On the Stasi

Review of Ralph Hope’s The Grey Men: Pursuing the Stasi into the Present (One Word 2021) pp.336

‘Every citizen has a right to express his opinion freely’. So stated the Constitution of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) — the Communist half of Germany between 1949 and 1990. Its state security, the Staatsicherheit or Stasi however employed tens of thousands — far more than the Gestapo — to ensure that mouths were tightly sealed.

In The Grey Men: Pursuing the Stasi into the Present, a former FBI agent, Ralph Hope, brings back the trauma of those dark times. As that remarkable film, The Lives of Others (2006) dramatically demonstrated, they tore people’s lives apart. Husbands testified against wives, sons informed about mothers, friends turned out to be the very opposite.

Crimes against the citizen were committed in the name of building a better world. Executions were not uncommon. A Stasi captain, Werner Teske, was rewarded with a bullet in the back of his head in June 1980 because he wanted to leave for the West. His wife believed that he was still in prison when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

It is not by chance that the Soviets reopened Sachsenhausen as a camp shortly after they had liberated it from the Nazis.

The number two in the Stasi was Markus Wolf whose father was Jewish and who later said that he had considered leaving for Israel when the Wall fell. Ralph Hope, focuses on Wolf’s boss, Erich Mielke who crushed dissidents with an iron fist over a period of 40 years. He himself had killed two policemen in 1931 in pre-Nazi Berlin and would have used the army to prevent the fall of Communism. As in Franco’s Spain in the 1930s and in Argentina in the 1970s, under Mielke’s rule children of undesirables were given away to ‘good families’. In 2014, ‘Stolen Children of the GDR’ was formed in Berlin and now has 1,500 members.

Hope records that the GDR was happy to help rejectionist Palestinian groups such as the Abu Nidal group and to supply them with Kalashnikovs. The quid pro quo between them and the Stasi after the Camp David agreement between Begin and Sadat in 1979 was that they should not attack targets in Western Europe while the GDR was pressing for detente with the West. The GDR turned a blind eye to figures such as Carlos the Jackal and members of the Japanese Red Army. East Berlin became a ‘hotel’ for those who lived by the bomb.  

As with former Nazis after 1945, the new Germany enthusiastically integrated the Stasi’s henchmen. Many became well-to-do businessmen.

And some have continued to work with their former colleague, Lt. Col. Vladimir Putin who was the KGB’s representative in Dresden in the late 1980s.

According to Hope, only 182 out of 91,000 Stasi employees were charged, 87 were convicted and one was imprisoned.

Hope’s book is less than systematic in presenting the Stasi’s escape from justice, but you can find tucked away amid the pages. many examples of the seamless transitions to respectability — all of which amount to a warning from history.

Jewish Chronicle 23 July 2021

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