Anna Funder, author of Stasiland, blazed a trail by going into East Germany, a former secret-police ruled Marxist state, and interviewing victims of that secret police. She also interviewed former members of the secret police (known as the Stasi). This was a unique opportunity, because Germany “was the only Eastern Bloc country in the end that so bravely, so conscientiously, opened its files on its people to its people.”
The Stasi had technology, and ways of hiding it – a microphone in the lid of a thermos, a hiking jacket with a camera sewn into the lapel pocket and an apparatus like a television antenna that could pick up conversations fifty meters away in other buildings, or in nearby cars, stopped at lights.
They had disguises – the blind man hobbling along with the cane could have 20-20 vision and could be watching you.
The Stasi had informers – perhaps one out of 63 citizens informed on the others. A Stasi psychologist explained the willingness to inform as “an impulse to make sure your neighbor was doing the right thing..It comes down to something in the German mentality — a certain drive for order and thoroughness and stuff like that.”
Anna has an alternate explanation: “Betrayal clearly has its own reward: the small deep human satisfaction of having one up on someone else. It is the psychology of the mistress…”
The Stasi “knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around.” In its forty years, it generated enough files on its own countrymen to form a line 120 miles long.
The man who ran Stasi, Erich Mielke, joined the Communist youth organization of 1921 Germany. In 1931, Mielke and another man killed the local police-chief and his off-sider by shooting them in the back at point-blank range. Then he fled to Moscow. Once Russia had taken over East Germany, Mielke engineered a coup against the leader of the Soviet-run police force in East Germany, and then he took it over.
An interesting aspect of the overthrow of the Communists in 1989 is that many of the members of the Stasi did not get separated from the population, they just merged into it. So Stasi members still harass people who they fear may uncover them. For instance, a former border guard who appeared on a talk show was threatened with an acid attack. One man had a ticking package delivered to his doorstep; wives have had to sign for porn not ordered by their husbands. Car brake-leads have been cut, accidents and deaths reverse-engineered. The child of an outspoken writer was picked up from school by a person or persons unknown and taken to drink hot chocolate, just for an hour or so, to give a scare to his parents.
East Germany was a very ideological enterprise, and one unrepentant former Stasi official explained to Anna:
This capitalism is, above all, exploitation! It is unfair. It’s brutal. The rich get richer and the masses get steadily poorer…Each industrialist is a criminal at war with the other…Capitalism plunders the planet too–this hole in the ozone layer, the exploitation of the forests, pollution–we must get rid of this social system!
There is something very interesting about this man’s remarks. He sounds like he is a caring person. He cares about unfairness. He cares about the environment. Later in the post I put some excerpts of just how horrible the Stasi could be – putting people in diabolical situations where they had to choose between one evil and another. I also have an excerpt on their torture chambers.
So I don’t understand – how can this man care, and yet not care?
It might seem hard to justify the building of a wall to keep East Germans from the West, and even worse to justify the shooting of two men who tried to cross it to freedom. But a regime ideologist, Karl Eduard von Schnitzler, had this to say on his regular TV program after that happened:
People should listen to us when we say, again and again: we determine the order at our border!..Whosoever wants to traverse the GDR border needs permission…He who puts himself in danger will die. I know, ladies and gentlemen, it sounds, hard…But what is ‘humane’ and what is ‘inhumane’?
Humane it is, to make peace for all men on earth. That is not done by prayer! It is done by fighting…And for the first time on German soil, here in the German Democratic Republic, peace has been elevated to a governing principle…It is humane to guard the GDR against these people…
So shooting two men who just wanted freedom becomes transmuted into a defense of peace. Though Schnitzler in an interview with Anna Funder also explained that the wall served the purpose of preventing imperialism from contaminating the east.
As an amusing aside: when the wall came down, one of the chants of the newly liberated was “Schnitzler to the muppet show!”
Lets start with two Faustian bargains that the Stasi offered:
Julia was an East German young woman with an Italian boyfriend. The Stasi disapproved of this, and her career got derailed as a result. Some time later, she broke up with the boyfriend, simply because he was too controlling.
And then something odd happened. She was called in to the local police station where she was shunted off to a room where she was greeted by a friendly man who pulled out a pile of papers. The papers were written in Julia’s handwriting – they were copies of her love letters. The man started, to her horror, to read them aloud to her.
Julia told Anna that the man knew everything. He could see in the letters when she had doubts, he could see the Italian boyfriend’s longing laid bare. He then started telling Julia facts about her boyfriend that she did not know, but Stasi people in Italy could have found out. It was puzzling to Julia though, that the man did not seem to know that she and her boyfriend had recently broken up. The man flattered Julia that she was more complex and intelligent than the boyfriend gave her credit for being. Then the man told her that Stasi wanted her to inform on her boyfriend. Presumably he knew about the break-up but he wanted a reconciliation so that she could help him spy on a person of interest.
Julia managed to get home, after which she vomited. But she thwarted the Stasi, in this case.
Frau Paul had a sick little boy in a German hospital. She was in the east, where he could not get the care that would save him. Then the wall was built and she could not get to her child. Frau Paul got into trouble for trying to escape East Germany. One of her contacts was a man named Michael in the west, who helped people escape the east. So at one point she was offered a choice by Stasi: “Would you like to see your son?” She of course said yes, and then came the kicker:
It is not at all complicated, In fact, it’s a simple matter. If you would like to visit your son in enemy territory, we would ask only that, while you are there, you arrange to meet with your young friend Michael Hinze. The two of you could go for a stroll. For instance, in the grounds of Charlottenburg Castle.
Frau Paul realized that this was kidnapping scheme, and she said no. This decision meant that her son was bought up by staff and nurses at that West German hospital for several years.
Now for the more horrible side of the Socialist Utopia:
Klaus Renft was the bad boy of East German rock’n’roll. The Kalus Renft Combo became the wildest and the most popular rock band in the GDR. They became too much for the government, and at one point Mielke asked his officers in Leipzig, “Why aren’t they liquidated?”. But Renft members were too famous to handle so directly. They were disbanded, and later, one member, Gerulf Pannach, died prematurely of an unusual kind of cancer, as did two dissidents. It turned out that the Stasi used radiation to mark people it wanted to track. It could insert irradiated pins into a person’s clothing, or put a radioactive magnet on a person’s car, or spray, with a kind of hidden hand-pump, people in a crowd with radiation. Or they might get into a victim’s house, and spray the floor, so that the person would leave radioactive footprints everywhere they went. The radioactivity is probably responsible for the cancers.
There was a prison for political prisoners named Hohenschonhausen, in East Berlin, and airless and dark paddy wagons containing new prisoners would drive through Berlin, disguised as commercial trucks. There were torture cells in the prison. For instance, a compartment designed to be filled with icy water up to the prisoner’s neck. There were concrete cells with nothing in them where prisoners would be kept in the dark amid their own excrement. There was a cell lined entirely with padded black rubber, and Frau Paul heard the prisoner in it gradually lose his mind. At the end the only words he had left were: ‘Never get out!’.
Frau Paul had to mop up his vomit and blood after he was removed.
There was a cell with ridges on the floor that bit into a prisoner’s bare feet, but the prisoner could not do anything about it, because he was in a wooden yoke, nearly bent double, and when he was in such pain that he lost consciousness, his head would slump into a bucket of water, and he would either drown or revive into pain again. Imagine the person who designed this. Probably a good wood worker and a creative type.
Stasi framed people in the West. For instance, it spliced together recordings of conversations that never took place in order to damage person in the public sphere. And it spread rumors about people in the West, including that those people were traitors who worked for Stasi.
Charlie Weber was a man who fell afoul of the Stasi, and died in Stasi hands. He wrote this poem:
In this land
I have made myself sick with silence
In this land
I have wandered, lost
In this land
I hunkered down to see
What will become of me.
In this land
I held myself tight
So as not to scream.
…But I did scream, so loud
That this land howled back at me
As it builds its houses.
In this land
I have been sown
Only my head sticks
Defiant, out of the earth
But one day it too will be mown
Of this land.
And yet, there is nostalgia for the old regime even among the young who don’t remember it. As if it were a harmless welfare state that looked after people’s needs.
So what can we learn from Anna Funder’s book?
One lesson we can learn is that people who believe in reducing income inequality and unfairness, who believe in national health care and subsidized food can produce regimes that steamroll over other people’s rights. It would seem to be a contradiction, that for the sake of the people, you create the most sadistic situations imaginable for members of “the people” but the human mind is obviously capable of great inconsistency.
Secondly, the Stasi technology and what it was used for is interesting. The Stasi ended in 1989. Since then, microchips have gotten much smaller, and computer technology much more powerful. Just looking at the examples above, you or I can be framed by a photoshopped picture, or conceivably (see above) a voiceshopped conversation. You can be spied on. You can be poisoned – in fact a book by Boris Volodarsky “The KGB’s Poison Factory” mentions the compound Sodium Fluroacetate, which mimics a heart attack, and leaves no trace. This is scarier than you might think. You may not be targeted, but people you support may indeed be in harm’s way, and if bad things happen to them, those bad things may not be an accident. Criminals want power. Ideologues want power. This technology is power.
One more lesson: our country was monitoring the cellphone of Angela Merkel – a woman who had been brought up in Stasiland, and became the chancellor of a united Germany. This did not make a good impression on her when she found out. We should concentrate in spying on our enemies, not on our friends.
Stasiland – by Anna Funder – Granta Books (2003)
Anna Funder’s website is at: http://annafunder.com/ She also reviews a movie “The Lives of Others” about a (fictional) Stasi man who spies on a German couple and then becomes their ally, which she says is a completely impossible scenario. That review is at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/may/05/featuresreviews.guardianreview12 (critics did love that movie).