Posted by: facetothewind | May 18, 2010

Stasi Museum in Leipzig

The difference between tragedy and comedy, they say, is time. Some things never become funny. I am now sitzen deep in the heart of a place that will never find what happened last century very funny. But I am beginning to get the German concept “Schadenfreude” – finding joy in someone else’s misfortune. I think we can safely say that Germany has experienced more tragedy than any nation we know of in written history. The Jews and gays the Nazis exterminated were, after all, mostly German citizens. Wouldn’t Germans, then, be most qualified to develop a concept such as Schadenfreude as a coping mechanism for the pathetic political ravages wrought on its citizens? Let me first disclaim this essay by saying I didn’t come to Germany to laugh at people’s tragedies.

But today in Leipzig, I experienced the true meaning of Schadenfreude for the first time at the Stasi museum, set in the old headquarters of the infamous secret police. I was touring the Stasi museum, peering into cases of self-congratulatory communist medals, endless letters of spying and defamation, implements of peeping, tapping, and documenting people’s private lives…when I suddenly burst out laughing! Schadenfreude is rarely ever appreciated in the moment, and certainly the other grim-faced German tourists didn’t adore me for it. But I found the shenanigans of these bumbling secret police a bit comic. I think perhaps I watched one too many Pink Panther movies as a child and imagined Inspector Clouseau working as a Stasi agent. OK, OK, it’s not funny! People were executed, imprisoned without fair trials. Let me explain myself.

Amid the silent cameras concealed in briefcases, shirt button microphones hidden behind ties, and cameras that could be inserted into tiny holes drilled through walls, I found something that went too far. Too far, meine schätze! Look at this…

It’s the government-issue Fat Belly Cam. Yes, the fat belly insert for under a man’s shirt that would conceal a camera in the navel so that the operative could wear a shirt that opened up at the midriff and pop off a few pix of some revolutionaries running the ditto machine. Oh my. How could they have taken this seriously? I have noticed Germans to be a little humor-challenged, and the fact that this belly cam was actually designed, built, and used without someone saying, “OK Kommandant, this time you’ve gone too far.” I didn’t realize German engineering could stoop so far.

But it goes on from there. Here’s a picture of what I call the Stasi Bento Box. It’s the work box of a secret agent: Hard hat, lunch, drink and a stick-on beard…

And here’s the ENT department…

An operative was expected to be able to change looks several times each day and come back to the office completely unnoticed. This required an extensive hair and makeup team. Imagine how they must have tapped theater queens into the ranks…

Changing it up a bit, here’s a famous W and I assure you it isn’t for Wienerschnitzel. It was a steam table with vents in the shape of envelopes. Apparently the Stasi confiscated over $32 million sent through the mail. It was well known that your mail would be read passing over the border. In fact, there used to be a running joke: An East German boy would write to his West German grandmother, “Granny, thanks for the pistol. I buried it out back.” Two weeks later, he would write her another letter, “OK, now you can send the tulip bulbs, the Stasi have dug up the soil for me.”

One of the coolest things about the museum itself, was that they left the offices entirely as they were with the smelly old linoleum, sickly yellow walls, fluorescent lighting and horrid print curtains still hanging. The museum is really ahead of its time, perhaps not realizing what a design time capsule they’ve preserved. It was heartening to leave this fabulous museum knowing that the people of East Germany finally put a stop to this insanity and took back their country. It was a wildly courageous turn of events and a real sign of showing the leaders who’s boss.

Now we just have to work on getting the Germans a little sense of humor now that they really have little to worry about except the impending collapse of the Euro zone. That Schadenfreude will come in handy again, for sure.

From Wikipedia’s entry on the Stasi: Between 1950 and 1989, the Stasi employed a total of 274,000 persons in an effort to root out the class enemy. In 1989, the Stasi employed 91,015 persons full time, including 2,000 fully employed unofficial collaborators, 13,073 soldiers and 2,232 officers of GDR army, along with 173,081 unofficial informants inside GDR, and 1,553 informants in West Germany.

While these calculations were from official records, according to the federal commissioner in charge of the Stasi archives in Berlin, because many such records were destroyed, there were likely closer to 500,000 Stasi informers. A former Stasi colonel who served in the counterintelligence directorate estimated that the figure could be as high as 2 million if occasional informants were included.

Stasi efforts with one agent per 166 citizens dwarfed, for example, the Nazi Gestapo, which employed only 40,000 officials to watch a population of 80 million (one officer per 2,000 citizens) and the Soviet KGB, which employed 480,000 full time agents to oversee a nation of 280 million residents (one agent per 583 citizens). When informants were included, the Stasi had one spy per 66 citizens of East Germany. When part-time informer adults were included, the figures reach approximately one spy per 6.5 citizens.



  1. Can you go check something for me in dear Leipzig? This relates to a bunch of things you’ve been talking about here. On the side of downtown closer to the Bahnhof there used to be a bagel/sandwich place on a corner. The ‘bagel’ needed explaining, so the place had a big placard inside with its history and present place as ‘the biggest fast-food sensation in America’. Conspicuously missing was any mention whatsoever of the J-word, which to someone from America was nothing short of bizarre. It strikes me that this is not necessarily anti-semitic in intention, although it is anti-semitic in effect: in my experience in Germany, the concept ‘Jewish’, whether concrete or abstract, present or past, can only be licitly experienced through one lens — the holocaust. This doesn’t lend itself to selling yummy sandwiches. What do you and yours think about this? Does the shop still exist, and is the jewish-bagel connection still verschwiegen?

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