German Film Helps Rekindle Debate over Stasi
JACKI LYDEN, host:
Since the collapse of communism in 1989 and the reunification of their country, Germans have been trying to reconcile conflicting memories of the former regime in East Germany. Many East Germans have taken a nostalgic view, remembering the stable social services of the Communist regime. But for many the focus has switched to darker aspects of the past, including the Stasi, the East German security service whose repression of dissidents created a culture of fear and paranoia on both sides of the Berlin Wall.
NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Berlin.
RACHEL MARTIN reporting:
It's been almost 16 years since Norbert Krebbs was a prisoner of the Stasi. But the bespectacled father of three still has problems sleeping. He remembers with eerie clarity how the guards at the Stasi prison in Berlin patrolled the cells at night to make sure prisoners were sleeping face up, with their hands at their sides, like a corpse. If they weren't in position, Krebbs said, guards would scream or slam the metal door locks back and forth to wake them. And he demonstrates.
Mr. NORMAN KREBBS (Former Stasi Prisoner): (Speaking foreign language)
(Soundbite of racket)
MARTIN: Krebbs spent six weeks in this Stasi prison for questioning the fairness of some local GDR elections and was released a few weeks before the Berlin Wall came down. Now he gives tours, like this one, as his own form of catharsis and as a way to educate people about the terror of the Stasi.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
MARTIN: On this day he leads a dozen people through the cold, cement hallways of the old prison. The floor is covered in peeling yellow and white linoleum. More than 20,000 people were incarcerated here and Krebbs describes how many of them were completely isolated, not even hearing human voices for indefinite periods of time, all in an effort to make them more pliable during interrogations.
Mr. KREBBS: (Through translator) For 14 days I was not allowed to talk to anybody. I did not see anybody. The inmate was not just held in isolation, but he was excluded from all human interaction.
MARTIN: The prison sits in the middle of what was East Berlin, overlooking the cookie-cutter houses where Stasi officers lived during the Communist regime and where many live to this day. Krebbs says despite the barbed wire and guard towers, the public really didn't know what was going on inside.
Mr. KREBBS: (Through translator) Around the area was a wall as tall as six meters high. Nobody could look inside. There were rumors circulating that it could be a prison, but there were also rumors that it could be a storage facility because the trucks that brought the prisoners in here had signs on them that read things like Fish from the Baltic Coast.
MARTIN: But it was a prison, where thousands of people were incarcerated between 1951 and 1989. Victims of the Stasi say they were rarely physically abused. Instead, they were broken from the inside with sophisticated psychological tactics that sought to humiliate, intimidate and confuse. Krebbs says people were spied on by neighbors and arrested at random, which fomented paranoia.
Mr. KREBBS: (Through translator) By acting this way, the Stasi caused an undercurrent of fear and this fear paralyzed the nation. The obedient citizen was more or less left alone by the Stasi, but as soon as you uttered a request or started asking questions, you were in trouble.
MARTIN: According to the German government's office that handles the Stasi files, there are more than 100,000 court cases pending against former Stasi officials. But there have been less than 100 convictions and those at the top of the organization avoided trials or jail time after reunification.
For more than a decade, former Stasi officials have been relatively quiet. But a few weeks ago, a couple hundred former Stasi members held a protest, claiming the prison memorial distorts history. And recently, two books have been published by former Stasi officers denouncing criticism of the Communist Secret Service.
Speaking at a press conference in Berlin, the former Stasi colonel, Peter Futza(ph), defended the premise of his book.
Mr. PETER FUTZA (Former Stasi Colonel): (Through translator) In none of these prisons has a person been abused, beaten, or in other forms terrorized.
MARTIN: He went on to say that most of the people imprisoned by the Stasi had confessed to crimes.
(Soundbite of people speaking foreign language)
MARTIN: It's this debate that is drawing people to the Stasi prisons to see and hear for themselves what happened under the communist regime in East Germany, like Claudia Trem(ph) from Southwest Germany, who brought her three children on the tour of the Berlin prison and memorial center.
Ms. CLAUDIA TREM: (Through translator) It all reminds me of the things my grandmother used to tell me about the world war and her denial of the concentration camps. So I thought it was important to come here and show this to our boys.
MARTIN: For others, touring the Stasi prison is more personal. Stephan Mavis(ph) grew up around the corner from the hulking, concrete facility. Like many East Germans, he still finds it difficult to believe that this was happening in a state built on the rejection of Nazism.
Mr. STEPHAN MAVIS (Grew Up Near Stasi Prison): Why? Why? Why in Germany? Why? I can't believe that this was here. It's not real. It can't be real.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: The debate about the Stasi has heated up in part because of a new film called The Life of the Others that tells the story of a Stasi officer who turns against the organization. After the fall of Communism, movies about the GDR tended to cast a nostalgic, even romantic light on that chapter of German history. This new film paints a more disturbing, and many say realistic picture of the Stasi.
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck says the nostalgia about the GDR may not have told the whole story, but it allowed Germans to start a process of more honest self-examination.
Mr. FLORIAN VON DONNERSMARCK (Director, Das Leben der Anderen): I think in a way that that was a right way to go about it because this incredible tension vanished and I think paved the way to the possibility of making a serious film about this topic.
MARTIN: Since its release about a month ago, the film has been praised by critics and audiences, but Donnersmarck says some former Stasi members have criticized the film for unfairly demonizing the organization. Donnersmarck spent more than a year interviewing former officials and researching the Stasi. He says since the former Communist Party, now called the PDS, won seats in the German Parliament last fall, former Stasi officials feel more comfortable speaking out.
Mr. DONNERSMARCK: And I think that as long as that party exists, there will be no sense of shame and guilt among the Stasi.
MARTIN: As the successor to the Communist Party in control of East Germany, the PDS is the current political home for many of the former Stasi. Hendrik Thalheim is the party's spokesman. He says while the PDS does not endorse the actions of the Stasi or the totalitarian regime of the GDR, he believes the men and women of the Stasi have been unfairly vilified for too long.
Mr. HENDRIK THALHEIM (PDS Party Spokesman): (Through Translator) We don't want to throw history away. It's the personal biography of many of our members and we don't want anybody to talk of them only in a negative light. Life in the GDR wasn't all bad, but at the same time, we have to learn from the mistakes that have been made.
MARTIN: Back at the Stasi prison in Berlin, Norbert Krebbs is finishing up his tour in something called the Tiger Cage, a small cement cell with a wire grate over the top where Krebbs says prisoners were allowed to exercise for 20 minutes a week under gunpoint.
(Soundbite of foreign language spoken)
MARTIN: A couple of men on the tour then interrupt, asking Krebbs why he never wanted to take revenge on his captors. Krebbs shakes his head.
Mr. KREBBS: (Foreign language spoken)
MARTIN: They didn't win. I'm the moral winner at the end, he says, because I got the life I wanted. In my Stasi file, it's written that I was in favor of reunification of Germany, and I got what I wanted. Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.
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