David Young: The Stasi Child Tour of Eastern Germany

David Young: The Stasi Child Tour of Eastern Germany

My research covered the usual ground – talking to former East German detectives, including former People’s Police captain, Siegfried Schwartz, who led the team which solved the GDR’s most famous homicide, the Crossword Puzzle Murder.

I’d also been lucky enough to tour the eastern part of the now-unified Germany in 2008 when taking my obscure indiepop band, The Candy Twins, on a short tour (I was driver, roadie, songwriter, rhythm guitarist – and even ‘singer’, though I’ve never been able to sing). What struck me then, as I read Anna Funder’s non-fiction Stasiland between gigs, was that I didn’t actually have to go back in a time machine to visit the GDR. So much of it still exists: an indelible stamp defining – and sometimes scarring – the eastern part of the country, and the eastern part of its capital.

So it’s still possible to follow what you could call the ‘Stasi Child trail’, and get a feel for how it all might have looked in my fictional world.

First stop is the cemetery, St Elisabeth’s, where the body is found next to the Berlin Wall. The cemetery – in Ackerstrasse in the Mitte district – still exists, near where the famous Bernauer Strasse section of the wall was: the place where desperate easterners jumped to the west from apartment buildings when the wall was first erected overnight in 1961.

It’s now bang next to The Berlin Wall Memorial – a moving outdoor museum with tributes to those who were killed trying to escape, a small section of original wall, and a recreated watchtower. There’s also a great viewing platform where you can look across the eastern Berlin skyline – dominated by the iconic TV tower in Alexanderplatz.

If you want to see the fictional HQ of my main character Oberleutnant Karin Müller, well that’s in a railway arch under Hackescher Markt S-bahn station, a busy part of the central area of Mitte. In the GDR period it was called Marx-Engels-Platz (after a nearby square). My imaginary setting actually used to be a trendy live music venue, The Bang Bang Club (since closed) – scene of my band’s first Berlin gig.

Other locations in the book that look much as they once did are Hohenschönhausen – the Stasi prison in a north-eastern suburb of the capital. This was a no-go area to all but Stasi officials – and was just shown as a blank section on maps. A visit there is a moving experience – usually led by former prisoners or their relatives.

The Stasi HQ in Normannenstrasse is also pretty much as it was. Don’t miss Stasi head Erich Mielke’s bathroom on the top floor. If no-one’s looking, climb over the roped-off section and explore inside and marvel at the revolting 1970s ceramics.

Another location I use in the novel that’s well worth a visit is the Spreepark (formerly the Kulturpark), north of Plänterwald S-bahn station. It’s closed down now, but you can glimpse through the fenced-off sections the Ferris wheel where Müller’s Stasi handler, Klaus Jäger, holds one of his secret rendezvous.

Far less sinister in real-life than in the novel is the Märchenbrunnen – the fountain of fairytales – another of Jäger’s clandestine meeting spots. Statues of Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and Puss in Boots have survived pretty much unchanged since its opening in 1913, as has the colonnade behind, where the leather-jacketed Stasi agent lurks in the novel. Similarly, the Weisser See – from which the Weissensee district gets its name – is a pleasant enough spot, with rowing boats for hire in season. The Milchhäuschen café on its shore is said to have been a popular Stasi meeting point in real life in GDR times.

Stasi Child has two parallel story lines, and the second of these is mostly set on what was East Germany’s largest island, Rügen, on the Baltic (Ostsee) coast. This was a popular tourist destination then, and still is today. Müller and her deputy Tilsner stay in a union ‘rest house’ in Sellin – this would be a hotel now, in the distinctive 19th century Baltic spa architecture described in the novel.

Rügen can get very crowded and touristy in season, but when I visited at Easter it was beautiful. The Baltic, with its brackish water (a mixture of salty seawater and freshwater from rivers), freezes easily, and Sellin’s wonderful pier (Seebrücke in German) was coated in sea ice even as late as April.

The fictional reform school in the novel is set in Prora, further along the coast beyond Binz. Prora is a massive, ugly example of Third Reich architecture – a building so long it can be seen from space. It was supposed to be a holiday camp for Nazi workers, but was never fully-finished. It still makes for a fascinating visit.

The final leg of the Stasi Child ‘tour’ takes us hundreds of kilometres to the south-west, to the Harz mountains, a group of mostly low-lying, forested hills where there are a few ski runs in winter when conditions allow and which – in the Cold War – was bisected by the East-West border. The climax of the book comes on the slopes of the Brocken, a legendary mountain that towers to over 1100 metres, where witches dance on the summit in Goethe’s Faust. In GDR times, the summit was the main listening station of the East – intercepting enemy messages from the West. The domes and aerials are still there. If you visit in winter, as I did, with snow lying on the ground and low cloud swirling around, the place can look really terrifying. It’s one of the most atmospheric places I visited during my research, and a suitable setting for the denouement of Stasi Child – a place where Müller comes face-to-face with her past, with frightening consequences.

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