THE NOTION OF “POLITICAL Correctness” has taken plenty of knocks over the past two decades or so. Alongside the traditional grounds for discrimination complaints, i.e. race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion, new terms seemed to pop up daily: old people were now victims of “ageism,” ugly people suffered from “lookism,” short people became “vertically challenged,” and the impotent became “horizontally challenged” (although I always suspected this last one was meant a joke). What would “they” come up with next? the critics asked. For example, could the mere accident of birth in a certain region of a country be considered grounds for job discrimination? A former East German woman certainly thought so and took her case to court…
EVERY MORNING, ABOUT HALFWAY into my daily jog along Gartenstrasse towards the old West Berlin district of Wedding, my feet pass over a double row of bricks set into the pavement. A metal plaque identifies this seam, which zigzags through the German capital, as the route of the former Berlin Wall. Turning onto Bernauer Strasse, I pass by the weathered gray slabs of the Wall itself and then encounter the cylindrical Reconciliation Chapel, built on the site of the old brick Reconciliation Church, which used to stand smack in the middle of the free fire zone between the two halves of the city and which the East German regime consequently dynamited in 1985. After working up a good sweat, I double back onto Strelitzer Strasse. There I catch a glimpse of a plaque marking this gray East Berlin house as the endpoint of the famous 1964 tunnel which, the sign notes, was shut down after a Stasi agent betrayed the escape route to his minders. A few minutes later I step into the shower and am soon ready to begin a normal working day.
And yet, I can remember a time when this routine jog would have been even less plausible than a non-stop sprint to Vladivostok. It was the summer of 1987. After spending a few weeks with my new East German girlfriend in Berlin, I headed back to the States to continue my graduate studies. As the weeks passed, our suspicion turned to fact: she was pregnant. And not just pregnant, we learned as autumn turned to winter, but pregnant with twins. …
The makeshift refugee camp outside the West German
embassy in Prague, August-September 1989
PRAGUE MEANS MANY THINGS to many people. It is the site of the infamous “defenestration” of 1618, which marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War. It is the home of Alfons Maria Mucha and the decadent, absinth-crazed dreamers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s delicious fin-de-siècle. It is the mist-shrouded metropolis of Rabbi Loew and Franz Kafka. It is the seat of “Reich Protector” Reinhard Heydrich, psychopath extraordinaire. To today’s young backpackers it is the party capital of Europe. But for anyone living in Central Europe in those years, the Prague of September 30, 1989 represents a historical turning point none of us will ever forget.
Erich Honecker and his communist German Democratic Republic were living on borrowed time. Encouraged by the growing success of the Solidarnosc movement in Poland and by democratic reforms recently introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, East Germany’s Protestant churches finally took heart in the summer of 1988 . In church gatherings and in small private meetings they called upon their own members and GDR citizens as a whole to ensure that the local elections scheduled for May 7, 1989 be conducted on a democratic basis. As a rule, elections in communist countries are a mere formality – public acclamations of the status quo – and voters stay away from the polls at their own risk. But this time, a new generation of activists were urging their fellow citizens to make use of the limited democratic structures included in the East German constitution by demanding reforms and also by nominating candidates of their own choosing. …
Seal of the German Democratic Republic (1949-89)
A COUPLE OF YEARS ago, I was struck by what I thought was a wonderful idea for a book. Over coffee and cake in her tiny flat overlooking the Neisse River in Saxony, a relative of mine by marriage had just begun recounting her own experiences as an immigrant from West Germany to the communist-ruled German Democratic Republic in the 1960s. The Berlin Wall had gone up only a couple of years before. It seems that while the East German regime actively recruited new settlers, it hardly welcomed them with open arms. As my relative described it, the procedure involved spending several weeks in a Stasi-run relocation camp – a sort of crucible of the Cold War – where people like her were carefully interrogated and otherwise vetted before those deemed suitable were allowed to embark on new lives in “the better Germany.” The reasons her fellow applicants confided to her for wanting to make the move across the Iron Curtain provided a fascinating snapshot of the human condition. These motives ranged from a simple desire for gainful employment and moving love stories to (less frequently) genuine belief in the communist state’s Marxist-Leninist ideals.
What a discovery! This story combined the drama of the Titanic sinking with the philosophical speculation of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. All you’d have to do, I figured, was get hold of the files and you’d have a truly fascinating little volume on your hands. Not that I wanted to take on the project, mind you. I had other fish to fry. And so I was truly excited to discover historian Bernd Stöver’s brand new book Zuflucht DDR. Spione und andere Übersiedler (“The GDR as a refuge: Spies and other immigrants”).
Is this the book I’ve been waiting for? Not exactly, but it comes awfully close. Stöver spends relatively little time on the human interest stories that first aroused my curiosity and instead focuses on nine more or less famous personalities…
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!” …
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.