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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Eighteen: Leipzig

Old Stasi headquarters 
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A recreated bugger's office at the old Stasi headquarters. Everyone was snooped on. Some estimates think one in sixty people had been a Stasi informer at one time.
Michael Palin - New EuropeInside is a museum run, not by any tourist board, but by a serious-minded Citizens' Committee who, in their own words, 'want to sensitise the young generation, who no longer know about life in the GDR from their own experience, to the dangers of dictatorship'. There are no expensive hi-tech displays here; indeed, the name of the permanent exhibition, 'Stasi - Power and Banality', says it all. The lino, the yellow wallpaper, the cramped little office of a typical employee, with most of its space taken up by a filing cabinet, a shredder, a tape recorder and shelves full of ring files. A display of wigs used in surveillance, jam jars full of 'smell samples' taken from suspects, everything perfectly captures the small-minded drabness of this bureaucracy of oppression. A system created, as someone observed, to protect the government from the people.

When demonstrators stormed the Runde Ecke on 4 December 1989, the Stasi began desperately trying to destroy the vast amount of information they had secretly acquired, but there was so much that it proved impossible. Now the Stasi files are public property and anyone can have access to them. Those from Leipzig alone stretch for 6 miles. Shredded material is being sorted by the 'puzzle women', a team of ladies near Nuremberg, who physically go through the sacks and piece the remains together. It's estimated that, working at their present rate, it will take them 350 years to complete the task. Computers are now being used, though it's expensive. This admirable accessibility of information has painful consequences. People are now discovering that their close friends and acquaintances were informing on them.

Gunter, who realised then that his phone was being tapped, and that every letter to a foreign country was opened, now knows that an acquaintance of his, faced with the evidence, has admitted he was an informer.

'At one point he said, yes, I know you know, but I must tell you Mr X and Mrs Y were much worse.'

Truth and reconciliation in the former GDR clearly has its limits.

'Nobody came and said I just want to tell you I was an informer, nobody.'

It's tempting to see all this stuff on display at the Runde Ecke as small-minded, petty, even weirdly comic. There is a growing phenomenon known as Ostalgie, typified by an increasing interest in the paraphernalia of the GDR, which are seen as fashionable and trendy. But this was an oppressive, ruthless system. Many thousands of lives were ruined, destroyed, or physically ended by people working here. As Gunter the satirist reminds me before we part company, 'We never ever did jokes about the Stasi. That was taboo.'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Eighteen: Leipzig
  • Country/sea: Germany
  • Place: Leipzig
  • Book page no: 275

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