Leipzig’s Runde Ecke (‘Round Corner’) building was originally constructed for an insurance company in the early 20th century. But this attractive stone building was to assume a much darker role, and in time to play an important part in the history not just of this city but of the whole of Germany.
For a brief period immediately after the Second World War it was used by the US occupying forces, serving as the regional seat for their military administration. But it was under the communist regime that it attained notoriety. Here the Stasi, as the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security) were commonly known, had their Leipzig Headquarters. In those days local people would often cross to the other side of the road rather than walk past the ‘round corner’. If they did have to pass, however, they would fall silent, for fear of being overheard by the grey security officials inside.
But when in 1989 it seemed at last that change might come, the feared Runde Ecke gradually became the focus for the peaceful protests that precipitated the fall of the GDR.
The Monday Demonstrations
The Monday Demonstrations were peaceful political protests against the government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that started here in Leipzig in September 1989. They took place every Monday evening after the weekly Friedensgebet (prayer for peace) in the Nicholaikirche; at first just in the Nicholaikirchhof, and then as they grew in size, spreading to the nearby Karl Marx Platz (today restored to its original name of Augustusplatz).
At that time Leipzig was slightly more open to influences from the west than were other GDR cities. This was due to its major trade fair, the Leipziger Messe; this allowed businessmen and media from West Germany to enter East Germany. One focus for the protests therefore was the people’s demand to be allowed to travel outside the Soviet block.
The protests grow
By 9 October 1989 the gatherings at the Nicholaikirche which had begun with just a few hundred people had swollen to more than 70,000 (out of Leipzig’s total population of 500,000). The protestors marched right past the Runde Ecke. Although the state had mobilised thousands of soldiers and police forces to intervene, no order to do so was given. The city authorities, with no instructions from East Berlin and taken aback by the size of the crowd, instead ordered their troops to withdraw.
Furthermore, the protestors themselves were non-violent. They carried candles at the suggestion of the pastor of the Nicholaikirche, Christian Fuehrer; their hands were occupied with keeping these alight, not throwing stones. As one official later explained:
‘We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.’Horst Sindermann, former GDR official
On 16 October 1989, 120,000 demonstrators turned up, with military units again being kept on stand-by but not intervening. Just a week later the numbers had more than doubled to 320,000. This pressure, added to the growing numbers of Monday Demonstrations in other cities, contributed significantly to the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, and eventually to the end of the GDR regime.
After the fall of the Wall
The protests continued throughout November and early December, piling pressure on to the crumbling regime and its institutions. Then, on 4 December 1989, the protesters entered and occupied the Runde Ecke, primarily to stop the destruction of files. Realising that their time was up and panicking about all the evidence kept in their files, the Stasi had begun to systematically feed the files into shredders. They used special ‘wet shredders’ which turned the shredded paper into a pulp, rendering it completely unreadable. But this occupation of the Runde Ecke brought a halt to that process here in Leipzig.
That night the Bürgerkomitee Leipzig (the ‘citizens committee of Leipzig’), was founded, with a mission to safeguard the evidence. This museum is the result of their efforts and is still run by the committee. This gives it a slightly amateurish and decidedly old-fashioned air; but that in a way adds to its appeal, as it feels very genuine and heartfelt in its mission to preserve what remained of Stasi activity and to expose it.
Incidentally, the rest of this building is now used by the Leipzig branch of the Federal Stasi Records Agency; they are responsible for sorting and archiving the files left behind by the Stasi. Citizens who want to know if the Stasi had kept a file on them can enquire about this here; and if there is one they can gain access to their file and read it.
Stasi: Macht und Banalität / Stasi: Power and Banality
The permanent exhibition, entitled Stasi: Macht und Banalität (Stasi: Power and Banality), is set out in a series of rooms which otherwise remain much as the Stasi left them, with the original lino and curtains. As you walk through these corridors and former offices, you can experience the building as it was in the days when Stasi officers recruited their informers; wrote and filed their reports on citizens; opened letters arriving from outside the country; planted cameras and other monitoring devices in buildings; and interrogated their prisoners.
One of the first rooms you see is a Stasi employee’s office, left almost untouched since the day it was abandoned. There is also a mock-up of a prison cell (prisoners were in practice held in a separate building, hence the mock-up here); and a claustrophobic interrogation room.
The remaining offices, all small rooms opening off the one corridor, have been adapted to hold displays on various topics. Some of the sections which caught our attention were on:
Freie Deutsche Jugend
The indoctrination of children through school and sports activities and involvement in the Free German Youth movement – the Freie Deutsche Jugend or FDJ.
Opening of letters
Both letters written by citizens and those received from the West were regularly opened for inspection and censorship. The letters were carefully steamed open using a range of devices; after reading they were resealed with special glue which mimicked that used on envelopes. There were separate devices for self-sealing envelopes.
The pressure put on ordinary people to spy on their neighbours as ‘Mitarbeiter’ (collaborators); everyone was encouraged to play their part in maintaining the system.
There is a large collection of spy equipment such as tiny cameras (including one that was hidden in a false stomach, and another in a briefcase); listening and recording equipment (one disguised as a lady’s handbag); false noses and wigs, etc. Stasi members were trained to disguise themselves, for instance as a builder or an Arab; they were even trained to make their own false beards and hair extensions.
The ‘collection of smells’
We didn’t fully understand the purpose of these jars of yellow cloth, other than that dogs were used to sniff out anyone whose smell marked them as a suspect.
Returning home and doing a bit of research I found this explanation on the Dark Tourism website:
‘The story of the scent samples is also one of the most intriguing and appalling parts of the Stasi legacy. What they did was this: for interrogation they sat “suspects” on chairs which had been prepared with a yellow cloth secretly placed under the outer upholstery. Interrogation is of course a situation in which anybody is prone to some perspiration. That way they obtained the scent of the “suspects” in case they ever had to track them down again at a later stage using sniffer dogs. For that eventuality the yellow cloths were archived in sealed glass jars. Several of these jars are on display at this exhibition.’
This seems, to say the least, an unscientific method for the identification of guilt, but one on which the Stasi regularly relied.
I read on the same website that the curators here have come under pressure from the Federal authorities to modernise this museum, on the lines of the equivalent one in Berlin. I hope that it doesn’t get too sanitised in the process. As it is, the ‘home-made’ feel of the displays seems to me entirely in keeping with the ‘home-made’ uprising against the regime that led to the end of the Stasi and their vile practices. This is a museum by the people for the people and as such it achieves its mission: to preserve what remained of Stasi activity and to expose it, perfectly.
I visited Leipzig in 2018