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The Stasi on Our Minds’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Stasi on Our Minds from the May 31, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

I agree with Timothy Garton Ash’s warm appreciation of The Lives of Others [“The Stasi on Our Minds,” NYR, May 31], but I differ with him about the reality of East Germany it misses. Like him, I worked for a year in the “DDR.” I lived from 1962 until 1963 in West Berlin, but my teaching responsibility in a church-sponsored evening school in the East took me through Checkpoint Charlie four or five days a week. My job put me in touch with East Germans, men and women, from all walks of life, but unlike Garton Ash, I never once found it boring. Being bored is often more a commentary on ourselves than on our environment. East Berliners, rightly distrustful of their newspapers and TV, savored long intimate conversations and deep personal friendships. They had time for each other, and for me; and I was never bored.

I also disagree with Garton Ash that those of us who are suspicious of the contents of many Stasi files often viewed the DDR through “rose-tinted spectacles.” No one I knew in East Berlin was deceived by that despicable regime. I also have a file in the Stasi archives, and I know from experience how rotten the system was. I was detained and interrogated on three occasions, and I certainly harbored no illusions. But I still believe that we should view what is in those thousands of folders with a high degree of wariness. Agents often lied to gain the favor of their superiors. They sometimes exaggerated what they had learned from people who made routine visits to apply for travel permits. And as The Lives of Others itself shows, corrupt higher-ups could fabricate groundless charges to get someone out of their way. Alas, I am afraid, die Akten do often lügen. And those lies can hurt innocent people.

Today, across the border in Poland, a witch-hunt called “lustration” is on for anyone who allegedly “collaborated” in any way with the Communist regime. It has reached such an absurd level that even Lech Walesa has been accused. But neither Communist Poland nor East Germany was, as Garton Ash rightly says, a black-and-white situation. Some East Germans genuinely hoped their country might eventually move in the direction Dubcek later led Czechoslovakia. So they did not flee to the West. They stayed, and tried to make a small difference in a hard place. They may have been naive, but they were neither cowards nor traitors. Trusting the files too much could inadvertently hand the Stasi an undeserved posthumous victory.

Von Donnersmarck’s brilliant film has taken the lid off a truly dark era, but there is much more to say about that era, and how different people, in different ways, coped with the darkness.

Harvey Cox

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

Timothy Garton Ash accuses me of “chronic myopia” for concluding in my 1977 book, Socialism with a German Face, that the German Democratic Republic was “a presentable model of the kind of authoritarian welfare states which Eastern European nations have now become.”

The charge is odd because the GDR was clearly authoritarian, in spite of its self-assigned “Democratic” tag. It was a Sozialstaat as opposed to a Rechtsstaat (a state based on law). As for “presentable,” I did not use the word in the sense of that wonderful German adjective salonfähig, but simply as “worth looking at.” Was one, to continue the ophthalmic metaphor, supposed to turn a blind eye to the GDR and pretend it did not exist?

Many shared my view, including the Social Democratic Party/Free Democrat Party coalition government which took power in the Federal Republic in 1969. It produced regular “state of the nation” volumes that compared living standards and public institutions in both German states.

The 1974 volume, Materialien zum Bericht der Lage der Nation 1974, had 594 pages, only one of which mentioned the Stasi. It included a survey of 2,026 West Germans by the respected Munich-based polling company Infratest. (There was obviously no opportunity to conduct a similar survey of East Germans.) They were asked their views on eighteen issues, ranging from crime and divorce rates to political freedom. On six, West Germans gave East Germany a higher rating than their own state in welfare terms.

More West Germans felt there were equal education opportunities in East Germany than felt this was true for West Germany. The same went for low rents, health protection, encouraging science and technology, and benefits for young people. They were also asked what they expected from German unification, which the vast majority said was highly desirable but unlikely. As many as 59 percent said unification “would mean that we in the Federal Republic will take on the GDR’s positive social achievements.”

Astonishingly (as it seems now), in a country normally portrayed as one of the most pro-NATO during the cold war, 50 percent thought united Germany would be “militarily neutral.”

It is important to recall these attitudes from the 1970s. Since the Berlin Wall fell, a near monopoly over the English-language discussion of the GDR and other Warsaw Pact states has been achieved by writers on the center-right. With the exception of Günter Grass, the same is true in Germany, where post–cold war triumphalism has not yet abated. Highlighting the Stasi’s role and attempting to project the GDR as heir to Nazi Germany are part of this.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmark’s excellent film The Lives of Others does not make an explicit Nazi connection. A small but key moment—unmentioned in Garton Ash’s review—is its reference to Mikhail Gorbachev’s selection as Soviet leader. The revolts of 1989 throughout Eastern Europe were “licensed revolutions,” to which Moscow gave an amber, if not a full green, light. This was especially true in the GDR, where Gorbachev publicly warned Honecker to make changes or risk being swept away. The view that “the people of East Germany rose up” is romantic but not the whole story.

Jonathan Steele

International Affairs Columnist

The Guardian

London

Timothy Garton Ash replies:

Like Professor Cox, I was not bored in East Berlin. In fact, I found it far more interesting than West Berlin at that time. Like him, I savoured those intense, serious conversations and deep personal friendships, not least with men and women from the remarkable milieu of the East German Protestant churches. I wrote then and subsequently about the “hidden treasures” of life in the East. However, we must be cautious about any historical or moral generalization that we seek to make from that experience. After all, as Westerners we could leave at any time we wanted, whereas most East Germans were stuck behind the Wall. (Professor Cox notes in passing that he actually lived in West Berlin; I was at least able to share the practical discomforts of living in the East for some time.) What right have we to say that it was not boring for them? One reason we benefited from such marvelous, intimate soul-barings was that our East German friends could be rather confident that they could trust us, without fear of our being Stasi informers. And for them we were also privileged, intriguing emissaries from a wider world. In short: we enjoyed the wine, they were the grapes that got trampled to make it.

He has then conflated two quite separate points: one about Westerners viewing East Germany through rose-tinted spectacles—in the late 1970s, incidentally, not the early 1960s, when he was there—the other about the dubious reliability of the Stasi files as historical sources. For a detailed examination of the reliability of the Stasi files, based on extensive reading both in and around them, I refer him to my book, The File: A Personal History. For my own criticism of the farcical parody of so-called “lustration” in Poland, I would refer him and other readers to my column in The Guardian, May 24, 2007.

Jonathan Steele merely confirms my observation about rose-tinted spectacles in the 1970s. Yes, he was not alone in his myopia. As he rightly points out, many West Germans, including those carefully surveyed for official publications by respectable polling organizations, shared it. Exactly so.

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