The Stasi . . .and Emperor Commodus
I haven’t seen The Lives of Others yet, the German movie that won the Best Foreign Language Film award at this year’s Oscars. But I have been reading some of the discussion it has prompted about the so-called “shield and the sword” of the old East German regime -- the Stasi.
Were they a faintly comic bunch of bumbling Keystone Secret-Kops? Or were they a truly menacing force of internal oppression, who made the Gestapo look like a troupe of renegade boy-scouts?
It has all reminded me of a visit to Leipzig a decade or so ago, to give a lecture. My hosts at the university urged me to visit the Stasi-Museum there (technically the Museum “in der Runden Ecke” / “in the round corner”). This, they stressed, was no bright, shiny western museum display of communism’s crimes. This museum had actually taken over the old Stasi HQ. It still smelled of the Stasi – the only place in the new Leipzig that had retained a distinctively eastern odour.
I saw – or rather smelled -- what they meant as soon as I walked in. It was a peculiar mixture of stale school dinners, NHS hospital and some unidentified cleaning fluid. And the whole museum still seemed relatively “home made”: most of the displays were held up by drawing pins, with labels typed on odd pieces of card, all in German.
But what was odd was that most of the objects on show didn’t obviously match up to the image of terror that I had been given. In one room there was a vast Heath Robinson machine – driven by a series of wheels, spun by a big metal handle. It was the mail scanner, which was supposed to have processed tons of suspicious mail, mechanically opening the letters, delivering them to the view of Stasi operator one by one, then resealing them. It took only a glance to see that this great lumbering machine could not possibly have worked as claimed – even if it did produce some annoyingly mangled letters.
The most extraordinary room, though, was the “disguise room”, where old Stasi camouflages were hung. It was indistinguishable from an amateur dramatic costume store. Cheap and ill-sewn outfits stuffed on bent hangers, each with a label pinned on. My favourite was “the Arab” (with the predictable towel for a headdress, a bit like this picture), but “the photographer” was a close second. Again they couldn’t possibly have worked in the way you would have imagined. Any Stasi agent sloping through the streets of Leipzig in “the Arab” get-up could hardly have gone unnoticed. They might just as well have carried a large placard saying “Stasi agent”.
So how do you account for the image of terror that my hosts conveyed? The only explanation was that terror doesn’t necessarily depend on efficiency, still less on subtlety. Menace can equally well be delivered by ridiculous half-disguises and bathetic contrivances. The sheer, almost comic, hopelessness of the Stasi’s repertoire was itself part of the weapon of fear -- a taunt to the people.
There is a nice Roman parallel in the reign of the emperor Commodus (AD 180-92). On one occasion, as I remember the story, the historian Dio Cassius was sitting with the other senators on the front row of the amphitheatre. The emperor had himself been taking pot-shots at animals in the arena and wandered over to them waving the head of an ostrich, and gesturing with it to the seated aristocracy that decapitation might always be their fate too. Dio – a rare eyewitness to such imperial displays – explains that he could hardly stop himself giggling and so plucked a laurel leaf from his wreath and stuffed it in his mouth. Funny it may have been. But Dio makes it absolutely clear that the emperor was simultaneously just as terrifying as a Stasi man with a towel on his head.
State terror can work in surprising ways.