Professor Gary Bruce is Chairman of the Department of History at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. He is also the author of The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi, published earlier this month by Oxford University Press. Based on previously classified documents and on interviews with former secret police officers and ordinary citizens, The Firm is the first comprehensive history of East Germany’s secret police at the grassroots level.
The Stasi made what might have been its most memorable appearance in popular culture a few years ago in the riveting Academy Award-winning film The Lives of Others. Urged by a friend to see the film when it was released in the United States, Bill Buckley thought that it might have been the best he ever saw. Buckley went so far as to declare the film a “holy vessel of expiation.”
For those of us whose interest in the Stasi was piqued by the film, I asked Professor Bruce if he would expand on his references to the film in his book. Professor Bruce has graciously responded with this timely and illuminating column:
I was at a cocktail party in the affluent Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf shortly after the movie The Lives of Others was released. Since the host was a retired optometrist, many of the guests were of his cohort – well-to-do, sophisticated, and life-long West Berliners; even today, because of the endless border controls they faced, some of them oppose in a knee-jerk fashion family requests for a leisurely drive in the countryside around the capital. Twenty-eight years of being surrounded by a wall will do that to you.
One guest, an elegant woman in her 50s who almost seemed part of the décor of antiques and decanters, engaged me in conversation about The Lives of Others. She enthused about the film for its human portrayal of Stasi officers. “You see,” she said, “They were not all bad. There were also some Stasi officers who were good people.”
She was referring to the fictional Stasi captain of the film, Gerd Wiesler, played by Ulrich Mühe, who was assigned to monitor the oppositional playwright Georg Dreyman. From his listening post in the attic, Wiesler comes to know the intimate life of his subject, is moved by the music and poetry he is exposed to in the course of surveillance, and ends up as a quasi-guardian angel for Dreyman and his companion, for whom he has developed more than just a passing fondness.
In some interpretations of the film, Wiesler becomes the “‘good man” of the sonata Dreyman plays while Wiesler listens in. Apart from a major historical inaccuracy that makes the entire premise fall apart (a Stasi officer of that rank would never have been the one donning the surveillance headphones), there was not one instance among the hundreds of thousands of Stasi employees over the course of the nearly 40 year existence of the Ministry for State Security when an officer went over to the opposition in the manner suggested by the film.
I believe that many scholars and interested observers of former Communist Eastern Europe would accept my conservation companion’s suggestion that the “good” can be separated from the “bad” in the Communist dictatorships, as if we are dealing with wheat and chaff. Erich Honecker’s day cares, for example, are frequently cited in a manner not dissimilar to how Hitler’s highways once were, and, like early post-war scholarship that failed to evaluate the crippling cost of those highways, few accounts relate an important fact regarding East German state-run daycare – it was a monopoly. For many parents, but especially those from a religious milieu, Honecker’s day cares were nothing to boast about.
Part of my aim in writing The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi was to demonstrate just how exceedingly difficult it is to separate the utopian, humanitarian projects of the now defunct East German state from its instruments of repression. The health care system offers an obvious case in point. There is no denying that many health care workers were dedicated professionals who worked hard at their trades, often spending countless hours preparing educational materials on pressing health issues such as diabetes, obesity, and alcoholism.
It is also true that the Poliklinik system of medical care, which gathered under one roof medical professionals, labs, and radiology facilities, has much organizational merit. These might be considered similar to outpatient mini-hospitals that one finds in certain North American cities, which can deal with most medical issues short of major surgery. Up to forty physicians and two hundred nonmedical staff provided medical care in Polikliniken for a wide range of issues, from immunization to counseling for people questioning their sexuality.
Health care in East Germany, however, did not exist as an oasis from repression. Take the case of Informant “Joseph Nöcker,” chief of medicine at a regional hospital north of Berlin. The Stasi recruited him primarily to prevent medical professionals from fleeing East Germany but also because of the strategic position of the hospital. It had a special surgical unit for victims of car crashes off the nearby Transit route F96 to West Germany. The informant would therefore be in a position to provide the Stasi with information on suspicious accidents involving Westerners or people in transit to and from West Germany.
For just over a decade, “Nöcker” provided information on fellow physicians and on patients, thereby breaking his Hippocratic oath . This was a criminal offence in East Germany, but not when one was in the service of the Stasi. Because of his loyal service, the Stasi arranged for him to visit West Berlin where he received treatment for a lethal wasp allergy, and obtained a spot for his daughter in Humboldt University’s medical school.
This case was not an exceptional one. About 1 in 20 physicians in East Germany were Stasi informants, and most of those holding senior administrative positions in hospitals would either be “formal” informants or “informal” contact people for the Stasi. The regional hospital in Magdeburg-Altstadt, for example, had 31 informants, two of whom were high-ranking physicians.
On the basis of examples like these, I argue that the Stasi was too closely entwined into the very mesh of society for scholars to set aside repression while they investigate the “not so evil” aspects of the East German dictatorship.
Florian von Donnersmarck, director of The Lives of Others, is no doubt aware that the good and the bad were inseparable in East Germany. After all, his main character does not leave the Stasi after his alleged crisis of conscience, but continues to work for it – opening ordinary Germans’ mail for the next five years.
If you haven’t seen The Lives of Others or acquainted yourself with Professor Bruce’s book, you should. You can also hear Professor Bruce discuss the book in his PJM interview with Ed Driscoll.