Surviving in Stasiland

The Berlin Wall budged open for the first time on this day in 1963 when, after two years of separation, thousands of West Berliners were granted a one-day Christmas visit to their East German friends and relatives. Seeing an opportunity to be political as well as compassionate, the East German authorities gave each West German visitor a brochure explaining that their “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” (the official Communist term for the Wall) had been built to “protect our borders against the hostile attacks of the imperialists.”

The Wall and the GDR would last for another quarter century, the ramparts manned by the army of sentinels who worked for or ratted to State Security, the infamous and pervasive Stasi:

At the end, the Stasi had 97,000 employees — more than enough to oversee a country of seventeen million people. But it also had over 173,000 informers among the population. In Hitler’s Third Reich it is estimated that there was one Gestapo agent for every 2000 citizens, and in Stalin’s USSR there was one KGB agent for every 5830 people. In the GDR there was one Stasi officer or informant for every sixty-three people. If part-time informers are included, some estimates have the ratio as high as one informer for every 6.5 citizens.

The quotation above is from Anna Funder’s award-winning Stasiland (2011), which tells “Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall,” tales of real-life ruin as gripping as the one told in The Lives of Others, the recent, Oscar-winning film. One is of Frau Paul, whose son was born with severe stomach problems. Paul and her husband were denied Stasi permission to travel to the West to obtain life-giving medicine: “If your son is as sick as all that,” the security officials told them, “it would be better if he [died].” The boy’s East German doctors managed to smuggle him out; when the Pauls tried to join him, they were caught and given four years at hard labor. Countless similar stories, says Funder, lie within the mountain of secret citizen files collected by Big Brother Stasi:

It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasized through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub.… In its forty years, “the Firm” generated the equivalent of all records in German history since the middle ages.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.