Saturday, February 4, 2017

Shy Stasi

From the DW:
"Who's still afraid of the secret police? East Germans shy away from Stasi files"

For many people from the former GDR, the choice is anything but simple: dredge up ghosts of the past, or let them rest? Not everyone is keen to know who had dealings with the secret police. There is perhaps no country on earth as good at remembering as Germany. Its history is everywhere, from omnipresent statues and monuments to national days of mourning, the past is always mixing with the present. But there is one thing, it seems, many Germans would like to forget: just how much the East German secret police, or Stasi, knew about their lives. The Stasi were nothing if not meticulous. Having information on the minutiae of a suspicious person's life would prevent another uprising of the sort that workers staged against the East German government in 1953. That was the idea. It relied on a vast network of unofficial informants who were encouraged, or sometimes threatened, to denounce their family, friends and co-workers. The secret police were also skilled at invading the minds of the citizens they terrorized. After launching a campaign of indiscriminate arrests and sentencing to instill fear, they reeled back to a silent, widespread network of spies and data-gathering.
"They created a mythology of fear to surround themselves. The fear in your head became almost as powerful as having an actual Stasi agent breathing down your neck," Dagmar Hovestädt, the spokeswoman for the National Commissioner for Stasi Records (BStU), told DW. The result of their obsessive surveillance and prolific record keeping is that the BStU is home to some 111 kilometers, or 68 miles, of documents. "If only for the sake of future generations, we need to have a clear understanding of what Communism meant in Germany," said none other than outgoing German President Joachim Gauck, who was the first BStU commissioner when it was set up in the immediate aftermath of reunification in 1991. "Every citizen who was a victim of the illegal regime should have the right to see his or her file."   But have former East Germans really shied away from peering into the past, as new research from the Dresden University of Technology suggests? "We've had about three million requests for personal files, concerning about 2 million individual citizens […] if that's a small portion of 17 million East Germans is a matter of interpretation," said Hovestädt. The disinclination to look into the past was an understandable one, said Hovestädt, but she believes that most people who had seen their files were grateful for the chance to see the truth behind things like why they didn't get into a certain university program, or what happened to that friend who disappeared. "Some people don't want to know who betrayed them. But then others have said they learned that someone they thought informed on them actually protected them. You are able to fill in the blanks of your life." Ingrid, a school teacher who grew up in East Germany and has since moved abroad, told DW that it took her decades to finally gather the courage to look at her file. "The first twenty years, I didn't want to see it. You don't want to know if a friend, or your mother, said something against you. I've heard from others who found out that their husband or wife denounced them." She was forgiving, though, of those who spied for the Stasi. Not only were you trained from birth to please the state, but "you might be afraid for your family, or maybe you yourself did something wrong and needed to make it better. I had a friend who was dating an Irishman who went to our university, and she was afraid he would be deported if she didn't inform on people."  Part of the problem, too, said Ingrid, was the comprehensive nature of the documents. "It's enormous. Photocopies of letters, comments from the local police, from the administration at my dormitory, from my professors and yes, from my family." "It's so cold, this bureaucratic language," she added. "And yet it's your life. I found out they even had details of a vacation we took to Prague. The people who worked at the Czech hotels had informed on our comings and goings." She also told the story of having her application to get married rejected upon the first request, which she hadn't even known about until she saw her file because the process took so long. Ingrid said the lack of interest in one's file could also be due to the fact that for many years after reunification, East Germans had a host of more urgent things on their plates.  "You had a lot of other worries, like whether your university degree was still valid, whether your money was worth anything, what kind of health insurance you now needed." And then, on top of the psychological warfare waged by the Stasi, were the labor pangs of a new Germany, a burden that fell most heavily on the East. "It was like colonialism. Everyone acted like they were under occupation," Ingrid explained. "Suddenly, we were told that our culture, our reality, was history." Many Easterners developed "an us-versus-them mentality" that also kept them from reckoning with the crimes of the old GDR government. Nowadays, Dagmar Hovestädt said, many of the requests are coming from second- and third-generation descendants, for whom it is not so painful to dig up the past. "It's a psychologically delicate matter. That's why we're here. It's your choice."

^ This article says "There is perhaps no country on earth as good at remembering as Germany." That is not really the case. From 1945 until the 1960s it seemed every German had amnesia about anything that happened from 1933-1945 and no one "knew" anything. They either hid their own past or buried their heads in the sand to not know the past. It wasn't until the 2nd and third generations of Germans  - those that had nothing directly to do with World War 2 or the crimes committed  - started looking into what their parents and grandparents had done. It seems the same case with regards to East Germans today. In 1990 they wanted to either hide their own past or buried their heads in the sand to not know the past. Now 28 years later some are looking at their records, but most are the 2nd generation who were either too young at the time or not born yet. It is history repeating itself. There is a main difference in the Gestapo/Nazi past and the Stasi/Communist past for Germany. Nazi Germany lasted 12 years and occupied nearly every part of Europe and Northern Africa. East Germany lasted 45 years and occupied eastern Germany and East Berlin. With that said while the Nazi regime didn't last as long (luckily) it had a wider reach and so more impact on millions of people (not just Germans) whereas East Germany lasted longer, but their reach really extended only those living and visiting East Germany - of course they could always count on their Soviet masters in Moscow for help outside their own territory. This is the overall view of what happened, but the personal aspect is more complicated. I know several people who lived in East Germany - some were too young to know what was really going on, but others were adults at the time. Some were anti-Communists and some were die-hard Communists who were so involved that they were allowed to travel to the "workers' paradise homeland - the Soviet Union. I'm sure at least one of them was an informer (if not more involved) with the Stasi and they wouldn't want that information to be made public now. It took several decades for the Germans to really start remembering their Nazi past and then dealing with it as they are today. I hope it doesn't take them that long this time to remember and deal with their Communist past. Every country has it's good and it's bad. Each have made its mark on what is currently happening. You should praise the good, but also remember and learn from the bad. Hiding from it won't make it go away, but could make it re-appear in the future (as the Nazi and Communist examples have shown us.) ^

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