February 2020
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three hundred seventy-five years

Three hundred seventy-five years is the estimated amount of time it would take 40 people to reassemble the collected shredded files of the DDR Stasi.

When Anna Funder, the author of Stasiland, visited the Stasi File Authority offices outside of Nuremberg, the authority had thirty-one employees.

It’s a rather daunting fact to consider—Three hundred seventy-five years to for the people of East Germany to find out what the government had recorded about their—nay—their ancestor’s lives, assuming 40 employees—and of course there were actually only 31 at work.

The penetration of Stasi agents into life is rather alarming to consider—since starting my brief Stasi education, I’ve seen something like one in every 65 people to one in every 50 people were agents at the time the wall fell.

Stasiland ends up being a rather compelling book to read for a number of reasons because the author didn’t bother to just include the victim’s half the story; she included memories of Stasi agents. Both make for interesting reading.

On the victim’s half, we meet several people whose lives were ruined by Stasi files. Once you were considered an enemy of the state it was nearly impossible to get an education or a job. I’ve seen this theme in other books about living behind the Iron Curtain—see the problems that American Gene Deitch’s Czechoslovakian stepson David had due to his American step-father in the book, For the Love of Prague. Whether we are talking to Miriam, who at the tender age of 16 became an enemy of the state, or Julia, who was dating an Italian, the Stasi are clearly a subversive force that carefully makes the lives of these individuals a living nightmare.

On the side of the agents, we hear from people of several different ranks and roles. Some of them defend the cause and the system, whilst others were a bit less certain. Perhaps the most interesting defender of the system was Herr von Schnitzler, who was the host of the program, Der Schwartz Kanel, a weekly program that attempted to blame all things bad on the West. Remarkably when von Schnitzler was interviewed, he clearly believed everything he had said before:

You all know why I’m here today, returned form my holiday especially to appear before you tonight. Our border guards have, in accordance with their tuday, had to shoot at two men. They were breaking the law and seeking to breach our national border. They stopped neither when called, nor when warning shots were fired. One of them was fatally wounded… … I know ladies and gentlemen, it sounds hard. And will perhaps even be interpreted by some of you as ‘inhumane’… (125)

This belief in the fiction that the DDR was the perfect society and the perfect place is hard for me to comprehend.

After reading the book and looking at a few Wikipedia articles about the Stasi and its related efforts this morning, I set off to have lunch with Katya. Something was still bugging me and it took me awhile to realize what it was.

Suddenly it struck me: East German citizens were systematically educated to believe that Hitler and the Nazis were not their kind of Germans, but were put upon them by West Germans: in essence that the history of Nazis was not their own history.

Admittedly I have read about this before—in essence, I had the book knowledge of this detail. Today the emotive knowledge struck me.

Imagine being in denial about your own history, or better yet—ignorant.

Pretend for a moment that the United States instead of owning its Viet Nam War history pushed the blame off entirely onto somebody else: France or Canada, for example. What if history books in the United States omitted Slavery? What if history books in the Netherlands and United Kingdom omitted their role in South Africa’s apartheid regimes? What if Japanese textbooks never mentioned Pearl Harbor?

This was a pretty heady thing to realize, and I suspect my mind has only begun to play with its implications.

I’ve never really asked blunt questions about it, but from what I’ve gathered about how history is taught in Germany there is frank discussion about Adolph Hitler and the Holocaust. I also presume, which might be foolish, that there is some reckoning of divided Germany.

But when I look back at the “truths” that I learned in my education, I realize that some of them have come unraveled. For example, when I was growing up, it was clearly explained that DNA was amazing because everything in its sequence was part of the code for life. As I understand it today, we now know that only parts of the DNA sequences actually matter, and that much of it is filler.

Certainly as a child US history was somewhat sanitized. Elementary school was full of broad brush strokes that suggested America was the greatest country ever to exist on the planet. George Washington was an honest man who never told a lie, admitting to his father that he had cut down a cherry tree (which, by the way never actually happened as I understand it—he never cut down a cherry tree as a child); The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were the founding documents of the country (omitting the Articles of Confederation until at least middle school); and that our government could do no wrong (See the “House Unamerican Activities” committee—where the most Un-American thing accomplished was the formation of the committee).

By the time I got to high school, history started getting a lot messier—for me. Whilst in high school I never had what could truly be called an American History class. Instead I had World History with a slight US slant—which, all things considered, was actually fairly well balanced. Twentieth Century US History is full of shades of gray. Few things are what they appear to be—but in decent high school history classes, students start to learn this.

All of this takes us away from the idea that East Germans were taught that the Nazis were a result of the capitalist West Germans, something I have a problem reconciling in my mind right now. I suppose that if you were taught this as a child that you would have little reason to doubt it, particularly if every institution around you—from the schools, to the Communist youth organizations, to the mayor—pushed one story.

Perhaps that is the strength of the American system. Although our history classes in elementary school are taught in black and white terms, by the time we get to high school history becomes a bit muddier: Americans are far from being the innocents we were initially taught. Americans killed thousands of Native Americans and pushed them onto reservations where there is now abject poverty and rampant alcoholism. Americans fought Germany, Italy, and Japan, but only one of the dash–Americans were sent to internment camps.

(For the non-Americans reading this: During World War II, the US government had a policy of sending Japanese-Americans to internment camps in the middle of the country because there was fear that the Japanese-Americans would take up arms against their adopted country—even if they were second or third generation Americans. No action was taken against German-Americans or Italian-Americans. Japanese-Americans lost everything in the process receiving pathetic compensation for their lost property. It is one of the blackest marks on US History in the Twentieth Century—one Governor spoke out defending Japanese-American rights, Governor Carr of Colorado, and he is recognized by the Colorado Japanese-American community for his stand. For a fascinating read about life in the Internment Camps, see the autobiography of Star Trek’s George Takei, To the Stars.)

Now that I’ve reached an inclusive ending point, I still have questions. What exactly were East German children taught about Nazis? What are German children taught about Nazis today? What about the Holocaust—how much detail is their education? How does one address the occupation and subsequent division of your own nation?

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