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.

The snooping didn’t stop with the 91,000. In 1989, the Stasi had 173,000 informants on its books. They were given the generic, now reviled, name of unofficial coworker (IM​—​Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter) but were then subclassified according to a distinctively totalitarian taxonomy. This included Secret Lead Informants (GHI), and below them, trusty Full-time Unofficial Coworkers (HIM), and below them, lowly Societal Coworkers for Security (GMS), and then, forming part of the base of this unlovely pyramid, Sporadic Contact Persons (KP) and Collaborative Operational Partners (POZW). In 1988, there was one informant for roughly every 76 preretirement adults in sleepy Perleberg District, a total that Bruce contrasts with one snitch for every 16,800 people in the Ukrainian regional hub of Kharkov at the depths of Stalinist terror.

The Gestapo, of course, benefited from the willingness (for varied reasons) of so many Germans to volunteer information on their neighbors to authorities for whom they had some sympathy. As “the sword and shield” (naturally the iconography was borrowed from the Soviet secret police) of a regime profoundly disliked for most of its existence, the Stasi had to be more proactive. Bruce shows how it recruited (predictably, a mixture of carrot and stick) and why. One Kurt Wollschläger was chosen because of the need to ferret out grumblers at the local river port. That Wollschläger was separated from his wife was, the Stasi (prudish when it came to behavior within its own ranks) reckoned, a plus: He had more time to hang around in bars. That he was a former Nazi was no problem.

Informants would report regularly to their handlers, a snippet here, an observation there, sometimes harmless, sometimes not, and sometimes, perhaps most characteristically, as a piece in a complex composite portrait being assembled of an individual that the regime was beginning to distrust. If it looked as if those suspicions might have been justified​—​the bar was low: no laws needed to have been broken​—​the screws would tighten, relentlessly, remorselessly, but not necessarily attributably. There was not always a warning chat. A job would be suddenly lost; new employment would be hard to find. A child would not win that university place. Ugly gossip might be circulated. The phone would ring at night, with only silence at the other end​—​a perfect expression of this shadowy, subtle, and devastating form of repression.

There was a word for this: Zersetzen (“to undermine” or “to break down”). For outright dissidents, for those “preparing to flee the Republic” or those whose mutters of discontent had tipped over into something more insistent, there was prison (and, on occasion, the bullet). The more fortunate won exile, or had exile forced upon them. For the law-abiding who never crossed such lines, there was always the reality or the risk of Zersetzen, a vital element in a system of understated control that Bruce describes as hovering “ominously in the distance, always threatening, always unsettling, a constant potential threat.” And it worked. The German Democratic Republic was, almost until the end, one of Moscow’s better-behaved satellites.

Coerced good behavior should not be confused with enthusiasm. An appropriately skeptical Bruce reports on reprehensible efforts by some historians to strip that ill-mannered adjective “totalitarian” from the regime that collapsed with the Wall: “Welfare dictatorship .  .  . post-totalitarian bureaucratic dictatorship .  .  . thoroughly ruled society .  .  . forced through society” and, thanks to its colossal number of informants, “participatory dictatorship” are amongst the euphemisms that have slithered into view. We can only speculate at what motivates such nonsense: Is it the persistent academic desire to minimize the crimes of the left, or is it an unwillingness to come to terms with the full implications of
past horrors?

Such poisons have a way of seeping out from university campuses, but in the case of the former East Germany, their potency is reinforced by the natural tendency of its onetime citizens to allow past moments of personal happiness to cast a favorable glow over the republic in which they once endured: “Oh, it wasn’t all bad, you know.” Bruce handles this difficult topic with considerable subtlety before concluding that one can no more put a boundary between everyday life in the fallen republic and the ever-present awareness of the Stasi’s presence than “one can encircle a scent in a room.”

The Stasi’s stink not only lingers where it once did (and sometimes very strongly) but has also been allowed to waft into the former West Germany. The Left party, a grouping formed by the merger of western leftists with the “reformed” heirs to East Germany’s old governing party, took some 12 percent of the vote in the united Germany’s 2009 elections. Reformed? Well, when Joachim Gauck, a former dissident and for 10 years the first federal commissioner for the Stasi archives, addressed the parliament in Saxony, a territory that was once part of East Germany, the event was boycotted by all Left party parliamentarians.

Andrew Stuttaford, who writes frequently about cultural and political issues, works in the international financial markets.

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