07 Nov 2014
After the fall: The hidden trauma behind the Berlin Wall

As light-filled balloons line the former route of the Berlin Wall on the 25th anniversary of its fall, gazing spectators will most likely think of the unique picture ahead of them. For many, the vicious history of the West-East divide, particularly the human rights abuses by the former East German state, will not be realised – today, tomorrow, or perhaps ever.

The Wall fell but the trauma remains. By SSGT F. Lee Corkran (DoD photo, USA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Time has oversimplified the German divide into a liberated West and a Soviet Union-ruled East Germany from 1949 to 1990. A history with a multitude of layers boils down to a simple good-versus-evil tale.

With Nazism through the 1930s and the Second World War taking the spotlight in Germany’s troubled past, it is easy to forget that Cold War-era East Germany was a horrifying dictatorship.

Germany has moved on. Yet the horror of East Germany, also known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) in German, is understated. Recent research conducted by Hanna Schirovsky and her colleague Julia Gorlt from IRCT member Medizinische Flüchtlingshilfe Bochum (MFH Bochum), reveals that torture and trauma associated with the historical cases of torture in East Germany is still prevalent among many former political prisoners and persecuted persons, so called dissidents, of the GDR.

Eleven German organisations treating former GDR politically imprisoned and persecuted persons participated in the study and the conclusions are startling. According to the research findings there are between 300.000 and 500.000 victims of torture, degradation (Zersetzung), and other gross violations of human rights, both direct and indirect, at the hands of the secret East German police, the Staatssicherheit, better known as the Stasi.

Yet estimations point to a maximum of one third of these victims having received therapeutic rehabilitation.

“The number of 300,000 victims sounds correct. Political prisoners in the GDR received much attention after the fall of the wall and the minimum number of people affected was estimated to be 200,000 then,” says the University of Zurich’s Psychology Research Group leader, Professor Andreas Maercker.

For Andreas, the numbers and reported methods of torture and arrest by the Stasi does not come as a surprise.

“I will forever know how it feels to live in a dictatorship,” he says, “for I was there.”

In the summer of 1988, aged 28, Andreas was arrested by the Stasi and sentenced to two-years imprisonment for an attempted escape. Escaping from the GDR was declared illegal from 1957 onwards and in the beginning of the 1960s about 50% of all political trials were against those who defected from the GDR.

“I tried to live with my partner in West Berlin, but there was no chance for official permission,” he recalls. “So I deserted to Poland where I was arrested at Warsaw airport for trying to board a flight to Istanbul. I had all the needed papers and a ticket, but had no official GDR ‘exit visa’ to enter the West.”

The East German authorities returned Andreas to East Berlin where he spent two months in Stasi detention at the now infamous Berlin-Hohenschönhausen prison. A further eight-months in another nearby prison and in a jail in Halle (Saale) followed Andreas’ time in Berlin.

“I was released after 10 months when the West German government funded my release,” Andreas says. “It was a common way for the GDR government to create big amounts of revenue.”

All the while, the GDR stopped political prisoners talking about their experiences. “The Stasi bound the prisoners with a written statement not to disclose their treatment, or else they would be followed and persecuted again,” Andreas says. “It said ‘we will catch you wherever you try to hide yourself’."

In terms of his treatment during detention, Andreas was lucky. Overcrowding was a serious issue as the Stasi arrested more and more political dissidents. Andreas mixed with criminals on jail terms for serious crimes and continually feared the prison guards who would monitor all of the activities of the prisoners.

Harsh treatment, particularly at Berlin-Hohenschönhausen prison, was commonplace.

“Physical torture was more common during the earlier Stasi era,” says Julia from MFH Bochum. “There were beatings, starvation, rape, electric shocks and long periods of solitary confinement,” says Hanna.

“Due to pressure, and certainly after the death of Stalin in 1953, the treatment of prisoners changed,” Julia explains. “The torture became more psychological. Inside the prisons there would be periods of time prisoners had to stand in baths of water, simply doing nothing. There would be rooms where prisoners were locked away while Stasi officials would play sounds of screaming to haunt and intimidate them.”

As technology evolved through the 1970s and 80s, the Stasi escalated their surveillance campaign on people outside of prisons. Phone tapping, secret cameras, recruiting informants, stalking and secret home searches became surveillance norms.

Surveillance records published since the fall of the Berlin Wall confirm that no one could be trusted. Many informants were best friends, loved ones, family members and neighbours.

“Many people could not trust those close to them anymore,” Julia explains. “The Stasi surveillance caused a profound sense of trauma and distrust.”

Revealing the reality


The feeling of trauma still exists among many survivors of GDR political repression and torture. The number of up to 500.000 victims of torture and ill-treatment of the GDR includes not only the direct victims but also their families, friends, children and colleagues, who suffer from the trauma too.

Hanna’s research with MFH Bochum was simple in its methods but disquieting in its findings. It tapped into an area of trauma that is still relatively misunderstood and not debated.

“We contacted all the psycho-social institutions that, at least officially, offer support for victims of the former Stasi we could think of and, while therapeutic rehabilitation for former political prisoners and torture victims does exist, it is limited,” says Hanna.

“Some centres reported having as little as one patient on their records who was a political prisoner in the GDR, while others expressed that rehabilitation for GDR torture victims and their families was much needed in the past.”

The unfortunate yet inevitable fact is that some of the victims, particularly those from earlier decades of the GDR, have now died. Others simply want to progress their lives away from their past. Nevertheless, symptoms among the living persist.

“From our research the main symptoms many psychologists note, both today and in the past, center on severe psychological trauma. Fear of being pursued seems to be one of the most prevalent symptoms, as many political prisoners still feel persecuted.” This feeling keeps people in a constant state of fear. “There is also a distinct lack of trust concerning authorities, and this poses problems for rehabilitation too as the survivors of torture will hardly form a trusting bond with a medical professional,” Hanna summarises.

This does not mean that psychosocial rehabilitation and therapy is obsolete. The centres who responded to Hanna’s and Julia´s questioning all offer rehabilitation services. MFH Bochum, themselves a member of the IRCT, rehabilitate victims of torture through tailored programmes.

“In general, one can say, that the church-based institutions such as Caritas, Stadtmission and Diakonie offer training on how to approach Stasi victims sensitively. But, on the whole, real understanding and therapy tailored towards these victims of torture and trauma is scarce.”

“Another problem is lack of funding. Members of self-help groups dedicate themselves fully to supporting victims of the Stasi, but rarely get adequate funds to do so.”

“What also became clear when reading the responses from the rehabilitation institutions is that there is a multitude of challenges, such as chronic underfunding, scarce specialised training for treating this specific group of victims, as well as of social acknowledgement towards the client’s horrific situation, which highly conflicts with a positive progress of the therapy. The missing public understanding of the victimhood and, as a consequence, shame can lead to a belated consultation of a therapist and, thus, increases the risk of chronification of the trauma,” Hanna concludes.

Andreas believes rehabilitation may have come too late: “From my experiences and research into the effects of the GDR on political prisoners, many simply do not want to trouble their families with their stories of trauma and rehabilitation.

“There were programmes after 1989 to help those moving from East Germany, torture victims and otherwise. Some volunteer organisations supported the families of the prisoners by sending parcels with food, for example. The West German government had a governmental department on “Intra-German Matters” that provided programs on integration into (West) German society.

“But people arriving in the West had to adjust to a whole new world. They had to form friendships, arrange jobs, education and more. The prison conditions broke some prisoners, rendering rehabilitation pointless. Others simply did not want to talk of their lives. Others are embarrassed in themselves; some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“More rehabilitation should have been on offer in the first years after the wall came down. Ignorance impeded this.”

The closure of Berlin-Hohenschönhausen prison in October 1990 prompted some politicians to propose a re-opening of the prison to tackle overcrowding in existing jails. Two-years later, politicians decided the prison should instead be a memorial for all those who suffered and even died at the hands of the Stasi.

“I was a direct witness to that insensitivity,” reflects Andreas.

Gone and forgotten?

The study by MFH Bochum reveals a rehabilitation gap. Based on the interviews, Hanna and Julia claim that further sensitization of the public and more social tribute to these many victims of the GDR regime are crucial for their rehabilitation. Both colleagues agree that more initiatives are highly needed and that the findings show there is still very much a need for rehabilitation.

Blocking rehabilitation though is the paradoxical need to move on from the GDR memories. East Germany, particularly in cities such as Berlin, has changed dramatically. One glimpse at the eastern part of Berlin and the art-scene, which has exploded since the early 1990s’, confirms it as one of the coolest tourist hotspots.

There is a hidden edge to this progression though. Ostalgia, a German pun on the word ‘nostalgia’ to show a romanticism for Soviet-era East Germany, is a large barrier to full rehabilitation.

“Some people celebrate the GDR like it was a charming ‘different part’ of a country,” Hanna explains, ”but you have to consider that many of these streets were plagued with all kinds of human rights abuses, torture, trauma and death. And for those who witnessed that, it is tough to see the dictatorship which hurt them seemingly celebrated.”

However, not all of the celebration is bad. Many former East Germans, political prisoners included, cherish parts of East German culture to remind themselves of times that were happy.

When the Wall came down, two sides did not unite. The GDR system fell completely, consumed by the free-market economic structures of the West. Many East Germans could not adjust to their new life – particularly when their previous life contained painful memories.

For Andreas, his torture as a political prisoner partly defines who he is today.

“It is hard to say exactly if my time in Stasi detention shaped everything about who I am. Thankfully my partner – who I was imprisoned for attempting to flee to in 1988 – helped me establish friends in West Germany,” says Andreas.

“But I might say that the psychological suffering I observed during imprisonment gave me a starting point in my interest and research into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma. It helps me to understand what people [with PTSD] are experiencing.”

“As time goes by and one gets older, events like the 25th year since the fall of the Wall become more important to me,” Andreas says thoughtfully.

“In the first years after my release and the reunification of Germany, I often had other things on my mind. Remembrance like this now makes me grateful of progress. Sometimes positive things happen that you never expect. Reflection like this is a good antidote to the many sad events constantly happening in the political world.”

“The act of torture supports and encourages a system of impunity. It can take years before the perpetrator is brought to justice, but rehabilitation gives victims the necessary strength to wait for this justice.” - Olga Sadovskaya, Deputy chair of the Committee Against Torture

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