Author Archive


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…


Hagakure 葉隠れ (in the shadow of falling leaves)

June 19, 2010

I was perusing the Hagakure when I came upon something that I think is highly pertinent to what we have looked at in Berlin:
According to Lord Naoshige’s words:

There is something to which every young samurai should pay attention. During times of peace when listening to stories of battle, one should never say, “In facing such a situation, what would a person do?” Such words are out of the question. How will a man who has doubts even in his own room achieve anything on the battlefield? …

In our class the question was asked many times what one would do in the face of tyranny under the Nazis or under the GDR. I think that Naoshige’s point speaks directly to this: it is pointless to speculate. He further explains that if one is not determined from the start, uncertain even in the comfort of his own home, then when war does happen that person will be useless on the field of battle. Granted the Hagakure was written in the 18th century for a dying class of warrior nobility, but I think the abstract of Naoshige’s point is useful here: that it is pointless to try and speculate what any one of us might have done under the circumstances in Nazi Germany or under the GDR. The real point is that we should be prepared to do something in the event that it happens again.
And in fact, it has happened again, in 1994 in Rwanda around 800,000 people were killed in the course of around 8 weeks, in the Darfur region of Sudan it happened again and we did nothing: we don’t even know how many people were killed. For that matter we have constructed a global economic system that not only allows, but incentivizes human trafficking, the destruction of ecological systems, the exploitation of child labor, and could likely lead us to another war on a massive scale over scarcer and scarcer natural resources (think water in the Middle East and Africa.) A few statistics are in order: about one billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water, and 2.6 billion people do not have access to any kind of improved sanititation.1 10 million children under the age of five die each year from perfectly treatable malnutrition, or about one every three minutes, if we include all the people that die from complications due to malnutrition, the number jumps up to between 35 and 55 million people a year, or about one every 15 seconds.2 It is ok though, in the US we grow enough food to feed all of these people, instead though we feed it to animals and eat them. The best part is that we have an obesity epidemic! A third of the people in the world can’t get enough to eat and we have an obesity epidemic! Even better, we have started to use ethanol from corn to fuel our cars, so now starving people get to compete with our vehicles to get a meal. And we all know how upset Americans get if someone tries to raise our fuel prices.
All that being said, my personal bias is that the ‘war on terror’ that GW constructed is extremely terrifying for a couple different reasons. The primary issue is that we now have a system that allows us to other people by labeling them terrorists and lock them up indefinitely without trial. For me the broader issue is what happens when we start seeing people who object to the global economic system that we have set up and they decide that their only recourse is terrorism? If someone has a perfectly legitimate political point to make I do not in any way endorse an act of violence as a means of communication, but what happens when they have no other way to communicate? To some extent this touches upon the notion of homo sacer that Lucy articulated for us: that is when someone’s life is given no value to the point that they can neither be sacrificed nor murdered, because both murder and sacrifice denote that the person’s life had value.
I think to a large degree when someone commits a suicide bombing they are communicating that their life does have value and that they are willing to sacrifice it in order to prove it. The harm that is done is also a part of the communication that their life has value, but I’m having a little more difficulty with how that works. It seems like the violence they do to themselves might be a form of communication but the act of violently taking the lives of others seems to nullify the moral message that they are trying to communicate. On the other hand it is telling that we place no value on the life of a suicide bomber: no one even gives a thought to the fact that this was a person too and that their life had value also. Really give some thought to the notion that a person had been driven by whatever forces to think that their only option in life was to die in order to harm another human being. What combination of hopelessness, hatred, remorse, isolation, and terror could drive a human being to kill themselves in order to harm another?
I think the most frightening thing of all though is that we don’t ask these kinds of questions in American society. We are happy to keep cramming McBurgers down our throats, drive our oversized military grade vehicles, and watch American Idol (a golden calf?) and when someone objects to our way of life—a way of life that does impact people worldwide—we decide that they are either crazy, or we lock them up indefinitely, torture optional of course. So to return to the original point; it is pointless to speculate about what we might have done in a given situation in the past, the real question is: What are we doing about the present?

See also
See also
“Nearly one in four people, 1.3 billion – a majority of humanity – live on less than $1 per day, while the world’s 358 billionaires have assets exceeding the combined annual incomes of countries with 45 percent of the world’s people. UNICEF”
“For the price of one missile, a school full of hungry children could eat lunch every day for 5 years”

P.S. if you see a funny set of boxes in the title, that is the Japanese character for Hagakure, most people don’t have Japanese fonts turned on ^.^


Totalitariansim and Authoritarianism in Brief

June 2, 2010

The trip we are currently on in Germany is at least partially intended to explore two types of government that existed in Germany in the 20th century. The first is totalitarianism, which existed under the national socialist party (Nazi) between 1933 and 1945. The second is authoritarianism, which existed in East Germany between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin wall. In this blog I will explain each type of government in brief and conclude by explaining why it is important that we understand these types of government today.

We have only seen totalitarian governments in the last century or so and they tend to be rather short lived. The brief lifespan of totalitarian regimes is due to their composition, which is bizarre in comparison to what most of us are used to in terms of what we expect from a government. As their name suggests, totalitarian regimes attempt to control the lives of their citizens completely. Totalitarian regimes regulate every aspect of life in that there are no organizations that are independent of control by the state. The state regulates where people work, pray, sleep, and what they think.

In the particular case of the Nazis this control was established very quickly, and brutally. Brutality is another ear-mark of totalitarian regimes and while there are many levels on which this works two particularly stand out in my mind. The first is that anyone who questioned the regime was publicly humiliated: in a few cases that we looked at today for example a woman that was accused of having an intimate relationship with a Polish man had her head shaved and was paraded in front of a very large crowd; another man was made to wear a sign that suggested something such that he was a useless malcontent and was also paraded in front of a large crowd.

While this may sound simply medieval and therefore perhaps not that awfully bad the second common aspect to authoritarianism under the Nazis was the murder of innocent people. The holocaust may have been the ultimate culmination of the Nazi system in Germany, but the killing of innocent people began much earlier than the death camps and in some sense evolved into them. In order to gain control in the first place in Germany the Nazis used intimidation and murder to keep the population fearful. Anyone that was even accused of disloyalty to the regime could be arrested and killed. For the most part the murder of people in the beginning was entirely public, the political purpose of this was to strike fear into the population in order to keep them under control. These two aspects of totalitarianism do not fairly sum up how the system attempted to exert complete control on the population of Germany, but it is fair to say that they were a rather large part of the control mechanisms in German society. It is also important to note that the Nazis never succeeded in completely controlling the population, however it is true that while there was dissent in Nazi Germany, it never was large enough or well enough organized to call it a true resistance. In other words acts of resistance did occur, but for the most part the people involved were very few and were killed almost immediately.

The second type of government that we are looking at is the authoritarian regime in East Germany between the end of the World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unlike a totalitarian government authoritarian regimes do not seek to completely control the lives of their citizens, but rather they mercilessly enforce laws based usually on an ideology. In the case of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Berlin) the ideology was essentially soviet-style communism. The GDR had a command economy which meant that everything that was produced there was controlled by the government. This meant that all everyday items were manufactured by the government and not the private sector. The film Goodbye Lenin does a great job of portraying the kinds of goods that were available in the GDR. A few examples of how this worked are that while none of the food that was available was particularly good, people always had enough to eat. Another example is that if someone wanted a car there were only two available models that the government manufactured, neither of which were very good and it might take 5 or more years to get one from the government factories. Goodbye Lenin does a good job of illustrating that life in the GDR was not all bad, however the flip side of this is illustrated in another film that we watched in preparation for the trip: The Lives of Others.

The Lives of Others portrays the life of an artist who is put under surveillance by the Stazi (the GDR’s secret police.) The man’s house was equipped with full video and audio surveillance without his knowledge. Anyone in the GDR who even said anything bad about the government could have been put into prison or even killed. In the particular case of the gentleman portrayed in the film, despite the fact that he was under surveillance, he wrote an article that was deeply critical of the GDR and got it published in De Spiegel, a prominent West German newspaper. To find out what happened to him as a result of this I would recommend watching the movie: it is too good to give away the ending. Nonetheless the point is that even a simple criticism of the GDR could have resulted in arrest and imprisonment (potentially indefinitely.)

Both of these explanations despite being perhaps long-winded are somewhat simplistic in understanding these two systems of government. Despite this I will move on to explain why it matters to us today, (and also I have been told that blogs should be short and I do tend to ramble.)

It is important to understand the past in order to build a better future for our species and our planet. As a professor of mine said, in English when we say that something is history we tend to mean that it is not important. In almost every other language on the planet the opposite is the case: to say that something is history is to ascribe importance to it. We have to understand these types of government to make sure that it does not happen again!

The US today is responsible for bombing and killing untold people in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been holding people without trial and have committed torture. It is not fair to say that the US is definitively moving toward a system similar to that of the Nazis or the GDR, we are better than that. But it doesn’t change the fact that it can happen again. It took the Nazis 30 years or more of organizing to get into power and everything they did after that was incremental. Granted from the outset it should have been clear that they wanted to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, but it doesn’t change the fact that they could and should have been resisted. What this means to me is that whenever and wherever we see morally objectionable behavior we are morally required to react against it.

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil:

God will not hold us guiltless.

Not to speak is to speak.

Not to act is to act.

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was “hanged in a Nazi prison at Flossenburg in Bavaria on April 9, 1945.”