By Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published as ” Iron Fist in the West” in The Star, 14 April 2015

As I checked out from my hotel in Istanbul on 1 April 2015, I saw groups of people crowding around the two television sets in the lobby. At the airport people were similarly focused on the news channel.

They were watching coverage of the siege of an Istanbul courthouse the day before. The tragedy ended with the death of chief prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz. He was shot in the head and died in hospital despite attempts to save him.

Two militants stormed Mr Kiraz’s office and held him hostage, demanding that the Turkish government fulfill their demands. As a threat, they released a picture showing a bound and gagged Mr Kiraz with a gun pointed to his head. In the background was the leftist group’s flag, bearing the iconic hammer and sickle emblem on a blood red background.

The group responsible for the attack is DHKP-C, a Marxist group that was originally formed in 1978 using the name the Revolutionary Left. Subscribers to this ideology may hide their tendencies from public scrutiny but in reality they have no qualm to use force and weapons to make their point.

It is clearly dangerous when those with such brutal beliefs find access to weapons. And history tells us that when these people gain access to political power and government machineries, their iron fists only become harder.

I was in Istanbul that day because I was on my way back to Kuala Lumpur from Berlin. I was participating in the 17th International Conference on Competition in Berlin organised by Germany’s Competition Authority.

Berlin is a city rich with history. You cannot visit Berlin without going to some of its many museums. This time I had time to visit two museums showcasing related aspects of Germany’s history – the DDR Museum and the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial or more commonly knows as the Stasi Prison.

Both record the history of East Berlin and East Germany while ruled by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) between 1946 and 1989. This was a party who turned a version of the Marxist ideology from theory into government policy. And these are just two of many museums in Berlin where you can see the history of what happened under such iron fists.

At the DDR Museum, I learned that under the SED dictatorship, there were 39 newspapers, two television channels and four radio stations. There were many platforms. But there was only one voice. Editors receive instructions from higher up and any criticism against the party would not receive coverage.

Education is heavily controlled by the central government too. Kindergartens, schools and even colleges must all follow a curriculum that is centrally set. While the government says they want students to develop higher order thinking skills, any attempt to exercise freedom of conscience would be met with severe punishments. They clearly know how vital education is in shaping citizens’ political attitude.

But they did not exercise control just for the sake of control. They had a purpose which is nicely summarised by a poster at the DDR Museum as follows: “The aim was communism … the SED left no doubt that the path to communism would be long and difficult … Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels saw that socialism was merely a transitional phase and for the time being citizens would have to put up with the imperfections of the system.”

The scarier part is actually more apparent at the Stasi Prison museum. The prison was run by the Ministry of State Security, which is also known as the “Stasi” and hence the name.

Located at the outskirt of Berlin city centre, the museum is at the site of the main political prison of the East Germany government. This was where the Stasi police detained citizens who they accused of disagreeing with the government.

Stasi officers worked similar to the police but even though they are funded by the government their job was to keep the political party in power.

The Stasi police was feared by everyone. Their main task was to spy on citizens, collecting information on activities deemed threatening to the ruling power.

My tour guide at the Stasi Prison told stories of how people were unsure who they can trust because there were many Stasi police officers wearing plain clothes, and there were also thousands of civilian informants.

The Stasi Prison itself was a chilling place. The prison complex was surrounded by iron bars on all main windows. The cells were small, dark and damp. The doors were made of iron sheets and the screech it made when opened sounded terrifying.

One of the rooms I was taken to had cushion padding around it. I was told that the police took prisoners into that room if they show tendencies to commit suicide. And many attempted suicide because they could not handle the stress and torture while being imprisoned.

It is pretty obvious that under the brutal Marxist regime the Stasi police played a pivotal role to keep the ruling party in power. The politicians gave the police powers to behave with impunity and that was exactly how they behaved. Their priority was not to protect the citizens but they merely serve their political masters. Anyone who disagree would be arrested and imprisoned.

As I was ending my tour of the Stasi Prison, my tour guide said Germans are lucky to have escaped from such a repressive regime, and their vicious police force. Indeed.

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