Thursday, 16 October 2014

Letter to Prof Lodge of Limerick University re our letter exchange in the Guardian about the GDR.

16 October 2014

Dear Prof. Lodge

Thank you for your letter and the paper by Anthony Glees you sent. Yes, short letters in a newspaper are never an adequate means of expressing opinions or for putting over cohesive arguments. 

Like you, I abhor torture and maltreatment wherever it takes place and whosoever practises it. And, as I made clear in my Guardian letter, I certainly don’t want to appear to be an apologist for or defender of activities and behaviour of the GDR’s state security services. 

What motivates me to take up this issue is a determination to counter what has become the characterisation of the whole GDR experience as a ‘Stasi’ one and that the country was simply a totalitarian, oppressive and unjust state (Unrechtsstaat in Federal German terminology); there is no attempt by western politicians, historians or academics to offer a more differentiated picture or to undertake a genuine attempt to understand the GDR experience through the lives of those who lived it. 

There have been a multitude of books written by those who lived in the GDR about their experiences (including my own small booklet) but these, with the exception of those that confirm the already jaundiced picture, have been totally ignored. I lived and studied in the GDR for four years. I also married (twice) GDR women who were born and grew up, studied and worked there before coming to the UK. My mother taught in the GDR for ten years and continued to live there after her retirement.

My argument is simply that while the State Security apparatus played a powerful, significant and often unsavoury role in the country, its activities did not impact negatively on everyone by any means and many people led normal lives without any contact with them at all.  Of course, if you were an active dissident or operated against the system, you would undoubtedly find yourself in conflict with them. But, after all, every nation has its security apparatus (just look at how the security forces here have infiltrated protest groups) and some are more or less brutal and oppressive. In the GDR, the aim of the security services was also to protect what they deemed to be national security. 

I also agree with you, that a definition of torture (although “the use of psychological and/or physical abuse in order to terrorise or cow a victim to extract a confession or information” is a decent enough definition I feel) is not always easy and there are degrees of brutality. I am sure the Stasi did use methods at times that were certainly not commensurate with what I would deem ‘humane treatment’, although they would be at the less brutal spectrum of torture, I would argue. And it is likely that more brutal methods or mistreatment were implemented in the early years (late forties and fifties) and certainly less, if at all, in the later decades.

Anthony Glees’s paper which I read, only serves to underline my point. His premiss is that the GDR was an ‘Unrechtsstaat’ and he attempts to prove his point with all the weapons at his disposal, and with no effort of balance. His sources are almost if not totally exclusively West German or British.

One needs to ask: why if the GDR was such a horrific prison camp have there been no more than a handful of ex-Stasi officers convicted (despite thousands of investigated cases) - and the few that were convicted have received small fines or bail. Why if the system was so horrendous have around a third of former GDR citizens regularly voted for the PDS/Die Linke, the ‘successor party’ to the old ruling SED? And why do many more feel that with unification the baby was perhaps thrown out with the bathwater and they may have lost more than they have gained?

There is an interesting book written by an Austrian CIA operative (together with the Stasi man who interrogated him) who was captured by GDR authorities and held in Hohenschoenhausen: Verheizt und Vergessen by H. Sieberer and H. Kierstein (Berlin: edition ost 2005). While he doesn’t paint a glowing picture, he underlines that he was never maltreated or tortured and appears to have more anger about his incompetent CIA handlers than his GDR captors!

Or the book, Die DDR unterm Luegenberg [the GDR under the mountain of lies], edition ost, 2010, written by Ralph Hartmann, the GDR’s former ambassador to Yugoslavia. In the book the author has a chapter titled, ‘Stasi-Folter und Stasi -Terror’ (Stasi torture and Stasi terror) in which he demolishes the accusations of systematic torture carried out by the state security forces. In this same chapter he deals specifically with Hohenschoenhausen and relates that the director of that prison museum and a chief ‘crown prosecution witness’ is Hubertus Knabe, a West German, and well-known and oft quoted ‘SED expert’. On taking up his post he declared  Hohenschoenhausen to be ‘the Dachau of communism’. he alleges that the ‘torture cells’ that are on show have been fabricated post-GDR. There is also a train carriage there and railway tracks ‘to transport prisoners’ which are clearly supposed to be a reminder not of Dachau but of Auschwitz. However in GDR times there never was a railway track or trains for transportation to and from the prison. The museum is well-funded by the government because it serves to underline the official demonisation of the GDR.  The book’s author maintains that the present museum has had other elements and evidence of torture added since which were not there when it was used as a prison. 

In Glees’s paper he quotes figures for deaths in Hohenschoenhausen  ‘of between 900 - 3,000’ [a large and inexplicable margin of difference] and that ‘water torture was used there regularly’ but gives no source for this. His other source for such figures is Die Gedenkstaette fuer die Opfer politischer Gewalt et al., Die Vergangenheit (1996), an institution set up by the Federal government with the express purpose of denigrating the GDR.

But even Glees writes that there were 173,000 IMs (Stasi informants) - hardly the one in three quoted by Neil MacGregor in his original article (that would be over 5 million!).

Glees is well-known as a very conservative figure, specialising in security issues and with close ties to the security services. In 2010 was appointed a professor of trust (Vertrauensdozent) by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Not exactly a neutral observer!

There was a lot wrong with the GDR and there was serious distortion and restriction of democratic rights, civil rights and personal freedoms, but it was not a nazi-like state and nor was it one big prison camp.

I hesitate in quoting Goebbels but his alleged statement that if you quote a lie often enough it will stick is certainly valid in this respect.


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