The Secret Life of Language
Episode 1: The Stasi Files transcript
Someone must have slandered Rudolf K. or at least betrayed him because one Monday morning on the 12th of June, 1978 without having done anything wrong, he was arrested. Rudolf K. was a biologist with a love of literature and art. His only crime was that he had lots of friends and had helped an artist friend put on an exhibition. Rudolf had helped with the publicity. In the German Democratic Republic or East Germany, this made him guilty of a crime, more specifically of Staatsfeindliche Hetze, that is agitation against the state. Paragraph 106 of the criminal code.
Stasi officer 1:
"In surveillance operation code name Aspirant, Dr K., Rudolf born on the 12th of the 2nd 1947 in Bohlsen is being investigated for violations to paragraph 106 of the criminal code. The screening is due to his hostile basic attitude to social conditions in the GDR and to the politics of the party and government of our Republic, in particular towards problems of cultural politics."
Unbeknownst to him, Rudolf K. had not just been slandered, he had been under intense secret police surveillance for six months and monitored for a whole year before that. He had been tracked and surveilled and his telephone taped. Special informants had even been recruited specifically to infiltrate his circle of friends. The ministry for State Security, better known as the Stasi, named this operation Operativer Vorgang Aspirant.
This is The Secret Life of Language, a podcast from the University of Melbourne School of Languages and Linguistics. I'm Leo Kretzenbacher and in this episode we delve into the once secret files of the Stasi, the feared Ministry of State Security of East Germany.
Before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent demise of the German Democratic Republic, hundreds of thousands of East Germans were caught up in the Stasi's machinations of surveillance and control. Professor Alison Lewis, who specialises in the culture and society of East Germany has been rummaging through the Stasi files to bring us stories of individuals and how they were impacted by this famously authoritarian state.
Part one, the victim
In those days in East Germany, now, this is late '70s, it was still illegal to organise your own art exhibition, just as it was illegal to organise your own rock concert or a music concert without official approval. The rationale was that the authorities couldn't control the content of the message, so you had to seek official approval. In this case, the authorities had given approval for the art exhibition to go ahead, but it was only once it was opened and there was a lot of interest in the West and it was written up in Western newspapers. West German journalists came along. It was only then that the authorities started to get cold feet. The artist in question was painting surrealist images, not in the traditional or the orthodox socialist realist style. Then there was another factor and that was that Rudy was alleged to be writing a manuscript and that really set off alarm bells.
Rudy in fact, had absolutely no inkling whatsoever, and in fact he was sick at the time. He'd been undergoing treatment for cancer and on the Monday he was arrested, he was on his way to hospital for a second round of chemotherapy. The fact that he was arrested on the way to hospital was actually deliberate and you can get a real sense of that from the Stasi files. We do know there was a key informant who provided the Stasi with that key piece of information that he was going to hospital on the Monday and the Monday was the day he was arrested.
Stasi officer 1:
"Concept for informant Marion, registration number 15/1793/77 for making contact with Dr K., Rudolf. Surveillance operation code name Aspirant."
So he's taken to the Stasi prison Hohenschönhausen in Berlin, but it was actually also a hospital. He's interrogated and he’s not let go. In fact, he stays there for 18 months. He's interrogated again and again. He is then put on trial. It wasn't a public trial, it was one of these show trials and in many ways if this weren't so true, it sounds almost a bit like a Kafka novel. It sounds a bit like the beginning of Kafka’s The Trial when Josef K. wakes up one morning and says, "Someone must have slandered me because for no reason whatsoever I was arrested," and this is more or less what happened to Rudolf K.
He was found guilty and he was charged with Staatsfeindliche Hetze, which is incitement or agitation against the state, and he was released after 18 months. When they were interrogating him, they would have been trying to find out if he was part of an underground movement, a subversive group that was trying to undermine the state. They obviously found no evidence of that. They released him back into the East, which upset him, but eventually they acquiesced and let him go to the West where he remained.
Part two, the informant
"Before midnight, Rudy could not be identified since he was unrecognisable beneath a headscarf. At midnight, the band wished him happy birthday. I waited until one o'clock when I found a favourable opportunity to present him with a book by Balzac, Gesetzbuch für Anständige [The Law and Lawyers] and used this to initiate a conversation. Rudy immediately responded to this. In the ensuing conversation, he offered to lend me books from his large library after learning that I was a writer, Solzhenitsyn and Bahro. Rudy went on to tell me that he had been sick since his birthday, his 30th last year, which he also celebrated at the clubhouse."
Informants were a central piece in the Stasi armoury and they grew exponentially more important over the course of the cold war. Ernst Wollweber, a minister for State Security in the mid-1950s famously called the Stasi's informants "It's respiratory organs." If East Germany's ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party, was the political compass of the body politic, then the Stasi was its faithful servant. Its sword and shield.
Informers were by no means the only instrument used in secret service work but they were critical to the Ministry's overall strategy. Above all, the use of informants enabled the State to exert its power and control throughout the whole of society, even to its remotest corners and deepest recesses. The constant flows of information fed by informants to the Stasi were the very fuel the Ministry's machinery depended on to keep in check the political and social hygiene of the Socialist Republic. Indeed, it was informers that helped East Germany to become the self-policing surveillance society that Nazi Germany had never quite achieved.
Now this informant, who faked a personal interest in Rudolf at his birthday party, wasn't an actor. Maja wasn't a regular informer for the Stasi. She wasn't an officer. She was in fact an aspiring writer. And it turns out that she was the daughter of a high-ranking cultural functionary, who also was a Stasi informer. But at the time, Maja had never been working for the Stasi. She hadn't been asked to work for the Stasi and it's not even quite clear whether she knew her father was a Stasi officer. Informers were not supposed to tell members of their family and had to keep it a secret. So this was the first time that she was approached to get involved in an operation.
Now Maja wouldn't have been offered money up front, although that was pretty much understood, that informants got some sort of financial benefit. Sometimes for a small report it might be about 200 East German Marks. For the sort of operation that she became involved in, she would have been getting more money and towards the end of this operation she was rewarded with a holiday.
"On Wednesday I visited him for the first time. I arrived around 10.00 am on the National Army Day holiday. It might also have been just after 10.00 am but he wasn't there. By the way, his doorbell doesn't work and there are also tradesman in the house, painters also on the Monday, by the way. Then I went back around 12 o'clock again, but he wasn't there then either. In between times I rang him to check whether someone was even home or whether he just didn't open up. He wasn't there."
Now Maja turned out to be a bit of a natural. This was her first undercover operation and she was obviously a little bit nervous and we can tell that because, when she debriefs with a handler, it's taped and then it's transcribed verbatim. So she’s trying to reassure a handler that she's done a good job, that she's faked everything, faked her interest, and she's done it very naturalistically. She doesn't want to arouse suspicion. So she tells her handler, for instance, that she smoked her usual amount of cigarettes. That in other words, she didn’t appear nervous to Rudy. She mentions that she drinks tea like she always does so that he doesn’t get suspicious. Now she would debrief with her handler often in a safe house, but towards the end of her operation they had to meet very quickly in a car under the S-bahn bridge on Schönhauser Allee, and there she'd debrief. The handle would have a tape recorder there in the car.
"So yesterday on the 2nd of the 3rd, I went to his place again and this time the dear fellow was at home. That is Rudy was at home and he immediately knew who I was, so he let me in. I then asked him if he couldn't make me a tea because I was certainly rather thirsty. Then I looked at his books, of course. Should I say what there is? Then he was on the telephone. He believes his telephone is being tapped, which is certainly not wrong. He nonetheless speaks relatively openly because he thinks he's the greatest and why shouldn't he. He wants a full confrontation. It is a mystery to me where he gets all this Western literature from."
Now this went on for six months until they struck and arrested Rudy. In the files there's no evidence that he suspected her at all. He only suspected her after he'd been arrested and it wasn't just him who suspected her it was also his friends, because he was alleged to have a couple in cahoots with him and they were arrested a few days after Rudy was arrested. She was then rewarded, given a trip to Romania. She was given a medal and then she was set to work on a very famous singer songwriter, Bettina Wegner, and she was supposed to infiltrate her circles, become best friends with her and report on her and her husband who was also under surveillance.
Somewhere in the early '80s it seems that she crossed over to the other side. It seems that she started to really believe that these people in the so-called opposition who are songwriters, poets, people working for peace, people working in the underground peace movement. She started to think that they were in fact good people working for a good cause and that the State was unfairly persecuting them. But at the same time, she's still reporting on the amount of sleeping tablets that Bettina Wegner is taking, the amount of alcohol that she drinks, you know, she's giving the Stasi very personal information that they could use against Bettina Wegner.
Maja, I think wanted to stop working for the Stasi, but it was a slow process of gradually severing her ties. She became brutally honest in her reports and started to list off a whole litany of things that she thought was wrong with the regime. I was absolutely stunned to find all this critical stuff in the files. She says that it's a second-rate country, the economy’s bad, the education system bad. You can't buy stuff, you know things that the Stasi didn't want to hear and it's all listed. Now Maja did eventually write a novel and it was published. Although the Stasi was not particularly happy about it because it turns out to be quite a critical manuscript. So eventually she did manage to put them so offside that they gave up on her, but because she knew so much insider information they thought she was a real danger, a real threat.
Stasi officer 1:
"After initially good to very good political operative successes and undercover work, it became apparent that despite all political, ideological efforts to influence her on behalf of her case officer, she increasingly succumbed to the influence of the political underground."
So they then opened an Operativer Vorgang, an operational procedure like the one that they had opened on Rudy on her, and they started putting her under super intense surveillance. They arrested her and took her to the police station and she just said, "You've got to let me go." It's interesting that although she did become a victim of the regime towards the end, according to the Stasi documents agency, she's still classified as an informer and to all intents and purposes for her victim, she is still a Stasi informer. She's never apologised to Rudy. She has not apologised to the singer, Bettina Wegner. They do not believe this whole persona of her working in the underground and working alongside of peace activists. They don't believe that was genuine.
I think when we judge the actions at these informers, we do need to take into account how much of a stick was involved and how much of a carrot was involved. I think a lot of them have misfortune in their lives. There are a lot of other sorts of factors that make them vulnerable. There's a high proportion that are orphans. So a lot of them are blackmailed subtly. Some of them have just odd personalities that predispose them to duplicity, dissembling.
Part three, the handler
The informant has been trained in writing reports. The meetings will take place in the safe house. At the meeting on the 26th of October, 1972 the informant expressed reservations against carrying out further work for us, which however could be overcome. The informant is subject to ideological resoluteness particularly with regard to cultural politics. This is also the cause of his crisis with collaborating. It is therefore advised that in the course of the next meeting intensive ideological work be carried out with him to firm up his socialist position and to show him what intentions the enemy is pursuing with ideological diversion, especially in the area of cultural politics.
Now there were the victims, there were the informers who were just sort of casual, sessional workers and then there were the handlers or the case officers, the Führungsoffiziere. Now they were full time employees of the Stasi, of the Ministry and they were in a sense officers and they had military ranks. They were I suppose spies, but a lot of their work was incredibly boring, tedious, bureaucratic and there was an amazing amount of paperwork involved. For every meeting that a case officer had with an informant, they had a form to fill out. They not only had to have the tape transcribed or take notes themselves, they had to tick boxes and say exactly when it started, when it ended. How many reports were made. They had to assess the state of mind of the informer. They had to discuss personal issues and they had to dish out tasks.
I should add here that the little bit that we know about handlers goes completely against the image that we have of handlers from popular films such as The Lives of Others or Das Leben der Anderen, where the main character there is a Stasi officer and all officers were handlers and he underwent a conversion through art and all sorts of things after listening into the lives of others. But very few of them seem to have undergone any sort of transformation or conversion.
When working with informants, handlers were supposed to win them back or turn them around. The Stasi had a term for that called 'ideological educational work' and that could mean a whole range of things. That could mean a bit of just plain blackmail. It could be more subtle coercion. It could be a discussion, a talking to.
Stasi officer 2:
"The informant appeared at the meeting punctually as arranged. After an initial discussion about personal problems, the discussion moved on to the topic of further collaboration. Picking up from where we left off at our last meeting when he has requested timeout to reconsider his decision, whether he wants to continue to collaborate with our apparatus or not, he declared that he had come around to the view that he would maintain working for us and would make an active contribution. He mentioned in this context that he wished to continue to work together with me. I told him that I had not expected any other decision with respect to collaborating since he would otherwise have only been deciding against his own interest. He was again reminded of the necessity of this work and that on the one hand, this serves the development of our socialist society and on the other hand it serves his own person."
Now a lot of the handlers are still today anonymous. Very few have gone on record to talk about their experiences, but I managed to put a face to a name that I'd read in a file in a documentary film that was made fairly recently called Vaterlandsverräter. It's about Paul Gratzik, the writer and playwright. The filmmaker interviews, Paul Gratzik's handler, Wenzel, and reads parts of the file back to him and discusses it and gets his response. To me he seems a fairly typical handler, fairly nonplussed, fairly unrepentant, doesn't think there is anything particularly wrong with what he did.
Now blackmail, the Stasi started to realise by the '70s was not a good basis for collaboration. There had to be more than blackmail. It wasn't just enough to have someone who was scared. So Wenzel was particularly forthcoming in reporting all of the ideological arguments that he would present to Gratzik. What he didn't say, that we know from the film is, that Gratzik says that Wenzel would sometimes have a gun hidden inside his jacket as a bit of a stick to intimidate him while he's doing all this ideological work.
Gratzik started to see Wenzel a little bit as a victim too, that they were all in it together and that they were all victims of the system. I think this is a common mistake that informers made, that they thought the officer was a bit like them and that was the impression that the officers wanted to create. In actual fact, there was no mutual or reciprocal sharing of information. These officers were hard nosed and completely merciless, really. Gratzik tried all sorts of things to get out of it. One of the common things was to spill the beans and to tell someone that you were working for the Stasi. That was usually a sign that the Stasi had to drop you.
Stasi officer 2:
"He's still of the opinion that he is short of time and due to his love of alcohol and his character, he cannot give any guarantees that he can maintain his cover."
Sometimes if you said, "Look, I've got a problem with alcohol, I'm a bit of a drinker, I can't keep a secret," the Stasi would back off. It didn't work in this case. So eventually he spilled the beans to his lover at the time and another famous writer and he let the Stasi know that he'd spilled the beans and they eventually realized that the word was out there, that he was a Stasi informant. He was dead in the water, no longer of any use to them.
So in the end, Gratzik was really, really desperate to get out and he managed to wangle a travel permit from high up, from a minister, that said he was allowed to travel to Italy, which is a capitalist country under the auspices of doing some research for a novel. Wenzel was obviously a little bit miffed at this because he’s more or less gone over his head and he couldn’t stop it and having gotten this permission to leave, and that was his escape route, he then wrote a telegram saying, "Bye bye, I've had enough."
"This is my last assignment. I've had enough of these things, farewell and all the best to you."
That was the end, I think Wenzel realised that it was irredeemable and he couldn't really win him back anymore.
The system of surveillance at the East German communist regime developed over the 40 or so years of its existence was unprecedented, both in the Eastern block and in the Western world. By the end of the regime in 1989 there were some 89,000 registered informers like Maja W. and around 180,000 offices like Wenzel working for the Stasi. Meanwhile, Rudolf K. was one of around 300,000 people send to Stasi prisons, sometimes for a minor misdemeanour and usually for something that a democratic state would not regard as a misdemeanour at all, such as writing a novel, organising an art exhibition, or signing a petition. Under this system, ordinary activities and all forms of political dissent violated the criminal code and were hence pursued by the Stasi through blanket surveillance and sometimes through arrests and secret trials.
This inhumane system would not have survived or endured for long without the participation, often given very willingly, of hundreds of thousands of East Germans, including authority figures such as judges and doctors in places like Hohenschönhausen.
The secret surveillance society that East Germany built up over four decades only collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the eventual reunification of the German State.
Live news footage, 1989:
"It's happened. It's official. Germany is now one country of 80 million people. Considering that the Berlin wall went down less than 11 months ago, it's happened with such speed that even the Germans themselves are stunned."
As soon as the files became accessible, victims who had the biggest amount, the largest volume of files, were called in even before the legislation had passed to read their files. They all sat in rooms going, "Oh my gosh," you know, "Did you know X was an informant?" "Oh my gosh, the Stasi was behind this." "My husband was an informer." "Oh my God, my brother was an informer." So there was a very cathartic moment that went on really for a couple of years where, all major instances of informing, of interference and notorious informers were outed. So there was sort of a cleansing period and that's thanks to the files and I think what’s been less good is the fact that I don't think the informers have really apologised to the victims. The victims have not really had this sense of justice being served and they still have that sense and often it is a sense that nothing really can remedy that sense of injustice just continues. So there is still tension between these two groups that still exists today.
A postscript, Rudolf K., the victim of the Stasi described in this podcast survived to tell his tale and now conducts guided tours of the Hohenschönhausen prison in which he was once incarcerated.
This episode of The Secret Life of Language commemorating the full three decades ago for the Berlin Wall is based on research by professor Alison Lewis into the declassified files of the Stasi.
Producers for this episode were Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param from Profactual, Gavin Nebauer and Alison Lewis. Lending their voices, Irina Herrschner, Stefan Siemson and Andre Bastian.
The Secret Life of Language is recorded and mixed at Horwood Studio by Gavin Nebauer and is a podcast from the University of Melbourne’s School of Languages and Linguistics. It's licensed under Creative Commons copyright 2019, the University of Melbourne.
I'm Leo Kretzenbacher. Thanks for listening.