A Walk Through the Shadow World of the Stasi

Corridor in Stasi HQ in Leipzig, Germany

The Stasi museum in Leipzig has been kept in the same drab state as when the secret police were there: tiny offices, dirty linoleum, bare fluorescent lights, everything old and worn.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

A JOKE THEY used to tell in East Germany goes like this:

“A grandson writes a letter to his West German grandmother: ‘Thanks for the pistol. I’ve buried it in the garden.’

“Four weeks later he writes again: ‘Dear Grandma, you can send the tulip bulbs now. The Stasi dug up the garden.’”

The Stasi—formally, the Ministry of State Security—were the East German secret police. When the Soviet Union–backed German Democratic Republic (GDR) collapsed in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the Stasi were dissolved. Their agents managed to destroy about a third of their files, but that still left dossiers on six million citizens.

In Leipzig, the Stasi headquarters was a building known as the Round Corner. It, and its contents, survived more or less intact, and is now a museum whose exhibition, Stasi: Might and Banality, lays out the bureau’s workings.

The exhibition takes up the first floor of the four-storey building (the other floors are closed), which has been left in the same drab state as when the secret police were there: tiny offices, dirty linoleum, bare fluorescent lights, everything old and worn.

The Stasi “penetrated into the most private aspects of people’s lives,” says the introduction to the English audio guide, “sowed mistrust among neighbours and violated the most elementary human rights.”

The displays, all in German (so you’ll need the €4 audio guide), illustrate this. In one room, for example, are a series of sealed glass jars. Inside are cloths impregnated with the scent of suspect citizens. Often the samples were obtained by calling someone in to answer questions, then making them wait while sitting on the absorbent cloth. If “subversive” leaflets were handed out, the Stasi would have specially trained dogs sniff the printed sheet, then a series of cloths until they barked. Even in the GDR this wasn’t legally admissible evidence, but, says the audio guide, “the Stasi generally found a way of making the result official.”

In another room are the specially made machines to steam open and then reseal people’s mail. Between 1,500 and 2,000 letters a week were taken straight from the Leipzig post office to the Round Corner. The mail wasn’t just read: the Stasi set up an index to register every sender of a letter in Leipzig and to archive a writing sample from each on a microfiche.

The Leipzig branch also maintained a list of 14,000 people to be put in interment camps or interrogation cells in case of civil unrest. You could make the list for having contacts with Western media or being a “persistent non-voter.”

When the Stasi vanished in 1990 they had about 90,000 on-book employees, plus nearly 190,000 informers, called IMs. “In most cases it wasn’t material considerations, but political convictions that convinced the IMs to sign up,” we learn. Payment was seldom more than a packet of coffee or a bouquet of flowers. If you were exceptional, you might also be given a medal. You couldn’t wear it, of course.



For more information on the Round Corner (Runde Ecke) visit its website at

For information on travel in Germany go to the German National Tourist Office website at