BERLIN (Reuters) - Manfred Lehmann avoids Berlin landmarks such as the Brandenburg Gate where hawkers selling old East German medals or students posing in guard uniforms for tourists are a painful spectacle to the 71-year-old, imprisoned for opposing the Socialist state.
“For us victims it is a tasteless circus. The way the old symbols and flags are bandied around. It shows a lack of respect for those who suffered. East Germany was a dictatorship,” said the former mechanic.
Lehmann joined several thousand visitors, mostly pensioners, at the reopening of the former headquarters of the East German secret service or Stasi on the weekend, a place he sees as providing a vital counterweight to the ever-increasing commercialization and trivialization of the former East.
“I wanted to see how this place is being preserved for the future, how the past is being represented,” he said, standing outside the drab, 1960 pebble-dash block in the suburb of Lichtenburg, today branded the Stasi Museum.
A slight man in a red parka and wearing a rucksack, he walks around the museum with intense interest. Germany pays Lehmann a “victim pension” of 250 euros per month, to compensate him for his time in and out of prison and deep psychological scars.
Fears that the refurbishment of the offices used by Erich Mielke, the man who led the Stasi’s campaign of surveillance and repression for 32 years, may have led to a loss of authenticity, prove unfounded.
The drab suite of rooms with mustard walls, wooden wall panels and parquet floors, with old telephones and switchboards on the desks, gives a vivid sense of a sinister, formidable bureaucracy, able to destroy citizens’ lives at will.
Elsewhere in the complex are the millions of files in which Stasi agents recorded the minutiae of peoples’ lives.
“It is impressive how powerful a feeling you get here. I wanted to find out about Mielke, see where he worked. But I don’t want to see my Stasi file. I think that is something best left in the past,” said Lothar Karas, 63.
Since the collapse of East Germany in 1989 which led to a euphoric storming of the old Stasi headquarters, some 2.8 million people have applied to see their Stasi file, a process which for some has brought damaging revelations, such as that close friends or partners had been informing on them.
Germany has been at pains to deliver a compelling and rounded presentation of the history of East Germany as more and more time elapses and a new generation comes of age with no experience of the once-divided country.
But emotions can run high as the personal and the political fuse. A near fight breaks out in Mielke’s office after a former East Berliner, on expressing his amusement at recognizing a familiar design of sofa, hears a German from the former West mutter “what a horrid color.”
“Do you think we chose that ourselves? Do you think we just had bad taste? There was nothing else, we had absolutely no choice,” he bellowed to the astonishment of other visitors.
Berlin in particular, faced with twice the number of tourists it had just a decade ago has had to satisfy an intense interest in the East and in the wall that divided the city between 1961 and 1989 and which has all but disappeared.
Private businesses appealing to visitors’ interest in the former East have boomed. Tourists can now hire fleets of Trabants, the ubiquitous tiny car of the East, to drive around Berlin, stay in socialist-themed hostels, with the same drab aesthetic as Mielke’s office, eat in themed restaurants and shop for East German chocolate bars, to the dismay of former victims.
At the same time authorities have introduced a cycle track along the route of the former wall, and reopened as a museum the so-called “Palace of Tears” the departure and arrival point in East Berlin for citizens of the West, in a bid to keep authentic sites prominent in public recollection of the East.
A large cold war museum is planned for the site of the Check Point Charlie roadblock between the old East and West Germany.
“I think we are now striking the right balance,” said Dietmar Woidke, interior minister for the eastern state of Brandenburg.
“In the past, in the 1990s, there was a real nostalgia for the old times, but I think we’ve moved away from that. There is broad recognition that this was a dictatorship but also that East Germany had its bizarre and quirky sides.”
Editing by Paul Casciato