1989–1990: from Stasi remand prison to the House of Democracy

In the 1980s, more and more East German citizens began to openly criticise the unacceptable state of affairs in their country. The reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union also gave rise to hope for change in the German Democratic Republic. Citizens formed civic initiatives and spoke out for basic democratic rights, freedom of travel, disarmament and environmental protection. In Potsdam, various independent groups emerged, such as the Babelsberg Freedom Group, the Working Group for Environmental Protection and Urban Planning (ARGUS), New Forum, Democracy Now, Democratic Awakening, the United Left and the Social Democratic Party in the GDR (SDP). The SDP even went so far as to question the power monopoly of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED).

On 4 October 1989, New Forum presented its demands in the Friedenskirche in Potsdam-Babelsberg. One of the first signatories was Rudolf Tschäpe. On the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic on 7 October 1989, more than 2,000 Potsdam citizens took part in a peaceful demonstration in the city centre. As the demonstration was breaking up, the East German People’s Police stepped in and arrested more than 100 demonstrators. But the protest movement was not to be stopped. On 4 November, thousands of people gathered at Luisenplatz. Only five days later, on 9 November, the Berlin Wall fell. The Glienicke Bridge, for decades a symbol of German partition, was opened as a border crossing on 10 November.

The fall of the Berlin Wall unleashed a massive wave of emigration, while the protests and demonstrations persisted. The communist power structures disintegrated within a few weeks. Employees at the Ministry for State Security (Stasi), in the meantime renamed the Office for National Security, used this period of upheaval to destroy their files. When this became known, civil rights activists formed citizens’ committees and occupied Stasi headquarters throughout the country in December 1989 and January 1990. In Potsdam, civil rights activists occupied the Stasi district administration in Hegelallee on 5 December and halted the destruction of the files. That evening, a citizen’s committee demanded access to the Stasi remand prison in Lindenstrasse and made sure that all political prisoners had been released.

At the turn of the year 1989/1990, the Stasi handed the Lindenstrasse site back to the City of Potsdam. In January 1990, the municipal council agreed to let citizens’ initiatives and opposition groups, such as New Forum and the SDP, use rooms at Lindenstrasse 54/55. Offices were furnished and equipped, and citizens’ consultation services opened – what was once a prison became a House of Democracy, a meeting point for citizens wanting information and keen to get involved.

On 20 January 1990, the citizens’ initiatives opened the gates at Lindenstrasse 54/55 to the public for the first time. Interest in the former Stasi prison and the history of the site on the part of the Potsdam community was enormous. Regular guided tours of the cell block were held until early summer 1990, and former inmates reported here on their experience of prison life. After this, the cell block was closed to the general public. On request, Potsdam Museum allowed former prisoners and their families as well as interested members of the public to visit the former prison.

After the citizens’ initiatives and political parties moved out of Lindenstrasse in summer 1990, the Potsdam Office for the Protection of Historical Monuments took over the site.