The Stasi Museum, data privacy, and yet another difference between Germany and the US

29 June, Berlin

Our third day in Berlin was actually spent largely outside of Berlin, at the Biosphärenreservat Schorfheide-Chorin, where we got to experience Germany’s outdoors at their finest. We met with youth rangers, and experienced some of the activities they do with German children who come to visit the nature preserve. We communed with nature, had an incredible lunch cooked in their outdoor kitchen, and got to decompress from city life and busy travel days.

One of the really reassuring things for me, just as homesickness was setting in, was experiencing landscapes that looked just like what I see at home. It all of a sudden made perfect sense that during the period of massive German immigration to the US in the middle of the 19th century, so many of those Germans came to the upper midwest in search of a new life. Turns out, it looked just like home. That had to be as comforting for them as it was for me this afternoon.

30 June, Stasi museum, East Berlin

Today was an incredible day, full of brain-stretching and challenges to our current expectations of human decency. We started the day listening to Dr. Thorsten Wetzling, a fellow from the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, a think tank focused on how German politics and technology intersect. Dr. Wetzling took time to discuss security and data privacy in Europe with us. Not only was he incredibly fascinating, but it seems in our conversations afterward he also illustrated to the group of 15 of us just how little Americans know about data privacy, and for better or worse, how much we just trust that the right thing is being done for the most part.

One very insignificant, but illustrative example of this was our experience the first morning we were in Germany. One of our group members wasn’t in the lobby at our meeting time, and it seemed logical to all of us that we could just get the room number, and go knock on the door. Because of the importance of data privacy in Germany, the front desk staff wouldn’t give out the room number, even to our group leader, who was responsible for the entire reservation. Until put in historical context, this just seems like an inconvenience to Americans who lose hotel key cards and get new ones at the front desk without even verifying their identities. Germans are leery of allowing anyone access to information that could potentially compromise their safety and security. This is even evident to a much lesser extent in their public bathrooms. There is zero space between the door and the walls in German restrooms; no accidental peeping or feeling of slight discomfort in German toilets!

The incredible carefulness of most Europeans on the issue of data privacy is very clearly rooted in their own national and continental histories. After that meeting, we ventured to the Stasi Museum, which reinforced the importance of that context. The Stasi, or Ministerium für Staatssicherheit were the secret police of the East German government, and the influence they wielded was incredible. Our tour guide at the museum talked fast and was an incredible storyteller with incredibly personal connections to the subject. About 10 minutes into our tour, I was thinking out loud, and said: “think about how much more we’d know if everyone talked this fast and passionately.” The museum, and our guide, were both incredible sights to behold.

Following the atrocities carried out by Hitler and the Nazis during World War II, the Stasi ruled the lives of East Germans and those along the border during the Cold War. As with the gentleman we met at Point Alpha, who served as a West German guard along the border, the lives of those who were designated threats or even potentially connected to western, capitalist ideas were targets for psychological warfare. Schools indoctrinated students to believe that anyone who didn’t adhere strictly to the ideals and beliefs of the East German government was an anarchist bent on bringing down the fatherland. They created mobile units of solitary confinement, drove people around aimlessly to disorient them, randomly moved bicycles and cars from their designated spaces to make people think they were losing their minds, and pitted family members and neighbors against each other, in tests of loyalty and patriotism. The files the Stasi kept on DDR citizens have been opened, but many East Germans still don’t want to relive this incredibly painful, divisive era of their history.

Disgusting, immoral bottom line: if humans are intent on it, we can do incredibly damaging things to each other, without inflicting a bit of physical violence. Second moral of the story: if ever you’re in Berlin, make sure you stop at the Stasi museum.

Our fifth day was unplanned for the most part; some went to Sachsenhausen, some went to Museum Island, and I wandered the city, trying to plan a lesson and take in the city in whatever way it happened to unfold. Turns out getting stuck in an hours-long downpour was a part of the spontaneity of that day. Those of us who stayed an additional day also had the chance to watch the Euro Cup game in the Tiergarten, right in front of the Brandenburg Gate. As someone who’s not a fan of crowds, drunk people, or soccer, it was much better than I was anticipating. I could definitely see the excitement of enjoying soccer. I’m still not there yet, but much closer to potentially trying again…at some point…in the distant future.

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Praha awaits…stay tuned!

MC Lean

 

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