THE BLOG
11/18/2009 10:04 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Stasi Prison Ghosts

It's an eerie feeling walking through the halls of the former Stasi headquarters in Leipzig. The building, which once housed the dreaded East German secret police until that country's dissolution in 1989, has been preserved as a museum, but that doesn't keep the ghosts away.

The building, known as the "Runde Ecke," or "round corner," was an insurance company before World War Two, and during the Nazi regime it was the headquarters of the Gestapo and Hitler's own security apparatus.

Right after the war, it was taken over briefly by the U.S. Army, but then the building was handed over to the Soviet occupiers and eventually to the K-5, the forerunner of the Stasi, or the East German Ministry for State Security.

At the time, it was the most dreaded building in Leipzig, where people walked by it in hushed tones, aware that they could end up in its cells or worse if they dared to speak out against the regime.

The building is almost nondescript from the outside--a hulking six-story stone behemoth that wraps around a corner in the middle of the city and hides some of the country's worst and not-soon-to-be-forgotten secrets.

Those secrets have been unearthed, beginning in 1989 when enraged citizens of Leipzig took over the building as the East German state crumbled. The Stasi officers inside desperately tried to destroy files and other evidence of their crimes, but much remained behind.

The Ronde Ecke is now a museum dedicated to displaying the evidence of the atrocities of that period, and as such it is a grim reminder of how easily a state can slip into the iron grip of totalitarianism.

The linoleum floors, the brownish yellow wallpaper, the folding grills on the doors and windows and the old radiators are as they were on that day in 1989 when the "Peaceful Revolution" came to Germany.

The rooms contain the unsavory tools of a police state, some under glass, some still in their original positions: Listening and surveillance devices; counterfeit stamps, badges and passports; equipment for opening mail; and a workshop devoted entirely to creating disguises. It is even rumored that the Stasi employees spied on each other through an elaborate system of phone taps and secret observations.

In time, the building became known to the fearful local citizenry as the "Crooked Corner" or the "House of Horrors." Executions were carried out in the basement, without trial and usually with a bullet to the head.

There is also something ineffable about the place. You walk through, conscious that not so long ago it was the nerve center for one of the most repressive--and violently sadistic--governments of the 20th Century. Husbands spied on wives, children on their parents, teachers on their students. At one time, even 7-year-olds were encouraged to apply for careers with the secret police.

The building is now maintained by the Leipzig Citizens Committee, a non-profit group which has called the permanent exhibit at the Runde-Ecke "Stasi--Power and Banality."

After a recent tour, I stopped to talk to one of the employees of the Citizens Committee, who I shall call "Marta." She is a lifelong resident of Leipzig and is now dedicated to helping the world never forget what happened under the Stasi.

Her recitation of the building's history, its importance to the history of modern Germany and, for that matter, to the world, was informative, but there was something lacking. Her approach seemed too matter-of-fact, too emotionless.

I finally asked her, "Were you ever a prisoner here?

"Yes," she answered.

"Well," I said, "What is it like to walk the halls now knowing what you know took place here?"

She smiled. "I don't mind it when people are here to see the museum," she said. "But when I'm here at night by myself I usually hum music from Mozart or Bach. I like to think that it would drive the Stasi crazy."

The ghosts live on.