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.


Praha awaits…stay tuned!

MC Lean




24/25 June, Eisenach and Friedland

The staff at TOP who put together our itinerary worked hard to give us a variety of experiences in Germany. On our way to a different bundesland, we had a quick, one night stop in the town of Eisenach where most of us had an authentic dinner of Thuringian sausage and local bier near Bach’s birthplace and childhood home. After dinner, some of us climbed a mountain (okay…a pretty big hill) to reach Wartburg Castle, where Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Latin to German. We happened upon a concert at the castle, complete with strobe lights and German rap; it was unexpected to say the least.

After our night in Eisenach, we were on our way to one of the most anticipated stops on our trip. We figured out early into our time together that our group, TOP 2, had largely written on the same essay topic in our application. Of four given topics, nearly all of us wrote on this prompt:

Article 16a of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (Das Grundgesetz) reads, “Persons persecuted on political grounds shall have the right of asylum.”

After we returned from our trip, while reflecting on how to use what I experienced in my classroom, I actually went back to my essay to see what I had written. Though focused largely on how I would take what I could learned about refugees and asylum back to my classroom, I also had the chance to write about America’s current immigration crisis and compare it to the responsibilities that social democracies carry. It seems fairly obvious that European countries are dealing with Syrian immigration in varying ways and with varying degrees of success, but also that Germany is bearing more than its fair share of the weight of the Syrian refugee situation. We were all eager to find out more about how Germany was meaningfully integrating refugees into its society, and take the opportunity to humanize the crisis by meeting some of the displaced Syrians currently awaiting placement in Germany.

We stopped in the town of Friedland for the day, which became notable following World War II because of its geography, as a city located on the border between the American zone (Hesse) and the Russian zone (Thuringia). Here, following World War II, a camp was built for German prisoners of war as they were returned from Russia, other returning soldiers, and people who had been displaced from their homes as a result of the war. During the Cold War, ethnic Germans from  Eastern Bloc countries also came through Friedland, hoping to escape Soviet Oppression. Today, the former train station serves as a new museum that documents flight, expulsion, migration, and integration. Fluchtpunkt Friedland, or the Friedland Museum, was an eye-opening experience for many of us, as it provided context for the migration happening into Germany today. In addition to providing insights into the refugee situation in Germany today, it also chronicles the plight of other refugees post-WWII, with memorable portions of exhibits that focused on Cambodia and Vietnam. If you’re interested, the museum provides a brief video tour. The audio is in German, but the visuals are still powerful.

We also had the chance to visit the present-day Friedland resettlement camp, Grenzdurchgangslager Friedland, which is a transitory camp for people who are being placed more permanently in other locations in Germany. Mostly used for Syrian refugees in transit, the day we visited, we met many kids who were eager for the German-language coloring book and colored pencils brought as gifts by two very thoughtful members of our group.

During a unique and enlightening lunch experience in which not one but two restaurants weren’t able to accommodate us (it was a very small town after all…), and we ended up eating outside a grocery store (which provided a surprisingly fun cultural experience), we ran into an American from Ohio who worked for Caritas, a non-profit organization that actively works with the youth in the camp. She and our pre-arranged guides, who are also volunteers at the camp, were gracious enough to give us some of their time to walk us around, introduce us to some of the people at the camp, and show us the facilities.

I didn’t (and probably still don’t) fully realize the impact of this day. A little bit of clarity came just a few weeks later though, as my focus in this school year, and really, life in general was identified as I experienced a perfectly-timed reading of the Alchemist in Vienna:

“When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too…love is the force that transforms and improves the Soul of the World…because when we love, we always strive to become better than we are.”

Our time in Friedland was full of experiences none of us will soon forget, and put faces to the situation that so many will only hear about on the news. I’m constantly reminded of the comment the immigration lawyer we met with made our first day in Passau; “We need to help these people because they need help.” It really isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds, but who doesn’t wish this and so many other situations could be dealt with using a bit more compassion and understanding? I was glad to have been reminded of that on this day, and so many others since; continually working on becoming better and loving more.

MC Lean


Point Alpha

6/24, Point Alpha Foundation, East/West border outside of Geisa

(((This post was one of the most difficult I’ve written thus far. Not because of the content, though those are certainly coming; it was because this experience was incredibly surreal and difficult to put into words. Sure, we were all a little loopy from the heat, but it was mostly because the reality of a divided Germany is so near in our history. I was born in a world with an Iron Curtain. Trying to wrap my brain around that has taken more time than I imagined it would, but in trying to be both chronological and diligent, this needs to get out in writing (hopefully to be amended in the future). So, I apologize for my narrative writing and lack of articulation regarding this incredible experience. Just take my word for it: it was profound. And if you’re ever near the border of Hesse and Thuringia, PLEASE go visit Point Alpha Stiftung.)))


On a 100 degree day in former East Germany…

Only the best stories start that way, right? We had a full day scheduled at the Point Alpha Foundation, starting with the interpretive center/museum, where we were able to meet a former West German guard who shared many of his personal experiences with us. We also had an ambitious hike along the former East-West border planned for our afternoon at Point Alpha. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t cooperating, and we also didn’t want people to get sick less than halfway into our trip. So, an abridged version of the walk was planned.

We started the morning at Point Alpha with our guide Wolf, who works for the Foundation. Though a quick tour through the building, both the depth and the importance of the information conveyed there was apparent. Though I was alive for the last few years of the Cold War, I didn’t experience a truly divided world. In suburban Minneapolis, I and others around me were mostly insulated from the true conflict and upheaval of the world we lived in. To be in a place, and to meet with people who had experienced that division personally changed my understanding of the conflict. Now, getting to teach about it, continually learning about it, talking to people who experienced it both directly and indirectly, I am continuing to understand the severity of the threat that many people all over the world felt in their daily lives.

The lives of those who lived in Vacha, Geisa, and many other border cities were immeasurably impacted. Families split by the border were unalterably damaged. We heard from someone who served as a West German guard during the Cold War, and as he spoke, I shuddered to think of the psychological warfare that was carried out against those loyal (or merely perceived to be loyal) to the democratic, capitalist West.

We had the chance to walk to border, and saw replicas of the fence, barbed wire, and Shepard dog houses for those animals charged with patrolling the border (they don’t call them German Shepards in Germany. Huh.) We climbed the NATO observation post (OP Alpha), and cast our gaze on Geisa, which was the Westernmost city of the former East Germany at one point.

Along the border now also exists the Path of Hope, which serves not only as the former road that ran along the border, but now has 14 sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross, giving new meaning to the border and the journey that people take as they walk along it.

Point Alpha was  particularly notable for so many reasons, not the least of which was because it was a location on the Fulda Gap, which is the likely place the Warsaw Pact forces would have used to gain entry into Western Germany, had the Cold War broken out into actual hot warfare.

All told, I wish I could tell you more about military strategy and the Fulda Gap, and the logistical reality of the danger that was possible at this place. I wish I knew more about the experiences of those in border towns and those who crossed the border to visit family and friends. I wish we could have walked the several miles into Geisa along the border. Instead, what I can tell you is that the number of meaningful experiences I had at Point Alpha on a sweltering June day was too many to effectively convey. What an unforgettable day.

MC Lean

Borders: real and imagined

6/23, Vacha

I’ve been thinking a lot about borders and boundaries while we’ve been here. Borders are completely artificial, even when they’re physical, yet they are very real, very political man-made divisions that separate us in consequential and concrete ways. The inexplicable loyalty we feel to a place because of the boundaries imposed by some mapmaker, explorer, ruler, or politician hundreds of years ago, or in some cases, only recently, exists nearly everywhere in the world. All you need to do is talk to a Berliner about someone from Bavaria, and the strength of loyalty to state over loyalty to nation will become immediately apparent. (I know, I know…I’m one to talk, right? Minnesota is always on my heart. Figuratively and literally). German nationalism is a different beast than American nationalism, but loyalty to the bundesdländer: that’s real, and very strong.

While in Vacha, in addition to our incredible school visit, we had the chance to take a brief tour of the town, and experience a museum dedicated to telling the story of the Jewish residents of the town. We heard from the former Headmistress of the school that we had just visited, who left her position to research and develop the stories of the Jewish residents of Vacha that she and others shared with us. Vacha is a town situated right on the former East-West German border, and we had the chance to climb the tower next to the museum in order to see the border first-hand. From the tower, we saw the division between the former East and West Germany, and a guard tower that was maintained to remind citizens of the world today about the separation and the legacy it has in modern Germany.

Standing in this tower in Vacha, in the state of Thuringia (Thüringen in German) provided another profound German experience with the artificiality of borders. There was no visible divide; the grass was the same green, the houses looked the same, the water in the river didn’t flow opposite directions. It was a completely artificial division that stood for very real, tangible things. This division ruined, and in some cases, actually cost lives. It broke up families, it broke alliances, it broke economies, and it broke spirits for decades of Germans, both then and now. One local story we heard was of the house that fell right on the border in the photo above. Portions of it couldn’t be inhabited by the same family while the Iron Curtain remained, so the family packed up those rooms, and lived only in the portion of the house in West Germany. That was just one example of the very real division of the country during the Cold War.

One of the requirements for participation in TOP is the creation of a unit to be shared with other teachers to improve the teaching of Modern Germany. The unit I will be writing has to do with this notion: the importance of borders, the continual shaping and reshaping of them, and the human impact of these imposed divisions. I’m particularly interested in how the East-West division still affects a unified Germany today, 25 years later. Because of my experiences in Korea last summer, I’m also hoping to see if I can make comparisons between the successful and less successful aspects of German reunification, and the current barriers to Korean unification. If I can pull it off, it’ll hopefully be a thoughtful, useful way to frame current events by contextualizing them in the past. The importance of the lasting legacy that is associated with those boundaries has become increasingly apparent as we travel the former Iron Curtain. We’ll visit the Point Alpha Foundation tomorrow, which plays a significant role in educating about and maintaining the former border itself, and will be an incredible opportunity to learn about the East-West divide, and actually walk the border that figuratively and actually divided the world during the Cold War.

In a time where borders have become fundamental components of our daily conversations, and are consistently used to fan the flames of political rhetoric and division, the continuing importance of the Iron Curtain and borders in today’s world is striking. I’m hoping that as I reflect on this experience now and during the school year, I can help my students think meaningfully about sovereignty, conflict, and other boundaries around the world; the Korean Peninsula, US-Mexico, Sudan-South Sudan, Russia-Ukraine, China-Tibet, and so many other conflicts over man-made boundaries and artificial divisions. Difficult and important issues to think about, especially in working to help the young people and future politicians and policy makers I get to teach make sense of our world.

MC Lean

“We are one world…”

Vacha 6/23

We had the chance to visit a Gymnasium in Vacha, a small town on the former east/west border of Germany, where we had the great fortune of sharing our day with several teachers and five incredible students. Julian, our primary tour guide, speaks five languages, two of which he learned on his own, after school. He wants to be a journalist or a teacher, because he believes in the importance of sharing what you know with people. He wants to travel, and influence people along the way.

Vacha 1
Julian (on the left, in the American flag shirt) tells us about the school

I asked Julian what he would want American students to know about Germany, as I explained that Americans students are often less internationally-inclined, and it would certainly be rare to find a high school junior who speaks two languages, let alone five. I wanted this seventeen year old to give me the silver bullet; how do I get my kids to think broadly and deeply? How do I engage them in the world around them? Most importantly, how do I get them on a plane, so they can figure all of this out themselves? Teach a man to fish and all that, you know…

I think he imagined what he said in response was common sense:

“We are one world; we shouldn’t be divided by boundaries. Only doing the same things every day is not experiencing life.”

It’s certainly not. What an important message from an incredible young man.


MC Lean