Memorial sites illustrate and interpret aspects of history that institutions, nations, or society find worthy to remember (Assmann 2007, p. 177). This is especially true of memorial sites that deal with the so-called
Today, as public memorial sites, it is mostly former Stasi prisons that reveal the activities and crimes of the past days. This is also the case in the
Since then, thousands of people from all over Germany and all over the world have visited the Stasi's former building complex for political prisoners,
Through these books, memorial sites offer visitors the opportunity to write down their thoughts, thereby enabling an open channel of communication. These comments are a spontaneous reaction to the visit and, in contrast to surveys, there is no influence by a researcher and his/her research interest. Not every visitor takes the time to write something in a visitor book. But the visitors who do put the effort into writing something down communicate something important to them. That is why analyzing these comments promises to be remarkably interesting.
After a short outline of the history and funding body of the Stasi memorial site, I want to discuss visitor books’ characteristics as a source of data for empirical studies. I will provide a methodological insight into the visitor book entries’ systematic analysis. My focus is on entries by persons who explicitly identify as former inmates of the very remand center that they have come to visit as free persons. I examine the thoughts that former Stasi prisoners wrote down on visiting their place of ordeal. What feelings and thoughts emerge after the visit? I aim to shed light on the memorial site's significance and importance for a prisoner's individual memory by analyzing the entries’ type and content. The visitor books offer an authentic and intriguing access to former political prisoners’ mental world and their individual memories. This contribution connects the media representation of the communist dictatorship to its meaning for the former prisoners and their memories.
In the GDR, public memory was limited to communist victims of the national socialist dictatorship. After the reunification of Germany, the memory culture in Germany and Saxony changed. Since the early 1990s, memorial sites dealing with the communist past have been established all over East Germany. While the early communist past's memory culture focused on the dichotomy of perpetrator and victim, historians have meanwhile postulated a more extensive memory that allows ambiguities and contrariness (Gallinat and Kittel 2009, p. 312).
Today, around 100 memorial stones and monuments (Kaminsky 2016) and important memorial sites, such as
The former district administration center on
Following the handover, the Stasi undertook wide-ranging reconstruction efforts, such as the U-shaped extension that blocked the view from the street. During its existence, the district administration center developed into a huge complex hosting almost all of the district's departments, including a remand center (Sieber and Thiel 2017, p. 26). This encompassed 31 departments and 16 local offices, adding up to 3,591 official employees in 1989 in the district of Dresden (Boeger and Catrain 2017, p. 40). This modern prison complex enabled confinement modeled after the Stasi's vision. The 44 cells (so-called
In the course of the demonstrations in the fall of 1989, about 5,000 protesters occupied the complex on December 5 (Kaminsky 2016, p. 400; Sieber and Thiel 2017, p. 54). The inmates were freed, and their former cells served as a secure storage room for the Stasi records that the protesters found in the complex. Following the Stasi's dissolution in January 1990 and the German reunification of October 1990, responsibility for the records was transferred to the Stasi Records Agency (Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik - BStU). In 1993, the BStU's Dresden field office moved from the
The association “
Like in many other memorial sites, there is also a visitor book displayed at Ulrich Müller identified an entry quote of 2.4% at the memorial site
Ulrich Müller identified an entry quote of 2.4% at the memorial site
Despite this relatively low number, it is fair to say that those who leave a statement feel the urge to do so strongly, while their true motivations remain uncertain. By leaving a comment, visitors can identify themselves deliberatively (through revealing their social background) or unknowingly (through their handwriting or the entry's design) (Thurmair 2009, p. 40).
In general, visitor books contain a huge number of comments, which vary in their lengths. The order is mostly chronological. Sometimes, entries reference earlier entries. The visitor book's placement defines the entries’ thematic orientation: according to the memorial site's intention, the entries should allude directly to the visit or the exhibition's content. But contrary to interviews and surveys, the comments are not influenced by a research interest or the relation between interviewer and interviewee (Macdonald 2005, p. 122).
The opportunity to leave a comment offers four options of action. First, most visitors opt for no entry. Second, by signing their entry, visitors can identify themselves. Third, the entry can be addressed to a specific addressee, and fourth, visitors can allude to certain aspects or artifacts of the exhibition (Thurmair 2009, p. 42). Numerous entries are not specifically addressed but rather generally addressed to the curators, readers of the book, or authors of other entries. The comments are the authors’ written products and reflect the authors’ minds only partially (Glogner-Pilz 2019, p. 32). It lies in the visitor's discretion what information and reaction are to be shared. This is also influenced by the individual's ability to express.
One challenging aspect of visitor book analysis is the fact that sociodemographic data of the comments’ authors are rarely available, which renders correlation tests impossible (Macdonald 2005, p. 123). Likewise, visitors’ attitudes can be hard to ascertain. However, since there is no influence of the researcher on the visitors and entries are formulated spontaneously, visitor books constitute a fascinating resource for research on memorial sites’ effects on visitors. The visitor books’ representativeness is limited by low entry rates and missing sociodemographic information. But the huge number of entries over many years offers a wide range of opinions that vindicate a systematical analysis. The social psychologist Ulrich Müller supports the idea of analyzing museums’ and memorial sites’ visitor books and explains that considering social science aspects, visitor books provide an empirical material, whose limited representativeness is outweighed by a high concentration and intensity of reactions and emotions (Müller 2003, p. 39).
Despite being a special kind of text, analysis of visitor books does not differ fundamentally from that of other qualitative sources (Macdonald 2005, p. 123). When evaluating the former Dresden remand center's visitor books, I followed the approach taken by previous analyses of visitor books. Entries in German and English representing the majority of comments were taken into account. Comments such as “I-was-here” and visitor signatures were excluded. I digitalized all of the entries chronologically and categorized them according to their thematic focus. Entries were assigned to up to two thematic categories. In order to reflect the variety of entries, I adjusted the categories throughout the process of digitalizing. Due to the brevity of the entries (most entries are no longer than two to three lines), detailed coding of the entries was not necessary.
I analyzed five visitor books of the memorial site spanning the time period from December 2008 to January 2020. About 10% of the entries from the first visitor book (from December 2008 to August 2012) were written by people who identified themselves as former prisoners or their relatives. Later visitor books contain fewer such entries. A reason could be that people who already visited the memorial site probably will not visit again or, if so, they probably do not leave a second comment in the visitor book.
Overall, I found 91 entries by former Stasi prisoners, including 12 comments by their relatives since the memorial site opened. The entries’ lengths varied, but most authors wrote more than a short line with legible handwriting: It seems like they made an extra effort so that their message and thoughts are readable by others.
One comment was related to the time when the complex was in the hands of the Soviet occupation force. I tried to translate some of the visitor books’ comments so that one can get a better impression of how they appear. I am aware that translating these entries cannot transmit all of the original characteristics; therefore, you find the German comment in the footnotes for those of you who can understand it and can get an impression of the language used.
In these comments, I identified more sociodemographic information than in other comments: 72.5% of the statements indicated the authors’ gender. Among those who wrote a comment in these visitor books were 15 women, 40 men, and 11 couples or families. In addition, two thirds of the comments contain information about the time and/or period of arrest. This seems to be a piece of especially important information for the comments’ authors to let potential readers know their time of suffering in that remand center. Information about the authors’ age is scarce.
Before being used by the Stasi, the building complex was used by the Soviet occupation force as a prison center. Of the 10,000 people convicted by a Soviet court-martial in Saxony, many were sent to a labor camp in Workuta, Siberia, where they worked in the coal mines (Sieber and Thiel 2017, p. 20). One entry by a then 80-year-old former inmate bears witness to this ordeal in a brief summary.
Preserve this memorial site as a reminder to those who were spared from political detainment. Learn from the experience. Driven roughly 5,000 kilometers to Workuta. Minus 50°Celsius. Neither enough food nor clothing. About 70% of all inmates “kicked the bucket” in 40 coal mines in 12-hour shifts. Thank you to former federal chancellor Dr. Konrad Adenauer who secured the return of roughly 1,000 former prisoners of war and other detainees in 1955/56.
The other entries refer to political imprisonment during the Stasi era. In 14 entries, the authors provide information about their cells’ interior or indicated that they had found “their” former cell inside the remand center. It appears that in addition to the period of detainment, cell numbers were engraved in the former detainees’ memories. This is a significant characteristic of the entries.
To paraphrase their time in prison, the comments’ authors used various descriptions, as you can see in the following entries. A short addition: “Foxhole” was the Stasi's nickname for the demand center.
Today, after 56 years, we met again in the so-called “foxhole”, where we had been “as a guest”. We were able to identify our cells after a while. All in all people should pay more attention to the foxhole as it belongs to one of the most important places of memory to remember a state of which some say that it is no illegitimate state [
Great opportunity to get a feeling for this time and for everyone who “lived” here, it will bring back old memories. I wish all the best for the effort of preserving everything. A former inmate, sept./oct. 1988
The past caught up with me. My “stay” in cell 7 from April to July 75 as a then 16-years-old boy was terrible. One year of life was wasted then, reason §213, escaping.
51 years ago[,] I was “accommodated” in cell 25 for 80 days. It used to be a 3-man-cell with a continuous plank bed so high that it was nearly impossible to sit. Lying down was forbidden. Only thing left was to sit on the toilet by turns. There you were pushed up because they flushed the toilet from outside the cell.
As a former inmate of the detention house 1972–1973 it is always moving to see “your” cell again. May this time never come back.
Former prisoners paraphrase their prison term. They use metaphors, such as “been there as a guest” (“
The communication of their own, and often traumatic, past/experiences in the former detention center of the Stasi is engraved with sometimes ironic and partly sarcastic statements by some of the former Stasi prisoners. It seems that they create a verbal distance to their experience in order to avoid going into the details.
Nice that you can decide the duration of your stay now on your own.
This comment especially points out the irony and sarcasm of a political prisoner of the Stasi. The author refers to the memorial site as a public place that you can visit voluntarily. The former inmate subtly criticizes the arbitrary conviction and duration of arrests in the former Soviet occupation zone and later GDR.
Some former prisoners expressed the mental burden of returning to the place of arrest because they had to suffer there. By analyzing the written comments of these persons, we can only imagine a small part of the emotional dimension. Visiting the memorial site seems to be an important piece of personal reappraisal for the former Stasi prisoners’ individual memories, and it also makes them proud that they survived these days, which you can read in the following entries.
It is a great feeling that today my two children are jumping freely through this clink, if someone had told me while I was sitting here in a cell, I did not expect that this was going to move me in such a way.
I was also here in a time period from Sep 1978 to Dec 1978. The old memories returned here, I was moved to tears by what I had been through. Thank you, for maintaining this place as a memorial site in order not to forget.
Second attempt to enter this place. Did it! Palpitation of the heart, memories. I’m glad I made it. Scum! This Stasi!
Visiting the former detention center is not a matter of course for former Stasi prisoners. A very short but meaningful comment underlines this.
Here again, this time as a free person.
Comments written by or with relatives indicate what the experience of political imprisonment in the GDR means for the family memory. The family memory is a part of what Welzer (2008, p. 164) calls the communicative memory, which is formed by conversations and narratives among a family, which are a natural part of everyday life. On different occasions, families talk about stories and experiences of family members, while the narrator does need to be the story's protagonist.
The entries by former Stasi prisoners’ relatives prove that the experience of political imprisonment has become part of the “family heritage”. By visiting the memorial site, the families manifest their focus and engagement with the issue.
My brother Bernd was detained here. I can feel with him, so much pain, terrible time after that. Thank you.
After I was “accommodated” here in 1985, I came here today to show my family how it was! It is good that this is maintained as a witness of a former time. Thank you.
My parents were innocently arrested at this place and it is so cruel when you see it for the first time and imagine what they have been through. One should not forget it!
Thank you very much for this exhibition that allowed me to learn something about my parents’ past. They were remanded in custody here for some days in 1984. I am very proud of them and their political opinions. I was 2 years old and grew up in West Germany. Fortunately, my family found happiness by leaving for the West.
Actually I didn’t want to, but my wife wanted to see where I was in prison in summer and fall in 1989. My memories of this place didn’t fade, although I remembered the building to be bigger. These “little” moments of bondage, I remember: not being able to decide about the headlamp switch; no option to contact anyone; not knowing what happens; one day no more information from the outside, that means no newspaper; being informed about the sentence before; uselessness of the legal counsel, etc. I am happy that everybody can visit the place now. Free, independent and without enforcement. Thank you for that!
My father was here for ½–¾ year. It was very moving! Very nicely arranged.
Now I have seen where my father was remanded in custody 1980.
Lest we forget: Thank you for offering an impression and for preserving this memorial site. My father was detained here from 1981 to 1988.
You can recognize that some former prisoners visited the memorial site together with their relatives. Other family members visited the authentic place on their own to have a feeling for the narratives and to think about the aspect of political imprisonment as a special part of the family memory. The generational experience of Stasi arrest becomes a trans-generational and meta-historical group experience (Welzer 2008, p. 169) and therefore becomes an inherent part of the family history.
In a lot of former Stasi prisoners’ comments or entries written by their relatives, the authors underline the importance of the memorial site
Upsetting to have this setting in the mind's eye again, but it should not be forgotten!
Thank you on behalf of the prisoners’ relatives that you preserve this site for remembering!
The memorial site
A lot of visitor book entries underline the importance of the reappraisal of instances of political injustice. Today, there is no need to ask whether dictatorships deserve places to remember in what Sabrow (2013, p. 322) calls our memory society. Those places that remember the communist dictatorship are an inherent part of the German memorial site landscape. And, nearly every memorial site has a visitor book that offers to comment on the exhibition or the institution, anonymously or by identifying oneself.
I would like to outline my three main findings of the comments’ analysis. My first finding is that former prisoners paraphrase their prison term to create a verbal distance to their Stasi prison experience.
Furthermore, I found out that returning to the place of ordeal is – in the comments of former Stasi prisoners – described as an inner fight. On the site, the relief of being a free person outweighs the struggle before visiting. It could also be seen as a process of individual recovery. Former political prisoners in the GDR were often traumatized by their experience. Dealing with this experience is a very individual and dynamic process that takes time – and courage. This conclusion emphasizes the memorial site's duty to be a place of personal reencounter.
Last but not the least, I examined the effect of the visit to the memorial site for relatives. The comments by relatives and descendants underline the significance for the family memory: Through visiting the memorial site and being confronted at the historical place, relatives and descendants take part in a generational experience that affects them intensively.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I identified entry rates from 1.0% to 2.7% of the visitors per annum (2010–2020). A majority of visitors decide not to write something down and do not take the offer of replying to something of what they have seen. Writing a comment does not seem to be delightful for a lot of people. Interestingly though, I found a lot of entries of people who identified themselves as former Stasi prisoners. For visitors who write a comment, this could have different functions. There is space to write down the emotional reactions to the visit and, therefore, visitor books can be seen as a kind of outlet to deal with the experience. Entries of this kind are especially moving and are evidence of the importance of visitor books.
Their limited empirical representativeness is outweighed by the specific emotions and intensity conveyed in the comments. All in all, I think it is worth taking a closer look because it offers unique access to visitors’ reactions.
The systematic analysis of visitor books can offer new approaches for visitor research. I especially see potentials in gaining access to the range of reactions experienced during memorial site visits by combining different methodical approaches, in addition to adjusting or modulating the educational proposals or intentions of memorial sites in general.