LEIPZIG, Germany – From its outward appearance, the imposing 102-year-old building in this city’s “Mitte” or central district provides no clues to the roles it played during World War II and the Cold War.
But when my wife and I ascended the wide marble stairway into the “Runde Ecke” or “Round Corner” building, so named because it lies on a round corner and its front façade is cylindrical, its legacy was soon revealed.
Built in 1913 as the regional office of a large insurance company, the Round Corner today is a city-owned museum exhibiting the crimes of Nazi Germany and, during the Cold War, the East German Secret Police called “Stasi.”
The first exhibit we came upon was an original issue of the U.S. Army’s “Stars and Stripes” newspaper dated April 15, 1945 that displayed a page-one headline that said, “Leipzig Falls to the First U.S. Army.
Other WW II displays featured photographs and newspaper articles of Adolf Hitler reviewing his troops in Leipzig before its capture, and the city in flames and ruins after bombings by U.S. and British aircraft that resulted in the deaths of more than 5,000 Leipzigers and the destruction and damage to an estimated 15,000 buildings and factory sites.
Following Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s surrender of early May, 1945, the building, that had been a Gestapo conference center during WW II, was occupied by the U.S. Army. When the Allies subsequently divided the defeated Germany into U.S., British, French and Soviet Zones, the Round Corner building in Leipzig, which lay in the Soviet Zone, became the local headquarters of the Soviet Secret Police or NKVD and, later, the headquarters of communist East Germany’s dreaded Stasi.
The museum’s 40,000 chilling exhibit pieces, which serve as its permanent collection, pay particular reference to the Stasi and its dehumanizing dirty tricks and tools of oppression used to control and spy upon the citizens of Leipzig and throughout East Germany.
Many of these are outlandish and even comical, such as the glass jars containing pieces of yellow felt used by Stasi operatives to swab the chairs upon which suspected anti-communists had sat during interrogations in order to capture the smells from their sweat and body odors. Special Stasi “sniffer” dogs were then pressed into service to match the scents to anti-communist pamphlets and other “treasonous” materials that might be discovered during future investigations.
During our museum visit, a stop during our trip to European WW II and Cold War sites, we also saw displays of briefcases containing quick-change clothing outfits and preposterous, clownish makeup kits that held fake rubber noses of all sizes and shapes, mustaches, beards, wigs and a galaxy of eyeglass frames and forged license plates and passports worn and utilized by Stasi operatives during their undercover assignments.
The exhibits also feature collections of Stasi false stomachs that hid tiny cameras, microphones and tape recorders; shirts and coats with miniscule holes for camera lenses, and deep pockets which hid camera shutter release cables. The Stasi, we learned, developed the first camera with a silent shutter...making it easier to spy in secret.
Not amusing was a squalid cell that had held Stasi prisoners who were starved and beaten to elicit confessions against their children, husbands, wives, other family members, friends, neighbors, school and university classmates, teachers and professors, employers and fellow employees.
The Stasi, before its dissolution at the end of the Cold War, secretly tapped telephones, tracked people’s daily movements, bugged homes, offices and hotel rooms, and opened the mail and telegrams of those it believed were agitators and anti-communists. It maintained 91,000 full-time agents and 190,000 informers across East Germany, and in its vaults here at the Round Corner building and other Stasi headquarters in East Germany accumulated 39 million file cards and 1.9 million photographs containing the names and images of those it suspected of disloyalty to the regime.
The palatial Round Corner structure nevertheless served a commendable purpose during the last days of East Germany.
In early December of 1989, an estimated 70,000 peaceful, candle-carrying demonstrators marched en masse to the building and occupied it. A few weeks later, the national government fell. In short order, democratic elections were held, the USSR and its Communist bloc nations also disintegrated, and East and West Germany reunited to become the Federal Republic of Germany.
Leipzig, once the home of Bach, Wagner, Mendelssohn (Hitler had Mendelssohn’s statue in Leipzig torn down because he was Jewish), Schumann, Goethe, Nietzsche and Martin Luther, is today one of Europe’s growing economic and cultural centers. Nazism and communism are long buried in this land.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus and may be reached at email@example.com.