Posted by: Hackney Tours | April 21, 2009

Stasi’s slow suffocation of the soul

Who watches the watchers?

This week we’ve been drawing towards the end of the brilliant Stasiland. Some things in life are so subtle and insidious in the way they wreak their destruction, that it’s hard to convey the level of harm they do without sounding histrionic. But Anna Funder‘s work steadily plots the low-key psychological violence that lay behind the Stasi’s bid to control every aspect of the GDR citizen’s life.

Why draw attention to your organisation’s existence with a high profile execution when, using your network of coerced informants, you can quietly engineer a nervous breakdown for your target? Many never found out that it was not life conspiring against them, but the state.

It is this power, pulling invisible strings and playing God, that gives a stalker their thrill. Being in the secret police rewarded you for taking the path of least resistance and following your more base instincts. In a country of empty shelves, power was the only way to really feel one-up on your supposedly equal peers. And there were perks; if you were going to be thorough in your monitoring, then you had to listen to everything the target did. Who knows what you might hear through pillow talk?

Of course everybody knew the Stasi were everywhere, but doublethink was a key part of the denial and backwards-rationalisation that enabled the regime to exist. Many of the agents of the system knew what they were doing was ridiculous, but in that Emperor’s New Clothes culture the shops were full and everyone was happy, if the Party said so.

Listening to people in the former Eastern Bloc lament the passing of an era where ‘you knew where you were’, you could lull yourself into a 6th form common room rose-tinted view of communism. God only knows – or rather He doesn’t because He didn’t officially exist behind the Iron Curtain – that communism looks good on paper.

But reading the intensely personal accounts of state persecution that Funder recorded, one becomes increasingly incredulous at such extreme cynicism; in a culture of suspicion where it seems flippant to apply that overused adjective ‘Kafka-esque’.

The subject – and there were many given there was a Stasi employee for at least every 10 people – was presumed guilty until proven guilty. With a relentless drip of propaganda and the steady application of duress, the authorities corroded the individual’s integrity and morality.

They undermined the most basic bonds of humanity in a whole society, to prop up a worldview they only half-believed themselves. Like a twisted pyramid scheme, a citizen who was under suspicion could make it easy on themselves by informing on another suspect, who was informing on someone else who was spying on somone else…

The Nazi war machine, with its industrial might, used the direct route: bullets. But with the GDR’s threadbare infrastructure and austere economy, and the need to create jobs to maintain full employment, it suited the Nazis’ successors to maintain this huge and hidden army of grey men to slowly drain the life out of the individual.

They called themselves the Sword and the Shield of the Party but, in the same way that Prussia was described as ‘not as a state with an army, but an army with a state’ (and coincidentally the geographical boundaries overlap), this was a secret police force with a country.

It’s fascinating, if slightly wearing for anyone with any capacity for empathy. One’s rising incredulity is inversely proportional to the characters’ dwindling reservoirs of self-belief; slowly ebbing away as a ‘template for undermining’ takes its toll.

They certainly killed people, using locations in Leipzig and Dresden for secret executions, and Putin was stationed in Dresden as the local KGB presence. But for the majority of their victims, they preferred to wear them down until they became a shell of their former selves. They called it Operational Psychology.

And if you finally accepted you never going to make it to the West, it was tempting to retreat instead into your own mind. This withdrawl from daily life even had a name, ‘internal emigration’. Some might say that was the biggest crime of all. Not the killing of hundreds, but the burying of Hope for millions.


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