The Magazine

Big Bruder Watching

The East German brand of tyranny

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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The Firm

Big Bruder Watching

Ulrich Mühe in ‘The Lives of Others’ (2006)

Hagen Keller / Sony Pictures Classics

The Inside Story of the Stasi

by Gary Bruce

Oxford, 264 pp., $34.95


Stalin’s observation that the death of one man is a tragedy but the death of a million is a statistic helps explain why some of the finest portraits of 20th-century totalitarianism have been miniatures. Ivan Denisovich’s “day without a dark cloud” and the hunt for the Jewish schoolboys in Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants illuminate horrors that stretch far beyond one outpost of the Gulag or a stagnant Vichy town. The decision by the Canadian historian Gary Bruce to focus his new history of the East German secret police, the Stasi (Staatssicherheit), on Perleberg and Gransee, two out-of-the-way districts in communism’s distaff Germany, might have promised something of the same. But that’s not what his book delivers.

Instead, Bruce takes advantage of the fact that an unusually high proportion of the Stasi archives were left untouched in the backwaters that are his setting to produce a meticulous, grassroots examination of (to quote Timothy Garton Ash) “the quieter corruption of [East Germany’s] mature totalitarianism.” Supplemented by a series of interviews both with former secret policemen and those they watched over, The Firm is well done, even if Bruce’s approach has meant that the grand guignol of the Stasi’s formative years is passed over too lightly for his book to be viewed as a truly comprehensive analysis of that organization’s malignant DNA. The worst aspects of the later, more discreetly brutal, decades also escape the scrutiny they deserve. There’s little on the fates of those “the firm” (the Stasi’s smug nickname for itself) considered its most serious opponents. Their cases would have been handled by (and usually in) East Berlin.

This matters. East Germany’s past remains poorly known outside its former borders and, judging by the perverse phenomenon of Ostalgie, even within them. In making Au revoir les enfants, Malle could rely on his audience’s familiarity with the film’s backstory of war, occupation, and Holocaust. Bruce is in no position to make similar assumptions. Nonspecialists would thus do better to turn elsewhere, perhaps to Anne McElvoy’s The Saddled Cow (1992), a perceptive overview of East German history written by a journalist who witnessed its final years, or for a somewhat later examination of still raw memories, Anna Funder’s haunting Stasiland (2003):

Frau Paul started opening doors. First a compartment so small a person could only stand. It was designed to be filled with icy water up to the neck. There were sixty-eight of these, she told me. Then 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 rubber. Frau Paul was held nearby.

You won’t find much of that in The Firm. Also missing are the Stasi’s international activities, from espionage to the support of terrorism, dirty work that took place far from the dull towns in which Bruce’s narrative unfolds. Equally, there are few traces of the dangerous dance between regime and intelligentsia that forms the subtext of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning The Lives of Others (2006). The prominent playwright who is that movie’s principal protagonist bears scant resemblance to Bruce’s
bullied provincials.

Where The Firm comes into its own, however, is as a demonstration of the remarkable reach of East Germany’s surveillance state. The Stasi employed 91,000 full-time officers at the time the regime fell. In the prewar Reich, a country with a population well over three times as large, the Gestapo made do with 7,000. To be sure, the Nazis enjoyed greater popular support than their Communist successors, but statistics from other Warsaw Pact countries suggest that this cannot be the sole explanation for the difference. As Bruce notes, “The secret services of .  .  . Czechoslovakia (1:867) or Poland (1:1,574) did not even come close to the ratio in East Germany of one full-time secret police officer for every 180 East German citizens.”

We are left to guess why. Fear of the vanquished fascist enemy? Maybe. Stereotypically Teutonic thoroughness? Probably. The dangerous, reproachful proximity of the free, increasingly prosperous, Germany next door? Almost certainly.

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