The award-winning film The Lives of Others, which exposed the workings of East Germany's hated secret police, always seemed a bit of a joke to Wolfgang Arndt. The 50-year-old does not need to be told what the Stasi did. He was spied on by its agents since his school days, arrested and detained, beaten and drugged by its officers and subsequently jailed for six years.
That was 29 years ago. But Mr Arndt still suffers panic attacks whenever doors are closed on him. "What do I think of that film? Well it was a deliberately toned-down version of the Stasi designed not to offend cinema-goers too much," he said as he stood outside Berlin's former Stasi prison this week.
Mr Arndt was just one of the Stasi's estimated 250,000 political prisoners. He now works occasionally as a guide for the thousands of tourists and schoolchildren who visit the Stasi jail and interrogation centre in Berlin's outlying Hohenschönhausen district each year.
The prison, in the middle of a vast high-rise residential suburb, has been left almost untouched. It still has its decaying grey concrete watchtowers, perimeter walls topped with barbed-wire, and subterranean complex called the "U-Boot". The place is a communist house of horrors and a grim reminder of what could happen to those who opposed the system in the former East Germany.
Mr Arndt remembers. He sports a black baseball cap with the word "Deutschland" written in big letters above the brim. It is the sort of cap that a neo-Nazi might wear. But for him the word serves as a constant and reassuring reminder that there is only one Germany these days and that the Stasi cannot come back to harm him. "I always believed in one Germany – even when I was in jail," he says.
He first fell foul of the East German authorities when he was a teenager. He hero-worshipped his grandfather, a convinced Social Democrat who could not accept how the party was forcibly amalgamated into the East German Communist Party after the war. The young Wolfgang couldn't accept that either and he began to take the same view of the system as his grandfather.
At school he refused to join the Communist youth organisations, a prerequisite for being allowed to sit the equivalent of A-levels or go to university. The Stasi put him under surveillance as a result. "I was faced with the choice of taking on the system or going into my shell and hiding. I chose the former," he says.
Mr Arndt was a big John Lennon fan, and he soon joined East Germany's budding peace movement that found shelter in the Protestant church. He started his attack on the system by wandering around the centre of East Berlin in a denim jacket with the slogan "Lenin Nyet – Lennon Yes" emblazoned on the back.
"This really got up the nose of the Stasi. They kept picking me up. I used to annoy them even more by playing John Lennon and Bob Dylan songs very loudly on the small cassette player I had back then," he recalled. By this time he had been refused permission to study and had been forced to take a job as a construction worker. Like many East Germans he had also married young. But he was so frustrated by the system that he began lodging official requests with the authorities for permission to emigrate. They were all rejected.
"Then I became even more determined to leave. I thought I would try to get out illegally so I made contact with the British embassy in East Berlin and when they didn't help I approached the Americans," he said. But then the Stasi approached his wife and she informed them about his "illegal" contacts with "enemy powers". She was rewarded with a payment of 150 West German Marks. The next day Mr Arndt was picked up by the Stasi in one of their prisoner wagons disguised to look like a bread delivery lorry. He was taken to police headquarters on Alexanderplatz and interrogated for 36 hours without a break. "I was given nothing to eat or drink and made to sit on a stool throughout the interrogation. If I gave an answer they didn't like, I was hit so hard across the face that I would fall off the stool. By the end of it I couldn't stand up," he said.
He was then taken to another prison and shut up for days in solitary confinement in a pitch-black cell without windows. When he was finally allowed out of that cell he was moved to another which was full of prisoners who were also Stasi informers, and who reported on him constantly. His repeated refusals to co-operate with the prison authorities meant that he was moved again – this time to East Berlin's feared Hohenschönhausen prison where he was to receive the full brunt of a Stasi policy aimed at the deliberate and complete psychological destruction of its prisoners.
Prison rules dictated that he had no name. Instead he was just called "accused". He was kept in a tiny cell and not allowed to speak to or look at any other prisoner. He was subjected to interrogation sessions that lasted for up to 12 hours and were conducted day and night. Sleeping was only allowed after 10pm. Prisoners had to sleep lying on their backs with their hand outside their blankets. During the day prisoners were not allowed to lie down and could only sit on a small stool. No books or newspapers were permitted. "Their favourite trick was to interrogate you all night and then put you back in the cell in the morning, so you would spend all day not being allowed to sleep," he recalled. "Then they'd pick you up at night and interrogate you again."
Eventually, Mr Arndt cracked. He went berserk one day during interrogation, so a Stasi officer punched him in the face. A Stasi doctor injected him with a mysterious substance, and he was thrown into a rubber-walled cell in the prison's subterranean U-Boot complex. He was there for 12 days. "All I remember about that was waking up completely out of my head and falling against these rubber walls," he said. "I now know that these cells were bugged and that everything you said when you were delirious was recorded and used against you during the interrogation."
A few days later he was sent for trial in a closed court and sentenced to six years imprisonment for "attempting to organise an illegal border transgression with particular malice". He spent the next 22 months being shifted from prisons in Berlin, Frankfurt an der Oder, Cottbus and Karl-Marx Stadt. He was obliged to do forced labour in a number of East German factories. He survived on a diet of weak soup, frequently rotten meat and mildewed bread, which caused his hair to fall out. When he arrived at Cottbus prison, where he saw a number of inmates die as a result of the conditions, he was welcomed with the words: "You are worse than a child abuser and you are here to be broken."
Then one day in 1981, Mr Arndt was informed that he was going on a "transport". He was bundled on to a bus in the prison courtyard and driven across the Iron Curtain into West Germany. "The first thing that they gave us was an orange, a packet of fags and a bottle of Florida Boy orange juice," he recalled.
Like thousands of other recalcitrant East German citizens who just wanted to emigrate to the West, Mr Arndt's freedom had been bought by the West German government. It paid the equivalent of €1.75bn for their release to the West between 1963 and 1989. Mr Arndt eventually moved to West Berlin. He was in the city when the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989. But it was not only a happy occasion. "Of course I was happy that the Wall fell. But then I began to get ill," he said. "I had suppressed everything that had happened to me. Then all the horrifying memories came back. I had to go into a clinic to get help, I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder."
Mr Arndt never worked as a builder again. His prison experiences not only damaged him psychologically. They also meant that in his late forties, he had to undergo a double heart bypass operation.
Today he says the only thing that saved his sanity was his decision to forgive his former captors. "Somewhere along the line, I woke up to what the Dalai Lama once said," he explained. "If you carry all that stored-up hate around inside you, it's fatal because that hate will eventually destroy you and I won't allow those people that privilege."Reuse content