Sometimes a mistake can be so big that it is invisible to you. This is the kind of mistake that might underpin a project, like Stasiland. Or it might be the kind that underpins a life, like those of the Stasi men.
My great mistake was to imagine that the stories I was finding – Miriam’s, Julia’s, Frau Paul’s and Klaus Renft’s – would be well received by Germans. I knew how some of the brave resisters to the Hitler regime had been honoured. I thought of the famous brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, executed for distributing anti-Hitler leaflets in 1943. The Scholl siblings are remembered with plaques and prizes, street and school names throughout Germany. I thought German people might be proud of the heroes among so-called ‘ordinary’ people I had found, who so bravely resisted this next dictatorship on German soil. Instead, I found a reaction as divided as the country itself: between West and East Germans and, within the former GDR, between those who had supported the regime, those who had resisted and, most unexpectedly, a large inscrutable group of quiet folk or fellow-travellers in between.
When I encountered Miriam, Julia, Frau Paul and Klaus Renft, what they told me was deeply thrilling. Not only in the sense of the bravery of climbing the Berlin Wall or digging an underground tunnel or defying a governmental declaration that you ‘no longer exist’. The thrill was more fundamental. I felt I was witnessing, alive and breathing and drinking coffee opposite me, heroic human decency. During the GDR regime these four people had said, essentially, ‘I don’t care what you do to me, I will not betray those around me. Because if I do, I will no longer recognize myself as a moral being.’ They did this in one of the most savage surveillance regimes ever known, a regime structured as a pyramid of fear, to be climbed by serial betrayal. Twenty years later I can see that these encounters have been one of the greatest privileges of my life.
It might have started to dawn on me that Germans were not reading the book as a celebration of heroism when it was rejected by twenty-two German publishers. But no, it didn’t. I believe I felt, with beginner’s luxury, that I hadn’t had my share of rejection and probably had it coming. The twenty-third publisher, a former East German house, was kind enough to give a reason. They wrote that ‘in the current political climate’ they could not see their way to publishing Stasiland. That was in 2002. Was it that the ex-Stasi were generally ascendant in politics and public life? Were they running the publishing house? Or was it more general – that stories about inhumanity and resistance to it were unwelcome in a society trying to knit itself back together? People were being urged to ‘get along’ and this could only happen if the crimes of the ex-Stasi went largely unpunished, their victims scantily recompensed and resistance heroes not honoured. I had no way of knowing. When the book was bought by a small West German publisher I was pleased.
Something might possibly have dawned on me when the publicist who was to accompany me on the ten-city book tour of Germany in 2004 emailed saying, ‘wear a flak jacket.’ I didn’t know the German word for flak jacket, and had to look it up. But I was in the hormonally relaxed first trimester of my second pregnancy and though that is no excuse, I do not remember being apprehensive. I remained awed by the courage of those in the book and thought everyone else would be too.
Stasiland was launched in the ballroom of the former Stasi Offices in Leipzig, the Runden Ecke. My publisher, a West German woman in a fancy fur coat, got up on stage to make her speech. I waited in the wings. By this time I did, finally, have a few butterflies. As an outsider I felt that I could hardly be telling new stories to the people here, who had lived them. But when I looked at the publisher as she gripped the podium I saw that her knees, visible between the fur coat and the top of her boots, were shaking. I glanced down to see what she was looking at. The first two rows of seats were filled with ex-Stasi (or perhaps ex-Party) men. I know this because they were in the ex-Stasi (or ex-Party) uniform, which consists of polyester trousers with a nice firm crease, a bomber jacket and a significant amount of Brylcreem. They were sitting in their former ballroom, legs open, arms crossed, looking daggers at us.
When she came to the end of her speech, the publisher was clearly relieved. ‘And after all,’ she said, closing her notes, ‘what unites us here today, Easterners and Westerners, is what we, as Germans, have in common. And what we have in common is: betrayal.’
The pit fell out of my stomach.
I walked to the podium. When I looked down, the Stasi men were whispering to one another but their eyes were fixed on me, squinted with scorn. As I opened my book to read they uncrossed their arms, reached into their bomber jackets and took out – notebooks. And then, as I spoke, they started scratching notes. At which point my butterflies disappeared, replaced with something steelier.
What file could they possibly keep on me now, and what could they do with it? I saw in their faces that frightening people had its pleasures, and I did not want to give them any more of those. Also, I had my own notes on them, right there in front of me.
After the reading, the floor was opened for questions. No one spoke. The Stasi scraped their chairs back and walked out down the middle aisle, their steps audible on the faux parquetry. Only then – and this happened in every former East German city on my tour – only once these men were gone, would an ordinary person stand up and speak. In Leipzig that evening it was a woman. ‘I was a political prisoner,’ she said, ‘my son also. It happened to so many. Why does no one, now, tell these stories?’ I felt her answer had just fled the premises.
I don’t know what those men did with their notes. But I do know what they – or others like them – did to mine. One day back in Sydney I was working in my attic when I received an email. It said that a group of ex-Stasi, (formerly Das Insiderkomitee, now renamed, with zero irony, The Society for Civil Liberties and the Protection of Man – known in Germany by its acronym GBM) was suing my German publisher. The GBM objected to a paragraph in the book in which I outlined allegations already on the public record about what groups of ex-Stasi had allegedly done to torment former dissidents after the fall of the Wall, into the 1990s, such as cutting their brake leads to reverse engineer accidents, detaining their children after school, sending their wives unwanted pornography. So now, they were coming for me. I decided I needed a cup of tea.
I went downstairs and turned the tap. No water came out. And in that millisecond I had a flash of paranoia no less real for being self-aggrandizing: They have extended their dark net of chicanery across the globe, and they will thirst me out.
Of course, it was council work in the street, and I’d missed the notice. In the end, the publisher bent to their demands. I felt I’d been party, in a mild way, to some of the tactics ex-Stasi use so they can insist upon an airbrushed reputation they do not deserve to have and continue their careers in business, media, the law and politics, among other things. I changed publisher. In the latest German edition I asked for the paragraph to be reinstated, but blacked out, with a footnote attributing the redaction to the litigious ex-Stasi group. In this way, German readers can see the reach of the regime well beyond its apparent demise. If this is how they threaten me, safe on the other side of the globe, how must it feel to speak out as a former victim/hero in Germany?
On that German book tour I was invited onto Johannes B. Kerner’s TV talk show, if Miriam Weber would come on too. At our first meeting in 1997, ‘Miriam’ had said she didn’t care if I used her real name or not. I gave her a pseudonym because I felt that neither of us could gauge how comfortable, or how safe it would be for her to have her story widely known when the book came out. In 2004 Miriam was working at one of the public broadcasters. Her immediate boss was a former Stasi informer, and a more senior boss had been high up in the GDR’s Ministry of the Interior. They knew Miriam had been a political prisoner and disliked her for it. They disliked too, that she sometimes objected to the news directors’ relegating to the end of the bulletin an item showing the GDR or the Stasi in a bad light, or not broadcasting such pieces at all. She objected to what she saw as strenuous efforts, in the public broadcaster, to show the GDR as a harmless, safe welfare state with high ideals; she objected to the rampant Ostalgie, the Verharmlosung (rendering harmless), and the Schönreden (whitewashing). Miriam had spent almost her whole life battling the Stasi, and they were still there. She was tired, on a short-term contract and vulnerable. It would simply have made her working life too difficult to publicly ‘out’ herself. She decided not to come on TV.
The book tour continued, with more and less predictable results. Stasiland received an almost comically vicious review from a former East German journalist, which was to be expected, as ‘journalists’ in a dictatorship are by necessity spokespeople for the regime. The reviews from more liberal papers or those closer to the citizens’ rights movement were laudatory – also as expected. But the response of the mass in the middle was harder to read. It was dawning on me that the broad former East German public didn’t share my awe at the heroes in the book. I sensed that Stasiland sat on a wound; that the time was too raw for it. It wasn’t until I met the director Fred Breinersdorfer after a screening in Sydney of his film Sophie Scholl – The Final Days that I began to make sense of this. Fred mentioned that after the war Hans and Sophie Scholl’s parents had been ostracized by the others in their village as ‘traitors’. I remember standing in the foyer of the cinema, shocked to the bone, that these national heroes’ parents had been treated this way. Fred told me that the Scholl siblings’ ‘rehabilitation’ or fame – the plaques and street names – did not happen for at least twenty years; it took until the late 1960s for resistance to Hitler to be honoured.
After a regime’s fall, is there an immediate period of public amnesia? A twenty-something-year black hole of continuing loyalty to the fallen regime on the one side, and trauma on the other? In the nearly thirty years since the fall of the Wall, East German resisters have received little honour, fame or recompense. Finally, I understood that the stories in Stasiland raise an uncomfortable question for many people: If this schoolgirl, this housewife, this alcoholic rock singer spoke up, why didn’t I? What I had yet to learn was that that we like our heroes attenuated in time so they don’t show us up. This was my great mistake, but I hope time might unmake it.
Frau Paul had a lot of trouble getting compensation and has died. Klaus has died. Miriam has a small reparations payment and lives in very straightened circumstances. It is a horrible irony of history that justice – honour and compensation – may only come when the people to whom it is owed are old, dead.
In West Germany, I am often asked a painful question about the Stasi regime, ‘What do you think it says about us Germans?’ This question contains a sense of tragic national unease, but also the brave habit of mind, in the west, to ask it.
But if your interest, like mine, is in how ordinary people can recognize their circumstances as outrageous and behave decently, even heroically, then you might wish to see justice done in their lifetime. Otherwise the message to the next generation is that to listen to conscience and act on it is to court destruction in one regime, and ignominy in the next.
In 2016, when the Folio Society in London offered to make an illustrated edition of Stasiland I approached Miriam, who is a gifted photographer. I remembered the pictures she showed me of herself and Charlie that she kept loose in an old suitcase. I wondered whether she might offer those. And I asked permission to print Charlie’s poem, in his own handwriting.
While I waited for her to get back to me, I pulled out eleven archive boxes of my own old material from storage. Some of it was fifteen years old, some of it almost twenty.
I rummaged through the Stasiland boxes gingerly, pulling out notebooks, analogue and digital tapes, photographs, slides and negatives. So long as it was material for Stasiland I was fine. But interspersed with it were more personal pictures, with cards and letters from people who are gone from my life. To go through one’s past like this is to find photographic evidence of the road not taken, the friend not kept, time tragically wasted. It is, possibly, to unravel the delicate narrative of your self, stitched together over time, story by story. Would I fall into the gulf between that young woman and myself now, at nearly 50? Perhaps like the Stasi men, I might have to steel myself to believe in the rightness of my choices in the face of contradictory facts, long-buried in boxes. And then of course there were the photos themselves, which were not beautiful at all.
When I asked Miriam to open that suitcase I knew it would be almost unimaginably painful. And yet I asked. Stasiland hinges on a question: is it better to remember or to forget? For an individual, I do not know. Personally, I am inclined towards memory – but then I didn’t have a state try to break me. In the end, it proved too difficult to include Miriam’s photos in that book.
Which is why we are left with my pictures, taken hastily as an aide to memory while writing. Please think of them only as the scrappy visual notes they are. The real thing is in a poor and obscure hero’s flat outside of Leipzig, still in a case.
A version of this piece was originally published by The Folio Society.