Totalitarian Busybodies

The horrors of the Stasi's East Germany.


After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life That Came Next, by Jana Hensel, New York: Public Affairs, 180 pages, $24

Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder, London: Granta Books, 288 pages, $16.95

Like its counterpart in Moscow, East Germany's Ministry for State Security–better known by its sounds-like-Nazi nickname, Stasi–regarded itself as the sword and shield of the Communist Party. Of course, lots of extras in Ben Hur had swords and shields, too, and that did not make them formidable anywhere off the MGM back lot. As a foreign intelligence service, the Stasi made few penetrations outside West Germany (where the term was disconcertingly literal–the Stasi specialized in so-called Romeo traps, sending handsome young spies to charm government secretaries out of not only their hymens but the documents they typed at work).

A typical example of Stasi impotence: When the Reagan administration furiously–and correctly–accused East Germany of sheltering the Libyan terrorists who bombed a West Berlin disco full of American soldiers in 1986, the nervous regime demanded an assessment of Washington's intentions. Stasi operatives in D.C. replied with rewritten New York Times articles. Jayson Blair was still in high school at the time, or the history of the Cold War might have taken a much more interesting turn.

When the Stasi did have sources made of flesh and blood rather than newsprint, the results were even more ludicrous. In John O. Koehler's 1999 book Stasi: The Untold History of the East German Secret Police, he published a captured Stasi cable predicting a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua in 1984. The source: "leading circles close to J. Jackson." That's J as in Jesse, Ronald Reagan's drinking buddy and national security sidekick.

At home, though, it was a different matter. When it came to spying on its own citizens, the Stasi combined Teutonic precision with Stakhanovite zeal. The Stasi-compiled dossiers on East German citizens found after the regime fell would make a stack 112 miles high. (And God knows how much material had already disappeared; in the final days before the Berlin Wall fell, the Stasi destroyed paper with such manic enthusiasm that every shredder in the country burned out, forcing agents to cross to the West on one last hard-currency shopping spree.) Virtually every living person in East Germany had a file in the Stasi archives, up to and including Communist Party chief Erich Honecker–who, when the files were declassified by the government of the new unified Germany, quickly asked to see his.

The Stasi knew everything about you, including your smell. Its agents routinely broke into apartments to steal soiled underwear, which it would store in sealed jars, to be used later by sniffer dogs prowling the sites of illegal meetings.

Adolf Hitler kept a population of more than 70 million Germans cowed with a Gestapo numbering about 40,000. Perhaps these days, when they share a beer on the ninth circle of Hell, East Germany's Honecker derides Hitler as a pussy disgrace to totalitarianism. Honecker had 102,000 Stasi officers–a bigger staff than the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency combined–for just 17 million East Germans. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the Stasi was probably present at every dinner party ever thrown in East Germany; when you add in informers, there was one Stasi for every six citizens. The Stasi had so many infiltrators inside the country's ragtag dissident groups that one officer wrote a report warning that they were making the dissidents look far more numerous and powerful than they really were.

All those spies couldn't produce intelligence worth beans–the Stasi failed to predict the massive 1989 protests that toppled first Honecker and then the Wall itself–but they certainly turned East Germany into an Orwellian fishbowl. Spouses and even children–researchers combing the Stasi files after the Wall fell were horrified to discover the payroll included 10,000 informers under the age of 18–were potential eyes and ears of the regime; friends were suspect; and strangers were presumed to be Stasi until proven innocent, and probably well beyond that. "Relations between people were conditioned by the fact that one or the other of you could be one of them," writes Australian journalist Anna Funder in Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. "Everyone suspected everyone else, and the mistrust this bred was the foundation of social existence."

The ubiquity of its secret police and the degree of cooperation they received from the civilian population make East Germany an even more interesting case study than the Soviet Union when it comes to totalitarian anthropology. Two books on Stasi culture and its aftermath that were first published overseas, Funder's Stasiland and Jana Hensel's After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life That Came Next, have recently made their way to the United States. Stasiland is a thoughtful collection of interviews with the Stasi's victims and officers. (Sometimes the two lists merge.) Considerably less profound is the memoir by Hensel, a twentysomething member of East Germany's last generation of teenagers. The movie version will surely be titled Triumph of the Whine.

Funder, whose fascination with Germany began with its language–"sticklebrick," she calls it, the way long strings of nouns and verbs are combined to create makeshift new words–and spread to its politics and culture, spent much of the 1990s working for the television service that the German government makes available overseas. Living in old East Berlin, listening to the stories of friends and neighbors, she soon developed her own sticklebrick attachment to the country once called the German Democratic Republic–"horror-romance," she calls it, the romance from the supposed utopian ideal of German communism, the horror from the way it worked out.

Funder's interest was not shared by her German colleagues, who regarded everything that happened east of the Wall as a national mortification. "You won't find the great story of human courage you are looking for," warned one television newsman. "They are just a bunch of downtrodden whiners." Added another, "The whole Stasi thing, it's sort of…embarrassing.

Funder nonetheless managed to find tales of East Germans who resisted the regime in ways that, given the price they paid, can only be called heroic. Most often the resistance involved trying to cross the Wall or help others to do so; in a totalitarian country, escape is often the only act of defiance with even a minuscule chance of success. Certainly the East German regime regarded any attempt to leave as subversive and criminal. Wall jumpers were gunned down and left to bleed to death in the no man's land between the East and West. The government granted exit visas, but applying for one was, by definition, a criminal libel of the state. As Funder puts it, "People who applied to leave were, unsurprisingly, suspected of wanting to leave."

In the end, it didn't seem to make much difference which route you took; unless somebody in the West German government liked you enough to pay a ransom–the Bonn government literally bought 34,000 political prisoners from the East between 1963 and 1989 at a price of nearly $3 billion, which made people East Germany's most profitable export–any attempt to leave was likely to result in joblessness, penury, possibly jail, and perhaps even death.

Miriam Weber, one of the women Funder interviews at length, managed all four. After East German police used fire hoses to break up a demonstration against the demolition of a Leipzig church, the 16-year-old Miriam and a schoolmate used a child's rubber-stamp set to print up some mildly dissident leaflets. ("People of the People's Republic, speak up!") They were promptly reported by informers, charged with sedition, and thrown into solitary confinement for a month. When she was released to await her kangaroo court trial, Miriam jumped on a train for Berlin, determined to go over the Wall rather than return to jail. Amazingly, her spur-of-the-moment plan to bolt across at a spot where railroad tracks prevented maximum fortification almost worked, but she tripped an alarm just a few feet short of freedom. This time she went to jail for 18 months.

When Miriam was released, not yet 18, her life in East Germany was effectively over. She wasn't allowed to go to school or get a job. She subsisted, barely, by selling photographs to magazines under the names of friends. When she fell in love with a lifeguard named Charlie, a dissident whose writing had been published in the West, they applied to emigrate legally. Charlie was soon arrested under suspicion of "attempting to flee the republic." A couple of weeks later, the cops told Miriam that Charlie had hung himself in his jail cell. Her doubts about that steadily mounted as she saw the massive wounds to his head, noticed that Stasi men with cameras and microphones outnumbered mourners at the funeral, and finally discovered paperwork suggesting that Charlie's body was removed from the casket before burial and cremated.

Then there is the woman Funder identifies only as Frau Paul. Her son Torsten was born with a damaged esophagus and stomach that caused inflammation and internal bleeding. The baby required medicines and special formula available only in West Berlin–no problem until the Wall went up when he was seven months old. Frau Paul's desperate pleas for day passes to collect the medicine were turned down by an East German official, who was unmoved by her plea that without them the child would die. "If your son is as sick as all that," he counseled helpfully, "it would be better if he did." The baby began spitting up blood and was hospitalized; in the middle of the night, as he hovered near death, the doctors somehow smuggled him across the border, saving the child's life but leaving the family impossibly, impassibly divided by Cold War geography.

Frau Paul and her husband began seeking ways to escape. They lent their apartment to three West Berlin students who visited the East regularly with day passes, pretending to study while they actually coordinated construction of a tunnel under the Wall. But the Stasi discovered the plot and busted the students.

Inevitably, the trail led back to Frau Paul. After several sleepless days of round-the-clock questioning, the lieutenant interrogating her suddenly changed tacks. Her child–now 2 years old–was over in enemy territory, the lieutenant said; didn't she miss him? Wouldn't it be nice to visit–wouldn't it be nice if her baby knew he had a mother? That could be arranged, the lieutenant explained, if only Frau Paul would contact another West Berlin student well known for arranging escapes. Ask him to visit her in East Berlin, meet up in a park. "You can leave the rest to us," the lieutenant said. It never even occurred to Frau Paul to take the deal. "I had to decide against my son," she tearfully told Funder nearly four decades later. "But I couldn't let myself be used in this way."

There followed 18 months in a dank East German prison where torture was widely practiced. Frau Paul did not have to endure the most popular techniques, the immersion in icy water or the wooden yoke that bent prisoners double. For her, the Stasi deemed it sufficient to simply forward her mail from the hospital in West Berlin where her child was being raised by doctors and nurses. "Torsten has painted you an Easter picture, all by himself–brown Easter bunnies and a nest with colorful eggs," wrote a nurse in 1965. "He said, 'That is for my mommy, she'll like that.' Yesterday we received your lovely card, and we thank you on behalf of Torsten. He was so happy, we had to read it to him straight away. He never lets it out of his little hands…"

As I read that, I tried to decide? which one–the Stasi officer who used a baby as a hostage against his mother, or the West German newsman who derided Frau Paul and other Easterners as whiners–was the bigger fucker. And which one–Frau Paul or Torsten–was the bigger hero. Torsten was 5 before he met his parents; not only did he not know them, he didn't even have any concept of what a parent was. For all that, he told Funder, "I have never looked at my parents and thought they made the wrong decision."

There were others like Frau Paul. When Funder visits the "puzzle women"–the Nuremberg team that is painstakingly piecing together millions of Stasi documents that were shredded but not burned–they tell her the files are full of stories of people who rejected Stasi recruitment. "There were lots of people who just said no," explains one team member. "Not everyone can be bought."

Literally millions, however, just said yes. In many cases, they weren't bought but blackmailed, backed into dilemmas as tortuous as that of Frau Paul. Hagen Koch, who as a young Stasi officer in 1961 walked the streets of Berlin, painting the line where the Wall would be built, was actually the victim of multigenerational extortion. Koch's father Heinz served in the German army during World War II, then returned to his village, in the sector of Germany then under Soviet control. He became a schoolteacher, was popular with the townfolk, and founded the local chapter of the centrist Liberal Democratic Party, a political mainstay in West Germany. In October 1946 he ran for mayor in East Germany's first postwar elections and beat the Communist candidate easily. But instead of taking office, he was declared a prisoner of war by the Soviet army and thrown into a POW camp located on the site of one of the old Nazi concentration camps.

It was a scene repeated all over East Germany as the Soviets used service in the Wehrmacht as a pretext for decimating any nascent political opposition. The camps were so miserable, filthy, and violent that some 43,000 men would die in them. No wonder that when Heinz Koch was offered a deal–his freedom in return for renouncing the Liberal Democrats and joining the Communists–he took it. No wonder that he raised his son Hagen to believe in the Communists "like a religion," as Hagen would say later. And no wonder that Hagen, when he grew up, was recruited into the Stasi as a cartographer.

But in the Stasi, with its voracious hunger for personal secrets, the failure to disclose even the most trivial fact was disastrous. When Hagen Koch didn't mention that his long-lost biological grandfather had been located in the Netherlands and had come to visit for a few hours on a day pass, the Stasi retaliated by having Heinz Koch fired from his teaching job. That was when the Kochs had the East German version of a father-and-son chat, and Hagen learned his whole upbringing was a lie. Outraged, he resigned from the Stasi. That very afternoon, he was arrested on trumped-up pornography charges.

While he languished in jail, the Stasi told his wife he was a deviant, and unless she divorced him she too would be arrested and their child taken by the state. After she reluctantly signed divorce papers, the Stasi told Koch she had dumped him at the first sign of trouble. The porn charges were erroneous, the Stasi conceded, and would be cleared up, but he still faced nearly five years in prison for insulting the organization by trying to leave it. Two decades after his father capitulated to Stasi extortion, Hagen did the same. "At that moment my world broke apart," he told Funder.

It takes a stony heart and a drab imagination to criticize people like the Kochs for giving in to the Stasi, to say that we would have toughed it out in their situation. More ethically problematic are the large numbers of East Germans who cooperated without any pressure at all, who helped the Stasi spy on their neighbors for money or simply the thrill of it. Funder interviews a former Stasi recruiter who says this was not a small category. Some of them were truly committed Communists, he says, but not many. And the pay was pathetic. "I think it was mainly because informers got the feeling that, doing it, they were somebody," he muses. "You know–someone was listening to them for a couple of hours a week, taking notes. They felt they had it over other people."

Funder seems to think this was a quality unique to East Germans. "There is something warmer and more human about the carnality of other dictatorships, say in Latin America," she writes. "One can more easily understand a desire for cases stuffed with money and drugs, for women and weapons and blood. These obedient gray men doing it with their underpaid informers on a weekly basis seem at once more stupid and more sinister. 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, and this regime used it as fuel."

That assessment may misjudge the pressures felt by average East Germans. They did try to rebel in 1953 with a series of violent street protests that two Russian armored divisions quickly crushed. At least 21 were killed–that's what the regime admitted to, anyway–and thousands more were jailed or executed. Three years later, the vicious Soviet suppression of the revolt in Hungary made the point again for anyone who missed it the first time: Political resistance in East Germany would be dealt with not by the Berlin regime but its Soviet puppet masters, and there was no American cavalry waiting over the hill. In such a hopeless situation, doing small favors for the Stasi may have seemed like an evil but necessary insurance policy to many East Germans, a way of building a reserve of good will against the day when their own petty black market transactions or muttered insults against the regime came to light.

Funder is wrong, too, about Latin America, though oddly enough her mistake puts her on the right track. In both Cuba and revolutionary Nicaragua, the governments created watch committees on every block. In Nicaragua they were called Committees for the Defense of Sandinismo; in Cuba, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. They encouraged neighbors to engage in "revolutionary vigilance"–that is, to rat out one another for slaughtering an unauthorized pig or fondling an unauthorized sex organ, for changing money on the black market or smoking a joint, for having strangers in the house or coming home late, or anything else that seemed suspicious or contrary to the regime's moral and political orthodoxies. Originally the committees had some sway over rations in the chronically short-of-supply countries, but even when their economies approached brain death and rationing broke down, there were no shortages of squealers, for precisely the reasons Funder listed–the bong buzz that some people get out of sticking it to a neighbor.

That, more than any fundamental principles of Marxism, may have been the real danger of communism. Anytime you create a massive state apparatus capable of repression–no matter how supposedly enlightened the intent–it will fall into the hands of bullies and busybodies. By the time East Germany was created in 1945, nobody could possibly have believed that Marxist economics was going to rescue the world's poor from predatory capitalism. Three decades of squalid poverty and famine in the Soviet Union had busted that idea to pieces. But Communist political theory was still a splendid excuse to peek inside your neighbor's window and tattle about what you saw.

Even if Funder occasionally colors a bit outside the lines, she gets the basic picture. It would be hard to find a more clear-eyed and contemptuous portrait of communism in action, and her rage at the tormenters of people like Miriam Weber and Frau Paul is palpable. So is her disgust for ostalgie, the absurd and obscene sentimentalization of East Germany that goes on at acutely hip parties where an old ID card is the price of admission and everybody calls each other "comrade."

Funder approvingly quotes Weber (who these days works at a radio station and is trying to pry open the records of her husband's death) on this "crazy nostalgia" for a pastel-colored East Germany, "a harmless welfare state that looked after people's needs." Adds Weber: "Most of the people at these parties are too young to remember anyway. They are just looking for something to yearn for."

That is as succinct and accurate a summary as could possibly be written of After the Wall, Jana Hensel's idiotic ode to her imaginary youth. Only 13 when the Wall fell, she recalls life in the East as "a fairy-tale time" that she'd like to revisit. "I'd like to retrace where we come from," she writes, "to rediscover lost memories and forgotten experiences." She's referring not to examining the memory of Stalinism to avoid its recurrence but to the dashing red scarf of the Young Pioneers and Manne Murmelauge, the freckle-faced mascot of a Communist kiddie magazine who gave tips on holding better bake sales for the Sandinistas.

We all make mistakes at 13, and I've got the Cowsills records to prove it. The problem is that Hensel's judgment hasn't improved since then. Her primary concerns in the decade after the Wall fell were how to dress like a West German girl ("Western women displayed a clear sense of ease when dealing with brand-name fashions") and her hick parents, who tragically enjoyed having actual consumer goods to shop for at Christmas. This last is the stuff of epic anguish–there's an entire chapter titled "On Our Battles With Bad Taste." (Coming from a woman who admits her favorite meal is fried baloney and macaroni, the irony is unspeakable.) Even now, Hensel says, she and her friends vote for the Democratic Socialist Party–the reconstituted Communists –because the party spokesman is "so amusing."

When the Wall fell, there was widespread fear in Europe of what a reunified Germany, which launched two world wars in barely a quarter century, might have on its mind. My guess, guys, is that you can skip a generation before starting to worry. Hensel and her friends are too busy trying to build an ideology around Lee Press-On Nails to cast hungry eyes on the Sudetenland.?