11/09/2014 11:00 EST | Updated 01/09/2015 05:59 EST

Berlin Wall: East Germans lived in fear under Stasi surveillance

Among the memories being sifted through this weekend as Germans commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago are those of life lived under the glare of the Stasi spotlight in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).  

You can feel their sombre pull as Berliners out walking along the path of white balloons tracing the old line of the wall in honour of the anniversary stop to watch old footage on giant TV screens along the way. There is a real quiet as they watch rare scenes of people making last desperate bids for freedom as the wall went up, soon disappearing beyond its shadow.

On the other side East Germans lived under the full microscopic view of the Communist state’s security apparatus—the Stasi—engaged in a massive surveillance operation designed to keep tabs on its citizens and to keep them in at all costs. 

Dissidents and those caught trying to make it to the West were taken to the Hohenschonhausen prison, a sterile factory-like building deep in East Berlin, its water-boarding rooms and isolation tanks now a tourist attraction. 

1 in 3 people was an informant

The surveillance machine was enormous, including a spy network of intimidation that saw an estimated one in three people informing on neighbours, friends or loved ones. 

“If you look outside of the prison, the large building … this was a factory of the Stasi,” said guide ClieweJuritza, himself an inmate of the prison for a year after he was captured trying to reach West Germany in 1985, just four years before the wall came down.

“The production of the gadgets of espionage or observation. Altogether there were 91,000 [State Security] employees ... and 2,500 were working here,” he said.

There were more than 100 interrogation rooms along the prison’s dim-lit halls, sinister by dint of their blandness: a desk, a table, a chair and a phone.

90,000 letters intercepted each day

At one point 90,000 letters a day were being intercepted and read by Stasi agents, their contents often used or manipulated to put someone in jail.

Reinhard Weisshuhn is a former East German opposition figure who lived under Stasi surveillance for 15 years.

“They had bugs in the telephone, they had bugs in the apartment, they had people on the street … everything you could imagine,” he says from his apartment in East Berlin. Weisshun believes he only avoided arrest because of his strong ties to journalists in the West.

The activist lives just around the corner from Bornholmer Strasse, the first border post between East and West to be breached 25 years ago. Weisshuhn says he was there that night, but couldn’t cross. 

It took him a week, he says, describing it as being like an animal caged too long—and being afraid of walking through an open door. 

The legacy of that life under a police-state has left many Germans hyper-vigilant when it comes to protecting their privacy, Berlin in particular a hub for defenders of civil liberties.​

Walk down the streets in Berlin and you’ll notice far fewer CCTV cameras than in other European capitals.  

And the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has become a cult hero here. The whistleblower who has taken refuge in Russia is hailed as a hero for revealing the extent of the U.S. spy agency’s surveillance practices.

Edward Snowden a cult hero

Over the summer artists painted street signs with Snowden’s name and there’s a popular German rap song devoted to his cause. You can also buy T-shirts and posters exchanging Snowden’s image for Barack Obama’s in the U.S. President’s famous "Hope" poster. The word hope is replaced with "Asyl," German for “asylum.”

Martin Keune heads the agency that designed the poster.

“I would say it’s not him who’s the traitor,” he said. “We are treated by the NSA in way that is not democratic at all so he has a right, or a duty even, to speak out." 

Many in Germany were outraged when it emerged that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone had likely been tapped by the NSA. 

Keune says it’s not a stretch to worry about the potential abuse of modern government surveillance. 

“I don’t have the impression that Germany will move into fascism or dictatorship in the next few years, but on the other hand it can be very fast,” he said. “I know how fast it was [back then] and how surprising it was to people that suddenly there was a government saying we know this about you and that about you. And they did that with very poor tools in that time and we have perfect tools to do it now.”

But former prisoner​ Juritza doesn’t feel comfortable with comparisons between the Stasi surveillance machine and the online monitoring habits of the NSA. 

“It is a completely different world because there are other possibilities with technology,” he said. “And you cannot compare a democracy with a dictatorship.”

Weisshun agrees, worried that it somehow diminishes just how oppressive the East German dictatorship really was.

He’s also extremely skeptical when it comes to the German government’s own role in monitoring its citizens. 

“Because Germany does the same as the NSA” he said. “Maybe public opinion is more sensitive [to the subject], but the government is acting the same as everywhere.”