Beer and spies - "Stasi pub" divides Berliners

BERLIN (Reuters) - Two Berliners have caused a stir with a new “Stasi Bar” where guests can sip beer surrounded by listening devices and shredded documents, a stone’s throw from the former headquarters of East Germany’s dreaded secret police.

Owners Willi Gau, 60, and Wolfgang Schmelz, 53, say they want to provoke debate with their small bar.

But groups representing victims of the notorious Stasi have slammed the idea as tasteless.

“We mean it in a satirical but serious way,” said Gau, standing by the entrance of his bar “Die Firma” (The Firm), where guests are greeted by a large sign featuring the emblem of the Stasi.

Inside, a mannikin dressed as an East German police officer and sporting a baton and handcuffs stands in front of a poster reading “Welcome to the capital of the German Democratic Republic (GDR)”.

The owners serve beer and traditional East German food next to old typewriters and an urn reading “E.H. - 1912-1994”, alluding to former GDR leader Erich Honecker. Regular guests can apply to become “Stasi informants” and get a discount.

“We respect the victims. We do not want to brush it under the carpet,” Gau said, before adding it was time to take a new approach to Germany’s painful past. “After 20 years we should change the way we talk about that topic.”

Founded in 1950, East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, commonly known as the Stasi, was seen as one of the most repressive police organisations in the world.

It infiltrated almost every aspect of life, using torture, intimidation and a network of informants to crush dissent.

Marianne Birthler, who heads a government office looking after the Stasi archives, said the new bar was “hard to beat in terms of tastelessness”.

“The many people who know about the inhuman methods of the Ministry for State Security ... certainly won’t enjoy their beer in this bar,” Birthler was quoted as saying by daily newspaper Leipziger Volkszeitung.

Siegfried Reiprich, who works at a former Stasi prison which has been turned into a memorial, said the pub was an “insult to the victims.” Peter Alexander Hussock from victims’ organisation Help told daily Bild the issue was too serious to joke about.

“Many people still tremble when they think about the Stasi. They suffer from insomnia and physical problems,” Hussock said.

By the time East Germany collapsed, the Stasi had some 91,000 full-time staff and a vast network of informants.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, demonstrators stormed Stasi headquarters in Normannenstrasse in East Berlin, where Gau and Schmelz have now opened their bar.