inextricably linked with European history. The reunited country has re-awoken fears of a dangerously powerful German nation-state at the heart of Europe.[1] Germany’s further interlacing in a community of nations has thus been central to European politics since the 1990s. The establishment of the European Union in 1993 is tied to these efforts.[2] This union faces at present an enormous influx of refugees. Again, Germany is a key actor – as the destination to which most migrants are heading.[3] And again, the political rhetoric connects the challenge to the viability of Europe as a whole.[4] The Stasi headquarters, a single physical complex, link these two vital moments in past and present Europe.

Then and now, the architectural site has been a manifestation of the same themes, yet each time pulling in opposite directions. The section now appropriated as refugee quarters had formerly accommodated the MfS department for espionage in foreign countries. As part of its activities, the department was concerned with thwarting escapes from the GDR to these countries.[5] At the same spot, the incoming refugees currently complete successful escapes to a foreign state.[6] They thereby redefine the building’s role in the international geography of migration. In a historical turn of events, some of the migrants coming to Berlin Lichtenberg have fled from dictatorial regimes that monitor or regulate people’s freedom of movement. The former headquarters now invite arrival instead of hindering departure. The people dwelling here hope for freedom instead of exercising suppression.

The Stasi building has historically not only communicated that there was no way out but also that there was no way in. The GDR surveillance apparatus engaged in secretive operations.[7] The accumulated materials about the people were kept out of reach of the people. Two months after the fall of the Berlin wall, East Germans stormed the formerly closed-off headquarters. On 15 January 1990, the disgruntled citizens sought to ensure the preservation, and ultimately accessibility, of the countless secret surveillance documents that the Stasi was in the process of destroying.[8] Twenty-five years later, the repurposed architecture opens its doors to people at a moment when the image of an inaccessible “fortress Europe” keeps reappearing in the refugee debate.[9] The rhetoric is reminiscent of retrospective descriptions of the GDR and its surveillance headquarters as fortresses.[10] Today, the vocabulary finds its material expressions if not in walls then in fences that currently threaten to rise along European borders. Amid these developments, the MfS site as a former hallmark of seclusion practises inclusion.[11]

The Stasi headquarters have become an intersection of space and time. The construction unites central questions – of geopolitics and migrant geography – that have continued to matter throughout recent European history. The past and present coincide in a particularly vivid way on this site since this year a new exhibition has opened in another part of the headquarters. It explores the workings of the Stasi in its former operating spaces.[12] The building complex thus synthesizes two major historical moments of both freedom of movement and freedom from authoritarian control. The Stasi site crystallizes how central the question of basic human rights is to the definition of modern Europe.

[1] Marla Stone. “Introduction.” In When the Wall Came Down: Reactions to German Unification, edited by Harold James and Marla Stone. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2013, 19.
[2] Manfred Görtemaker. “Verhandlungen mit den Vier Mächten.” Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. 19 March 2009.
[3] Jörg Diehl and Anna Reimann. “Flüchtlinge auf der Balkanroute: Zehntausende wollen nach Deutschland.” Spiegel Online. 22 October 2015.
[4] E.g. “Sondertreffen in Brüssel: EU-Innenminister beschließen Verteilung von 120.000 Flüchtlingen.” Spiegel Online. 22 September 2015.
[5] Stephan Wolf: Hauptabteilung I: NVA und Grenztruppen (Handbuch). Berlin: BStU, 2005, 8.
[6] This success is, however, merely physical and, as such, temporary. Whether the refugees will remain in the country or whether their escape was futile, will be a legal question.
[7] Jens Gieseke. Der Mielke-Konzern: Die Geschichte der Stasi 1945-1990. Pantheon: München, 2011, 10.
[8] “Die Erstürmung der Stasi-Zentrale.” Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. 13 October 2010.
[9] E.g. “Auf dem Weg zur Festung Europa.” Handelsblatt. 15 September 2015.; Dirk Schümer. “Nur die ‘Festung Europa’ kann jetzt noch Leben retten.” Die Welt. 14 September 2015.
[10] Frank Herold. “Sturm auf die Stasi-Festung.” Berliner Zeitung. 14 January 2015.,10808018,29567534.html; Hans Michael Kloth. “Im Herzen der Finsternis.” Spiegel Online. 15 January 2010.; “Filme zur DDR: Dokumente einer bröckelnden Festung.” SRF. Accessed 23 November 2015.—dokumente-einer-broeckelnden-festung?id=c9605ad2-e949-4b78-9cbc-9bc4be29b918; Marius Zippe. “‘Mit Fantasie gegen Stasi und Nasi.’” Zeit Online. 15 January 2015.
[11] An element of regulation remains in this inclusion as the refugees have no say as to where they are accommodated. Their stay at the MfS headquarters is no active choice.
[12] Stasi Museum.