Reconciliation with the Stasi?

An aftermath: her own husband, father of her two sons, was an agent who had for years informed the Stasi about every detail of her life. He probably married her in order to do so

By Trudy Govier | 1994-07-01 12:00:00

Important stories that disappear from the news may continue on for decades, little known or examined. One such story is the matter of secret police (Stasi) spying in the former German Democratic Republic. In 1991 and 1992 this was a big story. I was especially interested in it because of a book I was writing about trust and distrust. It seemed to me that the GDR must have been a nightmare of distrust, featuring as it did surveillance, mandated conformity, pretense, deception, hypocrisy, insecurity, and risks of betrayal in virtually every area of life.

I had heard of efforts to reconcile agents and victims of Stasi spying and wanted to know more about them. In March 1994, I went to Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden to find out more about the days after the long nightmare of surveillance and distrust.

After German reunification, it was revealed that there were files on six million adult citizens-over one-third of East Germany's population of 17 million people. One commentator estimated that East Germany had the highest per capita ratio of spies, tapped telephones, and bugged homes in the world. Between 1953 and 1989, 500,000 people had been Stasi informers. When the East German regime collapsed, some 200,000 people were serving as agents. Set out, Stasi files would stretch to over 200 kilometres. There were 88 million pages of microfilm material. People could be under surveillance anywhere-at work, at church, with friends, in opposition political groups, or even in the bedroom with a lover or spouse.

The East German regime saw enemies in every corner and went to bizarre lengths to acquire information about them. There was even a Stasi library of smells, consisting of numbered glass jars containing unwashed underwear and socks stolen from the laundry hampers of dissidents and "enemies." The smells were intended to assist dogs in hunts. Heinz Egbert, a pastor, found 2,800 pages of material about himself in his file. The writer Christa Wolf found that as many as 600 people had been informing on her. Vera Wollenberger, member of an independent peace group, found that her own husband, father of her two sons, was an agent who had for years informed the Stasi about every detail of her life. He probably married her in order to do so.

In its quest to destabilize potential enemies, the Stasi has acquired more information than it could sensibly use. But this didnot mean that the secret police were harmless. People were jailed, interrogated, and exiled as a result of Stasi work. Many lost jobs, had career, travel, and educational prospects denied to them, and suffered from disrupted relationships as a result of manipulative Stasi interventions.

Through contacts with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pugwash, and the German Green Party, I sought names of people working on reconciliation after the changes. One name came up repeatedly: that of Pastor Rolf Michael Turek. I went to meet Turek in Leipzig. A small, modest man in his late forties, he works from a dark, overfilled office in an old church building on Dresdenerstrasse. Turek was a pioneer in efforts to reconcile victims of Stasi spying with agents and employees. In 1990 he began to work with 45 people in a group for justice and reconciliation. The group still exists but now has only 12 members.

Before the changes, Turek had worked in the opposition movement and was a key organizer and speaker in the nonviolent protests of 1989. After the changes, those in the opposition expected Stasi affiliates to be willing to reflect on what they had done, to repent, and to apologize. This did not happen.

In Turek's group, disclaimers, justifications, and excuses were numerous. Even those in quite high positions insisted they had no choice about what they were doing. What they were doing was just a job, and jobs were compartmentalized in such a way that no one was convinced his work had really harmed anyone. Some people insisted they were merely cogs in a system. Others claimed to be able to make a difference, but said that really they were working for the same ends as people in the opposition-providing information and ideas that would change the regime from within. Or they were trying to protect people from undertaking dangerous actions. Or (in a few cases) protecting a worthwhile regime which was genuinely at risk at the hands of enemies. Some former Stasi would not admit to actions they had clearly committed, and persisted in lying about what they had done.

There were many ways of denying responsibility for wrongdoing, but whatever the variation, responsibility was denied. There was no sense of guilt or wrongdoing. These people had been supporters of a system in which they saw no freedom for themselves, but they could not acknowledge their own role insupporting it. Victims of Stasi activities sought dialogue and reflection, with the hope of achieving understanding and reconciliation. They were bitterly disappointed, angry and frustrated, when they could not do this.

I had heard a similar story from Belinda Cooper, an American expatriate living in the eastern sector of Berlin. She herself had been betrayed by a colleague in an opposition environmental group. Cooper told me that the same thing happened with more public discussions held in 1991-92 at Checkpoint Charlie. An initial goal of these discussions was also forgiveness and reconciliation. But it didn't work. The Stasi affiliates were so forceful in their self-justifications that victims were unwilling to continue, fearing that their participation was providing a platform for these accounts.

Within a few months, Turek came to believe that the goal of reconciliation was unrealistic for his Leipzig group. He redefined his purpose as one of helping people to articulate and understand what they had been doing, but he felt little confidence that this goal had been accomplished. People tended, he said, not to seek understanding but to want to justify themselves. This was a tendency in victims as well as Stasi agents and employees. The anger and sense of betrayal of the victims was only increased by the repeated insistence by agents that they had done nothing wrong. In the Leipzig group, victims tended to be upset and disturbed, whereas Stasi were resolute in their self-confidence.

Several people whom I met casually in Germany were surprised at my interest in the issue of the Stasi. They thought it had been talked to death, and was over. I asked Turek and his colleague, Dr. Uldrich Seidel, what they thought of this view. Perhaps it was hard enough coping in a new economy, and too much to expect that people would spend time trying to understand their past when they could (apparently) move ahead without doing so. Turek and Seidel rejected the idea, saying that it was important to understand how such a repressive system worked, how people came to accept it as normal and inevitable, and what role they had played in upholding it.

Seidel felt that for many there were old wounds that could heal better if people were willing to reflect and try to understand. For many victims who had been betrayed by colleagues, friends, or family members, the result was a profound inner disturbance. What can happen in such cases, he suggested, is a profound distrust of oneself and one's own judgment. Wounded by betrayal, a person may lose all confidence in his or her ability to detect who is reliable and who is not. For such people, forming viable relationships becomes difficult. The nightmare of distrust had not simply ended. Its effects persist.

These lasting effects became clearer still when I visited Dr. Fritz Ahrend in Dresden. Dr. Ahrend is a civil servant, an official of the province of Saxony. He and eight colleagues work under a law passed by the Parliament of Saxony, giving them the responsibility of investigating the structure and work of the Stasi, distributing information about it, and talking with people (victims, former agents and former employees) about practical and psychological problems. A particularly sensitive area is that of individuals with problems such as job loss, career disturbance, flawed families and friendships, or psychological problems due to Stasi activities. In a year Ahrend and his co-workers have dealt with about 600 cases. Like others, they did not find former Stasi repentant. It was reasonably common for people to approach them admitting to having been Stasi and having (they said) only one problem: they wanted their jobs back.

For such cases, an investigation had to be made to find out what the person's activities and responsibilities had been. The German national government is in charge of Stasi files and has some 3200 people dealing with them. It provides relevant files to provincial officials, who must then interpret them and apply the results to particular cases. What does the file mean? Not only are there code words, but the Stasi used technical terms. In addition, a Stasi file on a person shows only a single dimension of his or her life; it is not the whole reality. The matter of determining whether Stasi activities were extensive and sinister enough to merit one's losing his job or being ineligible for certain other civil service positions is obviously highly sensitive. Ahrend and his colleagues also check out complaints about people in the civil service, virtually all of whom continued on in the United Germany. They see this work as crucial in establishing a democratically minded civil service in which people can feel confidence.

I asked these men about the suggestion that the Stasi problem is over. In response Ahrend told a rather serious joke: anyone who could think the problem was over had had either nothing to do with it, or altogether too much! Stasi victims, he said, were "broken people" who deserved every consideration. These men did not anticipate running out of work.

Nevertheless, Ahrend felt that concentrating on Stasi and their victims would give only a partial understanding of the situation in the former East Germany. There is more than surveillance, spying, and victimization at issue. The real question is what makes such a system possible. Many people had supported it, and many had far more influence and power than Stasi employees and agents.

Germans value efficiency, and there was much bustle and bargaining in the rebuilding of the former East. People had material aspirations, but less job security than before. It was natural, these men recognized, to try to push ahead and not to spend time reflecting on the agonizing problems of the past. They could see that for all the sensitivity and complexity of their work, public interest in moral questions about the old regime was diminishing. But if so, that would be unfortunate. The general problem of cooperation with totalitarian regimes is extremely important. Concentrating on the Stasi issue alone was, for Ahrend, like "hunting the dog but not the hunter." Doing this is not looking deeply enough. Each citizen of the GDR was put under extreme pressure and had to make difficult choices. Each bore some responsibility for the reality of the GDR. Ahrehd's view is, in essence, that of Gandhi, Gene Sharp, and Vaclav Havel: a totalitarian society is upheld in some way or other by practically everybody who functions within it. To avoid such a tragedy in the future, people need to understand the nature of this support-just as they should understand what happened under Hitler. Though one might like to forget such a history, to do so would be a mistake.

The issue of the Stasi and their victims may seem morally clear, but these relationships emerged out of a totality of relationships flawed by domination, hypocrisy, deception, and pretense. That totality was the context for the surveillance of victims by agents and all the harms flowing from it. The issue of forgiveness and reconciliation is fascinating in its own right, but to focus entirely on relations between victims and agents is to miss the context, which poses the more profound problem as to how and why we human beings so readily support oppressive regimes and are unable or unwilling to accept our responsibility for doing so.

We may not hear about it from the Globe or the CBC, but there is still a big story in the former East Germany.

Trudy Govier is a Calgary philosopher.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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