The Allure of Totalitarianism

On October 25, 1991, the German protest singer and poet Wolf Biermann was awarded the Buchner Prize, Germany’s highest honor for literature. During his acceptance speech, Biermann, who had once been branded an enemy of the state by the communist regime, lamented how many writers had informed for the SED, East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party. Biermann blasted writer Sascha Anderson, one of many writers who had been an informer for the Stasi (East Germany’s secret police during the Cold War). Biermann called Anderson the “untalented blatherer Sascha Arsehole,” noting that there had been few “bright stars” and “upright citizens” under the communists. Instead, Germany had seen too many self-pitying “well-nourished subjects,” while even opposition groups had been “eaten away by the Stasi metastases.”

The event is recounted in Alison Lewis’s compelling new book, A State of Secrecy: Stasi Informers and the Culture of Surveillance. Lewis profiles five writers, spread across two generations, who interacted with the Stasi: Sasha Anderson, Paul Wiens, his daughter Maja Wiens, Paul Gratzik, Helga M. Novak. She offers a fascinating look at how the secret police manipulated the vulnerable, controlling what was expressed in the arts, and crushing dissent. A terrific writer who avoids academic jargon, Lewis is also an ace researcher, drawing on original archive research conducted in the BStU (Stasi Records Agency), as well as eyewitness testimony, film, literature, biography, sociology, cultural studies, and literary history. Lewis seeks to answer the question of how the Stasi were able to elicit such extensive cooperation from artists, who are usually known for their anti-authoritarian outlook. It’s the real life version of the great 2006 film The Lives of Others.

In A State of Secrecy, Lewis notes that while Stalin sought to crush writers and other artists because he feared the freedom they represented, the Stasi saw writers and artists as potential allies and resources to exploit:

from its inception to its dissolution, the Ministry for State Security recruited an alarmingly high proportion of writers as informants…. [The Stasi] recruited sources from deep inside official circles, such as the consecrated spheres of the German Writers’ Guild (Deutscher Schriftstellerverband), as well as from the fringes of society. The Stasi touched the life of virtually every writer in the country. Writers, whether of poetry, novels, drama, essays, radio, television, or film scripts, belonged to the intelligentsia. Although writers were persecuted in the Soviet Union by Stalin in his cultural revolution of the 1930s, postwar-era Eastern European regimes desperately relied on them to shape Soviet-style revolutions.

In the 1950s, the Stasi had 20,000-30,000 informers. By 1968, that number rose to 100,000. The peak number was reached in 1975, when there were 180,000 informants.

“The Stasi is often described as a ‘state within a state,’” Lewis writes, “although a more accurate description is probably ‘society within a society,’ or ‘secret surveillance society.’”  At its height in the late 1960s, there were 100,000 Stasi spies, or one for every 22 people: “A mammoth that far exceeded Hitler’s Gestapo in size and scale.”

Why would someone become an informant? In Lewis’s insightful and empathetic view, there were several reasons: money, cultural cache, blackmail, financial needs, the desire to affect policy, emotional needs, and a real belief in the beneficence of the state.

One thing that many informants had in common was fatherlessness. The Stasi was skilled at exploiting the vulnerability of artists, such as Paul Wiens, Paul Gratzik, and Sascha Anderson, who lacked a strong father figure in their childhoods. Stasi officers knew that many potential recruits were susceptible to an offer of a father substitute. And if the offer was refused, Lewis notes, “the Stasi proved that its memory of past misdemeanors and transgressions was extraordinarily good.” It operated like a gang, exploiting whatever weakness it could find.

In the secret police, some informants found the family missing from their own lives.  We see a poignant example in the story of Helga M. Novak. A poet and novelist, Novak was born in 1935 in Berlin. Abandoned by her parents, she was placed with an adoptive family whom she couldn’t stand. After studying journalism in the mid-1950s, Novak became a Stasi informant in 1957. Like many others, Novak’s decision was based largely on fear. “I had no family, no blood ties at all,” she recalled, a reality that left her terrified of loneliness and isolation. The state seemed like a beneficent fairy godmother: “I thought that the appropriation by the state was right and that everything belonged to us,” she said in a 2006 interview. “I was seduced by the term ‘the people’s property’ by the community. I thought we had access to whatever it was that was being made in factories—whether cannons or seeing machines.” Novak would stop being an informant when she witnessed the anti-communist uprising in Hungary in 1956. In time she turned against the Stasi, coming to “loathe its actions as much as she did her adoptive parents.”

Although Lewis doesn’t say so, there is an analog in the Stasi to contemporary “woke” culture. The German artist Jess de Wahls recently commented on this, in an essay that briefly got her cancelled by the Royal Academy. Trans activists complained about the 2019 essay, in which de Wahls argued that the intolerance of the LGBTQ community had made it impossible to criticize the LGBTQ community, or even call a woman “an adult human female.” (The Royal Academy later apologized for its treatment of de Wahls.)

Writing about the current climate on the left, de Wahls perceptively compared it to the life she lived as a child under the German Stasi: Close friends could turn out to be working for the Stasi, and while everyone was nominally considered equal, people “weren’t free to think and do what we wanted.” TV programs from the West were censored, and “wrong think” was severely punished.

Looking back on the Stasi, there are obvious echoes in trends that we see in the “woke” West today. Twitter busybodies patrol the web searching for ideological infractions to punish, shaming and shunning the perpetrators. Book publishers, filmmakers, cartoonists, and even pop musicians are now preemptively spiking projects for not being sufficiently woke. Public figures can be destroyed when old missives or tweets are resurfaced by opposition researchers. In a way, those opposition researchers are our modern Stasi officers; they will meticulously pour through decades’ worth of material, even examining high school yearbooks in their search for evidence that might ensnare an enemy of the state.

We see similar trends in the COVID pandemic. It’s difficult to imagine anything in the last several decades that has more effectively turned the Western world into a reflection of the postwar East Berlin. The virus has neighbors, family, and friends arguing, spying, and sometimes reporting each other to the medical and political authorities for violations.

Much of this, certainly, is a display of political and academic jockeying for status. Everyone wants to look acceptably cool to the panjandrums of modern liberal culture. Yet there is a deeper picture here, and State of Secrecy offers new and penetrating insight into the nature of totalitarian coercion. Though many social critics think we are in new territory with wokeness and cancel culture, Alison Lewis indicates that we are actually seeing something very ancient, with deep origins in human psychology.

Consider the problem of modern liberalism as a problem of the needy and the fatherless striving for connection. Looking through that lens, we might connect our modern maladies to older stories about the scars people may carry when their fathers were abusive or absent. Think of Odysseus and his son Telemachus, who was described as “unnaturally immature” due to his father’s absence. Vladimir Lenin’s father died when the future revolutionary was fifteen, leading him to renounce God. Hitler’s father was famously abusive.

More recently, in her book on identity politics, Mary Eberstadt has described Antifa as an expression of “the fury of the fatherless.” Throughout the ages, it seems that fatherlessness has made young men prone to radicalism, and those of both sexes vulnerable to the coercion of the totalitarian. Is it really surprising that our fragmented society would embrace coercive and controlling methods of social control, reminiscent of the Stasi? The new wokeness may be very old indeed.