« | Home | »

The Smell of the Stasi

Tags: |

A paper shredder at the Stasi museum in Leipzig

A paper shredder at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig.

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.

Comments on “The Smell of the Stasi”

  1. David Gordon says:

    A wonderful note! But, beware of the subtext to “Runde Ecke”. To take someone round the corner – “um die Ecke bringen” – has very nasty connotations. It does not take long to find, in the on-line dictionaries, the colloquial meaning … “to bump off”.

    When someone in Germany tells me he is going to bring me round the corner, I run like hell.

  2. Cervantes says:

    It sometimes feels as if the world has outsourced the more difficult, sadder, shame-making sort of remembering to Germany.

    A thought-provoking statement.

    Thanks.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.


  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • UncleShoutingSmut on Goodbye, Circumflex: Unfortunately this post is likely to leave readers with a very partial idea of what is going on. Firstly, there is no "edict": all that has happened i...
    • martyn94 on The Price of Everything: If it's a joke at anyone's expense, it's surely at the expense of any super-rich who take it seriously. I used to skim it occasionally as a diversion ...
    • mideastzebra on Swedish-Israeli Tensions: Avigdor Liberman was not foreign minister November 2015.
    • lars hakanson on Exit Cameron: Europe will for good reason rejoice when the UK elects to leave. The country has over the years provided nothing but obstacles to European integration...
    • Michael Schuller on Immigration Scandals: The Home Office is keen to be seen to be acting tough on immigration, although I'm not sure that the wider project has anything to do with real number...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement