What was it like to be a prisoner of the notorious Spanish Inquisition? Well, I got a unique insight in 2019 when I visited what had been a Spanish Inquisition prison in the Sicilian capital of Palermo.
You might ask – what was the Spanish Inquisition doing in the Sicilian capital, Palermo? Isn’t that part of Italy?
And the answer is that Sicily was ruled by Spain from the 15th to the 18th century. With Spanish rule came the Spanish Inquisition and that meant imprisonment, torture and burning at the stake for those who didn’t accept the authority of the Roman Catholic church.
Spanish Inquisition gets to work in Sicily
In Palermo, people suspected of being ‘heretics’ – in opposition to Catholic teaching – were arrested and taken to a very severe looking building. They were crammed into dark cells from which they only emerged to be beaten and cruelly tortured.
But what is astonishing is that during their dreadful captivity, the prisoners used a mixture of dirt from the floor and their urine to paint religious art on the walls.
This art was lost for centuries and only fully rediscovered in the last twenty years. Some of it seems to be a plea for mercy while other drawings are clearly intended to tell the Inquisition to sling its hook. There’s even one depiction of an inquisitor riding a donkey which is defecating.
I was genuinely affected by my visit to this Spanish Inquisition prison. It still holds the ability to terrify, though you have to use a bit of imagination to visualise it at the height of its operation. But frankly, anybody with a modicum of historical knowledge should be able to do that.
A visit is definitely recommended and – yes – you could take youngsters too. I suspect they’ll love it!
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.