Last Monday, thieves targeted Dresden’s treasure-filled Green Vault in a brazen heist, making off with a haul of precious jewels. Now, yet another German cultural institution has been hit by burglars: This time, the target was Berlin’s Stasi Museum, an institution dedicated to exploring the frightening history of East Germany’s secret police.
The break-in took place the morning of Sunday, December 1. Thieves scaled the roof of the museum—located on the grounds of the former headquarters of the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi—and broke through a first-floor window. Berlin police tell Claudia Otto and Sheena McKenzie of CNN that the perpetrators smashed several exhibition cases and stole multiple artifacts.
Among the missing goods are a pair of earrings, a ring laden with pearls and gems, a gold watch, and a gold timepiece. The stolen jewels, according to the Guardian’s Philip Oltermann, are primarily items confiscated from people who tried to escape Soviet-controlled East Germany. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union some 30 years ago, many such confiscated items have been returned, but the Stasi still houses a collection of valuables that could not be traced back to their original owners.
Also stolen were eight medals, including an Order of Karl Marx (the most important award given out in East Germany), an Order of Lenin and a Hero of the Soviet Union. Only one of these medals—a golden Patriotic Order of Merit—is an original; the rest are facsimiles.
Jörg Drieselmann, the museum’s director, tells Oltermann that even reproductions might find buyers among collectors of East German memorabilia. But “in terms of the value of the stolen items,” he adds, “you can almost lean back and relax.”
Speaking with BBC News, Drieselmann says the cost of the pilfered goods amounts to “a few thousand euros”—far less than the estimated value of the jewels stolen from the Green Vault, which have been described as “priceless.” (Local press estimate the trove’s value at around $1 billion, but the museum has declined to put a financial figure on the relics, instead deeming them “impossible to sell” because they are so well-known.)
Nevertheless, the loss of the Stasi’s artifacts came as a shock.
“It’s always painful when there’s a break-in. The feeling of security is considerably disturbed,” Drieselmann tells the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, as quoted by Naomi Rea of artnet News. “We are a historical museum, and don’t expect anyone to break into our premises. We are not the Green Vault.”
The building that houses the Stasi Museum was constructed in the early 1960s as the offices of Erich Mielke, the minister for state security who is credited with transforming the Stasi into an efficient and ruthless secret police organization. Using vast networks of informants and collaborators, the Stasi carried out both foreign espionage and domestic surveillance, encouraging friends and family members to spy on and report one another.
The organization earned a fearsome reputation for kidnapping and often executing officials who had fled the East German state. It was, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, “one of the most hated and feared institutions of the East German communist government.”
Jarred by the break-ins at two German institutions over the course of just a few days, the country’s culture minister, Monika Gruetters, has called for a national conference on museum security.
As reported by Agence France-Presse, she said, “We need to look at how museums can protect their objects from such brutal activities while still being accessible to the public in the normal way.”