While I agree that the government provided the incentive for citizens to report on the “inappropriate” speech and behaviour of their neighbours, friends, and even family, it was everyone’s personal decision to report someone to the Stasi, and by doing so most likely threatening and destroying that person’s life and livelihood, as well as those of their family.
During the time the GDR existed they employed the divide and conquer approach to keep the population in check. In order to access higher social/career positions and earn advantages you had to be a member of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) or SED. A big role was played by the secret service, the Stasi (short for Staatssicherheit). They had people everywhere.
Citizens were encouraged to spy on their friends and neighbors and to report any so-called suspicious behavior, meaning “did they do or say anything critical about socialism, the government, the Soviet Union?” Even a bad joke could get you arrested if it was perceived as critical of the system. The reward for the rat who sold you out was maybe a vacation, a color TV set, or a promotion. That being said – it didn’t necessarily mean that every police officer would report you if you said something, they had to be a member of the SED but many of them would still turn a blind eye.
Unfortunately people were sometimes reported by someone they least expected it from, like a good friend they used to go on family trips with. The people in my hometown were afraid of my dad because he often said things that were critical of the system but was never arrested for it. My family was lucky, we had friends in a high position in Berlin who made sure my dad wouldn’t be jailed.
After re-unification my dad requested his Stasi file and when he received it there was a lot of vetting and information deemed illegible for public viewing. They hid the names of the persons who reported my dad; those whom had hoped to get him arrested. I cannot even describe the feeling of disgust I experience when thinking about this, not only my father but everyone who was reported. Jail was different under the GDR. I know, police brutality exists, but often it is the prisoners who cause a lot of harm to each other. In the GDR, prison meant you were being tortured by the guards to get a statement out of you, to either blame yourself or another person.
When we read the word torture we have a rough idea in mind, but most of us are in denial of what one person is capable of doing to another, and we often don’t want to think what was done. Sleep deprivation was a common tactic, another was solitary confinement in darkness. Then there is physical torture, people were beaten with sticks, or water torture – the guards would use handcuffs to secure the prisoner to a wall and fill the cell with water. The prisoners never knew what would happen next; would they ever see the daylight again? And no, they didn’t have access to a defence lawyer or visitation rights. Torture was considered a “legitimate” means of interrogation in East Germany until its fall in 1989.
Living in the GDR came with a lot of fear of saying the wrong thing. Early on we were conditioned to feel bad about being German, and that we only had a chance for redemption by following the socialist lead of the Soviet Union. For the longest time I felt guilt when talking to people from other European countries, inherited guilt from the Nazis. And there are many people out there who take advantage of that. Imagine having a conversation with another person and both sides provide facts for their respective points of view, and all of a sudden the other party, running out of things to say and remembering that you are German, calls you a “Nazi” as a last resort to shut you up. I often didn’t know what to say because I was so conditioned to feel guilty.
Slowly, over time, I learned that many countries with surviving victims of National Socialism don’t blame the generations that came after, they understand that they cannot blame children for the mistakes of their parents. When I studied in the Czech Republic I took a train home one day, and ended up in a conversation with an older gentleman, old enough to have lived through WWII. We had a great conversation about history and all kinds of things, and it was while exchanging ideas and experiences with him that I started to understand that he didn’t blame me for what happened, that it wasn’t my fault. I have friends who are Jews and they also don’t blame the generations that came after.
We have to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, but I don’t have to walk with my head down because I happened to be born German, on the “wrong side of the wall.” But I still feel uncomfortable, even just writing this feels wrong on some part. This is what early childhood conditioning does to you. Under the GDR we had our own anthem,”Auferstanden aus Ruinen” (“Risen from Ruins”), which was literally about overcoming “old woes” to find “happiness and success”, but we were not allowed to sing the lyrics because that would have been patriotic and patriotism was deemed unacceptable…
…you could be reported for such inappropriate behaviour.
Written by: Petra Foerster – UTKM Green Belt