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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.

Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin is the author of Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras and (with Ana Rodriguez) Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison. He is a columnist at the Miami Herald.

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