This month, I appear in the new season of Forbidden History presented by Jamie Theakston. You can view it online or download from Sky. So, what can you expect to see me talking about?
The historical Jesus. Who was the real Jesus Christ? Forbidden History journeys through the Holy Land to find whether the Messiah really existed and the exact spot where he was crucified
The East German Stasi. How did communist East Germany create a ruthless secret police that got one in six of the population spying on everybody else? A fascinating trip back to the Cold War
Nazi Art Theft. The astonishing robbery of billions of dollars worth of art by Hitler stashed away in salt mines and other hiding places. And the brave efforts of the Monuments Men to trace priceless paintings and sculptures
The real James Bond. Forbidden History asks which actor in the Bond movies comes closest to the real thing? An investigation into what inspired the creation of this compelling character
Dead Sea Scrolls. The most incredible biblical discovery in centuries. Parchments written by a fanatical Jewish sect, the Essenes, that could have proven or disproven the existence of Christ. Yet these massively important documents were hidden from public view for decades.
Secret societies. All your favourite clandestine organisations under the microscope from Opus Dei to the Illuminati. Who and what are these organisations and do they really control the world?
Make sure not to miss Forbidden History broadcasting on the Yesterday channel, part of UKTV.
In 2018, I appeared in the TV documentary series Forbidden History (UKTV, Yesterday) talking about a highly sinister secret police force called the Stasi. This followed a trip I paid to Berlin to see the Stasi prison cells where people were tortured for myself.
Communist East Germany collapsed in 1989. It meant the end of a totalitarian state where the secret police spied on the population using a web of 90,000 paid agents and hundreds of thousands of informers.
I’ve just visited the secret prison of the Ministry for State Security – the Stasi. It’s a grim place where agents physically and psychologically tortured political opponents of the government.
East Germany was created in the image of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. This was at the end of the Second World War when Hitler’s Germany was carved up between the Soviet Union, France, United Kingdom and United States. Berlin sat in the middle of Soviet run territory and was in turn divided up between the four victorious powers.
In Soviet occupied Germany, there would be no democracy, no dissent and no freedom of organisation. The East German communist government took orders from Moscow and created a Kafka-esque nightmare of a society. Show trials and denunciation were the norm, echoing the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.
A culture of informing was encouraged. Neighbours, friends, family members and even husbands and wives would spy on each other. Often with a designated code name, they would ring up the Stasi and snitch on their loved ones. Private scores were settled just by picking up the phone and spilling the beans to a Stasi operator.
Only when Stasi files became public in 1990 did people realise the extent of the secret police activity. One woman, now a German politician, discovered her husband had been reporting on her activity to the Stasi for decades. A punk singer who was seen as a bit of rebel was in fact a spy. All over the country, listening devices were planted in suspect’s flats or even in bizarre places like nesting boxes, watering cans and even a specially designed bra!!
Once somebody came to the Stasi’s attention, they would be picked up and taken to the prison I visited for interrogation. They might be dragged out of their home or simply accosted in public. The hapless individual was then bundled into what deliberately looked like a delivery van. It could contain up to five very cramped cells.
They were then driven for hours, unable to see out of the window. This would create the impression that the prison was far from their home when in fact, it might have been a mere 20 minute ride. From outside, ordinary people would have just seen a delivery van for groceries trundling past.
They they arrived at the Stasi prison. The van stopped in a holding bay harshly illuminated by strip lighting. The political detainees shielded their eyes and fell to the ground. This was followed by a strip search, an exercise in humiliation. A kind of track suit was then issued with no consideration given to size. If it was ill-fitting – so much the better. Everything was geared to dehumanising the suspect.
In the basement of one building is an underground labyrinth of corridors and cells nicknamed the “submarine” – a windowless hell where the first inmates in the late 1940s and 1950s were incarcerated. With no light, prisoners hadn’t any idea whether it was day or night. Twelve or fifteen shared a single cell with one bucket to relieve themselves and a single bed to share on a rota. Many died in that darkness.
Then from the 1950s until 1989, a newer wing was used. The cells there had windows – and bars. Each prisoner had a room to themselves with toilet, bed and sink. But this heralded a new form of degradation. Physical beatings and summary executions were replaced by sleep deprivation and months of vicious mind games.
How was sleep deprived? Inmates were ordered to sleep on their back, arms to the sides and staring up a light bulb that flashed on intermittently through the night. If a prisoner fell asleep and turned on to their side, the cell door was rattled until they woke.
Sleep deprivation is a devastatingly effective form of torture. Add to that the horror of solitary confinement for months on end. Prisoners began to relish the sessions with their interrogator who came to be seen as a kind of friend. That was the intention. Bit by bit, it became easier to extract a confession.
It’s incredible to think this all carried on until 1989 and the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe. The Moscow-inspired Stalinist system was hated by most of the Left and Right in post-war Europe. But it had – and still has – its admirers. In recent years, a couple of Stasi agents have very publicly crawled out of the woodwork trying to justify what they did back in those days.
If you want to know more about the Stasi, I recommend this movie: The Lives of Others.
I was in the Gore Hotel’s lovely Tapestry Room this week filming for the fifth series of Forbidden History presented, as ever, by Jamie Theakston. It’ll be aired in the Spring of 2018. I’ll be appearing in all six episodes and some great topics will be featured:
Who was the real historical Jesus?
The mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
The horror of the East German secret police – the Stasi