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Berlin pub serves up bitter memories

Tongue-in-cheek look back at the nation's ruthless secret police offends some, while others are nostalgic about the days of communism.

Willi Gau stands at the bar of
Willi Gau stands at the bar of "The Firm", his controversial Berlin pub.

BERLIN // Berlin is proud of having more pubs than most cities in Europe but its newest bar, which takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the feared East German Stasi secret police, has caused an outcry. The pub boasts Stasi memorabilia such as an original interrogation desk as well as shelves lined with vintage telephones and surveillance equipment. A flag of the extinct German Democratic Republic adorns the wall above the bar, along with photos of East German officials, such as Erich Honecker, the late communist leader.

Regular guests can receive discounts on their beer and food by signing a card that identifies them as "Unofficial Staff" - a term the Stasi used for its more than 100,000 informants. Above the entrance, a large sign reads: "Visit Us - Or We'll be Paying You a Visit." Called "The Firm" - the slang term East Germans used to describe the Stasi - the pub opened two weeks ago in Normannenstrasse, the street where the former headquarters of the Stasi, now a museum, is located.

"I think that almost 20 years after the end of the GDR it must be possible to portray this era, which without doubt was a bad one, with an element of irony," said landlord Willi Gau, 60, pointing out some of his prized Stasi exhibits that include an instruction book for agents in the field. "After all, the best jokes during the East German era were about the Stasi," added Mr Gau, an easterner who managed restaurants during the communist period. "We don't want to offend anyone or belittle anything that happened. We don't want to glorify the Stasi, this is merely about dealing with the issue in an ironic way."

But critics have said the pub insults the people who were harassed, incarcerated, interrogated, tortured and even killed by a ruthless organisation that was the handmaiden of the East German regime for decades. The Stasi, short for ministry for state security, was widely regarded as one of the most effective intelligence agencies in the world. It employed about 90,000 staff and over almost four decades established a tight network of surveillance to stamp out any opposition and prevent defections to the West.

It even managed to plant a mole in the office of Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor, who had to resign in 1974 as a result. Marianne Birthler, the commissioner in charge of managing the files the Stasi kept on millions of people in and outside East Germany, said: "This pub theme couldn't be more tasteless. For the many people who have learnt about the inhuman practices of the Stasi, the beer won't taste good in this pub."

Siegfried Reiprich, the deputy director of a museum located in a former Stasi prison in Berlin, said: "I appeal to the landlord to stop this tastelessness and I call on Berliners to stay away from this establishment." Mr Gau said he had decided on the theme when a pub location came free just a few metres from the Stasi headquarters. "There are six or seven pubs around here that all compete for guests by offering cheap beer. We couldn't keep up with that so we decided to pick a theme that would set us apart.

"I have had visitors who came out of curiosity and said what we've done is unacceptable and that they won't come back. But most of my guests like it and don't have a problem with it." Despite the criticism, the pub is part of a trend among easterners to feel nostalgic about the old days when the communist state made sure everyone had a job, affordable accommodation, decent schooling and childcare.

For many of the 17 million eastern Germans, the euphoria at unification with the rich West in 1990 soon evaporated as their economy collapsed under the strains of capitalism, leading to mass redundancies and a migration of skilled labour to western Germany. Even though the east has received more than ?1.5 trillion (Dh8.5 trillion) in government aid since 1990, and the region's historical town centres have been impressively refurbished and new motorways built, unemployment remains twice as high as in the western states.

Towns and villages across large parts of the region now seem deserted, and many of those remaining feel like second-class citizens abandoned by history. "People felt more satisfied with their lives in the GDR than they do today. That's a fact," Mr Gau said. "We now send teachers to Finland to learn about the education system the GDR used to have. "It's true that people suffered under the regime, but it wasn't the majority. The majority of the 17 million East German citizens didn't have a problem with the Stasi." Mr Gau added that he had not had any positive or negative experiences with the Stasi.

One of the three drinkers sitting quietly at the bar said he had been locked up by the Stasi for 13 months in 1983 for being a punk. "I like this place and I like what it's trying to say," said Otto, 44, who declined to give his surname. "I'm a regular here and this is my favourite pub now. All this is just memorabilia. What happened is over and done with and I can't stand all this wailing by the victims. I don't see myself as a victim, just as someone who was affected by the system.

"I don't wish the Stasi guys well though. They locked me up when I was 20. I was declared an enemy of the state because I was a punk. They put me in jail with murderers." @Email:dcrossland@thenational.ae