The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was infamous for being a surveillance state – 1989 turned the tables on the secret police.

There is an extraordinary museum in Leipzig, which lies about an hour south of Berlin by train, which has frozen an authoritarian regime in time. The Museum in der Runden Ecke is in the former district headquarters of the secret police (Stasi). On 4th December 1989, four weeks after the wall fell, protestors occupied the building. In 1990 it became a museum, and has been preserved ever since: the exhibit is titled “Stasi: power and banality“.

“This building has been secured by the state police on the order of the government and the citizens’ committee”: The museum in 2016

The peacefulness of the end of the GDR is astounding. How often, in human history, do dictatorships end this way? The guards at the wall fired no shots. The Stasi gave up their buildings to peaceful demonstrators. They left a terrible legacy, but it ended without violence.

Germany has a word about dealing with history: Erinnerungskultur, or “culture of remembrance”. For years after WW2, the Nazi crimes were not spoken about – it took decades for schools and universities, institutions and individuals to force a public reckoning.

Nothing can be compared to the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. The point is simply this: 30 years is not a long time. The GDR is memory and history and both are subjective. Across eastern Germany, museums have been created, memorials have been erected and files have been made public; this is only the beginning.

Lumps of actual Stasi documents which were pulped before protestors seized the building