Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Secrets of the Stasi

My trip round Germany took me briefly to Leipzig, another of those places I'd like to have been to before but it's not been possible until now. I stopped off briefly on the way back from nearby Halle where I'd been to meet the East German double Olympic marathon gold medallist Waldemar Cierpinski (at this point all East Germans in the room shout: "Name your children Waldi!" as the TV commentator did when Cierpinski won his second straight gold in Moscow).

Leipzig is a lovely place on a sunny afternoon, full of upmarket shops and great buildings, but it's significant in German history because it was here that the revolution began which led to the collapse of the DDR, the East German communist state. This building (left) is called the Runde Ecke, and not too long ago you might disappear into here never to emerge again.
It's where the Stasi, the East German secret police were based, and this was the focus of the demonstrations in the 1990s as East Germans demanded their freedom from the restrictions, surveillance and misery of life dictated by Comrade Honecker and his goons.

Nowadays it's a museum, and though the exhibits are labelled mainly in German, it's not hard to get the message. Much of the Runde Ecke has been left as it was when the public of Leipzig stormed it.

For example, files - the Stasi's lifeblood: files on citizens, being followed, having their phones tapped, being watched, taped, denounced by snitches.

According to Anna Funder, whose book Stasiland tells of her journey investigating stories of victims of this profoundly weird and unfair society (and is sold in the Runde Ecke) there were more files held on German citizens in the 40 years of the Deutsche Democratik Republic than were generated since the Middle Ages.

One of Anna's stories is about a girl who tried to flee East Germany aged 16 after pasting posters calling for freedom in her home town, then she's held in cells and followed everywhere, then her boyfriend winds up dead after being pulled in by the Stasi, and she can't get the truth about how he died, and so on.. a modern day Kafka-esque nightmare.

The older I get, the more impatient I get about things like this. What right do these people have to behave with such contempt for their fellow human? And why does it keep happening?

And what annoys me even more is the fact that the Stasi's methods seem so .. amateurish. Sure, they were an all-powerful terror organisation with the power of life and death over vast swathes of society but when you see how they operated at first hand it's almost laughable .. for example, the disguises they would adopt to carry out their snooping. Look at this picture (right): I mean, who's he fooling? He'd fit straight in at a demo, wouldn't he?

Anna Funder makes a chilling if ironic point. She says the pro-democracy protestors of 1990 had been so profoundly infiltrated by Stasi stooges that when they had a meeting to vote on whether to scrap the Stasi if their revolution was successful, the secret agents were forced to vote for their own abolition or risk being exposed. I bet the true freedom-seekers had a long hard laugh about that down the pub later, when they'd given these donkeys the slip.

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