As many of you know, I try to read travel books before I visit a new place, or even re-visit after many years. Such is the case with Berlin, as my last visit was in 1971. Much has changed, or has it? I read the usual travel books, and visited several web sites about Berlin. But sometime, you must reach further.
But I am fascinated by the Berlin that I saw back in 1971, a city divided by huge wall. So, despite the wall falling in 1989, how much has changed, and how much remains the same? Yes, the two Germanys became one, and East Germany (GDR) ceased to exist. To gain a better understanding, I read Anna Funder’s book, Stasiland, written in 2003. The book is subtitled, “stories from behind the Berlin Wall.”
She interviewed many people, while actually living in what was the old East Berlin. She interviewed regular citizens, Stasi agents, television personalities, and just about any one who would talk about it. Many lives were ruined during this period, many mysterious deaths occurred, people disappeared, and many were incarcerated.
Among the many stories she writes about, the most memorable was a couple who were happily married. But the husband was suspected of “illegal” activities, and eventually jailed. No visits were allowed, and all correspondence was censored and copied for the Stasi files. He was eventually found dead in his cell, hung by his own hands, according to official Stasi records. But the wife knows this was not true, and sought the truth. They never produced a body, but eventually gave her an urn of ashes to bury. She was convinced the Stasi fabricated the entire story.
Essentially, the Stasi recruited as many people as they could to spy on their friends and family. Why were they so interested in ordinary people’s lives? For one, to keep track of any dissident movements and potential underground escape plans and organizations. For another, and perhaps most importantly, they used the information against people in order to blackmail them into doing covert or illegal activities on behalf of the GDR.
They created a community of both fear, suspicion, and outright oppression. They goal, according to the high Stasi officials interviewed, was the prevent capitalism and corruption of the west from polluting the minds and lives of the East Berliners. They actually believed they were protecting their citizens from the ugly greed and immorality of the west.
What did they really accomplish? In the DGR, its people were required to accept many fictions as fact. One is that human nature can be improved upon, but only that Communism can accomplish this. And more specifically, that East Germans were NOT the Germans responsible for the Holocaust. Another myth was the multi-party democracy, and that socialism was peace-loving. Oh, and prostitution did not exist!
Taking the fiction a bit further, East Germans made themselves innocent of Nazism. Citizens actually believed Nazism came from and returned to the western part of Germany! The Stasi and the GDR essentially remade history. Then, as now, the East Germans did not feel responsible for Hitler’s regime. This ranks as one of the most extraordinary manipulation of the century.
In a relatively unknown maneuver, the East Germans imported North Vietnamese “socialist brothers” as workers. Needless to say, they were treated badly. They were forced to sell frostbitten flowers, lived in labor camps, and bussed to factories, and forced to avoid contact with locals.
So again I ask, is it better now than when the Wall and the Stasi were there? My guide yesterday, Lyle, the young lady, said numerous divorces occurred here when Stasi reports were made available. Couples found out their spouses had been unfaithful! ! But I am of the belief that it should all come out, and then get a fresh start. What do you think?
Does this darkest hour in German history keep living forever, or perhaps it is time for a fresh start. Two of my friends, RB, and Frau X both have shared great stories with me. To them, thank you for making your history come alive, and help me to understand the darkest hours.
Nevertheless, this is a wonderful and interesting place to visit, though under the radar. Except to the young people who flock here for the bars and parties.
I am headed over to a walking tour of old East Berlin, starting at the famous Brandenburg Tor (gate). More about this later. I learned quite a bit from the guide.