It always used to be really good fun in left-wing circles to sit around speculating about who, come the revolution, should be among the first to be put up against the wall and shot. The people I talked about yesterday would appear at first glance to make ideal candidates, but I think it’s generally better to go straight for the top guys, even if their power is only symbolic. The Bolsheviks knew it was essential to get their hands on the Romanovs in order to make their revolution complete, and I’m sure dictators and despots all over the world are haunted by the fate of Ceucescu in Romania – they did actually put him up against the wall and shoot him, and his wife, and furthermore they showed it on TV, which must have come as a bit of a shock to Gil-Scot Heron.
Other former Eastern Bloc leaders weren’t quite so unfortunate. East German President Erich Honecker was released from prison with cancer in 1992, and subsequently died in Chile two years later. Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi, the hated GDR secret service, was also released from prison on the grounds of ill-health, and still lives quietly in Berlin.
The Stasi was allegedly even more fearsome than the KGB. In Stasiland – Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, the Australian writer Anna Funder has this to say:
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. Obsessed with detail, the Stasi entirely failed to predict the end of Communism, and with it the end of the country. Between 1989 and 1990 it was turned inside out: Stalinist spy unit one day, museum the next. 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.
No surprise then, that when the regime’s days were up in 1989, it was the Stasi offices that were targeted by the demonstrators all over the country, beginning in Leipzig, the second biggest city:
In early October, Leipzig was at a flashpoint. Petrol-station attendants were refusing to refill police vehicles; the children of servicemen were being barred from crèches. Those who worked in the centre of town near the Nikolaikirche were sent home early. Hospitals called for more blood. People made their wills and said things they wanted their children to remember, before going out to demonstrations. There were rumours of tanks and helicopters and water cannon coming, but then so were the postcards from friends who had already reached the west. The people went on to the streets.
Honecker ordered that the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in Leipzig were to be ‘nipped in the bud’. ‘Nothing’, he said, ‘can hinder the progress of socialism.’ On 8 October Mielke began to activate the plans for ‘Day X’, sending out orders to the local Stasi branches to open their envelopes (containing the lists of the people in their area to be arrested). But things were already too far gone. Instead of incarcerating the people, the Stasi, hiding in their buildings, locked themselves up. In the regional offices they had 60,000 pistols, more than 30,000 machine guns, hand grenades, sharpshooter’s rifles, anti-tank guns, and tear gas. Fears of lynching ran high. Leipzig police were shown photographs of a Chinese policeman immolated by the mob in Tiananmen Square and told, ‘It’s you or them.’ But they were also ordered not to shoot or use violence unless it was used against them.
On 7 October 1989 the GDR celebrated its forty years of existence with lavish parades in Berlin. There was a sea of red flags, a torchlight procession, and tanks. The old men on the podium wore light-grey suits studded with medals. Mikhail Gorbachev stood next to Honecker, but he looked uncomfortable among the much older Germans. He had come to tell them it was over, to convince the leadership to adopt his reformist policies. He had spoken openly about the danger of not ‘responding to reality’. He pointedly told the Politbüro that ‘life punishes those who come too late’. Honecker and Mielke ignored him, just as they ignored the crowds when they chanted, ‘Gorby, help us! Gorby, help us!’
In Leipzig the extraordinary courage of the people didn’t waver, and it didn’t break out into anything else. On 9 October 70,000 protestors went out in the dark, in big coats and carrying candles. They stood outside the local Stasi headquarters with their demands. ‘Reveal the Stasi informers!’ ‘We are not Rowdies – We are the people!’ and the constant, constant call of ‘No Violence!’ From that night on the demonstrations grew, footage of them was smuggled to the west and Leipzig came to be known as ‘the City of Heroes’.
There were now protests outside Stasi offices all over the country. But even in the smallest towns, the Stasi men in them continued their meticulous work, faithfully sending back to Berlin reports of the demands of the crowds outside: ‘Stasi to the factories’ (heard at Zeulenroda), ‘We earn your money!’ (from Schmalkalden) and the prescient ‘Your days are numbered!’ (Bad Salzungen). In Leipzig the demonstrators had started to shout, ‘Occupy the Stasi Building Now!’ and ‘We’re staying here!’.
In summer 2003 I went to the Stasi headquarters in Berlin, which is now the Stasi museum. A lot of the offices have been preserved exactly as they were on the last ever working day – the calenders on the wall all display a date some day early in 1990. Despite the relatively short period of time that has passed, it’s a very eerie place. I have never been to Pompei, but I’d imagine that it feels not too dissimilar. Within a very short few months following what the Germans call ‘die Wende’, the turning point at which it was clear that the regime was finished, the entire state security system was dismantled and everybody went home and tried to pretend that none of it had ever existed. The most striking parts of the exhibition for me, in fact, weren’t the empty offices or the displays of the astonishing range of spying equipment they used, but the posters advertising youth events, the front pages of newspapers, the clips from TV shows and the displays of the products that (sometimes) filled the shelves of East German supermarkets. These were the mundane events and items of everyday life, and after 1989 they were gone. It was as if an earthquake had suddenly swept away an entire civilisation.
The suddenness of the changes that took place is captured in the film Goodbye, Lenin!, from 2002. It is a retelling of the story of Rip Van Winkle – on the eve of the revolution, the mother of the main character collapses into a coma, and when she wakes up several weeks later the doctor warns her family that the slightest shock could kill her. Her family go to all sorts of lengths to protect her from the truth, searching all over town for fast-disappearing products from the fast-disappearing GDR, and even filming pretend news broadcasts showing Westerners flooding over the border into East Germany in search of the good life.
The film was hugely popular in Germany, particularly in the still much poorer east, where over the last few years there has been a popular wave of ‘Ostalgie’, or nostalgia for all those everyday items and events that disappeared so suddenly – the Trabants, the music, the films, and the TV personalities and programmes which occupied the screen every night throughout the GDR years, and then just vanished.
It’s a bittersweet nostalgia of course – very, very few people would want to go back. In the book Anna Funder talks to a friend about her memories of East German TV:
‘The school was strict,’ she says. ‘There were things about it that were seriously traumatic, such as what we used to call ‘TV-torture”.
By the 1980s most people in East Germany watched western television, especially the news bulletins. No-one watched the GDR news, despite the fact that it screened daily on both state-run television stations, in a long and a short version. Julia smiles. ‘At the school every night without fail we were sat down and made to watch ‘Aktuelle Kamera’ in the long version. It was hell.’
The news program was so long because when Erich Honecker was mentioned, he was announced with every single one of his titular functions. Julia sits up straight with her hands on the table and puts on a media voice. In the flickering light and with her flickering hair she is a newsreader from outer space, coming through static: ‘Comrade Erich Honecker, Secretary-General of the Socialist Unity Party of the German Democratic Republic, First Secretary of the Central Comittee, Chairman of the State Council and of the National Defence Council, leader of the Fighing Groups bladibla-‘
We laugh and she pushes back onto two legs of the chair. She is a relaxed and confident mimic. ‘And then the actual news item that came after all that would be null!’ She straightens up again. ‘ – today visited the steelworks such and such and spoke with the workers about the 1984 Plan targets which they have over-over-over-achieved by so and so per cent’ or, ‘today opened the umpteenth apartment built in the new district of Marzhan’ or, ‘congratulated the collective farm of Hicksville this morning for their extraordinary harvest results, an increase of so-and-so-many-fold on previous years.’
We are laughing and laughing under the strobing light. ‘And the thing about it was,’ she slaps the table with her fine white hand, ‘it never told us anything that happened in the world!’ She shakes her head at the wordiness of no-news.
Worse though than the no-news, was the anti-news. The students also had to watch ‘Der Schwarze Kanal’ (The Black Channel), with Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. I have heard about this man, the human antidote to the pernicious influence of western television. ‘At home,’ Julia says, ‘everyone called him ‘Karl-Eduard von Schni-‘ because that was how long it took before one of us could jump up and change the channel.’
Von Schnitzler’s job was to show extracts from western television broadcast into the GDR – anything from news items to game shows to ‘Dallas’ – and rip it to shreds. ‘That man radiated so much nastiness it just wasn’t credible. You’d come away feeling sullied, as if you’d spent half an hour atrociously badmouthing someone.’ Julia crosses her arms.’I mean you might have your doubts about the west – I sure did – but we also felt that our own country was feeding us lies and that our futures depended on seeming to agree with it all.’
In the book the author tracks down and interviews both the victims of the Stasi and a lot of the people who worked for it, attempting to trace the real story of the GDR through the stories of ordinary men and women, since she contends that a veil of embarrased silence descended over the whole subject when Germany was united in 1990. And one of the people she manages to track down is the presenter of ‘Die Schwarze Kanal’, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler.
It’s a fascinating and often hilarious conversation, and I think it’s worth posting most of it here because it tells us a lot about the mentality about the people at the top of secretive totalitarian regimes, as well as showing how an insider rationalises the failure of a soviet-based centralised planned economic and social system. I’m not going to post the whole chapter, partly because it’s too long, partly because I don’t want to get told to take it down, but mainly because I hate typing and the space bar onmy keyboard doesn’talways work properly.
By the way, if anyone is reading this looking for articles on China and wondering what the point of all this is, I can assure you that there is one, I’m just making my way towards it very slowly. Here goes:
‘The Black Channel’ aired until the very end in October 1989. ‘How did you start it? Was it your idea or were you given the task?’
‘It was my idea,’ he says. ‘I once saw the western politicians on the television news sprouting filthy lies about the GDR and before the program was even over I had prepared a script for broadcast! I socked it right back to them. Then the question was: how often? I insisted on once a week. Today-‘ – he leans towards me, furious – ‘Today I could make one every…single…day!’ This is a tantrum designed to frighten me. ‘That’s how disgusting this, this shitbox television is!’ He points with his stick at the set in the room.
All right, I think, we’ll go in his direction. ‘What angers you most about the television today?’
‘Nothing ‘angers’ me!’ he says. He is incandescent with rage. Out of the corner of my eye I see Frau von Schnitzler raise her head.’That’s why I’m a Communist! So nothing can anger me!’ Then suddenly he’s quiet again. ‘What makes me sorry,’ he says in a withering tone, ‘is what is dished up today on that piece-of-filth television. For instance that, that idiotic program -whatsit called?’ He addresses no-one in particular, but a murmur comes from across the room.
He ignores it. ‘They are all idiots, aren’t they?’ he says to me. ‘Marta, do you have to grimace like that?’ Then, as if to himself, ‘What was the name of that program? B-Block’?
‘That one where they locked up ten people -‘
‘Ah yes,’ his wife says loudly, ‘now I know what you’re talking about. ‘Big Brozer’.’
‘Yes,’ he says, ”Big Brozer’.’
He is looking at me. ‘I think that television tyrant of yours was involved in that -‘
‘She’s Australian,’ Frau von Schnitzler corrects him, ‘not American.’
‘I know what I’m saying,’ he says.
‘Murdoch,’ I say. ‘Yes, he was Australian but now he’s American.’
‘Who cares?’ von Schnitzler counters airily. ‘He’s a global imperialist.’
I open my notebook. I want to quote him back to himself. I am apprehensive. ‘Can I read you something?’ I ask. ‘In November 1965 two easterners tried to get over the border, and one of them was shot to death. And at Christmas time that year you made a program -‘
‘Escapes were always tried on at Christmas time,’ he says. He uses the word ‘insziniert’ which means ‘staged’, as though escapes were orchestrated deliberately to make the regime look bad.
He is so offhand about it, I feel my apprehension being replaced with something more businesslike. ‘I want to read you this text from your program, and ask you if you still agree with it.’ I read from my transcription:
The politics of ‘freeing those in the Eastern Bloc’ is code for liquidating the GDR, and that means civil war, world war, nuclear war, that means ripping apart families, atomic Armageddon – that is inhumanity! Against that we have founded a state! Against that we have erected a border with strict control measures to stop what went on during the thirteen years that is was left open and abused – that is humane! That is a service to humanity!’
When I finish, he’s staring at me, chin up. ‘And your question, young lady?’
‘My question is whether today you are of the same view about about the Wall as something humane, and the killings at the border an act of peace?’
He raises his free arm, inhales and screams ‘More! Than! Ever!’ He brings his fist down.
I’m startled for an instant. Then I’m concerned that Frau von Schnitzler will stop the interview. ‘You considered it necessary?’ I ask quickly.
‘I did not ‘consider’ it necessary. It was absolutely necessary! It was an historical necessity. It was the most useful construction in all of German history! In European history!’
‘Because it prevented imperialism from contaminating the east. It walled it in.’
The only people walled-in were his own. It is as if he has followed my thinking.
‘Moreover people in the GDR were not ‘walled-in’! They could go to Hungary, they could go to Poland.They just couldn’t go to NATO countries. Because, naturally, you don’t travel around in enemy territory. It’s as simple as that.’
This is so mad that I can’t think of an answer immediately. But in the next breath he contradicts himself. It seemsto be his modus operandi to have a bet each way.
‘I do think, though, that in the last few years they should have opened it up earlier,’ he says. Then, almost ruefully, ‘The people would have come back again.’ I wonder if he can truly believe this. The eastern states are still, seven years on, losing people. He shifts in his seat. ‘Most of them, most of them would have.’
Von Schnitzler is one of the cadre whose ideas were moulded in the 1920s by the battle against the gross free market injustices of the Weimar Republic and then the outrages of fascism, and who went on to see the birth and then the death of the nation built on those ideas.He is a true believer and for him my questions only serve to demonstrate a sorry lack of faith.
‘You lived through the whole GDR, from beginning to end -‘
‘So I did, so I did.’
‘Is there anything in your opinion that could have been done better, or differently?’
‘Oh I’m sure that there are things that could have been done differently or better, but that is no longer the question to examine.’
‘I think it is,’ I say, although something stirs uncomfortably in the back of my mind. ‘There was a serious attempt to build a socialist state, and we should examine why, at the end, that state no longer exists. It’s important.’ The something reveals itself to be the memory of the westerners I’ve met also having so little interest in the GDR.
‘I noticed relatively early,’ he says, ‘that we would not be able to survive economically. And when we started to get tied up in this ridiculous GDR success propaganda – exaggerated harvest results and production levels and so on – I withdrew from that altogether and confined myself to my specialised area: the work against imperialism. Exclusively. And for that reason today I am so be-lov-ed,’ he says, heavy with sarcasm.
‘What do you mean ‘beloved’ – by whom?’ I ask.
‘That’s why I’m so beloved by all those who think imperialistically and act imperialistically and bring up their children imperialistically!’ Each time he says ‘imperialistically’ he thrusts his fist on the stick forward towards me. This man, who could turn inhumanity into humanity, faces now perhaps his greatest challenge: to turn the fact that he is hated into the fact that he is, in spite of all available evidence, right.
‘Your program was based on exposing the lies of the western media. When you noticed the false success propaganda at home, didn’t you feel a responsibilty to do the same?’
‘No. I focused in my program quite deliberately and exclusively on anti-imperialism, not on GDR propaganda.’
‘But you understand my question., Herr von Schnitzler. The success propaganda in the GDR was also lies -‘
‘It did distance the people from us, because it was in such stark contrast to the reality.’ He can switch from one view to another with frightening ease. I think it is a sign of being so accustomed to such power that the truth does not matter bacause you cannot be contradicted.
‘Why didn’t you comment then on these lies?’
‘I wouldn’t even consider it!’ He frowns and pulls his neck in like a turtle in digust. ‘I’m not about to criticise my own republic!’
‘The critique of imperialism is quite enough!’
‘I criticise my own country -‘ I say
He doesn’t miss a beat. ‘You’ve got a lot more reason to.’
There’s nothing for it but to laugh. ‘That may be,’ I say.
We switch to the present. He starts to talk about ‘my very good friend Erich Mielke’.
‘Did he have a file on you?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You haven’t applied to have a look at it?’
‘Why should I?’
‘Out of curiousity.’
‘My curiousity is directed solely towards the machinations of imperialism and how they can be countered.’
Checkmate. So I start another question. ‘The internal observation of the GDR population, with the apparatus of official and unofficial collaborators -‘
He cuts me off. ‘You can throw 90 per cent of what you know about that out.’ He’s angry again. ‘It’s all lies. Mind you, in my opinion even 10 per cent of what they’re saying would have been too much.’
‘Are you saying that there was only 10 per cent of the number claimed of Stasi employees assigned to work on the East German population?’
‘Yes. It’s all been exaggerated immeasurably. In any case I am exceptionally sceptical about numbers.’
He changes tack, back to his friend Mielke.’The Wall was necessary to defend a threatened nation. And there was Erich Mielke at the top, a living example of the most humane human being.’
I have never heard Mielke referred to in this way. He was too fierce and feared to be referred to with anything like affection. I look away to the shelves on the wall close behind him. They are full of books and small objects of memory, a row of pill bottles and and a cheap tape deck. The words ‘the most humane human being’ hang in the air. He starts to cough, hacking and deep, into a handkerchief, then raises a pink drink to his lips.
‘And how are you finding it now after 1989, now that you are living in capitalism, or, as you say, in imperialism? Is it what you expected,’ I hold his gaze, ‘or is it not as bad as you thought?’
‘I live,’ he says fiercely, ‘among the enemy. And not for the first time in my life. I lived among the enemy during the Nazi time as well.’ He works himself into another little fury. I see Marta watching him, and I wonder if the medicine is to deal with this, or with its effects. ‘What I can tell you,’ he says, ‘is that as long as the GDR existed no swine in Bonn would have dared start a war!’ He gasps for breath. His hand has formed a fist, but he keeps it in his lap. ‘The GDR would have prevernted that by its very existence!’ He means that so long as the Iron Curtain was up, the NATO countries would not have bombed the former Yugoslavia for fear the Russians would have retaliated on behalf of the Serbs.
He’s puffing and cross and, I think, finally stuck. He looks at me and I can see the tiny red veins filigreed across his eyeballs. ‘Full Stop!’ he screams. ‘This ….conversation….is….now….over!’