Tyranny of terror



Tyranny of terror

The Lives of Others is about a Stasi man who shows a little mercy.
Impossible, says Anna Funder. The GDR spies couldn’t have done it – and wouldn’t
have wanted to

Saturday May 5, 2007

People’s ideas of beauty differ. East Germany, with all its harshness and
hideousness, has always been beautiful to me. This is partly to do with personal
history – the most courageous people I have ever met came from there. But it is
also because the real history remained visible in the East. In West Germany, by
the time I was an adult, everything was plastered over and pristine, the past
put away under innocuous plaques or confined to memorial sites. But in East
Berlin, the buildings of Mitte were pockmarked with gunshot holes from communist
and Nazi street fights in the 1920s; the cornices and pediments of bombed
buildings stuck out through the grass of the Volkspark Friedrichshain; the paint
went only halfway up the buildings on my street – a promenade boulevard –
because that’s all the GDR TV cameras would show. East Germany was a regime
built on lies, but it literally couldn’t afford to cover up its past. I don’t
begrudge anyone their post-1989 renovations, but to my mind beauty and truth
remain related.

Despite the discomfort of friends of mine who suffered under the regime, some of
whom are refusing to see Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others,
I think the film deserves its public and critical acclaim. It is a superb film,
a thing of beauty. But its story is a fantasy narrative that could not have
taken place (and never did) under the GDR dictatorship. The film has, then, an
odd relation to historical truth, a truth that is being bitterly fought for now.

The Lives of Others is about a Stasi man, Gerd Wiesler, whose task is to find
incriminating material on the writer Georg Dreyman by spying on him and his
girlfriend, a famous actress. Installed in the attic of the couple’s building
with his surveillance equipment, Wiesler listens to their conversations,
telephone calls, lovemaking. Gradually, exposed to the higher values of art and
the broader thinking of his victims, his blind obedience wanes. He falls in love
with the actress, and he has a change of heart: he tries to save the couple from
the depredations of his own organisation. In the final scene of the film, set in
the 1990s, Wiesler opens up Dreyman’s new novel, titled Sonata for a Good Man.
Dreyman has dedicated it to the former Stasi man "in gratitude". "That," as
Günter Bormann of the Stasi File Authority said to me, "is hard to bear."

No Stasi man ever tried to save his victims, because it was impossible. (We’d
know if one had, because the files are so comprehensive.) Unlike Wiesler, who
runs a nearly solo surveillance operation and can withhold the results from his
superior, totalitarian systems rely on thoroughgoing internal surveillance
(terror) and division of tasks. The film doesn’t accurately portray the way
totalitarian systems work, because it needs to leave room for its hero to act
humanely (something such systems are designed to prevent). It’s worth looking at
the reality of what the Stasi did, and the current relations between them and
their victims, to get a sense of where this beautiful fiction sits over that
uglier truth.

It is now 10 years since I began speaking with former resisters of the
regime, and with former Stasi men, for what became my book Stasiland. At that
time, seven years after the fall of the Berlin wall, shocking revelations about
the regime were still emerging in the media: the surreptitious, deadly
irradiation of dissidents; the imprisonment of children as punishment to their
parents; the lunatic plans to invade West Berlin. The thoroughness of the regime
was horrifying: it accumulated, in the 40 years of its existence, more written
records than in all of German history since the Middle Ages. East Germany was
run on fear and betrayal: at least one in 50 people – by CIA estimates, one in
seven – were informing on their relatives, friends, neighbours and colleagues.
People were horrified to discover what had happened, again, in their country;
what human beings were capable of. And they were numbed by shame.

Now, it’s a different story. Groups of ex-Stasi are becoming increasingly
belligerent. They write articles and books, and conduct lawsuits against people
who speak out against them, including against the German publisher of Stasiland
(page 84, containing allegations about the activities of ex-Stasi in the 1990s,
has had to be deleted from new editions). Last year, in March, a group of some
200 ex-Stasi protested with loudhailers outside Hohenschönhausen in Berlin,
which was the GDR’s main prison for political prisoners. It is now a memorial
museum about the regime. They demanded it be shut down, and objected to the
words "Communist Dictatorship" proposed for plaques in nearby streets. And they
poured scorn on their former victims – some of whom now take tours through the
prison. A friend told me how ex-Stasi men sometimes insinuate themselves into
the tours she conducts. As she tells the story of her persecution and
imprisonment, they heckle from the back, "Rubbish! Lies! You’re just a common
criminal!" Sensitivities among victims’ groups are running understandably high.
The opening shot of The Lives of Others is set at Hohenschönhausen prison, but
it wasn’t filmed there. Dr Hubertus Knabe, the director of the memorial, refused
von Donnersmarck permission.

The publicity notes to the film claim "the greatest authenticity" and
"never-before-seen accuracy", and cite many prominent historians of the GDR. It
may well be the first realistic portrayal of the GDR. Earlier, kitscher films
such as Sonnenallee and Goodbye Lenin! might be thought of as part of the
"Ostalgie" phase of the denial of the GDR reality. They minimised the role of
the Stasi.

To understand why a Wiesler could not have existed is to understand the
"total" nature of totalitarianism. Knabe talks of the fierce surveillance within
the Stasi of its own men, of how in a case like Dreyman’s there might have been
a dozen agents: everything was checked and cross-checked. This separation of
duties gives some former Stasi men the impression that they were just "obeying
orders", or were "small cogs" in the machine, and that therefore they couldn’t
have done much harm. Perhaps this is partly why repentance like Wiesler’s is
rare. To my mind, hoping for salvation to come from the change of heart of a
perpetrator is to misunderstand the nature of bureaucratised evil – the way
great harms can be inflicted in minute, "legal" steps, or in decisions by
committees carried out by people "just doing their jobs".

Part of Wiesler’s comeuppance is that, after the fall of the wall, he is seen
distributing junk mail to people’s letterboxes. The ex-Stasi are vociferous in
their claims of being "victims of democracy". But the truth is that, by and
large, they are doing much better in the new Germany than the people they
oppressed. They have the educations and solid work histories they denied their
victims. Many of them were snapped up by security firms and private detective
agencies eager for their considerable expertise, or they went into business,
skilled as they are – to perhaps an unholy degree – in "managing" people.
Surprisingly often, they sold property and insurance, occupations unknown in the
Soviet bloc. (I think they had a head start here – after all, they were schooled
in the art of convincing people to do things against their better judgment.)

Knabe is no doubt correct about the internal surveillance of the Stasi making
it physically impossible for a Stasi man to try to save people. But in my
experience, the more frightening thing is that they didn’t want to. The
institutional coercion made these men into true believers; it shrank their
consciences and heightened their tolerance for injustice and cruelty "for the

Von Donnersmarck spent four years researching the film, and knows as well as
anyone that there is no case of a Stasi man trying to save victims. He has said:
"I didn’t want to tell a true story as much as explore how someone might have
behaved. The film is more of a basic expression of belief in humanity than an
account of what actually happened." The terrible truth is that the Stasi provide
no material for a "basic expression of belief in humanity". For expressions of
conscience and courage, one would need to look to the resisters. It is this
choice, to make a film about the change of heart of a Stasi man, that turns the
film, for some, into an inappropriate – if unconscious – plea for absolution of
the perpetrators.

Dr Knabe objects to "making the Stasi man into a hero". He recounts that von
Donnersmarck "would not be persuaded otherwise", and notes that the director
cited Schindler’s List as justification for what he planned to do. "But that is
exactly the difference," Knabe says. "There was a Schindler. There was no

The system demanded such loyalty, in fact, that most ex-Stasi are still true
believers. A story such as Wiesler’s plays into their hands as they fight for
their reputation. "There is a kind of creeping rehabilitation going on," says
Knabe. "Germany failed to prosecute communist-era crimes, except in a very few
instances. This was a criminal system. But now all we’re supposed to remember is
the factory jobs and good day care."

Joseph Conrad wrote: "Art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to
render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light
the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect." But drama has its own
imperatives. At the end of his "director’s statement", von Donnersmarck writes:
"More than anything else, The Lives of Others is a human drama about the ability
of human beings to do the right thing, no matter how far they have gone down the
wrong path." This is an uplifting thought. But what is more likely to save us
from going down the wrong path again is recognising how human beings can be
trained and forced into faceless systems of oppression, in which conscience is

It is the way totalitarian regimes work, and how we are vulnerable to them,
and how we deal afterwards with the perpetrators, that are the questions raised
by the reaction to The Lives of Others. These questions in relation to the Stasi
regime are still tender spots in the German psyche because of the Nazi regime
that preceded it. Was a change of heart and rebellion within the ranks of the
oppressors possible? If we imagine the perpetrators as good-hearted people
caught in a system not of their making (ie victims of a kind), where does that
leave the Jews, or the true GDR heroes, the dissidents?

The battle for the reputation of the Stasi men currently being waged in the
media, the entertainment business, the courts, in personal intimidation of
former victims and in demonstrations on the streets of Berlin cannot be
understood without understanding that it is being waged with the Third Reich in
the back of everyone’s minds. The Stasi men are furiously fighting so as not to
go down in history as the second lot of incontestable bogeymen thrown up by
20th-century Germany. And many Germans themselves are deeply uncomfortable about
recognising the chilling inhumanity of this, the second dictatorship on their

Several times on my book tour in 2004, in both former West and former East
Germany, a sad and telling question was asked. At the end of the reading, after
any ex-Stasi who were there had left, someone would say, "What is it about us
Germans, do you think, that makes us do these things?" By "these things" they
meant the totalitarian and administrative cruelties of the Nazi and the Stasi
regimes. I have no answer; I do not think they are particularly German things to
do. But there is such terror and tragedy in the question that I can see why a
fable of forgiveness might hit the mark.

· The Lives of Others (15) is on general release. Anna Funder is the
author of Stasiland (Granta)

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