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Our travel right now is mostly shaped by my partner’s research work on memorials at sights of trauma, but not surprisingly torture makes up a pretty significant sub-theme in memorial culture. At the former Stasi prison in Berlin (and later at the concentration camp complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau) I found plenty to think about in the way torture and resistance were memorialized.

We toured Hohenschönhausen in the company of a really skillful and well-informed guide, Reinhard Bernauer (sometimes former inmates lead tours, apparently; Herr Bernauer is an editor by trade, born in the West, but exemplifies well a type we’ve seen elsewhere of “overqualified” and passionate individuals committed to the process of remembering). We were tagging along with a group of ex-military British guys and it was quite interesting how the guide worked with his audience. In particular I was struck that he had no problem with their occasional jocularity (they were also a plenty serious and seriously political group). In fact, the defining aesthetic of his guide “performance” is probably a gentle turn he repeatedly sets up, from acknowledging and even setting up the humor that so often emerges from violence to quietly reasserting the facts of that violence. Here’s a snap of him giving the punchline to a joke (we’re standing in one of the outdoor “exercise” cells.

Hohenschönhausen is the prison depicted prominently in the excellent recent film “The Lives of Others,” and the museum has an eerie familiarity if you’ve seen the movie. In the basement, the “U-Boot,” is evidence of crude torture that included cells waterproofed with the rubber belts left over from conveyor equipment in the former factory so that prisoners could be forced to stand in varying depths of water for long periods of time. The odd surface of the belts seems incongruous, perhaps a tormenting or distracting puzzle for the prisoner to contemplate. Evidence, too, of the improvisatory and, we must say, creative dimension of torture.

Herr Bernauer emphasized that the prisoners interrogated upstairs, in the “modern” way the Stasi developed, were thoroughly disoriented and had no grasp of their surroundings or location (so that many survivors of the prison did not know where they had been until many years later), and often were in the dark about when they would be tried, how long they would be held, or when their scheduled execution might be. He then wryly pointed out the emergency exit signs the museum has installed and noted that “now you can see escaping green little men in this former prison everywhere.”

The broad theme that he was leavening so frequently with careful humor was that the combination of techniques of isolation, disorientation, sleep deprivation amounted to cruelty that few prisoners withstood for long. While he didn’t use the term, he painted a clear picture of the Stasi instilling “learned helplessness” in their prisoners. He did explicitly connect this lesson—that many things that don’t seem individually to be torture become so in combination—to Guantanamo Bay and the war on terror. He was as explicitly political as I’ve heard a guide be, remarking more than once that we have a responsibility to speak against torture, and that the threat is not only of terrorism but of the loss of our civil liberties. He also knows a lesson that I think LB and I are learning; not just that humor will be sometimes unavoidable and necessary, but also that ironic beauty is still beautiful. “These are the roses I promised you,” he said, taking us by the garden that was only ever seen by the Stasi, and “I’d like to tell you something nice in between,” pointing out where house martins had made a nest in one of the hallways of the interrogation center.

Hohenschönhausen had me thinking as well that one of the difficulties of a cultural analysis of torture is the need to contextualize as much as possible from every direction. It’s clear that the GDR’s police state felt it needed torture in order to survive, but torture was part of a repertoire of repression, an ensemble of state practices that flowed, for a time, somewhat efficiently into one another. I left feeling that everyone of the 120 interrogation rooms was a torture chamber, a nexus of power over individuals’ bodies. When a state tortures routinely, and especially when it does so under cover of a corrupt bureaucracy that touts its punctilious legality, in such a society everyone is “under duress” all the time.

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