An Examined Life

June 21, 2010

David Brigham

We went to a number of different exhibits and museums that concerned the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) during the Soviet control of the eastern half of Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.  The Stasi were essentially in charge of spying on the East German people.  The amount of information and record keeping that they preformed was staggering.  The Stasi toward the end employed around one hundred thousand people.  This made the Stasi the largest secret police organization in the history of the world as a percentage of population.  The degree of surveillance that the Stasi performed created an atmosphere in East Berlin in which people were unable to trust one another to any degree: any sign of dissent could be used as an excuse to kidnap, arrest, jail, exile, or even murder almost any citizen.  Husbands and wives were coerced through various means to spy on one another: the choice was often either to agree to spy on friends, relatives, and loved ones or face jail time.  The Stasi were even able to manipulate people’s personal relationships: they would break up marriages and relationships; they even coerced people to cheat on their spouses by using agents to seduce them.  The lies, deceit, and coercion penetrated society to an astonishing degree: when the Stasi wanted to spy on someone they had agents everywhere.  They hid cameras and recording devices in trees, cars, coats, briefcases, lunchboxes, and coats.  The victims of their espionage were monitored to the degree that the Stazi knew every single detail of their lives.

I lieu of a dry description of Stasi activities I have opted to write a short story describing what it would be like to be picked up by the Stasi; this despite the fact that I have no creative writing experience or ability.

We were activists in East Berlin at a time when it was dangerous to be critical of the government.  It was very difficult to air any opinion at all that diverged from that of the party line.  We knew that the activities we planned to undertake could lead not only to our own imprisonment, but also to the imprisonment of our closest friends, family, and even unfortunate acquaintances.  This didn’t change the fact that we wanted to see change in our society; that the living conditions imposed by the party were intolerable, and that while we might continue to live in the GDR, silent, paranoid, devoid of freedom, it would, in the end, be only a slow death.

Thus we began to seek out those that we thought we could trust; people who felt the same way about the regime and who would be willing to risk literally everything in the pursuit of change.  We started weekly meetings in order to brain-storm plans to enact change.  We knew the first step was to get what everyone already knew out in the open; to speak the truth that no one would dare utter: that the German people living in the West had a better life than those under the GDR.  Everyone knew this was the truth: we had all watched television and listened to radio from the West, but no one would dare to utter this simple truth.  The communist party line was the only truth we were allowed to have, and anyone that said otherwise would face untold horrors.  Nonetheless this was the first strike that had to be made against the regime.  If no one could even say out loud what we all knew to be the truth, change would never come.

Together with our compatriots we started publishing fliers that simply stated that life in the West was better than life in the East; that this was something that everyone knew and that the sooner we all admitted this fact the better off our lives would be.  The Communist party line said that this was the opposite of the truth; that life in the west was miserable: they did not have enough to eat, their gluttony and malice had led to disease and suffering, and that, in fact, many in the west wished to move to the East to live under the GDR but their government would not let them.  We all knew these were lies and it was our duty to break the silence in our society.

Things were going well,

or so we thought…

One day I was grabbed from the street at night by two men in trench coats and thrown into the back of a car.  After being driven for a few minutes they unloaded me.  I attempted to explain to the men that they had the wrong person; they ordered me to be silent.  I was cuffed, shackled, and placed in a small compartment in the back of a van labeled “produce.”  The compartment was cramped and it seemed at times that there were other people in the van as well, likely locked in similar compartments and shackled as I was.  The shackles bit into my legs and wrists terribly.  I started shouting that I was in pain and was told in no uncertain terms that if I were not quite I would be killed.

The van drove for what seemed like an eternity.  I could see nothing but darkness.  The cuffs and shackles continued to bite at my arms and legs; I could barely move in the compartment as it was, and so there was no way to get comfortable.  By the time the van stopped I could have been in any country adjacent to Germany.  For all I knew I might have been driven all the way to the USSR.  I had heard rumors that people disappear like this and are never seen again.  All I could think about was what might happen to my wife and children, how would they cope if they never see me again?  When the van finally came to a stop I heard the men order someone to get out and follow them, and then another person was similarly ordered to get out and follow a few minutes later.  I thought to myself that if they were simply going to kill us, why the formality?  Suddenly the compartment opened and I was ordered out.  The brightness of the room I entered disoriented me; I stumbled forward and was ordered to follow.

Again I tried to talk to the two men and again I was ordered to be silent.  This formality confirmed to me what I had feared all along: these men were from the Ministry of State Security, the Stasi, secret police that invisibly and thoroughly controlled and kept our society in perpetual fear.  What was going to happen to me would be worse than death, and while I did not wish to die at that moment I suspected that whatever was in store would make me change my mind on this point.  I decided that I had better cooperate and not try to say anything else.  I didn’t know how the Stasi operated but I knew that even a few words could destroy my life.

I followed the guards into the corridor ahead.  There were wires on the walls, cameras and odd lights, and a very well cushioned carpet on the floor, yet it was clear from the style of the doors and the bars that blocked each corridor that this was a prison of sorts.  They led me forward a few steps and ordered me into a room on the left. When I stepped inside I was told to undress.  I complied, and when the guard demanded my cloths I handed them to him with some hesitation.  They turned and closed the door without saying a word.  The room was cold and pitch-black.  I was locked in that room, naked and freezing, for what seemed like hours.  I couldn’t hear or see a thing.  I paced around, I tried to lie down but the cold concrete floor yielded little comfort.

When they finally opened the door they ordered me out of the room with the same stoic military demeanor.  I was told to step forward into the next room.  In it there was a doctor and a medical examination table.  I felt relieved: they were going to give me an examination.  I asked the doctor his name and he responded by telling me that I was not allowed to talk.  Whatever hope the sight of a doctor initially gave me was crushed immediately when the medical examination turned out to be a full body cavity search.  After being deloused I was taken to be dressed.  The clothing I was given were much too small, however when I objected I was told in the same monotone that I was to wear what I was given.

I was put in a room with no widows, a bed, a toilet, and a desk.  I was ordered to go to sleep and told that I could only sleep on my back with my arms across my chest.  I lay down in this position and could not sleep.  Hours seem to pass and just as a nodded off to sleep I was abruptly awoken by three loud knocks on the door, a slit was opened and I could see a man’s face only long enough for him to shout, ‘correct sleeping position!’  Apparently I had fallen asleep on my side.  It was only for a moment and I wondered how they knew so quickly that I had turned to my side.  I moved back to the ‘correct sleeping position,’ and laid there observing the door.  Very quickly I figured out that they checked in on me every few minutes or so.  Now I understood why the hallways were all so carefully carpeted: it allowed the guards to move around silently to observe the prisoners.

My initial horror at being here declined somewhat when I received no attention from anyone for a few days.  Then a few more days passed, then weeks, and perhaps even months without any contact from a human being other than the guard keeping me up at night and dropping off food once in a while.  I began to seriously worry about my family, what would my wife do to support our children without me working?  What will they think has happened to me?

One morning I was awoken by a knock on the door and instructed to follow the guard out of the room.  I was terrified to talk to the guard or anyone else for that matter, but I silently obeyed the order and followed.  I was led down one hall, up a set of stairs, and down another hall.  The light at the end of the hall turned from green to red and I was ordered into a room to the right.  After a few minutes of waiting silently in the holding room I was again ordered to follow.  I was led to a rather large comfortable office room that had a desk with four chairs on my side of it, a bookshelf, and at long last, a window.  I had not seen even a hint of sunlight since I had been placed here.  On the other side of the desk was a man dressed in a nice suit.  I realized that I was still in the clothes that I was given when I first arrived at the detention center which not only were much too small, but were also rather dirty.

The man looked like an old friend of mine, though I could not place his name, I thought that perhaps I had known him in grade school.  He offered me a seat at the desk and suggested that I might like a croissant and some tea.  I could not have been more taken aback: if this was their method of torture I thought I could withstand more.  Yet I had been so deprived of human contact for so long that this man’s offer of my favorite breakfast items made me feel a sense of affection for him, despite my underlying terror at this situation.

‘How do you feel?’ he asked me.  ‘I feel..’ I coughed, I had not spoken aloud in some time.  ‘Take your time’ he said, ‘I know this must have been hard on you, people like us don’t do well without someone to talk to.’  I coughed again.  ‘I feel fine’ I lied.  He could see the lie in the expression on my face.  He walked around the desk to the door, opened it for a moment, when he returned he placed a croissant and a steaming hot cup of black tea with a wedge of lemon in front of me.  I smiled.  ‘These will make you feel better,’ he said with a smile.  Sometimes it’s the simple things in life I suppose.  Or perhaps I had been locked in that damn cell for too long, but regardless I felt grateful.

He walked over the window, ‘beautiful day’ he said, ‘I think I’ll go for a walk later.’  I tried to smile, but I knew that I failed to give that impression.  ‘The accommodations here are rather dreary aren’t they?’  I gave him a confused look.  ‘Well in any case we will have you out of here soon enough.’  My confusion turned to shock, ‘what do you mean?’ I interjected.  ‘We will get to that soon enough,’ he replied calmly.  ‘Let’s talk for a little while, I went over your case file and I have a few questions.’

We talked for what must have been a few hours.  It turned out that he and I had gone to the same school for a year when we were young.  We mocked our old school master, and joked about the old days.  It turned out that we were both fans of the same rugby team, watched many of the same television shows, and listened to many of the same radio programs.  What surprised me the most was that some of the latter were western programs that could get one thrown in jail for viewing, yet he chatted with me about these as if we were old friends.

Then all of a sudden the conversation turned…

‘Your wife misses you, you know?’  –how did he know- ‘We overheard her talking to a friend, she is quite worried about you.  Do you have any idea how long you have been here?’  I stammered, ‘n-n-n-no, I d-d-on’t think that I do.’ I was starting to panic, he could see this and said ‘don’t worry, as I said, you will be out of here very soon.’  ‘But why am I..’ I choked on my reply.  ‘We know what you have been up to, secret meetings with other malcontents and printing leaflets denouncing the party; we have been watching you closely for some time now.  It all looks very bad, and you would be in a lot of trouble, but I know how much you miss your wife and children, so as I said we will get you out of here soon.’  ‘Why am I not in trouble?’ I asked in a panicked voice.  ‘Because you are going to work for us now, we will keep you and your family safe, but in exchange we will need information from you regarding some of those troublesome people with whom you have been associating.’  ‘If you are ready I have the documents that you will need to sign right in the desk here.’  He walked over to the desk as calmly as a grandmother in church, meanwhile I thought I might be having a panic attack.  He pulled out a set of documents from the top drawer in the desk.  They had already been filled out with all of my personal information on them.  ‘All I need is a few signatures from you and you can go back to your life.”

I signed the papers.

But my life was never the same.

The more information that I passed to the Stasi the more they wanted.  I got deeper and deeper into the game of spying on my friends and family.  And it seemed that the further I fell, the hole only got deeper and darker.  Much as a serial killer finds it difficult to kill their first victim, but they find that it gets easier after the second and third; I found that I really was quite good at monitoring my marks.  I destroyed childhood friends; I broke up marriages and orphaned children.  I convinced youth with no predilection toward anti-state activity to print leaflets and protest, only to betray them and have them thrown in jail for life.  But the very worst thing that I did was I betrayed my own family; my wife and children for whom I had initially signed my life away to the Stasi.  The benevolent Ministry for State Security liked the job I was doing for them and decided that my family was too cumbersome for me to operate at my potential.  They were sent to jail in the USSR.  To this day I have never heard from any of them, I can only assume that they are dead.

The Wall fell to be sure, but the scars that I have from what I have done will never heal.  I am an old man now, and I doubt that you are even old enough to remember what life was like back then.  There is much more to my story, but it looks like you have to go.  Thank you for listening to the ramblings of this old soul…


One comment

  1. Bravo! It takes some guts to publish a short story on the internet. Keep up the good work.

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