East Germany: Crime and Punishment


I drove to Leipzig one afternoon this winter on Hitler’s old Autobahn, which had just been resurfaced with asphalt. The traffic was heavy. Outside Naumburg the Autobahn became jammed up. An enterprising motorcyclist, renting out the use of a cellular telephone, drove past the long line of barely moving cars. The traffic continued to crawl at less than ten miles an hour. East Germans have brought up so many new or used Western cars since reunification that traffic on East Germany’s antiquated roads now often comes to a complete standstill. It was almost dark when I finally reached Leipzig. I drove straight to the university where in one of the auditoriums a teach-in was taking place. Its subject matter was Aufarbeitung (the term, derived from psychoanalysis, means coping, coming to terms) with the horrors of the recent past under a regime as tyrannical as that of the Nazis though, as the saying here goes, one “with reduced criminal energy.” The speakers at the teach-ins spoke bitterly of the readiness of so many East Germans to spy on their fellow citizens as full-time and “informal” agents of the feared Communist secret police, the Staatssicherheitsdienst (Stasi).

Sensational revelations about this complicity have been common here since Stasi headquarters were stormed by angry crowds, early in 1990. Its files, or what was left of them, were seized, and Erich Mielke, the eightyfive-year-old head of Stasi, a four-star general, the recipient of some 250 decorations, and “Hero of the Soviet Union,” is now facing murder charges in a Berlin court. He is tried, oddly enough, not for violating human rights in his capacity as Minister for State Security, but for killing two Prussian policemen in Berlin as a young man of twenty-two, more than sixty years ago and well before the Nazi’s seizure of power. What is even more odd is the fact that the accusation rests on confessions, arguably extracted under torture, by the Gestapo in 1934. In court, so far, Mielke’s demeanor has been as miserable and whining as Honecker’s; he keeps mumbling that he doesn’t feel well, wants to go home, that he is frail, old, and tired. The doctors continue to declare him perfectly fit to stand trial.

Mielke’s private suit of offices, in the former Ministry of Security in East Berlin, is now open to the public as part of a recently established Stasi museum—a horror cabinet with exhibits illustrating common techniques of physical and psychological torture. Mielke’s own office is a room approximately twenty by forty feet large, furnished in shrill blues and dirty browns, cream lace curtains, and heavy, uncomfortable armchairs with clumsy wooden armrests. The style is known here as spiessig. A few plastic ashtrays stand on little knit-wool doilies. On the wood-paneled wall, otherwise bare, there is a hideous oil painting of a deer and a picture of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the notorious founder of the Bolshevik Cheka.

On Mielke’s desk is a white plaster model of Lenin’s death mask; next to it is an old-fashioned electric document shredder made in the GDR with the brand name Intimus. When I was there on a recent weekend, hushed, wide-eyed East German visitors milled through the room, fingering the buttons on Mielke’s telephone, peering into his bathroom and his wide open safe. A few Westerners were mocking the quintessentially petit bourgeois taste of this room; the Easterners seemed rather awed and self-conscious. The mood was reminiscent of the macabre opening chapter of García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch.

Investigators are still going through Mielk’s confiscated files and many prominent East German politicians, churchmen, and intellectuals previously admired as “dissidents” have been revealed as “informal” collaborators with the secret police. With every sensational revelation the public debate about them becomes more bitter. One prominent artist said to have been a Stasi spy has recently been called “asshole,” “creep,” and “shitface” on radio and television.

At the teach-in I attended in Leipzig one of the speakers railed against the “treason of the intellectuals.” Another who had somehow been able to read his Stasi dossier discovered that he had been spied upon by a neighbor, a man he had long considered a good friend. He told the audience that the Scheisskerl had come to apologize, saying, “Dear friend, I only told good things about you. I swear it!” Another speaker, who was fired from his job after one of his colleagues had informed on him, said that the man had recently called to excuse himself, saying: “As a human being it gave me serious trouble. As a Party member it was my duty.” At this point a man in the audience stood up and cried: “It’s a bitter shame that for the second time in this century tens of thousands of Germans don’t understand, or pretend not to understand, what’s wrong in blindly obeying orders.” For the second time in this century, that is, thousands of Germans excuse their treachery, their misdeeds, which included physical and psychological torture, by saying, “I just did my duty.”

A new law that went into effect on January 1 grants all citizens access to their Stasi dossiers if they have one. Many do, since East Germany was probably the most intensively spied upon society in history. The army of spies and denunciators amounted to 100,000 full-time agents and, according to the most recent counts, some 300,000 “informal informers.” East Germany had the highest per capita rate of spies, tapped telephones, and bugged living- and bedrooms in the world. One hears of Stasi undercover agents with code names such as Iago and Othello who spied on close relatives and surreptitiously poisoned relations between lovers or friends, carrying out “operative orders” (in the language of the files) to “split, isolate, paralyze and disorganize negative enemy elements.”

Almost six million individual dossiers are said to be in the Stasi archives (one for every second adult). They occupy shelves that have been measured and found to run 202 kilometers. Parts of the files were destroyed or stolen early in 1990. Some will probably turn up. Some, undoubtedly, are already being used by former Stasi men to blackmail people in the West, where Stasi is said to have had thousands on its payrolls. Much of the material in the Stasi archive was assembled by people who had vicious motives or at least a severely distorted picture of the world. Yet this is probably the first time that the nearly complete archive of a domestic secret police has been opened to the public. It will afford a unique opportunity to study the inner workings of a police state barely two years after its collapse. Newspapers here speak of a “Pandora’s box” and warn of the great emotional problems to be created for men and women who discover that they were betrayed by their wives or husbands or their best friends.

In the Fifties and Sixties dissidents were tortured and some were executed. In the Seventies and Eighties the cruder forms of torture were abolished. Dissidents were confined to mental institutions. The daily surveillance steadily became more intense. The material in the Stasi archive still needs to be sorted and computerized, and some that was shredded by terrified Stasi men must be reassembled and glued together. Already there are calls to “draw a line under the past” and even to burn the entire Stasi archive in the name of “national reconciliation.” But the man charged with making the secret dossiers available to the public is a nonpartisan Protestant clergyman named Joachim Gauck, himself a former Stasi victim. He keeps saying that there cannot be any national reconciliation except in truth and that he will spare no effort to expose all of the truth, however unpleasant.

It may take up to two or three years before everyone interested will get a chance to study his or her dossier. In the meantime, priority has been given to older people and those who were tortured or spent time in prison or were expelled or whose freedom was purchased by the West German government—part of the ransom money (it amounted to millions of Deutschmarks) went into private pockets. The Stasi files throw up new sensational revelations almost daily. The East German lawyer Vogel, who negotiated many of the ransom deals—as well as the most famous East-West exchanges of caught spies—has recently been arrested in this connection on criminal charges.

A dozen or so prominent Stasi victims, human rights activists, and artists were the first to see their dossiers early in January. What they found confirmed suspicions that the Stasi’s absolute power was combined with a voyeurism that was at once sick, compulsive, and destructive. The songwriter Wolf Biermann, who was stripped of his citizenship in 1970 while on a visit abroad and was never allowed to return, found over one hundred files (approximately 40,000 pages) filled with transcripts of bugged conversations, intercepted mail, and reports on the most intimate aspects of his private life. These were supplied by some seventy “unofficial informers”—friends, enemies, and colleagues, among them “culprits and victims, semi-heroes and perfect pigs,” as Biermann wrote in Der Spiegel. “The almost good and the almost bad, strong characters and big-mouthed weaklings.”

Even before the new law went into effect hundreds of sensational documents from the Stasi’s files had been made public. Many were sold to newspapers by former Stasi agents. One such document was a top-secret contingency plan, last updated on January 20, 1986, to establish concentration camps throughout East Germany. It lists in detail “specific+operative-preventive-measures to seize, hold, isolate,” and under certain conditions “liquidate” up to one hundred thousand persons with a “feindlich-negative-Grundeinstellung” (hostile negative basic attitude) to the state and its socialist institutions. The 1986 list of potential East German concentration camp inmates included “reactionary church members,” “representatives of marginal social groups,” “applicants for exit visas,” “co-signers of petitions directed against the socialist state order,” “negative-decadent youths.” (My translation does scant justice to the chilling original which is couched in bureaucratic slang filled with many-syllabled compound nouns.)

This contingency plan, reminiscent of the SS not only in its style, might well have been put into action if the Soviet Union had not abandoned East Germany in the fall of 1989. That such a plan was even contemplated in a country with Germany’s past reinforces the view of Wolf Lepenies, the distinguished West Berlin social historian, that there was reason to be

alarmed by the extent the East German state, in a frightening continuity of German history, has also been a state of spies and white-collar criminals, of lawlessness and collaborators.

The East German dissident writer Jurgen Fuchs, himself a Stasi victim, went so far as to speculate in a public lecture that some qualities of the SS were possibly inherent in the German character.

The mere mention of a person’s name on some Stasi list is enough nowadays to destroy his reputation as well as his career. Government agencies—including universities—summarily fire any official or professor whose name appears on Stasi lists as an “informal collaborator.” Yet it is possible that the Stasi agents, trying to show how active they were, put names down on the basis of innocuous conversations. Among those most recently fired was the rector of Humboldt University in East Berlin, a theologian, and the first freely elected rector of the university since 1933. He denies the charges.

If former Nazis, from desk-top murderers to professors who propagated Nazi ideology, had been purged with half as much energy or vindictiveness after the last war as Stasi collaborators are now, West Germany would have been a different country after 1945 and very likely a better one. Legal and administrative procedures to enable people to defend themselves—and their jobs—remain inadequate. Inevitably there are complaints, some of them plausible, of McCarthyism, kangaroo courts, and lack of due process. Extravagant accusations of collaboration have led to heated denials as culprits have been turning into victims and victims who have made broad accusations are turning into culprits. All have become caught up in tangles of guilt, shame, wrath, and indignation which are not likely to be unraveled soon.

Three months after the Wall came down, a former East Berlin novelist and dissident named Erich Loest, who as a “negative-enemy intellectual” had been forced by the Stasi to emigrate, bought hundreds of pages of his dossier from a woman who claimed she had found them in her backyard (she was, in fact, a former Stasi employee). Loest published a selection of this Stasi material as a book. He did not add any comments. The documents speak for themselves as evidence of evil thoroughness and banality. His telephone, living room, and bedrooms had been bugged. The documents Loest found included clandestine photographs taken of him and his friends, intercepted letters (some that had been sent but never reached him), transcripts of his conversations with his wife and friends, and records of his political views; his every movement over the years was collected by official and informal Stasi agents. Some were colleagues or good friends. The Stasi rewarded their services by giving them special permits to buy a car (the normal waiting time for a new car was fourteen years), visit a relative abroad, or have a telephone installed. The poet Reiner Kunze, found guilty by the Stasi of writing “lyrically negative poetry,” has published a similar book of documents. (At the end of a thirty-hour-long interrogation Kunze was told by a Stasi officer: “I forbid you to write lines of poetry with double meanings. We have experts who decode everything!”)

More books like Loest’s and Kunze’s are being written. A dozen or so other anthologies of Stasi documents have already appeared. Their language, full of long, impersonal compound nouns and circumlocutions, is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s remark that German compound nouns stretch out so long they have a perspective. (A current example is Mobilmachungs-sondermassnahmenkontrollorgan—organ in charge of special measures in the event of mobilization.) The Stasi was a thought police that tried to break the morale or health of its victims by surreptitiously feeding them psycho-drugs. “As the work of the Communist Party degenerated more and more into self-satisfied routine,” Lutz Rathenow, another Stasi victim, recently wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “the Stasi had to invent newer and newer tricks. Monstrous banalities went hand in hand with creative, carefully calculated destructiveness.” In the last resort the Stasi state was a paradox of near-total control and near-total incapacity. It was a bureaucracy that had clearly gone wild. In the end it collapsed under its own weight.

Every anti-regime graffiti found on a wall was photographed and filed. Every street rumor was registered by diligent agents and circulated throughout the upper levels of the secret bureaucracy. In the former Stasi headquarters in Leipzig I was shown a few hundred numbered glass jars and told that this was the “Stasi library of suspect smells.” It had been assembled by removing unwashed underwear and socks from dissidents’ laundry hampers. Torn bits and pieces were then placed in jars to preserve “specific body odors,” as one preserves cucumbers and jams. With the help of trained dogs, the distinctive smells would serve later to identify distributors of illegal leaflets. “The Stasi had a complete smell-collection of the Leipzig opposition,” a former dissident told me. Its agents were obsessively concerned that great conspiracies were afoot against the regime and were best combated by conspiracies and dirty tricks of their own. Thousands of Stasi agents infiltrated clandestine opposition groups, strengthening the various underground opposition groups considerably. Genuine dissidents were usually more circumspect; the moles, anxious to establish their credentials as confirmed dissidents, always proposed more radical, riskier forms of protest—they also had less to fear.

The Stasi seems to have spent much of its time treading water. The regime drowned in a sea of trivial information (“at 2 AM the subject looked out of the window and at 3:30 he was still restlessly pacing up and down his study”). The Stasi was the last to foresee the one event it was supposed to prevent—the collapse of the entire system.

Downtown Leipzig has changed in recent months. There are hundreds of new private shops with smiling salesmen and saleswomen, a rarity in the past, though few East Germans can afford their prices. The street lights are brighter than two years ago. There are new cafés and reprivatized “historic” pubs, such as Auerbach’s Rathskeller (the setting of a famous scene in Goethe’s Faust) where the food and the service have improved and the prices more than doubled. Unemployment, both official and “hidden,” is reliably estimated at between 30 and 35 percent. (“Hidden” unemployment includes workers receiving reduced wages for less work, or for not working at all, workers in government-sponsored retaining courses, or those in early retirement.)

But, as elsewhere in the East, real estate prices are booming; there is a great deal of new construction in the center of the city, while the outskirts are still as bleak and dilapidated as ever. In the classified section of the local paper people offer rewards of a thousand D-Marks to anyone who will find them a two- or three-room flat. The city center is choked with the new automobile traffic. Streets named after former Communists have been renamed or reverted to their old names. Ho-Chi-Minh Strasse is again Karlsruher Strasse. Strasse der Solidarität and Strasse der Waffenbrüderschaft (Street of the Comradeship in Arms) are once again Ludwigsburger and Heilbronen Allee, Komsomol Platz (which once upon a time honored Hermann Goering) has reverted to Dieskau Platz. The Lenin Strasse, a main thoroughfare leading out to the Leipzig fairgrounds, is once again what it was before the war, Pragerstrasse.

Lenin lost the war, lost the war, lost the war” is the refrain of a song performed in a local cabaret show. If Napoleon had not been defeated at Leipzig in 1813 would the Lenin Strasse have been named Bonaparte? (The famous battle actually took place in the Lenin Strasse.) Interestingly, nearly everywhere in East Germany the great monumental squares named after Karl Marx retain that name, as though he was still, in the words of the Communist nomenklatura, “Germany’s greatest son.” In Leipzig the ancient university is also still named after him. There has never been a giant Lenin statue in Leipzig, as there was in East Berlin (where it has been cut up and dumped, like a Samuel Beckett character into a suburban sandpit). A colossal Lenin still stands outside the main station in nearby Dresden. Since the cost of removal is thought to be prohibitive Dresden is currently studying plans to have it wrapped by Christo or to make it look silly by tilting it slightly to one side. Some have read a deeper symbolic meaning into the fact that the former Lenin Strasse in Leipzig is lined with ruined turn-of-the-century apartment houses with the usual blown-out windows and doors and caved-in staircases and roofs and with some of the latest graffiti: I want my Wall back and Fuck-off Germoney. A city spokesman calls these abandoned houses “Socialist ruins.” He says that there are more than ten thousand abandoned apartments in ruined, collapsing houses in Leipzig, and that another five thousand may shortly be condemned and abandoned. The Lenin Strasse used to be one of East Germany’s major Potemkin façades. Whenever Honecker was driven through the Lenin Strasse on his way to the Leipzig Fair-grounds, local authorities saw to it that the blind windows of its abandoned “Socialist ruins” were hung with lace curtains to simulate sweet domesticity (traute Häuslichkeit).


Halle, an important East German industrial center and an old university town, seemed deserted when I arrived. Many shops were closed; the papers had been warning for days that trouble was likely because of a planned neo-Nazi convention. The neogothic Marktkirche, where Händel had played the organ, was locked. (Händel was a native of Halle, as was Heydrich, Hitler’s top bureaucrat of death.) The pedestrian zone was full of graffiti saying, Nazis Raus. In the marketplace an elderly man was haranguing a small crowd that included the mayor of Halle. He was crying that they were crazy to allow the Nazis into town. True, they were still only a handful. But “that’s just how Adolf came to power. He also started out small. The convention should be outlawed.”

The mayor, a West German Christian Democrat Party functionary who had recently moved to Halle, answered in monotonous tones, as if reading a well-known text, that Halle was part of a free democracy now. An appeal had been made to the courts, but the courts had ruled that the Nazis had the right to hold their assembly. The police would spare no effort to prevent disturbances. In a nearby barrack and in the narrow streets off the market square some fifteen hundred riot policemen and special antiterrorism squads were waiting in buses and trucks and special vehicles with communication dishes on their roofs and armored cars equipped with water throwers. A helicopter almost constantly hovered above. I entered a small café. The proprietor double-locked the door behind me and said that these were crazy days. Next to his cash register I noticed a gun. He did not know where the Nazis were meeting. A policeman said they were meeting at the Rannischer Platz.

In the Twenties the Rannischer Platz in Halle would have been a middle-class residential area. Tall apartment houses, built in the boom years after the Franco-Prussian war, stood in a semicircle around the Platz. Some had elaborately carved cornices and bay windows and Hansel and Gretel slanted roofs. The houses are still there, for Halle was barely damaged during the war, but they look terribly run-down, blackened by soot and acid rain, and much of the stone carvings have crumbled off and disappeared. A little corner store that has not, or not yet, been privatized, was just closing. A rickety electric tram turned the corner, and the long arm on its roof threw sparks at the point where it touches the hanging electrical wire. The street lights were dim.

I had the feeling of being inside a time machine, transported to the Twenties: some two hundred youths with shaven heads or Hitler hairdos and wearing black leather jackets and belts marked SS and black boots, were standing in the square, screaming Sieg Heil—Sieg Heil and Ausländer Raus (foreigners out) as they held their right arms in the old Nazi salute. A girl with dyed blond hair made into a thick braid was handing out leaflet honoring Rudolf Hess (“He deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. Instead he was murdered by the Anglo-Saxon warmongers”). A few young men were waving old imperial war flags (swastikas are illegal in Germany).

When the shouts of Sieg Heil and Ausländer Raus had died, the crowd was addressed by—of all people—an Austrian, a round-faced young man wearing John Lennon eyeglasses named Gottfried Kössel. Kössel called for the liberation of lost territories in the East—East Prussia, Silesia, the Sudetenland—and South Tyrol and for the reannexation of the Ostmark (Austria) by Germany. Germany had been the victim of a “territorial genocide,” he cried. Germany was the major European power “but we remain under America’s thumb.” After his speech, greetings were read from all over Europe. They included one from an English revisionist historian named David Irving known for insisting that Hitler was innocent of any Holocaust. The crowd sang Deutschland Deutschland über alles / Uber alles in der Welt! Then, trailed by a long caravan of police trucks—a helicopter kept roaring overhead—they marched off toward the university screaming “Foreigners Out, Sieg Heil. Sieg Heil.”

Later on that evening Kössel and the self-styled “Gauleiter of the nationalist youth of Halle,” a man named Thomas Hanke, held a “press conference” which was covered by a French television crew and by several foreign reporters who had come over from Berlin. As far as I could make out no German reporter attended. The conference took place in a rancid-smelling room inside an abandoned, half-collapsed building in Halle-Neustadt, where a dozen or so skinheads have been squatting since last summer. The black Wilhelminian war flag flew from its roof. In an inner court skinheads were milling about drinking beer and occasionally yelling orders at each other. Inside, I saw placards on the wall that said, “Germans! Defend yourself against subversion by foreigners.” “Stop the invasion of criminals from abroad.” “With heart and hand for the Fatherland.” Kössel complained of police harassment which had prevented thousands of out-of-town sympathizers from attending the event. “Gauleiter” Hanke called for putting an end to the immigration of foreign elements from Eastern Europe and Africa. “You can’t turn Negroes into Germans—a nigger-king from Bugabugaland shouldn’t become mayor of Weimar the city of Friedrich Schiller.”

Then a man named Thomas Dienel, who was introduced as the regional leader, announced that the movement was making headway throughout Saxony and Thuringia. “We are fighting for the repeal of federal law outlawing National Socialist activity and propaganda,” he said. The law had been imposed on a weak Germany by Western imperialists and Jews. He was asked if it was true that he had been a graduate of the Communist Party youth leadership school. “I am sure you know what Bismarck said about this,” he answered. “He said that a man who isn’t a Socialist in his youth has no heart. But if he’s still one after he grows up he has no brains.” One of the foreign reporters wondered if it hadn’t been Churchill who had said that. Dienel shot back: “It wouldn’t be the only thing Churchill stole from us Germans.”

The scene was grotesque, yet I could not help feeling that I had entered a kind of Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, touching a neurotic substructure, a latent epidemic, an uncanny, cruel past. Many Germans insist that these neo-Nazis are only of “folkloric” interest. They point out that there are skinheads in other European countries too and they are right; they give you post office box numbers of a Nazi Auslandsorganisation in Lincoln, Nebraska, and of the White Power Movement in Liverpool, West Virginia, that have been sending out Nazi hate mail and swastikas to recipients in Germany for years without any notable political consequences. I have heard people volunteer that if they had grown up in the socialist squalor of Halle, in the deadly monotony of its unbelievably ugly prefabricated socalled “housing installations,” they too might have ended being skinheads. By brandishing Nazi paraphernalia, the skinheads, so the same people say, are simply trying to get attention on the evening news.

Others are less complacent and insist that societal and psychological upheavals that accompany reunification in East Germany are at least a potential source of danger that should not be easily dismissed. Peter Glotz, a Social Democratic member of the Bundestag, warns against “the foolish nonchalance of the liberal intelligentsia vis-à-vis the continued threat from the right…. In the process of reunification we must be hellishly careful not to fall back on ideas of ‘ethnic purity.’ ” Peter Schneider, the Berlin novelist, says that missionary zeal in the West coupled with disappointed D-Mark patriotism in the East “could produce a very explosive mix.” Most observers agree that “hatred of foreigners,” in its latest, violent form, is a very serious problem. In Halle and elsewhere in what Der Spiegel has called Germany’s “Wild East,” hatred of foreigners is coupled with a fear of losing to immigrants the few available jobs. Jens Reich, a scientist and prominent former human rights activist, warned last summer that the mood in East Germany was “similar to that of Germany in 1929.” Here and there it comes coupled with over anti-Semitism: “Where the Communist Jew is retreating we must fight against the advances of the Capitalist Jew.” According to a public opinion poll last September, 34 percent of all Germans showed “understanding for radical right-wing attitudes” toward foreigners. (In December the percentage was down to 24.)

The German public continues to be inundated with warnings that hordes of foreigners, immigrants, and undeserving seekers of economic or political asylum from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa are about to descend on Germany.* The first anniversary of reunification, last November, coincided with a particularly nasty outburst of ethnic violence in both parts of the country. The historian Wolf Lepenies wrote that hatred of foreigners at that moment seemed the only sentiment East and West Germans had in common. The violence has since been on a more limited scale but it continues. Bonn politicians continue to sound warnings against the dangers of ethnic pluralism. Germany, according to this argument, must not became another United States or Canada. Germany must remain German. There is a lot of loose talk of Uberfremdung (being swamped, dominated by foreign elements)—it sounds like a new version of the old Festung Europa slogan, a bastion of the white (Aryan) race. Prominent politicians have also spoken out in favor of changing the federal constitution of 1949 which, in a burst of postwar shame and idealism, had granted exceptionally liberal rights of asylum in Germany to politically persecuted foreigners. President Weizsäcker, on the other hand, has come out forcefully against all such proposals. Weizsäcker has said that the Wall that fell two years ago between the two Germanies must not be re-erected on the eastern border of the united country.

In cities throughout Germany tens of thousands demonstrated last Christmas against “hatred of foreigners.” Nearly all speakers pointed out the obvious: without the millions of foreign workers, many of them Turks, most public services and several vital industries would collapse. In Leipzig I saw graffiti on the walls that said: FOREIGNERS PLEASE DON’T LEAVE US ALONE WITH THE GERMANS! Others read: LEFTISTS OUT—AND TAKE THE FOREIGNERS WITH YOU! In the municipal theater in Heilbron every night before the curtain goes up the first notes of the German national anthem are played and quickly drowned in the deafening noise of broken glass. An actor appears on stage and recounts the life story of a foreign worker or applicant for asylum. Then the scheduled play starts.

There are many other imaginative public initiatives calling for more tolerance. Kurt Biedenkopf, the prime minister of Saxony, where some of the nastier outbursts against foreign workers occurred last fall, told me that there was hatred of foreigners, and maybe in the future there would be more hatred, but unlike that of the Weimar republic, the system was now sound. It couldn’t be captured by rabble rousers. There is, at least in West Germany, a strong, prosperous, stable middle class, he says. In the Twenties the German middle class never fully accepted democracy. It despised the Weimar republic, it despised democratic parliamentarism, it harked back to the authoritarianism of the past. The new West German middle class is democratic, he says. It has internalized federalism, decentralization, and the free parliamentary game. The extreme right did not win a single seat in the last elections to the Bundestag. (They did however make notable gains in two recent regional elections in Baden-Würtemberg, and Schleswig-Holstein. In these two federal Länder the extreme right, led by a former SS officer, shocked establishment politicans by gaining an unprecedented 12 percent of the popular vote early in April.)

Halle and Leipzig and their out-skirts are among the most polluted places in Central Europe. Nearby Bitterfeld and Leuna (the former Hermann Goering Works) are centers of the East German chemical industry. The stench of brown coal in the winter air was so pervasive when I was there that my eyes often itched badly or teared. Stomach and intestinal infections, according to a Leipzig municipal spokesman, are twice as high in Leipzig than in Frankfurt. I took a deep breath one evening outside the opera in Leipzig and felt as though I was inhaling a heavy cigar. A lady wearing contact lenses said she often saw spots as though she were looking through a dusty car windshield. Brown coal remains East Germany’s main source of energy. It is strip mined in immense open pits. More than a dozen villages south of Leipzig were wiped out after 1945 as new pits were opened up. There isn’t a tree for miles on end.

One morning, as I was driving along a side road south of Leipzig, through the ravished landscape past open pits and the skeletal remains of abandoned or half-abandoned industrial plants, I noticed a faded old sign from another era fixed to a ruined gatehouse saying, DER MARXISMUS DAUERT EWIG (“Marxism lasts forever”). There used to be many signs like that throughout East Germany; now they have disappeared as if they were written in invisible ink. Out here, in the hazy morning air suffused with coal dust and sulphur dioxide the lone remnant had an archaic, evocative quality. It made me wonder what this place was like one and a half centuries ago, when Marx was writing Das Kapital and Engels was supplying him with statistics of child labor in the coal mines. I also wondered what would have become of it—and of East Germany—if the American zone of occupation had reached this far instead of ending some hundred miles away in the West. What if East Germans had not been condemned after the war to practice an especially nasty form of Sado-Marxism for forty-five years? What if they had been allowed to give themselves (within a united Germany or in a separate state) a liberal constitution as the West Germans did in 1949, which, with all its defects, has generally served them quite well—free elections, a free-market economy, a federal government system, a free press, an independent judiciary? The people who inhabit this grim land suffered a terrible (some say “divine”) punishment, wasting and withering in their cage, though many would not have known what they had to atone for. At the very least, the forty-five years of Communist rule under a great lie were a gigantic waste of energy and of time, and to those years must now be added dozens more in which to recover.

(This is the second of two articles.)

  1. *

    See Ian Buruma’s detailed analysis of this problem in The New York Review, April 9, 1992.