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  • I was momentarily mesmerized by this light; admiring the design, it seemed trendily retro and quite likely a collector’s piece. The spheres emitted a warm yellow light, reflecting off the brassiness of the fittings. It formed a gaudy, glowing centrepiece to the room. Floral-patterned white net curtains covered the vast windows. The parquet floor and part wooden-panelled walls were varnished to an orange tone matching the radiators running under the windows. An ancient television was propped up on stand in a corner. Armchairs were arranged around a bright orange circular coffee table on a large paisley-patterned rug. A matching orange side table sat adjacent to a dark brown day bed in the corner. The cover looked soft, a cream crocheted cushion and a red tartan blanket were placed ready for extra comfort. This corner looked cosy and inviting enough for a few minutes rest and shut-eye. The scent of freshly-made coffee wafted through the room along with the sounds of a TV or radio, a male voice, trailing in and out from somewhere nearby.

    A rope sectioned off most of the room. This banal domestic interior, the kitsch, dated decor, could have been in an apartment I was visiting but it was not. This was big brother’s den. I was standing in a lounge room, part of Erich Mielke’s office complex in the East German Ministry for State Security headquarters in East Berlin. From this building the Stasi orchestrated the surveillance and control of the East German people - they were all-seeing, all-knowing. A network of around 200,000 official and unofficial Stasi informers operated throughout the country. They spied, eavesdropped, logged people's movements, denounced them, arrested, imprisoned and interrogated people for opposing the state.

    In other parts of Haus 1 the telephones and switchboards on the desks gave a much more obvious sense of the sinister, formidable bureaucracy that had been at work there. The rooms and displays are immeasurably fascinating and many horrifying. One display case contained glass jars holding pieces of cloth. These were odour samples collected and used to keep tabs on suspected dissidents. The display explained these samples were collected from stolen underwear or from wiping down the chairs that suspects sat on in interrogations. The complex also houses the millions of files in which Stasi agents recorded the minutiae of peoples' lives. In January 1990, demonstrators had stormed this building to prevent the files' destruction. Millions of people have since applied to see their files, a process which for some brought damaging revelations that neighbours, friends, family even partners had been informing on them.

    For ten years after Germany's re-unification Joachim Gauck headed the commission which investigated the activities of the Stasi and managed those millions of Stasi files. When Joachim was 11 years old in 1951 his father was arrested and sent to a Gulag in Siberia for four years, for three of those years the family did not know whether he was still alive. Joachim’s refusal to join the communist youth movement, the Free German Youth, and his father’s dissidence meant he was barred from studying German or to become a journalist as he had hoped. He chose instead to study theology and became a pastor. In the late 1980s Joachim was among those who held services which preceded the demonstrations that eventually toppled the communist government in 1989. He and his family were long targeted by the Stasi. It is from reading so much about Gauck’s story again recently that memories of my visit to the Normannenstrasse building have been going through my mind. Joachim Gauck was sworn in as the new president of Germany today.

    Back in Haus 1 we concluded our tour in the old Stasi canteen, chatting to the volunteers as they prepared us fresh cups of coffee, we were the only visitors around. We sat down in comfy old chairs and concentrated our gaze on a television. The male voice we had heard traces of earlier was now sharp and clear, telling us the story of this building, the story of a state, of many generations of people.
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