Monday, July 7, 2008

Stasiland: the price of protecting the State

Australian Anna Funder was a ubiquitous media presence when Stasiland, her examination of the East German secret police, was published in 2002. It is the story of how a society can turn on itself in the name of self protection and national security. It is compelling non-fiction, documenting the experiences of people who she met and interviewed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the disintegration of the communist German Democratic Republic.

We meet both the victims and the villains: A woman who tried to escape across the border as a 16 year old whose her husband died mysteriously in prison. A mother who was denied access to her sick child in West Berlin because she would not betray someone. The Stasi TV broadcaster who was their media face on the "Black Channel". A foreign spy. The man who drew the line for the Wall. A recruitment officer. An agent who caught people being smuggled across the border. And lots more.

The techniques of the totalitarian regime were all encompassing: Unceasing harassment, blacklisting for employment, imprisonment without charge or trial, torture and forced confessions, use of and threats against family members, disappearances and deaths in custody, an unparalleled network of informers and collaborators, foreign kidnapping and covert misinformation, media manipulation and infiltration of western political parties and governments. Corruption of the judicial system.

It is a dark but seemingly grey subject which is why I kept putting off reading it at the time. In 2002 we had yet to realise the full implications of the 'War on Terror' for our civil liberties: The US Patriot Act and its equivalents in the UK, Australia and other countries of the willing, Guantanamo Bay and the military commissions, kidnapping and rendition with its arms-length torture, detention without charge or trial, vilification of asylum seekers and refugees, phone tapping and electronic surveillance. The list expands everyday.

We cannot expect many of these issues to be debated during the Presidential campaign. At least Barack Obama plans to close Camp Delta. Not sure where John McCain stands on Guantanamo - might test the tough guy image he's been trying to project.

It is not surprising that the Stasi's favourite interrogation method (torture) was both physical and psychological, namely sleep deprivation. The 16 year old girl had no one to betray. To get some sleep she finally concocted a fanciful story which her interrogators swallowed enthusiastically. I was surprised we didn't encounter water-boarding. It's all just vigorous questioning in the name of defending the State.

I'm looking forward to seeing Errol Morris documentary, Standard Operating Procedure. It explores the story behind the photographs from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Another dark passage which we shouldn't ignore.

The sobering message which emerges from both these episodes is that evil which is so easy to condemn is committed against ordinary people by ordinary people. Often for what they believe is a just cause. It seems that many of the perpetrators do not lose any sleep. Many of the Stasi and other East Germans believed that the Berlin Wall was built to keep out West Germans who were trying to buy cheaper eastern goods.

Stasiland is a must read!

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