In a world struggling to emerge from years of conflict against fascism, readers flocked to The Plague to understand what they had been through.
We in the West seem to face a new Cold War—a terrible conflict with an Eastern power, while being ourselves disunited and hardly able to act politically. We should therefore reflect on the great victory that inaugurated the period of hegemony now coming to a close, grateful for the good things we have enjoyed, and wary about the origins of the dangers in the midst of which we now find ourselves.
The German espionage series Deutschland 89, now on Amazon and Hulu, attempts to do just this, through the story of German reunification, the end of the Cold War, and American ideological triumph. We begin with freedom’s arrival, the day the Berlin Wall fell, November 9, 1989, and end with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl speaking in Leipzig, East Germany, in March 1990. This is the end of Communism in Europe, a surprise to Western and to Communist elites both.
Deutschland 89 is full of the shocks and surprises of espionage stories, but the events are real: German left-wing terrorism and the Herrhausen assassination (chairman of Deutsch Bank), Ceaușescu’s tyranny and the Timișoara protests leading to regime change in Romania. Moreover, unlike most spy stories, this one is tied up with family and morality, such that freedom and humanity triumph over the cynicism typical of recent espionage stories.
This concludes the Deutschland trilogy and gives it the form of a novel, whose protagonist, Martin Rauch (played by Jonas Nay), finds his fate intertwined with a great historical transformation. In Deutschland 83, he was just a young man in the East German Army, compelled to become a spy in West Germany before saving the world from nuclear war during the Able Archer 83 war games.
After further Cold War adventures in Africa and Western Europe in Deutschland 86, Martin returned to East Berlin and his son, Max. Life became boring and he learned to be a single father, putting up with an ordinary life that doesn’t fit his manly instincts and the habits of daring and danger, while living in fear of his son being taken to Moscow by the KGB to live with Max’s mother. A friend who escaped to West Germany revealed his secrets in a now-famous book—The Legend of Colibri (his codename).
Martin’s desire to save his son also involves the future of East Germany, not only because of his unusual successes, but also because he is an ordinary man. Even accepting the political enslavement required by the tyranny, even using his acquired skills in—let’s call it moral flexibility—he cannot have any assurance that his way of life will endure. Despite his willingness to endure much, it seems inevitable that tyranny will destroy him.
Providentially, Communism is collapsing in Europe. Having corrupted society, tyranny is now losing its strength, reaffirming that the wages of sin is death. But the East German secret police (the Stasi) and the espionage department Martin worked for (HvA) are unchanged. At the top, they plot murder to prevent politicians from opening the Western borders, as Hungary and Czechoslovakia had done. At the bottom, they infiltrate left-wing dissident groups who fantasize about the paradise of real Communism and radical egalitarianism.
Freedom comes with the collapse of the Wall but for Martin a new drama begins—now the CIA and West German intelligence (BND) force him to work for them. His past as a spy cannot be left behind as easily as the Wall; nor does the subversion spies are supposed to stop end as easily. Again, he’s forced to take responsibility for the evils of Communism—in this case, terrorists like the Red Army Faction.
Thus, Martin is forced to do daring things again and he also finds a lover—his son Max’s beautiful, young new teacher, Nicole. For all the confusions of freedom aborning, there is much excitement, too. He seems made for the life of action, not only because he is good at it, but because he is needed. The public and the government need certain deeds done that must remain secret—espionage is a secret ingredient in modern politics, the abnormal thing without which normality doesn’t work. The modern separation between society and state creates much anonymity on both sides, where secrecy and injustice can thrive.
Here, we see a paradox. Espionage cannot fit with a decent life—a just man cannot make it his way of life to deceive those closest to him. Martin can therefore only be a spy for so long; and his abilities are limited by morality—he simply isn’t that good a deceiver. This, however, allows him to appeal to the moral concerns of strangers, even wicked people who find themselves unable to completely disregard humanity.
This absence of ruthlessness keeps Martin alive, but also running from danger to danger. After the Herrhausen assassination, he’s a liability to the CIA but must continue his mission if he’s ever to put the life of spying behind him. For his and for Germany’s sake, he must stop his aunt Lenore, who not only compelled him to become a spy in the first place, but also is plotting more terrorism to protect Communism.
Martin chases Lenore to Romania in December 1989. This is her refuge, the last tyranny to fall in that astonishing year. We see something even worse than East Berlin. The poverty and the popular anger; the threat to use the military to massacre protesters and the refusal to use real bullets; the inexplicable failure of cruelties long practiced and the similarly sudden resurgence of freedom. Even here, common humanity replaces the war of masters and slaves.
That Romania should escape Communism on Christmas Day 1989 is in some way providential and in another way chance. Deutschland 89 makes a symbol of Romania. Lenora befriends a terrorist in West Germany who is an officer in the infamous political police in Romania; he promises to regale her with the luxuries tyranny offers, but protests force them to hide in a bunker and live off canned food. We see him swaggering in the streets, threatening people, and demanding obedience, but then he has to hide from the very people he belittled. Suddenly, master and slave are reversed. Despite his aversion to violence, Martin executes this cruel, arrogant man. The scene recalls Ceaușescu’s assassination, itself unique in the fall of Communism.
Espionage is part of the art of war and Martin wants to return to the life of peace, but he can do dangerous things. He’s unusual because he’s apolitical, but he’s a man and he won’t live on his knees. Since Communist tyranny reduced everyone to slavery, men may look like pure strangers, foreign to society—spies, for example. But in free regimes, being neither master nor slave is called citizenship, since it is required of citizens to serve their country in war.
This is ultimately what’s at stake in the series of episodes making up the conclusion of the story—a kind of education for freedom. What dangerous things men must do, how they have to be educated to have the necessary strength and pride, as well as what the limits of violence and suspicion should be. Martin is, after all, in danger of getting so good at his job that he loses everything he loves.
An education for freedom is so necessary because freedom is so confusing. It means banking from the West coming to East Germany. East Berliners going to West Berlin to get 100 Deutschmarks of welcome money. Former Communists turning to the love of luxury and pleasure, or merely assassins trying to switch teams—fighting an enemy is all they know how to do and some would rather join the enemy than stop fighting. Utopian activists turn out to have been spies; church organizers turned democratic politicians are revealed to have been informers—like Wolfgang Schnur, who gave Angela Merkel her start in politics.
With the collapse of the old regime, reputations are destroyed alongside the restraints of the old tyranny. Personal character can change—at least people hope so. If the country can change, surely the people can, too. But one consequence is that who you can trust is not obvious anymore, since what can be done and what should be done are not obvious anymore, or even reliable. Human nature itself comes into question. All these confusions of freedom magnify a fundamental question: What life is worth living?
All the ugly truth of the tyranny begins to come out as well—the people storm the Stasi HQ in East Berlin on January 15, 1990, trying to take control of the archives, although of course much was destroyed in the days since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The revelations about moral corruption in private life—how many men and women betrayed their families and friends—made freedom even more confusing.
The story shows the fate of several families, as well as people without families in the new East Germany. But it focuses on Martin’s family, three generations of which are tied to building the Wall, destroying it, and, in the boy’s case, how he will live in the aftermath. Martin, who grew up without a father, is loyal above all to his son, but he also needs to become a husband.
Accordingly, the most implausible part of the plot is Martin going on espionage missions with his new girlfriend Nicole—we may take this as a symbol of marriage in a democracy. Much is made of the fact that East German women all work and are productive members of society. Only in capitalism are there housewives. Nicole’s profession as a teacher offers something of a compromise—she cares for kids, but does so publicly, not privately. During their courtship, Nicole sees other countries for the first time and even tries on a fake identity in a Bond-like interlude in beautiful Italy, where intrigue and eroticism blend. She proves an equal to Martin and a needful companion, but she also feels the dangers of his way of life and the need for moral boundaries and a peaceful life. This seems to mean a private life where her concern is her own family—and indeed, she becomes a protective mother to Max.
Their adventures make sense as a symbol of the drama of the transition period and the sort of trust needed to make and defend a family in trying times. Freedom is not for the faint of heart, to say the least.
The Problem of Surveillance
Another aspect of the show is revealed in an odd joke, an East German Steve Jobs; not the young man, but the image everyone remembers, before he died: Black turtleneck, egg-shaped bald head, glasses. A brain unlike all others! But in this case, it’s a former Stasi agent and his every idea that presages those of Apple is rejected in horror by Western businessmen who don’t want to create a surveillance society, computers, and cameras in every home.
This is the timeliest aspect of the story and as direct a challenge to our own understanding of freedom as the family problem exemplified by Martin’s struggle to make a family for his son and, symbolically, a future for East Germans. But whereas family is largely a problem of character, today it seems that technology, corporations, and the state pose much larger problems for our society. The show’s comparison to our times is troubling—as in Communist East Germany, people aren’t marrying or having kids, our lives are more and more public and arranged by corporations in increasingly despotic ways, and it’s not obvious that we believe there is a future in which we can make our choices and live our own lives. So far as Deutschland 89 is a reflection on our times, it’s a caution regarding the problems we have to face to make democracy worthwhile.