People who have lived their entire lives in a democratic society do not always understand the preciousness of this very same, albeit imperfect, democracy.
Rainer Eppelmann, the most notable dissenter in the erstwhile communist East Germany, claims that we may not yet know how a system based mainly on fear and all-encompassing lies harms an individual and society as a whole.
The fact that you are giving this interview is actually a miracle, since if things had gone the way the Stasi wanted …
Yes, the Stasi tried to kill me at least twice in the 1980s. [Stasi is an abbreviation of the official name of the GDR’s state security service, Ministerium für Staatssicherheit in German—Ed.]
Did you understand that they were trying to kill you at the time?
No, I learnt of it years later. Back then when it happened I believed naïvely that it was a technical fault or human error. I was driving along a forest road with my family and, all of a sudden, the steering wheel came off in my hands. They had unscrewed it, but the car had been functioning normally for a few days, and suddenly it happened. Fortunately, this was a quiet road and I was driving at only 10–12 km/h, so I managed to brake. If it had happened at a speed of 60–80 km/h, we would all have died. We did not think of the Stasi back then. The car had been in a repair shop a week before, and we thought that someone had forgotten to tighten the screws.
The second time they tried to kill me, someone drove right in front of me at an intersection with traffic lights; I flew out of the car and broke two discs in my neck but, as you can see, I survived. If I had not been successfully operated on, I would have remained paralysed from the neck down at the age of 38.
Did all of this happen because of your activity in politics and religion?
Yes. I was considered Public Enemy Number One in the GDR. In 1989 I placed an announcement in a Berlin daily newspaper stating that I would like to meet the person who organised my surveillance. The guy was a high-ranking general, who led more than 40 snitches who dealt with me. He contacted me following the announcement. I went to his home and he invited me into the kitchen; his first sentence after greeting me was: “I do not have to apologise to you.” He said that in his eyes I was Public Enemy Number One because: “You wanted to destroy my state of peace, the GDR, and any means was right to hinder you in doing so.”
Was this the same person who had organised the traffic accident that was meant to kill you?
He had ordered a subordinate officer to develop a concept for eliminating Eppelmann as inconspicuously as possible, so that I would stay quiet at last. They had also tried to pressurise the church into expelling me so that I could no longer speak in public, threatening that “if the pastor is not disciplined, the relationship between church and state will turn very sour indeed”. Fortunately, the church did not break under this pressure.
In retrospect, I also know that the Stasi tried to kill a volunteer who organised a large youth church service, which was supposed to be attended by 9,000 young East German Christians. They planned to get him drunk and mix sedative drops into his drink. The Stasi liked doing this with the drinks of those they intended to kidnap and murder. They planned to do the same with this young volunteer. They planned to leave him in a forest at temperatures of –20°C, and the autopsy would have shown alcohol in the blood.
When all of this happened, I could not imagine the Stasi using such methods. I was courageous back then. When I was really young, I had been in prison for eight months because I refused to take the soldiers’ oath. I will not pledge to any man that I will do everything they want, because I think that no German can pledge this to anyone after Auschwitz. They sent me to prison for eight months for this. So, as I had been in prison before, I did not fear it again. I was prepared to take risks with my activities. I had also gained recognition of sorts on the international stage with my activity so I thought I would try and find out whether they would dare to imprison me at all. But I was naïve! I did not think that if they wanted to get rid of me but could not imprison me, they would kill me instead.
I thought the traffic accidents were the result of human error or technical faults, not action by the Stasi. I was married and had four children and, having now seen my file, I have been thinking in retrospect that I would not have done many of the things I did then if I had known that it was a question of life and death.
We know now that traffic accidents were one of the Stasi’s favourite ways to eliminate people.
The German writer Christoph Hein has said that East Germans “lived in a country the world is getting to know only now”.
You are currently the head of a foundation studying the GDR dictatorship. Germany has studied this in an exemplary manner: excursions are organised to former Stasi prisons and Stasi headquarters, and there are two high-rises in Berlin full of people reviewing Stasi archives. Many new and surprising things have been discovered during this research.
Stasi tried to destroy their files when communism collapsed, but could only destroy a small part of the material. What would be different in the Germany of today if the history of the GDR had not been so thoroughly studied?
I was one of the first 12 people who were allowed to see the Stasi files about themselves in January 1992. I treated this as an act to restore my dignity. I was proud when I read in the file the report of how I had detected “bugs” in my apartment and taken them to the prosecutor, so that he could find out who had placed them. The Stasi officials had made a note about this: “We must start all over again following Eppelmann; he has won.”
There were, however, some who were crushed by seeing their files. My colleague, Vera Lengsfeld, who was also among the first 12, discovered that her own husband [mathematician and poet Knud Wollenberger—Ed.] had been spying on her. Having learnt that her main traitor had been her husband, she left him. Wollenberger is dead now and, when I spoke to Lengsfeld a couple of years ago, she said that she had talked with her ex-husband about why he had done this many times. As time passed, she had forgiven him; I guess the man apologised convincingly. But their children did not want anything to do with their father.
If the files had been destroyed or made unavailable, the diabolical nature of the system would have been hard to comprehend. However, when this is made public, and revealed through living witnesses, books, interviews and school lessons, then it will help people who have only experienced life in a democratic society to understand how precious our everyday democracy is in comparison to a dictatorship of any kind.
We do know that all sorts of unfair things, bad things, also happen in a democratic society; people treat each other with unbelievable egotism, thinking only of themselves and their own well-being. And people in high places in politics are not saints either. A dictatorship differs from a democracy in that a dictatorship can carry out an unlimited number of arbitrary actions; in the case of the GDR, the dictatorship comprised 21 old men in the politburo. The rulers of a communist system left their posts only feet first, or when they were overthrown by competition that was no better.
In a democracy, there is an opposition which can draw attention to the mistakes of the ruling party and challenge proposed legislation, while there is also an independent media and a judicial system independent of politics. People who know only democracy, which may seem irritating at times, cannot comprehend how precious it really is.
Reviewing history helps us to learn. Adolf Hitler gained power through democratic elections and reached that position because the winners of the First World War had placed too heavy a burden on Germany with the Versailles Peace Treaty, which made Germany feel it was treated unfairly. There might have been no Hitler and no Second World War without Versailles.
What is the most important thing to learn from reviewing the communist past?
That fear was an important principle of power. The authorities tried to induce fear.
And fear brings out the worst in people—in the case of both communism and national socialism?
Yes. I remember visiting a café in West Berlin quite by chance in the early 1960s—my father had been working in West Berlin and was in hospital there, and I was allowed to visit. It was a real culture shock for me. Up to then, I had only known East Berlin cafés, which were as quiet as the grave; tables were situated far from one another and the two to four customers at each table were speaking so low that nothing could be heard at the other tables. They were whispering. One could never know who was sitting at the next table, overhearing one’s conversation.
It was different in West Berlin: the room was full and buzzing; there was a lot of noise and life—like in an Arab marketplace—and it seemed that people did not care whether or not others could hear what they were saying. This was a place without fear, full of people free of fear. The atmosphere in East Berlin resembled that of a funeral. Rooms were full of fear. The main principle of the authorities ruling over us was to make us fearful, so that we would stoop down, whisper and not speak out if we happened to have an opinion different from theirs. People who spoke their mind were banned from office or imprisoned.
The purpose was to create a society in which people would not stand up for what they believed in …
Yes, the principle of treating people like children in both the GDR and the Soviet Union was meant to result in everyone wanting the same, hating the same enemy, doing the same things and not doing certain things. This ignored the fact that every person is different; every single person has their own good reasons to want things out of life that differ from others’ wishes, to consider the good and the beautiful to be different from what others consider as such.
Socialism’s desire for uniformity—only people that are all alike are right!—was inhuman. This was why this society was destined to hit the rocks. In his book The Whisperers, Orlando Figes has shown how people living under dictatorships turn into whisperers, willing to say only things that will not harm them or which the authorities wish to hear in public, and remaining silent about their true inner convictions.
You are a theologian and pastor. In the Soviet Union, the Church was heavily persecuted: at times it was prohibited from ringing church bells, at others ministers were ordered to pledge to serve the Communist Party. What was church life like in the GDR?
We also faced persecution. Children went to school and the teacher knew that there was a pastor’s child in the class. She asked in front of the class: “Children, which one of you believes in God?” Of the thirty pupils, two or three who were from Christian families stood up. The teacher said to the rest of the class that they could laugh at those fools.
Do you mean that teachers were involved in violence against the children of religious families and dissenters?
Yes, it did happen occasionally. In my duties as a pastor I have spoken to children and parents who experienced this. What did the parents do? They said to their children not to stand up. To lie. On the one hand, they were trying to raise their children to be decent people. On the other, they were telling their children that when they go to school and are asked a question, they should lie.
When a six-year-old goes to school gladly, a teacher is God to them, and their mother and father have taught them that a decent person is honest. At the same time, the parents warned that one should lie when answering certain questions. The child had been always taught that one should be honest, and then, all of a sudden, they are told to lie.
What conclusions will a child draw from this? Should one lie in difficult situations? Normally, we do not want to raise children like this. What happens to children raised in this manner? Should it surprise us that these people will lie and deceive later in life and in different situations? What kind of image will the children have of their parents—people who tell them that they should not tell the truth, but lie?
Psychologists have not yet researched this issue sufficiently. How did the pressure to lie affect the children, and how did it affect the society in which it was beneficial to deny oneself, to behave in a demeaning and undignified manner? What becomes of people who have no pride and dignity, who have only fear?
What kind of advice did your parents give you?
I was lucky to have parents who tried to raise me according to the principle that the most comfortable way is not always the best way. They thought that one does not always have to go along with everything, or to leave the impression that you are right and I agree with you, or I will join your children’s and youth organisations. My parents forbade me from joining the communist children and youth organisation. This led to me being unable to take my matriculation examinations, but, on the other hand, it taught me that it is not always good to agree with everything.
I was often in the minority but it helped me to develop the strength to resist.
What would be different in Germany if the dictatorship of the Socialist Unity Party had not been so thoroughly studied? Few other post-communist states have undertaken such exhaustive research.
The main reason that things developed differently than in Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic or Bulgaria was the fact that there were two Germanys.
We visited Romania with Joachim Gauck (current President of Germany, and then head of the Stasi archive) in the early 1990s.We met many representatives of Romania and Bulgaria, many of whom had been snitches during Ceaușescu’s time [Nicolae Ceaușescu was the communist dictator of Romania from 1965 to 1989—Ed.] At the same time, the German Reunification Treaty unambiguously declares that people who worked for the Stasi could not be in public service in the reunified Germany, could not serve in the army, work in the law enforcement agencies, or be in the secret service or work as teachers.
In Romania and Bulgaria, however, only the very top officials had been replaced. At slightly lower levels, the “oldies” were still in place. We asked how this was possible on the basis of our German experience, and were told that “we do not have anyone else, they are our professionals, they know what is to be done”. Most countries in transition only excluded the highest-level officials from office; the people who had worked for years in the police and ministries or as teachers remained, as a rule.
In East Germany these positions could be filled with people from the old [West German] states. It would have been more difficult in other countries, where many positions would have been left empty, or they would have to wait until young people had completed their studies. We simply had much better standard conditions—in financial terms as well as in terms of human resources.
Working through the past is important. In inhuman dictatorships, people are forced to do what they do not want to do. Not everyone can be a hero every day. Actually, no one can. It would be inhuman to expect a person to be assiduous and courageous day in day out, always directed by their values, beliefs and political convictions, remaining true to them no matter what happens to them personally. It is not always easy in a democratic society either. But to expect something like this in the circumstances of a dictatorship—you cannot be a hero every day. Or, if you are, you will be exterminated.
Külli-Riin Tigasson is the head of the opinion pages’ editorial office at the daily Eesti Päevaleht.
- Born in 1943 in Berlin
- Theologian by education, pastor of the Lutheran Church
- Dissenter in the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, DDR, in German), i.e. East Germany, and the leader of opposition against the communist dictatorship
- Minister of Defence in the last (post-communist) GDR government
- Chairman of the board of a foundation established to research the communist dictatorship of the GDR
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.