The Conscience of a Stasi Officer

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Why did East
Germany remain one of the most rigidly Stalinist states in Europe,
well into the 1980s when glasnost was blossoming elsewhere
in the Eastern Bloc?

Immediately
after World War II, most Soviet satellites saw the establishment
of one-party dictatorships with native Communist leaders hand-picked
by Moscow. But East Germany remained a Soviet military "occupied
territory" until 1955. And even after that date continued under
de facto Soviet military rule by virtue of the large Cold War presence
of Warsaw Pact troops and tanks.

In nearly every
respect, the German Democratic Republic resembled an armed camp.

As essential
as an outward show of force is to the maintenance of absolute rule,
still more important is an internal system of undercover snoops,
eavesdroppers and thugs. In its pursuit of dissidents, non-conformists
and would-be escapees, the Stasi (for Ministerium für
Staatssicherheit) earned a reputation as one of the most effective
agencies behind the Iron Curtain.

Of course,
like Sputnik, anything can be bought for a price. To maintain its
stranglehold on the "Land of Real Existing Socialism,"
the Stasi required 91,000 full-time employees and 300,000 informants.
This in a nation of only 16 million.

One of the
cogs in the Stasi's formidable machine of surveillance and control
is the subject of The
Lives of Others
, last week's Oscar winner for Best Foreign
Language Film.

In the symbolically
weighted year of 1984, we first encounter Capt. Gerd Wiesler (played
by the amazing Ulrich Mühe), as he conducts a class in how
to question a suspect, a sort of Interrogation 101. His students
listen as he plays a recording of his "interview" with
a man under suspicion of knowing who helped a fellow citizen escape
to the West. Over and over Prisoner 227 is quizzed, "Tell me
again what you did September 28."

As they listen
to the tape, Wiesler explains that an innocent person will express
a sense of injustice and grow progressively angrier at his accusers,
whereas a guilty person will maintain his calm. The recorded interview
proceeds, and Wiesler's prisoner does keep his cool — until, after
many sleep-deprived hours in the hot seat, he finally breaks down
and admits his crime against the state.

Whether Capt.
Wiesler's theory is valid or not is unimportant here. The vital
point is that this Stasi officer is a true believer in the theory.
More than that, he is a true believer in the ideology he serves.

"Your
subjects," he lectures his class of torturers-in-training,
"are enemies of socialism. Never forget that!"

And his commitment
to the cause extends beyond the classroom. Lunching in the Stasi
canteen, Wiesler is invited by superior officer Lieutenant Colonel
Anton Grubitz to
dine at a table reserved for top brass. Wiesler declines. "Socialism,"
he says, placing his food tray on a table occupied by the rank and
file, "must start somewhere."

This functionary
harbors no doubts about the need for a secret police and his role
in it: "We are the Party's shield and sword."

On the basis
of Wiesler's loyalty and efficiency, Lt. Col. Grubitz hands him
a delicate assignment: he is to dig up dirt on the respected East
German playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). "There's
something fishy about him," Grubitz says. "I can feel
it in my gut. If you can get something on him, you'll have a good
friend on the Central Committee." Which can only mean career
advancement and perquisites, such as they are in East Germany.

Yet from the
standpoint of maintaining one-party rule, there is nothing at all
fishy about Comrade Dreyman. Yes, his magazine-model good looks
and talents as a dramatist draw fans west of the Wall, but in his
homeland he serves as a shining example of the New Socialist Man.
He writes good Marxist dramas, pays proper homage to the leadership,
and discourages his dissident-leaning fellow artists from acts that
would result in unwanted scrutiny. At one point he expresses approval
of a ban on another writer's foreign travel.

Dreyman
also enjoys the intimate companionship of his leading actress, Christa-Maria
Sieland (a lovely-haunted Martina Gedeck).

Set to the
task of destroying Dreyman, Wiesler invades the writer's apartment
while he's away, has his men plant microphones and cameras everywhere,
and threatens Dreyman's neighbor: "One word of this and Masha
loses her spot at university." Wiesler's single-minded dedication
is further demonstrated by his willingness to sit 12 hours at a
time in a cold attic to hear every word spoken, every move made
in the rooms below.

But Wiesler
finds nothing damaging. Soon he begins to understand that his assignment
is not to ensnare an enemy of the state but to help a rival for
Christa's affections. The Minister of State Security, Bruno Hempf,
lusts after the actress, forces himself on her at every opportunity,
and wants her boyfriend out of the way.

Gradually we
see Wiesler's loyalty eroding. While Dreyman and Christa are at
rehearsals, Wiesler enters their apartment again, this time not
as a spy but as an admirer. He examines the salad fork Christa had
given Dreyman on their anniversary. He kneels almost reverently
at the foot of the bed where the lovers sleep. He borrows Dreyman's
volume of Brecht's poetry and reads it with delight. Later, back
in the attic, Wiesler listens as Dreyman plays a piano sonata and
weeps as if he is hearing music for the first time.

Unaware of
the spy above him, Dreyman asks Christa, "Can anyone who has
really heard this music be bad?"

And so the
hunter becomes protector. Wiesler, the erstwhile servant of the
state, uses the "Party's shield and sword" to save Christa's
honor and Dreyman's life.

And all this
happens as pressure from above increases. Frustrated by the absence
of anything to incriminate Dreyman, Minister Hempf demands that
the Stasi "find something. I'd advise even my worst enemy not
to disappoint me."

To complicate
matters even further, the suicide death of Albert Jerska, a writer
whom the Party had blacklisted for his dissidence, leads Dreyman
to compose an angry article for publication in West Germany. Now
in his guardian angel role, Wiesler is not simply failing to perform
a frame-up; he is actively concealing Dreyman's crimes against the
state.

The remainder
of the movie, which I will not reveal to you, plays out in the best
tradition of spy thrillers. It is a race between Wiesler and those
to whom the lives of others mean nothing.

So who poses
the greater threat to freedom? Officials like Hempf, who use socialism
to mask their lust for power over others, or true believers like
the early Wiesler who would happily give his life for the cause?
To my mind, the fanatic is always more terrifying than the self-server.

Is it realistic
to expect a mid-life change of heart in so dedicated a Stasi agent?
The answer depends on whether one's view of human nature is closer
to Anne Frank's or Thomas Hobbes's.

But on one
point we can be certain: a police state, no matter what admirable
goals it purports to serve, is a threat to life and liberty. Operating
undercover, "disappearing" suspects, destroying reputations
and careers, and exempt from appeal or review, the secret police
must inevitably turn from destroying the nation's enemies to destroying
opponents of the police state itself. As Robert Vansittart put it,
"The tragedy of the police state is that it always regards
all opposition as a crime, and there are no degrees."

The Oscar awarded
to The Lives of Others is well deserved and will bring it
an audience that few sub-titled films enjoy in the United States.
Pity that most of those who watch it will see the abuses depicted
therein as peculiar to Communism and insist with patriotic fervor
that "It Can't Happen Here."

March
7, 2007

David
Rosinger [send him
mail
] writes from Roswell, GA.

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