On the 28th October, 1989, writers, artists and academics rallied at the Erlöserkirche in Berlin beneath the banner Against the Sleep of Reason (Wider den Schlaf der Vernunft), a manifesto calling for the awakening of the public conscience to the injustices of the GDR dictatorship. While those gathered were in favour of building and strengthening a socially just GDR (East Germany) as opposed to merging with, or annexation by the FRD (West Germany), the Berlin Wall fell a few weeks later, triggering the long, arduous process of reunification and the democratisation of East Germany.
An exhibition of the same name was launched in 1990 in Haus 1 of the Ministry of State Security in Lichtenberg, Berlin, now the Stasi Museum. On the 15th January of that year, demonstrators stormed the site to protest the destruction of state surveillance records – incontrovertible proof of the Stasi’s rule of terror. The next day, after citizens’ committees had been formed to restore order, demonstrators discovered the enormity of the state’s surveillance apparatus. 17 million index cards indicated a system comprising 111 miles of shelf space, the equivalent of 1500 football fields in length. In August 1990, the Stasi Records Agency (BStU) was set up to manage and restore documents that had been burnt or shredded by Stasi officials in offices across East Germany in the final days of the regime.
On 3 October, the day on which German unification was enacted, the Volkskammer (People’s Chamber) appointed parliamentarian Joachim Gauck – now the President of Germany – as the Federal Republic’s Commissioner of the Stasi archives. The files were made public in 1992 and by 2005, 1 million East Germans had accessed their personal dossier to discover the extent of the intrusive personal surveillance authorized by the intelligence services. Since November of 2015, the year the Stasi records were made available publicly online, the building has been transformed into the second largest refugee shelter in Berlin (the first being Tempelhof, an abandoned airport built by Hitler during the Third Reich).
Haus 1, the building that housed Stasi director Erich Mielke’s office, has been run as a museum by civil rights activists Antistalinistische Aktion Berlin-Normannenstraße (ASTAK) since 1990. The majority of the complex’s 33 buildings have remained derelict. Following reunification, five buildings were used by the BStU to store Stasi files, while Germany’s national railway company Deutsche Bahn occupied the block formerly run by Markus Wolf, alias ‘The Man without a Face’, who orchestrated the Stasi’s foreign intelligence and espionage network for over three decades. By the end of the nineties, Deutsche Bahn had found new offices, leaving behind 14 floors of labyrinthine corridors littered here and there with office furniture, telephones and out of date computer systems.
After Deutsche Bahn moved out, the former foreign intelligence building was sold to an investor for a symbolic one euro. While there is no official record of occupation of this section of the complex before 2015, eight former holding cells in the building’s basement were made use of from 2014-15 by a series of unlikely tenants. In early 2014, a number of Berlin-based musicians heard of a studio rental opportunity at the Ruschestraße complex. The eight underground rooms with conveniently soundproof, reinforced steel doors were converted into music studios, rented out on a monthly basis. Various bands and artists passed through, making use of the spaces for rehearsal, recording and in some cases as permanent residence. The rooms were accessible through a side door of the former foreign intelligence building but a sole security guard, stationed almost 24/7 in the main foyer, held the keys to the site as well as control of its security and surveillance system. I met the guard, Gregor, during a rehearsal break at the studio where I was recording an EP during the summer of my Erasmus year in Berlin. The only working toilet facilities in the entire building were on the ground floor near the main foyer. On my way along the echoing corridor, the screeches of our studio neighbours (an experimental prog-punk band) ringing in my ears, I was shaken to see a man approaching me purposefully out of the darkness, a roll of toilet paper in his outstretched hand. Gregor, clearly unused to seeing young women emerge from the basement studios on his surveillance screens, had rushed to my aid.
In October 2015 the sublessor informed the musicians that they had to move out of the studios by the end of the month. On the 19th November, 300 emergency beds were installed in the ex-offices along the building’s lower floors. That same evening, 300 Syrian refugees were settled in with the aid of the German Red Cross (DRK Kreisverband) and the volunteer initiative Lichtenberg Hilft (Lichtenberg Helps). The shelter has meanwhile welcomed a further 1000 mainly Syrian, but also Iraqi and Afghan refugees, renovating rooms and installing new facilities with each group of new arrivals. Bernhard Schmidt, the shelter’s director from the DRK, informed me in July that they expected to house another 500 (contradicting an earlier statement from the DRK shelter, which capped the final number of incoming refugees at 300).
The last time I had been to the shelter was in October of 2015 to shoot a film clip for the music project. When I visited in July of this year the site was transformed. The previously deserted front courtyard and foyer were abuzz with refugee families, security personnel and volunteers in what seemed a friendly if slightly chaotic atmosphere. I asked a security guard behind the desk (where Gregor once held court) to speak with the director of the shelter who answered my questions readily and openly. According to Bernhard Schmidt, the building at Ruschestraße is a relaxed and welcoming environment in which the refugees have a higher degree of independence and privacy than in other shelters. Photo cards are issued to each person to swipe in and out of the building for security reasons as well as to allow greater freedom of movement for those working or attending classes. At the time of my visit, one family had already moved out of the shelter and were renting an apartment in a Berlin suburb.
Nearly 50% of the shelter’s first 800 inhabitants were under 18 with 65 children under the age of two. When I asked Schmidt how the shelter were dealing with the pressure of this young demographic he responded encouragingly, citing the volunteer programs, language exchanges and workshops designed to aid the integration of young people. He added that a new generation of young immigrants like those at the shelter and across Germany presented a solution to the problem of the country’s ageing population (20.3% of Germany’s population are over 65). The first baby to be born at the shelter on 20th November 2015, was, according to its birth certificate, named Angela Merkel.
I asked Schmidt if the shelter’s employees or occupants had experienced any bad feeling or aggression from Lichtenberg locals. He assured me that they had the full support of the community, with the exception of some rubbish complaints. Out of respect for the occupants’ privacy I went no further than the main foyer, but could see from the outside of the building all 14 floors were occupied, pictures visible in the windows and towels and clothes hanging from the sills. According to the shelter’s website, a floor of 80 people are sharing two sinks and two toilets while temporary showers have been erected in the car park. While these sanitary conditions are appalling, Schmidt gave me the impression that in comparison with many shelters across Berlin, the situation at Ruschestraße was advantageous. Indeed the shelter’s residents seemed far more at ease here, compared with those at the emergency shelter in Berlin’s Moabit district where I volunteered earlier this summer and from reports and photographs of the living quarters at Tempelhof. Despite the gaping lack of facilities, medical care and the emotional security of home, the building’s new residents do at least benefit from a degree of privacy thanks to the soviet-style enormity of the Stasi-built office block.
In part due to the German law that allows unused private property to be seized in the case of public necessity, as well as to the Berlin municipality’s slow handling of the lease after Deutsche Bahn left, the building was made available first to the musicians and artists who occupied its basement, then to the DRK and to the hundreds of refugees who now safely inhabit its corridors. The freeing up of this particular fragment of Berlin’s urban space is directly linked to its historical significance. The former power axis of the GDR, like so many of Berlin’s historically loaded buildings, posed a predicament for city authorities, whose reluctance and indecision allowed it to slip into the hands of an investor. Like so many historic sites, the block’s fate fit into a wider discourse concerning the troubled legacy of Germany’s oppressive regimes, inscribed indelibly into the city’s topography. The worn-out question of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the process of coming to terms with the past) continues to arise 70 years after Nazi defeat and 25 after reunification as the cityscape shifts according to the demands of its increasing population, climbing rents and economic growth. Prior to the escalation of the European migrant crisis and Angela Merkel’s open door policy for asylum seekers, the discourse that surrounded Berlin’s abandoned spaces was typified by anti-gentrification demonstration and nostalgia for the hyper-romanticised squats and communes of 90s Berlin. I admit to the thrill of having fallen upon a crack in the increasingly impenetrable surface of abandoned Berlin when I, and a handful of other musicians, ran riot at Ruschestraße, occupying a space that in accordance with Berlin tradition, and as artists, we felt we had a right to. But the terms of the discussion have changed. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Berlin and other German cities has invalidated rent complaints, nostalgia and even historical significance. Speaking to Schmidt on return to the site, I could not help but ask after Gregor. Despite the drastic transformation undergone at Ruschestraße, he was kept on as a security guard to help oversee the next significant phase of this building’s chequered history.