1989 – The Lives of Others
A realistic depiction of life in the East?

Timothy Garton Ash views the film through his own experiences in the GDR.

When I went to live in Berlin in the late 1970s, I was fascinated by the puzzle of how Nazi evil had engulfed this homeland of high culture. I set out to discover why the people of Weimar Berlin behaved as they did after Adolf Hitler came to power. One question above all obsessed me: What quality was it, what human strain, that made one person a dissident or resistance fighter and another a collaborator in stateorganized crime, one a Claus von Stauffenberg, sacrificing his life in the attempt to assassinate Hitler, another an Albert Speer?
I soon discovered that the men and women living behind the Berlin Wall, in East Germany, were facing similar dilemmas in another German dictatorship, albeit with less physically murderous consequences. I could study that human conundrum not in dusty archives but in the history of the present. So I went to live in East Berlin and ended up writing a book about the Germans under the communist leader Erich Honecker, rather than under Adolf Hitler. As I travelled around the other Germany, I was again and again confronted with the fear of the Stasi. Walking back to the apartment of an actor who had just taken the lead role in a production of Goethe’s Faust, a friend whispered to me, ‘Watch out, Faust is working for the Stasi.’ After my very critical account of communist East Germany appeared in West Germany, a British diplomat was summoned to receive an official protest from the East German foreign ministry (one of the nicest book reviews a political writer could ever hope for) and I was banned from re-entering the country.
Yet this view of East Germany as another evil German dictatorship was by no means generally accepted in the West at that time. Even to suggest a Nazi-Stasi comparison was regarded in many parts of the Western left as outmoded, reactionary cold war hysteria, harmful to the spirit of détente. The Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele concluded in 1977 that the German Democratic Republic was ‘a presentable model of the kind of authoritarian welfare states which Eastern European nations have now become.’ Even self-styled ‘realist’ conservatives talked about communist East Germany in tones very different from those they adopt today. Back then, the word ‘Stasi’ barely crossed their lips.
Two developments ended this chronic myopia. In 1989 the people of East Germany themselves finally rose up and denounced the Stasi as the epitome of their previous repression. That they often repressed at the same time – in the crypto-Freudian sense of the word ‘repression’ – the memory of their own everyday compromises and personal responsibility for the stability of the communist regime was but the other side of the same coin. After 1990, the total takeover of the former East Germany by the Federal Republic meant that, unlike in all other post-communist states, there was no continuity from old to new security services and no hesitation about exposing the evils of the previous secret police state. Quite the reverse.
In the land of Martin Luther and Leopold von Ranke, driven by a distinctly Protestant passion to confront past sins, the forcefully stated wish of a few East German dissidents to expose the crimes of the regime, and the desire of many West Germans (especially those from the class of ‘68) not to repeat the mistakes made in covering up and forgetting the evils of Nazism after 1949, we saw an unprecedentedly swift, far-reaching, and systematic opening of the more than 110 miles of Stasi files. The second time around, forty years on, Germany was bent on getting its Vergangenheitsbewältigung, its past-beating, just right. Of course Russia’s KGB, the big brother of East Germany’s big brother, did nothing of the kind.
After some hesitation, I decided to go back and see if I had a Stasi file. I did. I read it and was deeply stirred by its minute-by-minute record of my past life: 325 pages of poisoned madeleine. Helped by the apparatus of historical enlightenment that Germany had erected, I was able to study in incomparable detail the apparatus of political intimidation that had produced this file. Then, working like a detective, I tracked down the acquaintances who had informed on me and the Stasi officers involved in my case. All but one agreed to talk. They told me their life stories, and explained how they had come to do what they had done. In every case, the story was understandable, all too understandable; human, all too human. I wrote a book about the whole experience, calling it The File.
It was therefore with particular interest that I recently sat down to watch The Lives of Others, the already celebrated film about the Stasi, made by a West German director who was just sixteen when the Berlin Wall came down. Set in the Orwellian year of 1984, it shows a dedicated Stasi captain, Gerd Wiesler, conducting a full-scale surveillance operation on a playwright in good standing with the regime, Georg Dreyman, and his beautiful, highly-strung actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland. As the case progresses, we see the Stasi captain becoming disillusioned with his task. He realizes that the whole operation has been set up simply to allow the culture minister, who is exploiting his position to extract sexual favours from the lovely Christa, to get his playwright rival out of his way. ‘Was it for this we joined up?’ Wiesler asks his cynical superior, Colonel Anton Grubitz.
At the same time, he becomes curiously enchanted with what he hears through his headphones, connected to the bugs concealed behind the wallpaper of the playwright’s apartment: that rich world of literature, music, friendship, and tender sex, so different from his own desiccated, solitary life in a dreary towerblock, punctuated only by brief, mechanical relief between the outsize mutton thighs of a Stasicommissioned prostitute. In his snooper’s hideaway in the attic of the apartment building, Wiesler sits transfixed by Dreyman’s rendition of a piano piece called ‘The Sonata of the Good Man’ – a birthday present to the playwright from a dissident theatre director who, banned by the culture minister from pursuing his vocation, subsequently commits suicide. Violating all the rules that he himself teaches at the Stasi’s own university, the secret watcher slips into the apartment and steals a volume of poems by Bertolt Brecht. Then we see him lying on a sofa, entranced by one of Brecht’s more elegiac verses.
In the role-reversing culmination of an intricate and gripping plot, the playwright’s girlfriend betrays him to the Stasi but the Stasi captain saves him from exposure and arrest – at the cost of his own subsequent career. He is reduced to steaming open letters in a Stasi cellar alongside a junior officer whom we see earlier telling a political joke in the ministry canteen and, in a chilling exchange, being asked for his name and rank by Colonel Grubitz.
Watching the film for the first time, I was powerfully affected. Yet I was also moved to object, from my own experience: ‘No! It was not really like that. This is all too highly coloured, romantic, even melodramatic; in reality, it was all much grayer, more tawdry and banal.’ The playwright, for example, in his smart brown corduroy suit and open-necked shirt, dresses, walks, and talks like a West German intellectual from Schwabing, a chic quarter of Munich, not an East German. Several details are also wrong. On everyday duty, Stasi officers would not have worn those smart dress uniforms, with polished knee-length leather boots, leather belts, and cavalry-style trousers. By contrast, the cadets in the Stasi university are shown in ordinary, student-type civilian clothes; they would have been in uniform. A Stasi surveillance team would have been most unlikely to install itself in the attic of the same building – a sure give-away to the residents, not all of whom could have been reliably silenced by the kind of chilling warning that Wiesler delivers to the playwright’s immediate neighbour across the stairwell: ‘One word to anyone and your Masha immediately loses her place to study medicine at university. Understood?’ Some of the language is also too high-flown, old-fashioned, and simply Western.
But these objections are in an important sense beside the point. The point is that this is a movie. It uses the syntax and conventions of Hollywood to convey to the widest possible audience some part of the truth about life under the Stasi, and the larger truths that experience revealed about human nature. It mixes historical fact (several of the Stasi locations are real and most of the terminology and tradecraft is accurate) with the ingredients of a fast-paced thriller and love story.
One of the movie’s central claims remains troubling. This is the idea, clearly implied in the ending, that the Stasi captain is the ‘good man’ of Dreyman’s sonata. Now I have heard of Stasi informers who ended up protecting those they were informing on. I know of full-time Stasi operatives who became disillusioned, especially during the 1980s. And in many hours of talking to former Stasi officers, I never met a single one who I felt to be, simply and plainly, an evil man. Weak, blinkered, opportunistic, self-deceiving, yes; men who did evil things, most certainly; but always I glimpsed in them the remnants of what might have been, the good that could have grown in other circumstances.
In negotiating the treacherous moral maze of evaluating how people behave under dictatorships, there are two characteristic mistakes. One is the simplistic, black-and-white, Manichaean division into good guys and bad guys: X was an informer, so he must have been all bad, Y was a dissident, so she must have been all good. Anyone who has ever lived in such circumstances knows how much more complicated things are. The other, equal but opposite mistake is a moral relativism that ends up blurring the distinction between perpetrator and victim. This kind of moral relativism is frequently to be encountered among liberal-minded Westerners – and, not accidentally, often those who at the time viewed East Germany through rose-tinted spectacles. It is usually accompanied by the argument that the Stasi files cannot be trusted at all: die Akten lügen, the files lie. Von Donnersmarck himself is very far from this relativism, but his film steers uncomfortably close to it.
This is a fault, but not a fatal one. The net effect of The Lives of Others will not, after all, be to unleash a wave of worldwide sympathy for former Stasi officers. It will be to bring home the horrors of that system, in a stylized fashion, to viewers who would have known little or nothing about them before.
According to a report in Der Spiegel, when an emotional Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck finally arrived at a late-night German celebration following the Oscar award ceremony, he exclaimed, brandishing his statuette in the air, Wir sind Weltmeister! The phrase implies not masters of the world but world champions (as in soccer) or world masters (as in golf), with subsidiary connotations of artistic mastery, as in Meistersinger or Meisterwerk. But in what, exactly, are the Germans world masters? In respect of fascism, Hitler’s Germany was undoubtedly the world champion – all too literally a world-beater. But can the same be said of Honecker’s Germany? Yes, this small country with just 17 million people was a kind of miniature masterpiece of psychological intimidation. As Orwell saw, the perfect totalitarian system is the one that does not need to kill or physically torture anyone. I am the last person to minimize the evils of the East German regime; but when set against the millions of deaths in Stalin’s gulag, Mao’s enforced famines, and Pol Pot’s genocide, it is hard to maintain that this was the worst that communism produced. In that larger scheme of things, East Germany, unlike Nazi Germany, was but a sideshow. The Stasi was modelled on the KGB and not, as many people vaguely imagine, on the Gestapo. And we should not forget that the subtle psychological terror of the Stasi state depended, from the first day to the last, on the presence of the Red Army and the willingness of the Soviet Union to use force. When that went, the Stasi state went too.
So why is it that the word ‘Stasi’ – not ‘KGB,’ ‘Red Guards,’ or ‘Khmer Rouge’ – is rapidly becoming a global synonym for communist terror? Because the enterprise in which the Germans truly are Weltmeister is the cultural reproduction of their country’s versions of terror. No nation has been more brilliant, more persistent, and more innovative in the investigation, communication, and representation the re-presentation, and re-re-presentation – of its own past evils.
The Germany in which The Lives of Others was produced, in the early years of the twenty-first century, is one of the most free and civilized countries on earth. In this Germany, human rights and civil liberties are today more jealously and effectively protected than (it pains me to say) in traditional homelands of liberty such as Britain and the United States. In this good land, the professionalism of its historians, the investigative skills of its journalists, the seriousness of its parliamentarians, the generosity of its funders, the idealism of its priests and moralists, the creative genius of its writers, and, yes, the brilliance of its filmmakers have all combined to cement in the world’s imagination the most indelible association of Germany with evil. Yet without these efforts, Germany would never have become such a good land. In all the annals of human culture, has there ever been a more paradoxical achievement?
This is an abridged version of the article first printed in The New York Review of Books, Volume 54, Number 9, May 31, 2007 and is printed here by kind permission of The New York Times.
Timothy Garton Ash
is the author of Facts are Subversive: political writing from a decade without a name (Atlantic Books) and of eight other books of political writing or ‘history of the present’ which have charted the transformation of Europe over the past quarter-century. He is Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.