Archive for July, 2009

July 30, 2009

Michael Jackson targeted by the Stasi

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson – was the King of Pop “Bad” for the East German regime?

SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO die first before you can receive the respect that was withheld from you while you were still breathing, and Michael Jackson is proving this every day.

The outpouring of grief that accompanied the announcement of his death and that was displayed at his lavish funeral have forever drowned out the bad press he earned during his lifetime. Now word of yet another posthumous accolade has hit the newswires, and from a corner no one ever would have expected. However, this tribute was secretly issued already during his lifetime, and it is also a distinction he and I both share. Yes, it seems that Michael Jackson too was paid the honor of having a Stasi file kept on him.

According to documents uncovered by the “Birthler Office” (the government agency in charge of the Stasi files) and presented in the July 30 edition of the German tabloid Bild, the Stasi Hauptabteilung 20 opened a file on the singer on May 4, 1988. The East German regime had long since begun its slow descent into oblivion, and in this atmosphere Michael Jackson’s “Bad Tour” through Europe could only mean more bad news for the “shield and sword of the Party,” as the Stasi called itself. For months the security service had been terrified of the potential danger arising from Jackson’s planned June 19 concert in front of the Reichstag Building in West Berlin, just meters from the Berlin Wall. Agents reported that East German “young people will do everything they can to experience the concert from the area in front of the Brandenburg Gate,” a highly sensitive zone in the divided city. The report went on to say that “unknown young people will deliberately provoke a confrontation with the People’s Police.” The agents specifically feared the arrival of dissidents from across the GDR who wanted to use this opportunity to test the government’s recent agreement with church authorities to permit greater freedom of assembly. These demonstrators actually sought arrest by the security forces in order to embarrass the government. And the more people were arrested, the Stasi warned, the greater the public relations fiasco.

In order to avoid such a scenario, the Division urged that the concert be broadcast live in a stadium in East Berlin, far away from the actual site, with a two-minute delay in case of “political provocations.” If such a disruption occurred (for example in the form of statements by Jackson himself or provocative signs held up by concert-goers), then the organizers were to switch over immediately to a videocassette of an earlier Jackson concert.

In the end, the government decided not to pursue this gentler plan. Fortunately for the regime, Bruce Springsteen was performing elsewhere in East Berlin on June 19. Despite his own incendiary statement in front of 160,000 fans about how he hoped “that one day all the barriers will be torn down,” The Boss may have unwittingly neutralized much of the potential for mayhem. Nevertheless, thousands duly assembled at the Brandenburg Gate and the regime sent the Stasi out in full force. I was living in East Berlin at the time and my fiancée and I were witnesses to this memorable scene, which I have already written about elsewhere:

One evening in June we attended a performance of Schiller’s “Maria Stuart” at the Deutsches Theater. After the performance we noticed “inconspicuous” men in civilian clothes, slouching on street corners in groups of three, eyeing the passersby. The reason was no secret: somehow everyone knew that Michael Jackson was giving a concert in front of the Reichstag that evening, just a few hundred meters from where we were standing, but on the other side of the Wall. Curious to see how the East would respond, we wandered over to Unter den Linden, in plain view of the Brandenburg Gate. Hundreds, soon thousands of young people congregated to hear the music. The Stasi agents also multiplied and uniformed policeman began appearing at intersections. We never heard a note of music that night, but soon voices arose in the crowd calling “The Wall must go!” and “Gorbachev! Gorbachev!” …


July 27, 2009

Goblins in my basement




I don’t recall anyone ever telling me there were goblins in our basement, but I knew they were there. Not that knowing this caused me any worry as long as the sun was shining. Our goblins only came out at night, and I doubt I ever went down there after dusk over all the years I lived in my childhood home. But goblins weren’t the only thing to worry about down there in our grungy dungeon of a cellar. Day or night, I was always terrified of the faceless beings that sat watching among the old suitcases heaped up under the creaky wooden basement steps. I never knew what they were or what they could do to me, but I could always feel them breathing and shifting beneath my feet, biding their time.


I never saw the goblins. But I did dream of them once, and the image has stuck with me ever since. They all looked exactly like the plaster copy of the famous chimère of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral that my father kept on a shelf in his study. There were hundreds of them, all ranging in size from tiny thumb-sized figures on the basement shelves to eight-foot tall monsters sitting on the floor. They didn’t do anything to me, they simply stared… and that was enough to make me jump out of bed, screaming for my life.




My goblins looked a lot like this

The Midwest may seem pretty prosaic to people living on the two coasts, and yet my hometown was as spooky as medieval Prague when it came to spirits and scary things that were liable to snatch you away at the dead of night if you didn’t stay under the covers. My own bedroom was swarming with them. The worst of all was The Old Man, a short and entirely hairless greenish imp who lived under my bed and who would have reached up and yanked me down if I had ever let even a single toe stray over the edge of my mattress. This made things difficult if you had to get up in the middle of the night. In this case, the trick was to set your feet down together and then just keep moving…




July 25, 2009

A cold case heats up: The mystery of Rosa Luxemburg

On May 31, 2009 I posted an article about the discovery of a nameless, headless torso in the medical historical museum of Berlin’s Charité hospital. In it I relate how in the spring of this year the museum’s director, the forensic pathologist Michael Tsokos, announced his long-held suspicion that this body fragment could well be the mortal remains of the German-Polish communist leader Rosa Luxemburg, who was murdered by government troops and thrown into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal in the wake of the failed Spartacus Uprising of January, 1919.

Tsokos was pinning his hopes on a DNA test for which he needed samples. Unfortunately, the possible sources I listed in the article, including a distant relative in Poland and a lock of Luxemburg’s hair supposedly preserved in the United States by descendants of one of Luxemburg’s lovers, all turned out to be dead ends. In the meantime, however, a previously unknown relative has surfaced in the Negev desert. 79 year-old Irene Borde is the granddaughter of Luxemburg’s brother. She grew up in the Soviet Union and emigrated to Israel in 1973. Today she works as a professor of process engineering at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba. In mid-July she sent a lock of her own hair to Tsokos for comparison with genetic material extracted from the parched liver of the museum’s unidentified “floater.”

Rosa Luxemburg at the Charite

Is this “floater” all that is left of the
revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg?

One might expect a descendant of the woman whom the German Left today regard as their patron saint to cash in on her celebrity. And yet it shouldn’t surprise us that Borde has not exactly sought the limelight. Under Stalin, Luxemburg (who is best known for her anti-Leninist remark that “freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”) was as hated as Trotsky, and even East German communists were less than comfortable with her legacy. “In the Soviet Union, our association with the name Luxemburg brought us nothing but disadvantages,” she told the German tabloid Welt am Sonntag. All the same, Borde calls herself “the guardian of the Luxemburg family legacy,” with a collection of photo albums, memorabilia, and family stories. Regardless of the results of the DNA test, she may prove to be a valuable source of information for historians.


July 24, 2009

Why I hate “The Lives of Others”

Ulrich Mühe in "The Lives of Others"

Ulrich Mühe in "The Lives of Others"

As William Dean Howells once told Edith Wharton, “Americans only want tragedies with happy endings.” And not just Americans, it seems, but also Germans along with everyone else on this punch-drunk planet who is able to afford the price of a movie ticket.

Whenever I tell people that I once lived for sixth months in old East Berlin and even wrote a whole book on ideology and propaganda in that troubled society, they almost always tell me how much they adore Florian Henckell von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film The Lives of Others. To them, this movie tells the true story of the East German experience and has redeemed their faith in humanity. Hmm, I always say. How can that be? Because to my mind the young West German director’s debut epos is not just manipulative filmmaking but presents a profoundly flawed history lesson. Is my negative take on this Oscar winner – which made number one on The National Review‘s “list of the 25 best conservative movies of the last 25 years” – merely a product of my imagined superior taste in movies or did the totalitarian experience sour me on “humanity” in general? Or is the scholar and history instructor in me rearing his head again? Since it is hard to explain my feelings to its devotees during a brief elevator ride, let alone amid the hubbub of a cocktail party, I think I owe an incredulous world a thorough explanation of why this movie is reactionary, radioactive rubbish and why they too should consider giving it a miss the next time it hits their local art house.

Before doing so I feel obliged to point out that my disdain for The Lives of Others does not in any way extend to fans of the film. On the contrary! Anyone who is willing to sit through two hours of gloomy Central European melodrama with colorless sets and pretentious subtitles has earned my respect. I also suspect that if I did not have such an intimate acquaintance with the realities of the East German regime, there is at least an outside chance that I might also think it was “the best movie I ever saw” (William F. Buckley). But I think nothing of the kind – and here’s why.

A Marxist-Leninist Christmas Carol

The Lives of Others tells the story of Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler, a professional spy and manipulator, who in 1984 receives orders to bug and then personally eavesdrop on the apartment of a politically suspect playwright called Georg Dreyman in order to detect suspicious activities or statements that could be used to prosecute him. The real reason for this mission, Wiesler soon learns, is that an East German government minister wants to eliminate Dreyman – King David-style – in order to make a move on the writer’s girlfriend, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland, who also happens to be a personal favorite of Wiesler. The more Wiesler learns about the couple and their ultra-cool intellectual lifestyle (complete with a luxurious bourgeois apartment, zillions of books, a vibrant social life, and plenty of hot sex), the more he sympathizes not only with the lovely Christa-Maria, but also with her lover, Dreyman. Then, after listening to Dreyman play a piece of music called “Sonata for a Good Man” on the piano and discovering the poems of Bertolt Brecht, Wiesler is spontaneously transformed into “a good man” himself and begins falsifying his reports to protect the couple from the Stasi and the minister. Tragic events ensue, both Christa-Maria and Wiesler sacrifice themselves, each in their own way, but Dreyman survives unharmed until reunification and dedicates his latest novel – appropriately entitled Sonata for a Good Man – to his invisible guardian angel. Not exactly a happy ending, but certainly a redemptive one that makes everyone feel really, really good about themselves.

Continued here…