HOPES AND LIES
Up to this point in my story, I have paid no attention to the sense of reality and to the truthfulness of the administration of justice in my town—not unlike a skater who knows that she is gliding on thin ice and hastens to move on before the ice should break. The strategy will not have alleviated the occasional suspicions of my readers. So now, finally, I should address the amazing dishonesty of the East German legal system: its utopian hopes; its tendency to whitewash failures and disappointments; its obsessive secrecy; its pretenses and evasions; its outright lies. In Socialist law, hopes and lies reinforced each other: the hopes gave rise to promises that were impossible to keep; the lies at first were meant to advance the promises’ fulfillment and in the end could only serve to cover up the hopes’ collapse.
I should state at the outset that my contemporary witnesses’ reports must be taken with quite a few grains of salt. Some of their reports are patently untrue but inoffensive, such as when someone who under Socialism held an important post tells me that he never was a member of the Party. Usually, this type of lie quickly collapses on its own. In most cases, it is not mean to prevent me from uncovering the truth but to establish the trustworthiness of my conversation partner, who fears that I will not believe a former member of the SED. “I was not in the Party” means: “Don’t write me off.” But I don’t write him off, whatever a witness’s political affiliations, and I never ask whether someone willing to help me with my questions was or was not a member of the Party. The lie “I was not a Party member” always is offered without prompting from my side.
I am more likely to be led astray by another kind of lie—also well-meaning and also meant to safeguard a speaker’s self-respect: the rosy recollections of a witness who needs to justify his former self both in his own and his conversation partner’s eyes. In those cases, the unadorned account of my paper records may help to counterbalance personal memories that, like pebbles in a river, have been smoothed and polished over time. Frau Rüstig’s recollections of her final examination at the academy for people’s judges, for example—“all law; no politics”— are contradicted by documents found in the wood cellar that even list the topics of her papers on ideology. Her proud description of the bunch of roses presented to her by a grateful couple who had made peace after one of those optimistic reconciliation procedures urged upon divorcing couples in the early 1960s is put