Dan Katz reviews The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
In East Germany in 1984, just before Gorbachev and Soviet glasnost, a Stasi (secret police) agent Gerd Wiesler sets up a surveillance operation on playwright Georg Dreyman. Dreyman has been being targeted by a senior Communist Party official, not for political reasons, but because he wants to sleep with Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, and therefore wants to gather “evidence” against Dreyman.
Wiesler wires up Dreyman’s East Berlin flat, and he and an assistant set to work monitoring their victim 24 hours a day.
Dreyman is a supporter of the regime, but dislikes the way oppositionists, including some of his friends, are harassed. When Jerska, a theatre director and Dreyman’s friend, commits suicide after being blacklisted by the regime, Dreyman protests by covertly writing for the West German press an article critical of East German bureaucracy.
In the meantime Wiesler’s sympathy for Dreyman has grown; he also appears to have fallen in love with Christa-Maria. And so he lies in his reports to protect Dreyman. The film ends as the different lines of the story — Dreyman’s dissident activity, the bugging operation, the CP official’s obsession with Christa-Maria, and Wiesler’s realisation that his life as a Stasi agent has been a waste — reach a conclusion.
In truth this film does not do justice to the horror of what it was like to live in East Germany under Stalinist rule. The everday paranoia, fearfulness and cynicism is certainly depicted. But overall some of the truth and reality is sacrificed for the plot and the story — as far as we know there never was an agent who “turned”. Still this is an effective story, well-told.
And it is important the left remembers what the Stasi and the Stalinist party it kept in power — the Sozialistische Einheitspartei (SED), or the Socialist Unity Party — were like.
When the regime collapsed at the end of 1989, the Stasi had 102,000 full-time personnel on its rolls, including 11,000 members of the ministry's own special guards regiment.
Regular Stasi informers were known as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (IMs). Since many records were destroyed, the exact number of IMs probably will never be known; but 500,000 is a realistic figure.
The Stasi had six million files and 37.5 million index cards bearing the names of informers as well as persons under Stasi surveillance.
One way of gauging the scale of the Stasi’s operations is to compare its implantation to that of the KGB in the Soviet Union and the Gestapo in Nazi Germany.
The Soviet Union’s KGB employed 480,000 full-time agents in a country of 280 million, or one agent per 5,800 citizens. The Nazi Gestapo had 40,000 officers watching a country of 80 million, while the Stasi employed 102,000 to control just 17 million.
In Nazi Germany there was one Gestapo officer for 2,000 people. The ratio for the Stasi was one secret policeman per 166 East Germans!
When the IMs are added there would have been at least one spy watching every 66 citizens in the GDR. When part-time informers are included East Germany had one informer per 6.5 citizens.
The Stasi operated in every area of life. Full-time officers were posted to all major industrial plants. Without exception, one tenant in every apartment building was designated as a watchdog.
After the re-unification of Germany in 1990 investigators calculated that the total number of political prosecutions in the GDR had been around 300,000.
Political prisoners were regularly ransomed to the West in operations fully controlled by the Stasi. Between 1963 and 1989, West Germany paid nearly US$3 billion to the Stalinist state for the release of 34,000 political prisoners.
In every political case, the Stasi was involved either in the initial arrest or in pre-trial interrogations during which “confessions” were usually extracted by physical or psychological torture, particularly before the mid-1960s.
Engaging in “propaganda hostile to the state” was a punishable offence. In one case a young man was arrested and prosecuted for saying that it was not necessary to station tanks at the border and for referring to border fortifications as “nonsense.” During his trial, he “admitted” to owning a television set on which he watched West German programs. He was sentenced to a year and a half of hard labour.
A nineteen-year-old who had placed a sign in his apartment window reading, “When justice is turned into injustice, resistance becomes an obligation!” got twenty-two months in jail.
And a thirty-four-year-old father of two who had been denied permission to leave the “workers’ and peasants’ state” put up a poster reading, “We want to leave, but they won't let us.” That man went to prison for sixteen months.
Between the building of the Berlin Wall (officially known in the East as the “Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart”) in 1961 and the opening of the borders on 9 November 1989, 186 border killings were officially recorded. But when the Stasi archives were opened, investigators found that at least 825 people had been killed for trying to escape to the West.
Until 1987, the GDR imposed the death penalty for a number of crimes, including murder, espionage, and economic offences. After the mid-1950s, nearly all death sentences were kept quiet and executions were carried out in the strictest secrecy, initially by guillotine and in later years by a pistol shot to the neck. In most instances, the relatives of those killed were not informed either of the sentence or of the execution. The corpses were cremated and the ashes buried secretly, sometimes at building sites.
The GDR was a vile state and I cheered and drank to its death as the wall came down. The GDR was a prison house and the opposite of our socialism. The only socialism worth fighting for means human freedom.