The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi

The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi

The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi

The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi

Synopsis

Based on previously classified documents and on interviews with former secret police officers and ordinary citizens, The Firm is the first comprehensive history of East Germany's secret police, the Stasi, at the grassroots level. Focusing on Gransee and Perleberg, two East German districts located north of Berlin, Gary Bruce reveals how the Stasi monitored small-town East Germany. He paints an eminently human portrait of those involved with this repressive arm of the government, featuring interviews with former officers that uncover a wide array of personalities, from devoted ideologues to reluctant opportunists, most of whom talked frankly about East Germany's obsession with surveillance. Their paths after the collapse of Communism are gripping stories of resurrection and despair, of renewal and demise, of remorse and continued adherence to the movement. The book also sheds much light on the role of the informant, the Stasi's most important tool in these out-of-the-way areas. Providing on-the-ground empirical evidence of how the Stasi operated on a day-to-day basis with ordinary people, this remarkable volume offers an unparalleled picture of life in a totalitarian state.

Excerpt

Born in Schwerin, the capital of the eastern German province of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, in 1945, Jürgen Schmidt-Pohl apprenticed as a professional bookseller before obtaining employment at a bookstore on Friedrichstrasse in the town of his birth. At the age of twenty-three he was arrested for speaking out publicly against the new East German constitution, which had removed a catalogue of basic citizens’ rights, and sentenced to twenty-four months in prison for what the regime deemed “rabble-rousing.” Following his release, he returned to the bookstore for a short time before he was dismissed and forbidden to practice his trade anywhere in East Germany. For two years, he worked in a brewery as a manual laborer. Since he had come to the attention of the authorities, the Stasi (Staatssicherheit), East Germany’s secret police, had hired thirty-four informants to monitor him, three of whom, he later found out, were his girlfriends. Schmidt-Pohl then foolishly, as he himself admitted, contacted an amateur group that smuggled people out of East Germany. He was arrested in June 1974 for “preparing to flee the Republic” and held for nine months in the Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison on the outskirts of East Berlin, before being sentenced to five years in prison and a further five years of removal of rights. He would have been banned from voting, the police could have searched his apartment at any point without a warrant, and his travel would have been restricted to a 12-mile (20-km) radius around the town where he lived.

As it turned out, Schmidt-Pohl served only one year in prison before Amnesty International brought attention to his case and West Germany bought his freedom. (Selling prisoners was an important source of hard currency for the gdr. in 1988 alone, the practice accounted for more than dm 230 million.) His case was indeed a particularly grizzly one. During his time in prison in 1974, his retina detached and the Stasi arranged for an operation. Schmidt-Pohl recalls today that the surgeon insulted him before commencing the surgery. Following the operation, he was returned to prison in Cottbus and beaten by prison guards. His retina detached again, leaving him permanently blind in his right eye.

In this story, the Stasi, like Odysseus, encounters the barbarian and destroys his sight, not in the grotesque fashion of tricking the Cyclops and then sending a smoking shaft into his eyeball, but through much more subtle . . .

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