Funder on the Impossibility of Das Leben der Anderen

Anna Funder, author of the excellent Stasiland (which I reviewed here), writes in The Guardian that despite Das Leben der Anderen‘s appeal as a movie, the assumption it’s based on — that a Stasi spy might take pity on the subjects of his surveillance and shield them from persecution — just could not have happened:

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.)

[Dr. Hubertus] Knabe [director of the Hohenschoenhausen memorial (G)] 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 cause".

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.

3 thoughts on “Funder on the Impossibility of Das Leben der Anderen

  1. Hey that almost sounds like criticism when she says that Stasis are doing well in today’s Germany. The problem with most everyone wanting to be a bottom is that in a society of couples only half of the population can actually be it, and people will have to practice substitute submissiveness by getting, say, a dominating employer. Just as with the Nazis that the West-Germans put into the relevant positions when that awful think-for-yourself-democracy was forced upon them, in any sort of employee/customer/whatever relationship with an (ex-)Stasi there’s never any doubt who’s dominating.

  2. The former GDR had wide-ranging instruments of power: not only external coercion, control of property and social status, but also internal conditioning, ranging from overt propaganda to military toys in Kinderkrippen. The state, entrenched both behind physical and ideological walls, had a near monopoly of access to the public mind.

    It’s ironic that Marx himself, following Hegel’s analysis of false consciousness, showed how social conditioning could be an instrument of power. This was the inner contradiction that brought down the GDR regime in the end.

    The citizens of the GDR had three choices: either to live in glad obedience to the regime; or to pretend that they were; or to live in frictional opposition to it. In response to the inner contradictions of the regime, not a few former GDR citizens lived out all three options in their lives.

    Gerd Wiesler had a similar fate as a true believer who had chosen to submit to Stasi objectives, had grown skeptical of these objectives, then, no longer an adherent, pretended to obey his superiors in order to undermine them.

    Anna Funder claims a Stasi operative couldn’t have, even wouldn’t have, acted like a Gerd Wiesler. “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.)” I have some doubt about this. If a Stasi operative decided to look the other way instead of persecuting a dissident, he would have gone to the greatest lengths to ensure that his betrayal would not have been revealed, and that means no record of it.

    That Florian Henckel may have been too optimistic about the power of mercy and compassion to overcome the monolithic apparatus of the GDR may be true; nevertheless, I consider it not out of the question, especially after reading accounts of the heroism of ordinary Germans in saving Jews from Nazi death camps.

    We all need to believe in the human factor.

  3. The interesting thing is that Stasi personnel successfully infiltrated even the highest circles of the West German government. Willy Brandt resigned as chancellor when Stasi spy and Brandt confidant Günther Guillaume was blown, and rumor has it that the Stasi paid a member of the Bundestag a sizable amount to influence the outcome of the 1972 no-confidence vote against Brandt.

    While the West German government proved to be relatively easy to undermine and infiltrate, there is not a single known case of West German secret service managing to do the same in the GDR, mainly because Stasi employees were such “Überzeugungstäter” – unbelievably staunch followers of SED ideology and deeply suspicious of any would-be intruders.

    Therefore, it should come as no surprise that there are also no known real-life records of Stasi spies letting things slide with ordinary citizens and having such a thing as “pity” on them. And even if some of them had had some sort of compassion with the Stasi’s victims, it would have meant a world of trouble for them because all Stasi personnel were being closely watched by their peers.

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