Zirndorf is a seemingly nondescript German village on the outskirts of Nuremberg; in the foreboding shadow of a city that owes its location on the map of European history to grandiose public pronouncements of Aryan supremacy, Zirndorf is probably only known to those who live there. However, for all of Germany’s concerted campaigns to confront its Nazi past, what followed that past remains strangely unaddressed throughout the majority of the reunified nation. Not so in Zirndorf, for the village houses a group of people known as ‘puzzlers’ and their exhaustive efforts to address the legacy of the German Democratic Republic of 1949-90 entails a lifetime’s work.
Day-after-day, this small group of dedicated individuals sift through hundreds of scraps of paper in an attempt to reunite each fragment as a whole, something that makes the tedium of assembling a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle of some old steam engine resemble an afternoon swinging in a hammock with the Cheeky Girls. These scraps are the remnants of documents retrieved from the Berlin HQ of East Germany’s formidable secret police, the Stasi. A staggering fifteen thousand sacks of shredded files were liberated in the wake of the GDR’s collapse at the end of the 1980s, files that were destroyed with such fevered haste that the shredding machines couldn’t cope with the sheer volume and the staff entrusted with their destruction eventually resorted to ripping them to pieces by hand. What these files represent are evidence of the most meticulous and thorough exercise in state-sponsored surveillance of a people the world has ever known.
Typed documents, hand-written reports, photographs, reel-to-reel audiotapes, cine-film, videotapes, index cards – every conceivable pre-digital recording format was employed by the State to observe the East German populace; the former Stasi citadel of Normannenstrasse is now the Stasi Museum and displays some of the strangest examples of the methods Stasi Head Erich Mielke considered vital in keeping tabs on every individual, such as the jars alleged to contain the smells of certain suspects. Quite what use the contents of these jars were supposed to serve is perhaps an indication of the absurdities that can become the norm when this kind of practice doesn’t know where to stop.
What lay on the other side of Europe’s Iron Curtain was an intriguing source of fascination to those of us in the West who grew-up during the decades of the GDR’s existence, the sinister setting of a dozen spy dramas and occasionally glimpsed in all its Brutalist architectural monochrome grimness via the dubbed serials that graced the BBC1 schedules during school holidays. Yugoslavia aside, no Communist countries participated in the Eurovision Song Contest or ‘Jeux Sans Frontiers’ and most mainly knew the names of these nations courtesy of their chemically pumped-up athletes scooping medals at the Olympics. Because we were largely unaware of the reality of life over the Berlin Wall, we somehow imagined its mystery equated with adventure.
Of course, the reality of life wasn’t quite so exotic. The residents were not only subjected to a paucity of choice when it came to western luxuries, they were subtly engineered to maintain the prevailing paranoia by being in perennial suspicion of everyone they came into contact with – work colleagues, friends, family, even spouses – and were advised it was their duty to report on them. The eyes and ears of the Stasi were the people themselves. Of course, the relentless propaganda of the East’s superiority over the decadent West was accompanied by social benefits like child-care and consistent employment for those who played ball. For those who didn’t, they became non-persons, blacklisted and blackballed by society – if they lived.
Like many institutions whose crimes provoke disbelief once they are shed of secrecy and are dragged into the open, the Stasi often occupy the ‘never again’ category. But, though they may have been the most extreme example of how the State can overreach its security remit, they were hardly unique. As with the events that culminated in Richard Nixon’s resignation, it’s feasible to suggest that the Stasi were merely unfortunate to get caught doing what has been done before and continues to be done in the name of ‘security’. The post-9/11 west has responded to the changing climate by introducing increasingly draconian legislation unprecedented in modern democracies, and nowhere has this been more noticeable than here in old Blighty.
The hypocritical irony of David Cameron linking arms with other world leaders on the streets of Paris to proclaim free speech as a hallmark of democracy was followed by his announcement that he intended to extend the ability of the police and security services to access the private online correspondence of the general public, only a tiny minority of whom could ever be considered a threat to the Realm. No doubt we can look forward to months of sanctimonious speeches on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, all of which will be given without the remotest trace of self-awareness by politicians who would reject the majority of that venerable document’s demands were it delivered to Westminster tomorrow.
George Galloway’s appearance on ‘Question Time’ last week, where he was shouted down by a group of pro-Israel Jewish audience members for daring to suggest their spiritual homeland wasn’t exactly governed by the best of intentions was followed after recording ended by a mob surrounding his car, a mob whose view of free speech means they are entitled to it, but any opinion that contradicts their own isn’t. The same spirit inflames the passions of Muslim lobby groups opposing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as well as the PC harridans posing as feminists who demanded the axing of Dapper Laughs’ TV series.
Such groups make life considerably easier for the powers-that-be to insert sly additions to the statue book by vindicating their decision to do so. They can point to an offended demographic before recycling the same old guff about the infringement of civil liberties whilst simultaneously curbing those civil liberties further. From the smoking ban and the dubious legality of police ‘kettling’ tactics at one end to the extended imprisonment without charge or trial of terrorist suspects at the other, every British Government since September 2001 has taken it upon itself to instigate measures for our ‘protection’ that the Stasi would have heartily applauded.
It’s been stated that, as long as you reside in an urban area – which, let’s face it, most of us do – any short journey you make in a day will be tracked by around seventy CCTV cameras positioned on street corners or in the vicinity of various shops and businesses. These all-seeing eyes are now so commonplace that many fail to even notice them anymore; they have blended into the street landscape as successfully as road signs or litter-bins, which is precisely the intention. I don’t know about you, but every time I go online now I am acutely aware of being monitored; not that I’m prone to visiting websites that show the latest in suicide-bomber couture or even ones that demonstrate how versatile the numerous orifices of a young lady can be; but if I did, what’s it got to do with anyone else?
Whether in the home or out-of-doors, we are being watched; whether in the home or out-of-doors, we are being listened to. Most people have never even so much as nicked a packet of cheese from their local supermarket, so what is the justification for treating everyone as a potential criminal? There isn’t one, and neither was there one for the Stasi. But that didn’t stop them. Just visit Zirndorf and see for yourself.