Lost histories of a secret state

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Miriam Weber is a small, thoughtful woman in her forties. She lives in a rooftop apartment in Leipzig. The sense of space around her helps, she says. Helps her shake off the memories of prison. Helps her breathe under the weight of the unresolved past.

Miriam became an "enemy of the state" in East Germany at 16, when she and a schoolfriend made leaflets - "People of the People’s Republic speak up!" - with a child’s printing set. They were arrested by the Stasi and put in solitary confinement for a month. On her release, Weber took the train to Berlin to cross the wall and defect to the West.

With no accomplices, no map, no training and no tools but a stolen ladder, she crossed a hedge, a wire-mesh fence, a strip patrolled by dogs, a barbed-wire fence and a "street" for personnel carriers to reach the wall itself. It was a trip-wire that caught her, just a few feet from freedom. Her trip to the wall cost her a year and a half in prison, after which she says she was "basically no longer human".

Her saviour was a man called Charlie, a sports teacher. He and Weber fell in love and got married. Both were on the Stasi blacklist. They were blocked from going to college and getting jobs, but Charlie started writing, sending his work to the West for publication, and Weber took photographs. Their home was regularly searched by Stasi officers, but they were together. They got by.

The couple had lodged applications to leave the GDR, which was legal and not uncommon. But, if the authorities saw fit, an application could be viewed as an act of libel against the country, which was a criminal offence. In August 1980, just before the historic visit of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Charlie was arrested. Weber never saw him again. By mid-October he was dead.

The Stasi told her that her husband killed himself. She didn’t believe them. A funeral and burial were arranged, and heavily policed by the Stasi. Some weeks later, Weber was shocked when she saw paperwork which referred to a "cremation" the following day. She still does not know who, if anyone, was in the coffin they buried. She is convinced that it was not Charlie.

Now, she lives in her rooftop apartment under the shadow of the past. Did her much loved husband desert her and their struggle, or did the Stasi, as she suspects, have a hand in his death? One day, she hopes to have an answer, she hopes to have justice.

It is no more than 14 years ago that East Germany was "Stasiland", "the most perfected surveillance state of all time". When the wall came down, the Stasi had 97,000 employees and a further 173,000 full-time informers among the population, far more per head than Hitler’s Third Reich or Stalin’s Russia. Some estimates say that, if one includes part-time informers, there would have been one for every 6.5 people.

This is a state where neighbour watched neighbour, where people informed on members of their own family. 15,000 Stasi bureaucrats in Berlin kept extensive files. They knew if your wife was having an affair, what books you read, whether you got on with your neighbours. Stasi men studied the angles of people’s TV antennae (westwards was suspect), and stole underwear from suspects’ apartments to use for "smell samples" for sniffer dogs.

Everything they did was rigorously efficient. A document now on display in the Stasi museum in Leipzig describes the signs one informant could use to communicate with another. "Watch out! Subject is coming - touch nose with hand or handkerchief." "Subject standing still - lay one hand against the back, or on the stomach." It would be a bizarre Monty Python spy sketch, if it were not horribly real.

Anna Funder, author of a new book on East Germany’s secret police state, says: "In beginning, in the late 1940s and 1950s, there was imprisonment, kidnapping, torturing, killing. By the late 1970s and 1980s, they either kicked dissidents out of the country, or made their lives hell, prevented them from getting an education, from getting a job."

Such was the case for Julia, a talented linguist who, inexplicably, could not get in to language school, or get a decent job. She later discovered it is because she once had an Italian boyfriend. She had suspected their phone calls were tapped, and even said "goodnight" to the listening Stasi men before she hung up, but she was astonished when a senior Stasi officer called her to his office and showed her the copies he had made of their letters - and asked her to translate the words he could not understand.

Perhaps it is not surprising that as communism crumbled and peaceful protests took to the streets, the people of the GDR turned their anger not against the party but against the Stasi, the internal police who had been the agents of state control.

Meeting Weber was a moment of truth for Australian writer Anna Funder. Fascinated by the former East Germany since she lived in West Berlin as an undergraduate in the 1980s, she decided to write a book which told some of the extraordinary human stories from the other side of the wall.

So began a journey of discovery, which took her through the former East Germany to converse with cleaners, toilet attendants, drunks and rock stars, and ordinary people living with the consequences of the past. Her book, Stasiland, part-travelogue, part-documentary, is a powerful account of a story that is still largely untold.

"Miriam’s courage astonished me. That a 16-year-old, born and bred in that society, had a gut feeling things were awry, and was willing to sacrifice her potentially happy life to demonstrate against that. That is fascinating to me, how ordinary people are driven by a sense of justice to do such things.

"When East and West Germany came together, there was an overwhelming pressure for the two Germanys to get along. I think there was a sense of shame, on both sides. It was difficult for people when all the information about the Stasi came out, that there were so many informants, that it was such a thorough, Orwellian surveillance state. East was subsumed into the West, and there was no room to celebrate the courage, the resistance, to a state that didn’t exist anymore."

Change came to East Germany overnight. For the Stasi, it might as well have been the end of the world. They sat tight inside their buildings like men under siege. Desperately, they tried to destroy the most damaging documents. The HQ in Normannenstrasse in Berlin - known to locals as "the house of a thousand eyes" - was found to contain more than 100 burned-out paper shredding machines.

In the days and weeks that followed, Stasi HQs became museums. Secrets were laid bare: the jars in which they had collected "smell samples", the intricate plans for the invasion of the West, the torture cells inside their prisons. Finally, after public pressure, part of the Normannenstrasse building was opened as a library where the people of the former GDR can read the files the Stasi kept about them.

Funder says that Germany still struggles with this chapter of its history. "My book has been rejected by many German publishers. One actually wrote to me and said it is the best book written on this issue by a foreigner, but in the current political climate in Germany they can’t bring it out. Perhaps it’s too soon. People were not prepared to publish Primo Levi for more than 20 years after the war. It’s much more sensitive than I ever thought it would be."

Part of her journey involved tracking down former Stasi men by placing an ad in a newspaper. They responded, leading to a series of bizarre assignations: "I will be outside the church on market square at 1500 hours. I will have tomorrow’s Mrkische Allgemeine rolled up under my left arm. Understood?"

Mostly, she found them still beating the drum for their cause, still hoping, belatedly, to convert someone to communism. "You can’t live your life in service of an idea and then turn round and say you were wrong," she says. "There was little remorse."

But Herr Bohnsack, a dishevelled, intelligent man, stood out. Trained as a journalist, for 26 years he belonged to Division X, responsible for "disinformation and psychological warfare against the West". Chiefly he researched the Nazi past of politicians in West Germany and leaked it to the western press.

"He was the only person who expressed a sense of wrongdoing. He felt he had spent 26 years of his life telling lies. In some ways he was facing that admirably, but in other ways he was completely broken by it, a heavy drinker, unemployed, unemployable," says Funder.

Although many of the former Stasi men felt they had been victimised in the new Germany, the majority, Funder says, fitted right in. "My general sense is that Germany was extremely fair, in some cases over fair.

"Generally speaking, the Stasi men had a proven work history, were reliable, diligent, well educated, used to authority, used to working within structures. In short, they were hugely employable in the new Germany. They went into things like life insurance, gambling, real estate, business advice. They were very skilled in the arts of convincing people to do things against their own self-interest, which is, funnily enough, a hugely marketable quality in a capitalist society."

In fact, many former Stasi men have moved on to new lives, while those they interrogated have not. Sigrid Paul, now in her early sixties, has lived for 40 years with the choice she was forced to make at the hands of the Stasi.

Her son Torsten was born in 1961 with damage to his stomach and oesophagus following a difficult breech birth. When doctors in the East were unable to treat him, he was sent, without his parents, to a hospital in West Berlin. Sigrid and her husband planned to follow him, and made contact with a student, Michael Hinze, who organised covert passages to West Berlin. Their attempts to get out failed, but the Stasi were watching them. In 1963, Sigrid and her husband were arrested and interrogated. Then she was offered a choice: act as bait by arranging a meeting with Hinze and they would let her go to the West to spend time with her son. It was an impossible choice, but she felt that to turn informer would be to abandon her integrity, to sell her soul to the Stasi. She refused and was imprisoned for nearly 18 months on a trumped-up charge.

Perhaps her story has a happy ending. Torsten came back to his parents aged five, a tiny polite stranger who did not recognise them. But he grew into a happy child, and an amiable young man. But Sigrid is unable to forget that she chose to spare the life of a stranger rather than do what she feels was her duty as a mother.

Hers is one of many hundreds of unresolved stories of Stasiland. Funder says: "I think the German unification tried to do a good job of dealing with the past. It’s just that victims of the Nazi regime have been compensated, and these people have not. But perhaps it is too soon to talk about these things.

"I think these stories are things to be proud of, that there was enormous human courage to act for justice in the face of a mad, Orwellian world. Because East Germany no longer exists, there is no nation left to celebrate that, so my book is an elegy for that courage."

Stasiland by Anna Funder, is published by Granta, 12.99