The most penetrating exhibit at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig isn’t in a glass case. Housed in the ‘Runde Ecke’ (’round corner’), the nickname for the old Stasi HQ, the museum has sought to preserve the smell of the GDR. It’s an antiseptic aroma, with a bleached ageing sweetness to it, as if you found a tube of Germolene from 1912. I don’t know how you hang onto a smell, but they’ve kept the beige patterned lino, the metallic filing cabinets, the creamy grubby walls, so perhaps that’s part of it. I wonder what they do if they sense the tang is fading.
I went to the Leipzig museum a week or so before the news broke that the NSA had been listening to Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. Some people have said that Germany is more angry than other countries because it has a stronger memory of what it’s like to be spied on. Others have said it was baffling that Germany broke cover, because surely every country spies and is spied on? It turns out that Germany has a tiny number of spies compared to the UK and US. If it doesn’t spy on its allies, the reason may be that it hasn’t got the capacity.
In one of the rooms in Leipzig devoted to spying there was a suitcase with a paper luggage tag saying ‘Arab costume’, a blue pea coat with a camera hidden in one of the buttons, wigs, fake moustaches, make-up. They made being a spy look like fun. In another room were machines for steaming open letters and replica postage stamps so you wouldn’t suspect your letters had been read. That looked less fun – doesn’t the errant spy in The Lives of Others gets relegated to letter-steaming duty?
And then there was the machine the Stasi used to destroy their records. Wads of paper went in the green metal funnel, were shredded, mixed with glue, and came out the other end looking like rough hunks of grey concrete. In Stasiland, Anna Funder described the team of master puzzlers who worked on sacks of torn up Stasi reports. (They’re still going.) But any scrap of paper that had been through this machine had no chance of ever being read again.
Berlin is teeming with Gedenkstätten, or memory places: not just memorials, statues, plaques, but also houses, prisons, camps. You can take a tour of the old Stasi prison at Hohenschönhausen led by a former prisoner, who might tell you that they are still mocked by the loyal communists who still live near the prison. (The East German regime thought it prudent to have trusted party members living there.)
It sometimes feels as if the world has outsourced the more difficult, sadder, shame-making sort of remembering to Germany. But in return postwar Germany has let the rest of the world deal with things that could give rise to bad memories: foreign wars, for example, and spying – Germany’s spooks weren’t unhappy about using NSA intelligence before the Snowden revelations. Perhaps one day it will be possible to go to a museum in the US that’s preserved the way the NSA smells.