Yesterday, I wrote about the affinity of so many on the Western Left for the old Communist East Germany. What they wish to restore, if only they could, is the nanny state without the compulsory police apparatus they claim to disdain. What they do not admit to is that to realize their people’s paradise the state would have to enforce the system by precisely those repressive mechanisms.
That is why, in fact, the DDR created the STASI, their Ministry of State Security. To gain acceptance for the socialist goals demanded by the state, they had to create an atmosphere of fear – without which, so many citizens would refuse to accept the life the regime’s rulers mandated. Of course, the rulers claimed it was done for the good of the people. When the STASI sent its agents to Nicaragua to train its secret police during the Sandinista regime’s heyday in the 1980’s, the Sandinistas cleverly named their secret police- I kid you not- “The Sentinel of The People’s Happiness,” a slogan which was inscribed on the front of the Interior Ministry’s headquarters.
Take the realm of art, which the regime claimed thrived in the years of the socialist society being built in East Germany. As A.J. Goldmann notes in his review of a 20th anniversary art show on art in both the East and West during the years of the Wall, “in the repressive atmosphere of East Germany, artists often paid a price for making provocative art.” One artist serves as an example. Annemirl Bauer found that her drawings inflamed the STASI, especially one of a naked man suspending from a clotheslines while being pierced through his navel and feet by a guard. As a result, she was expelled from the Artists’s Association, and forbidden by the regime to paint. Another artist, Roger Loewig, was imprisoned for “agitation and propaganda endangering the state.” The STASI destroyed his novel, although a powerful triptych, displayed in the current exhibit, reveals how he composed art that meant to expose the fear that always was beneath the surface of everyday life.
As for the nature of the regime, no one has said it better than journalist John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs editor. Simpson knows that: “Nowadays you come across a certain amount of nostalgia for the old East Germany.” But, he writes, “in reality it was a deeply unattractive place. The secret police didn’t just watch people, they beat them up, forced confessions from them, ruined their lives. They only stopped guillotining enemies of the state in 1968, and after that they shot them. Life was full of shortages – except for the politicians and the secret police.” Recalling what it was like to travel from West Germany to East from 1978 through the mid 80s, he talks about what an intimidating experience it was: “On the Western side, everything seemed normal and safe but as you passed into East Berlin, a huge camera lens was trained on you, searching out your thoughts and intentions. And if there was anything wrong with your visa they would keep you in solitary confinement for hours.”
Next, Simpson says, “after the men with guns had gone through everything you’d brought with you, and confiscated any books they didn’t like, you passed through a creaking gate and found yourself in a darkened street with no cars or taxis and streetlamps suffering permanent brown-out. Nothing was what it seemed.” The government assigned him an official minder, who continually told him how wonderful life was in the DDR. She and her family, he was assured, led a good life. Later, when she was sure she was not being bugged, the minder whispered to him, “‘I’ve got to get away from here. There’s no future for our children.’”