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Friday, July 25, 2014

Stasiland and more

Six years ago, I met a German girl, who is now a very dear friend of mine. She talked about a time and place I hardly knew. She spoke of a country that is not there any more - the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany, the Communist state which ceased to exist in 1990.

My friend, who was about six years old at that time, told me how her family had to queue up outside a ration shop for hours to get a couple of oranges and some milk. Her father worked at an East German Air Force base somewhere near the border with Poland. He would flag the planes for take-off.

When the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the GDR united after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, her father lost his job. Her parents' degrees and qualifications were not recognised by the new German government (which had mainly representatives from the former West Germany). Her father, because he was a part of the 'military', would not be able to work in any kind of private or government service again. Her mother was lucky. She could study, get some training and find some work. Her father opened a small shop. “But he is not himself. All he wanted to do was to be near fighter aircraft,” she told me.

In 2010, I visited the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (House of the History of the Federal Republic of Germany) in Bonn. The museum showcased the history of the development of West Germany since 1945 and then united Germany post-1990. It also, in a typically NATO way, boasted that the West Germans were looked after and cared for much better than the East Germans. There were images of desperate East Germans seeking handouts from the state during the Cold War era while West Germans could choose from tens of different kinds of canned soups in retail stores.

After the Second World War, the victors (USA, UK and the Soviet Union) decided to divide and distribute the vanquished Germany. The Nazis were still a threat and Germany's military capacity had to be completely neutralised before it could be rebuilt responsibly. The West went to USA and UK. The East was administered by USSR, first directly and then remote-controlled like the rest of the Soviet bloc. On both sides, former Nazis, Nazi informers, Nazi-sympathisers, anti-Semites and those remotely connected to the Nazi regime were tried and convicted. In order to completely rout the threat, the governments on both sides gave incentives to people to come forward and inform about former Nazis.

The East went a step further. It created the Stasi, the East German Ministry of State Security. “The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasised through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub... In its forty years, 'The Firm' generated the equivalent of all records in German history since the middle ages. Laid out upright and end to end, the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen and women would form a line 180 kilometres long,” writes Anna Funder, an Australian journalist, in her brilliant, award-winning book, Stasiland.

Little about GDR is discussed in present-day Germany. Most people would like to forget that there existed two nations 24 years ago. The Wall in Berlin is broken and graffitied, its chunks being sold as souvenirs worldwide. But the people who lived east of the Wall, just a few kilometres apart from their fellow-Germans on the west, have stories that continue to haunt them. The Wall was built to keep them there. Between 1945-1961, thousands of East Germans had managed to make their way into West Germany, some even bringing back West German, American and British goods to be sold in the East for huge profits. Of course, the Communist regime in the East had a problem. What would become of a state without enough people to govern?

The Berlin Wall

Funder traces some of the people from ex-GDR who came under the scrutiny of the Stasi. Some were convicted for their opinions against the state, others blacklisted in their teens that prevented them from getting jobs. Some were penalised for having romantic relationships with Westerners, others for helping desperate East Germans to escape into West Germany through tunnels dug under the Wall. The Stasi made examples of children, enemies of friends. When GDR collapsed, the ex-Stasi officers and informers simply changed their old identities and took up new jobs. They had constituted the bulk of the educated middle-income group of professionals in the old state.

During my 2010 trip to Germany, I had attended a public exhibition in Cologne which displayed photographs of Jews who were killed in Auschwitz. Some pictures were missing. Only the names and ages were mentioned. In any other city in any other country, a guide would have explained the circumstances and people in the pictures, there would have been a bit of discussion among visitors and verbal expressions of horror. In Cologne, that evening there was silence. Conversations in Germany did not flow as easily as the beer. I walked out of the exhibition with the burden of queries that I wanted to ask those silent German visitors but was unable to do so because of the awkwardness it brought about. I was soon confronted with the prospect of climbing the tower of the magnificent Cologne Cathedral (K├Âlner Dom), which, at a point in history was the tallest structure in the world. Panting and gasping, I reached the top to take in the breathtaking view of the city and the “Steve was here” graffiti etched on the Dom's ancient walls. I forgot my questions. Like Germany, I had left one history behind and embraced another.

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