Inside the Stasi STD Clinics for 'Troubled' Women
The evils of totalitarianism come in many forms. But the STD clinics of the German Democratic Republic were something special.
HALLE, Germany—“Leave it alone,” she was warned, “you will only harm yourself.” Sixteen-year-old Elke Bauer, as we’ll call her, wasn’t supposed to ask too many questions: not about her sexual assault, not about her mysterious injections, not about the vaginal probing that amounted to torture, not about her virtual imprisonment.
It was springtime in 1968, and Elke had gotten pregnant after a Russian soldier raped her in a forest near her home town of Halle, a city that back then had the bad luck to be in the Soviet-backed East German surveillance state, otherwise known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
One year later, she had dropped out of school and was working around the clock in a department store to support herself and her new-born son. Bauer repeatedly tried to appeal for child support from her attacker, who, she says, was a “big guy” in the occupying forces. But she would never see or hear from him again.
Instead, on a chilly day in February, the police came to pick her up from work.
Previously, they had threatened her with “a very sensitive penalty” for being so persistent.
The policemen took Bauer straight to the Poliklinik Mitte in the town center—a normal looking hospital, except that on the second floor, the windows had bars on them. After she was marched up the stairs, and once the doors were firmly shut behind her, a nurse ordered her to strip down so that she could be shaved with a razor so blunt that it stung and burned.
It was the introduction to four weeks of hell: the area behind the barred windows on the second floor was called “geschlossene Abteilung für Geschlechtskrankheiten”— a secure section for people with sexually transmitted diseases. But the majority of the girls and women locked in there were perfectly healthy. Or, they were before they arrived.
Every morning at 6:00 a.m., they had to line up in front of the consulting room to be given a smear test. The vials that the nurse selected for the tests were so thick (12 cm long, and 3-4 cm wide, Bauer estimates) that women remember bleeding out of their vaginas and sometimes screaming out in pain.
“Don’t make such a fuss,” the unanimously loathed and feared chief physician, Dr. Gerd Münx, scolded one woman, “no one is that virginal around here.”
Offering no explanation, he would occasionally make them expose their arms so he could stick a needle in. This Fieberspritze (fever injection— intended to “trigger” the dormant, though mostly nonexistent, STD) would leave most of his patients breathless with chills and cramps.
One of the youngest girls in the ward was 12 years old. “But I haven’t even been with a man yet!“ she would try and explain, to no avail.
* * *
Halle today is a rustic town, perfectly preserved, with lots of bridges over the Saale River, little islands, and an art school on a hill. Heidi Bohley, an elderly lady who runs a memorial organization intended to uncover the more sinister aspects of the city’s past, has lived in Halle for most of her life.
“If someone would have said back then that women were being locked up in a hospital to be molested with gynecological instruments for weeks at a time,” Bohley tells The Daily Beast, “people would have thought they were crazy.”
In 2013, local newspapers, at Bohley’s urging, began publishing women’s accounts of Dr Münx’s “hierarchical terror regime“ (Münx was by then deceased). It was so shocking that the whole thing was treated as an isolated incident— a mini regime within a regime, thought up by one communism-loving control freak.
Except that what happened in the Poliklinik Mitte wasn’t an isolated incident at all.
More recently, investigations into former East German STD wards have revealed that the pretext “suspicion of carrying STDs” was used systematically to lock up and discipline young women who had failed to conform to the state’s expectations—women who had, like Bauer, “become difficult.” (The most significant study, “Traumatisation Through Politicized Medicine,” by the medical historian Florian Steger, was published in 2015) (())
In 1968, out of 3,000 women who were admitted to STD wards nationwide, only one third of them actually had STDs. Some had been accused of prostitution (usually based on rumors that they had had multiple sexual partners). Others had run away from their families or came from broken homes—in many cases, parents admitted their own daughters.
* * *
Fifteen-year-old Martina Blankenfeld, her real name, was locked up in East Berlin in 1978, three days after she had tried to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of her mother’s pills. (Her mother had a lot of pills: her thin nerves, Blankenfeld believes, were due to trauma from the war. Blankenfeld’s stepfather, on the other hand, had sexually abused her when she was eight years old. Neither her mother nor her grandmother did anything about it.)
Blankenfeld’s plan was to take the pills while walking to school, and then be conscious long enough to write an angry letter to her mother in the bathroom stall. Luckily, her friends stopped her along the way, noticed her drowsiness and called for assistance.
But the children’s hospital couldn’t help her. Blankenfeld remembers the nurse: “She just smiled and said, ‘Tina you’re going to be picked up now. Child protective services will take care of you from this point on.’”
Unfortunately, child protective services already had a file on Blankenfeld. One of the omnipresent neighborhood spies known as wardens had reported that she was hanging out with a “negative leisure-time group“ (yes, that’s how they liked to talk)— school friends who would get together in the afternoon and listen to AC/DC on a cassette recorder.
And so, Blankenfeld was locked up for three weeks of daily gynecological examinations in the hospital Berlin-Buch: “They had this device, like an ice cream scooper, which they shoved inside you, to pull out some slime or something. It was unbelievably painful.”
The girls also were given lipsticks to try out, which gave them rashes and other allergic reactions. Elke Bauer is convinced that among the many unexplained pills and injections in the Poliklinik Mitte, some were administered as part of medical trials. (That hospitals in the GDR were occasionally considered cheap and convenient places to test out products isn’t that surprising— a few years ago a story broke that West German drug companies had paid the broke East German government to use its patients as human guinea pigs.)
Heidi Bohley recalls taking her newly born daughter to the pediatrician at the Poliklinik in the early ‘70s, and seeing women with shaved heads, dressed in grey smocks, scrubbing the staircase that led up to the first floor.
“I felt sorry for them,” she remembers. But under Soviet rule, patients taking time off from treatment to do some basic chores around the hospital wouldn’t have seemed that unusual, would it? “We had normal hospitals in the GDR, and good doctors,“ Bohley insists.
Unwitting onlookers may also have been totally fine with the idea that STD suspects deserved shaved heads and cleaning duties. Although penicillin had been invented years before, it was a time when people still feared the legendary syphilis plagues of another era. East Germany certainly was not the only country with laws to forcibly isolate those suspected of having sexually transmitted diseases (Though, even in the GDR, there were always nicer ways to get treatment if you knew the right people.)
* * *
Once their stint in the ward was up, Blankenfeld and two other underage girls from the STD ward were shuttled off to the countryside to live in a state-run transition home— another holding tank for children who were considered “problematic“ and had nowhere else to go.
Here, the kids had to spend every evening watching “Aktuelle Kamera“ (current camera), which was the GDR’s favorite propaganda channel. As long as the TV was running, you weren’t allowed to leave your seat, not even to go to the bathroom. When Blankenfeld peed her pants in protest, she spent three days in a two-meter-long cell as punishment.
Why didn’t child protection services just take her to the “transition home” straight away? Well firstly, unlike prison or children’s homes, you didn’t need any paperwork to commit someone to an STD clinic. And the clinic stay may simply have been intended as an extra kick in the ribs, another means of breaking someone’s will and lessening their expectations for what lay ahead.
Either way, you don’t ask questions in places like these, according to Blankenfeld. “I felt so angry and numb— I didn’t try and make sense of what was happening to me.”
* * *
Back in the Poliklinik Mitte, patients sent to the STD ward had to spend every day shoveling coals in the cellar and then scrub the hospital floors until late at night. Dr. Münx rarely touched them. “We were scum,” Bauer remembers, “That’s what he called us.“
Gerd Münx, who was a short man with neatly parted hair and a piercing stare, also called the women in his ward “anti-socials,” and “the bottom of the barrel.” When he was in a more formal mood, he wrote out some rules for his staff. Their main job, he indicated, was not to treat syphilis or gonorrhoea. It was to ensure the patients’ “socialist education.”
Other doctors in Halle didn’t particularly like or respect Münx. They thought he was power hungry and sadistic, someone who enjoyed giving orders and took pleasure in inflicting pain. But, as witnesses would explain later, “He was in the Communist Party!” Few people, including the nurses in his ward, would have dared to talk back to him.
When Münx made his weekly rounds, Bauer recalls, “You could hear a pin drop.” Everyone would sit quietly as he scanned the room before barking out instructions. Some women would be made to sit on a stool in the hallway all night. For others, the Fieberspritze. To prevent any friendships or feelings of solidarity among them, Münx forced the women to shave each other’s heads, and later on, tattoo each other.
Women who were discharged from the ward had to sign a confidentially agreement. For decades, no one said anything. Or if they did, no one believed them enough for their accounts to make it into the public eye.
* * *
Today, Martina Blankenfeld works as a therapist in Berlin. She lives high up in a grey Plattenbau in Friedrichshain, the kind of industrial building block which has become very cool with students and young professionals now flocking to the capital.
Both women still struggle with their past. Elke Bauer sees a therapist once a week, for an hour every Friday. But Blankenfeld isn’t too keen on social workers or psychologists.
“My worst fear when I was young was that I would end up in the looney bin like my mother,“ she tells me. But at the same time, ”It’s hard when you are growing up, and no one is there to take care of your little soul, no one is there to talk to you.“
* * *
It’s a bitter irony that the GDR, with its nudist beaches on the Baltic Sea, stripteasers in Leipzig clubs and early attempts at pragmatic sex-ed, used to be the envy of young Germans in the West. Because women were more economically independent, it was said, that meant less pressure on both parties to use sex as leverage. In a state that wanted to control everything, “Sex was one of the only things that was free!“ Heidi Bohley tells me.
In her office in Halle’s historic centre, Bohley has a clipping of an old GDR article dated from 9 July 1953— roughly a month after a failed national revolt against the communist regime ended in 100 East German workers being shot by the East German police or crushed to death by Soviet tanks.
That night, the protesters raided the jail in Halle (as they raided jails in other cities) to release its political prisoners— a crowd of convicts who, according to the article, included three women who had been sentenced for spreading sexual diseases.
When, as the article rages on, these “whores” caught sight of the doctor who had initially examined them, they gathered a pack of “hooligans” and proceeded to chase him all around the market square—until he ran into the nearby Poliklinik and bolted himself in. As he refused to leave, the “raucous crowd” stood outside and demanded his extradition.
Bohley likes to think that the story is true, and that the fleeing doctor being pursued by a hoard of angry female convicts was none other than the sadistic Dr. Gerd Münx. There is a hint of glee in her raspy voice: “Wouldn’t that be something?” she says.