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Trapped in the House of Unity

I emerged after a long day in the soundproofed cabins at the back of the reading room in the onetime Institute of Marxism-Leninism, which pieces of black sticky tape now proclaimed as the ‘Institute of the Labour Movement’. It was spring 1990 and I was in East Berlin, as one of the first western researchers into the German Democratic Republic. Normally, I would have seen fellow researchers gathering their papers, and archive staff ushering them gently out. But this evening the main reading room was in complete darkness.

It soon became apparent that I was locked in. I could mentally see the red plasticine seal over the lock on the other side of the door, with the logo of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany pressed into it, which staff dutifully unpeeled each morning. What to do? Locked into a building I had spent so long trying to get into! Furtively, I tried the card catalogue, just to see if there was a secret archive they were keeping from me. Locked too. My stomach began to rumble. I didn’t think I could pull an all-nighter, even for scholarship. I cast around for a means of escape. A telephone directory was lying on the desk with ‘Central Committee – for the use of the Comrades only!’ handwritten across the top.

I scanned the various numbers until I came across one for the porter. I dialled. A man replied in a thick Berlin accent. I explained that I was locked in the main reading room. Could he come and let me out? After some grumbling he said he would see. After twenty minutes of anxious waiting, I phoned again. I was in the ‘Benutzersaal’, on the fifth floor. There was a baffled silence at the other end of the line, before my would-be rescuer intoned, chillingly: ‘There is no fifth floor.’

It transpired that I had been talking to a man in a different building entirely, in the Karl Liebknecht Haus (named after one of the Spartacist martyrs of 1919). After a series of proxy phone calls, I eventually reached a rather flustered wife of the Institute director, and was liberated by the deputy-head archivist at 10pm. Locking in visitors was ‘so bad for business’, apologised Frau Pardon.

It turned out that the Institute had been down-sizing as the communist state continued to totter. Security staff had been let go, and the archivists had not quite learned the ropes. When I had arrived in February, entering the building had been like passing a checkpoint. A ‘Vopo’, or People’s Police officer, had scrutinised my passport, after the head archivist had come down with the stamp which made me an official visitor of the Central Party Archive. Ordnung muß sein!

This had not been without its difficulties. At the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall the previous November, I had been doing my Oxford DPhil at West Germany’s main GDR think-tank in Mannheim. All of its staff had been routinely banned from East Germany as ‘bourgeois’ historians. But following the people’s storming of the Stasi headquarters in January, sudden invitations had appeared. Please come and use the archive! Perhaps we were going to be used as human shields to ward off the mob’s fury should it turn on the party. Would we have to throw ourselves on the files to stop them from being defenestrated?

Beyond the Vopo check-point was like a dismantled stage-set. The slogan ‘Marxism-Leninism is not a dog..’ adorned the rear wall. A workman on a step-ladder had just unscrewed the final two letters ‘..ma’. A bust of Ernst Thälmann, the Weimar communist leader murdered by the Gestapo at Buchenwald in 1944, had been unceremoniously parked in the corner.

A 217 class REKO tram in Friedrichstrasse, route 46 from Niederschoenhausen to Friedrichsgracht, the turning circle in central Berlin shared with 25 and 49 route which also utilised the older style of tram. In the backgroud an articulated Ikarus bus of BVB. January 1990. photo by Felix O. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
A 217 class REKO tram in Friedrichstrasse, January 1990, photo by Felix O. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But as a foreigner, and especially as a ‘Wessi’, I was still escorted everywhere. My minder was ‘Rudi’, an affable, bespectacled man in late middle age with his jet-black hair brylcreemed back, who made a point of telling me jokes about the ex-East German party leader, Erich Honecker, but only when no-one else was around. His job included accompanying me to the canteen every day, until we agreed that I knew the way. And he stopped.

I also learned about the history of the building. In the Weimar Republic it had been a Jewish-owned department store, but had been ‘Aryanised’ by the Nazis in 1939. Then it had become Hitler Youth Headquarters, before being turned over by the Soviets to the East German party in 1946. But it still had the form of a department store, with lifts at the back of the main lobby, which must once have ascended to soft furnishings, next stop Politbüro. But now the building was reverting to type. The Vopo was moved from the porter’s cubicle, and a tuck shop selling Coke and Snickers moved in.

Later that spring, in May, the Institute closed at short notice. The former Central Committee on the far side of the Alexanderplatz, housed in the old Reichsbank building – the equivalent of the Bank of England – had been forced to vacate its premises, since the West German Bundesbank was reclaiming it. (German history knows its continuities when it wants to.) The Central Committee files would have to find temporary refuge in the Institute, which was turned into a depository. But I managed one last mass photocopying bonanza by changing money illicitly on the black market at the Bahnhof Zoo in West Berlin: German historians know when to exploit the present too – für die Wissenschaft!

And then the Institute itself was finally evicted in the mid-1990s. For the next twenty years it remained a derelict reminder of the past, an inlaid relief profile of one of the Party leaders, Otto Grotewohl, the only outside reminder of previous occupancy. Yet the last time I looked, it had finally discovered its post-communist identity: ‘Soho House Berlin’, a private members’ club in the heart of the city, whose website simply states that the building has a ‘remarkable history’. So, indeed.

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