Friday, May 25, 2007

At the G8: the Stasi and Seaside Views

As an employee of East Germany’s secret police, Axel Hilpert used to befriend dissatisfied citizens and then turn them into the authorities, shattering lives. He now works in real estate. He is in fact partial owner of the dreamy hotel get-away in Brandenburg where various G8 finance ministers met last week.

This story, which was broken by The Wall Street Journal, strangely declined to mention the luxury resort by name. The only reason I can think of for this would be libel concerns, perhaps fearing that the astute businessman would claim legal damages for sullying the vacation spot’s good name, which happens to be Resort Schwielowsee.

This may even be a sensible concern, since their investigation about Mr. Hilpert, pictured in this photo at left, reveals a particularly depraved past. He assisted the broke socialist government in extorting valuable antiques from private ownership to then sell at a profit for the state under a project called “Koko,” or commerical coordination. He also, as mentioned, developed personal relationships to gain information about possible “traitors,” later turning on those who never had a clue who he really was.

Yet Mr. Hilpert, codename "Monika," is only one of many employees of the Staatsministerium für Staatsicherheit, or "Stasi" for short, who got off scot-free after German reunification. Official literature from the the BStU [Bundesbeauftragten für die Unterlagen des Staatsicherheitsdienst der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik], the office responsible for sorting out the mess, proclaims this sad truth quite openly.

The office also represents this truth to a certain extent—52 of its current employees were also on the Stasi payroll. It defends this number by saying that these employees provide inside knowledge vital to sorting out the labyrinthine paper trail of espionage left behind. The BStU is hoping to finish organizing and reconstructing the total 180 kilometers of files and 5,600 sacks of shredded paper by 2012.

Perhaps it is from one of these continually-sorted shredded sacks that Mr. Hilpert’s file was reconstructed. When the Berliner Zeitung first wrote a feature about the real estate developer’s past in 2004, it described the files as “disappeared.” It also describes KoKo as an antiquities business rather than as a shadow Stasi organization of essential thievery, hinting at a lesser grasp of exactly how the state machinery worked.

But a lot can change in three years, as German citizens hungry for the facts of their own history keep pulling back layers. On this May 16th, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg published the efforts of investigative journalists Gabi Probst and Sascha Adamek, whose search for the thought-destroyed files produced duplicates, and who savvily turned to victims’ files as well to continue collecting the facts.

Since “The Lives of Others” [Das Leben der Anderen] (Post Feb. 12) won the Best Picture Oscar in February, international attention has turned to the Stasi, especially in America, where Hollywood is buzzing with talk of an English-language remake. Probst and Adamek took advantage of this atmosphere and shared their findings with Journal correspondent Marcus Walker, who published the English-language expose the following day on May 17th.

It is important to call attention to a Stasi spy who expresses no public regrets about his past. (Although he may sense that investors or hotel guests won’t find them particularly palatable; he declined to ‘fess up to the Berliner Zeitung, staying mum on supposed devious acts that Probst and Adamek’s research later confirmed.) As Timothy Garten Ash recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, “The Lives of Others” is flawed by how easily its protagonist turns tail from Stasi die-hard to nice guy. It makes his salvation a bit too easy, a bit too relatable; in short, it obscures the fact that many Stasi employees were selfish, ignorant, or both, and simply have no regrets whatsoever, never thinking twice about their victims.

Rather, Mr. Hilpert’s thoughts are presumably now about his Resort, whose offerings include a spa called Tao Life Wellness Center housed in a faux pagoda, as well as quaint, white vacations huts that look out upon the blue Schwielowsee, one of the many bodies of water dotting the Brandenburg landscape. Near the historic city of Potsdam, the Resort is also not far from Berlin, where the latest financial figures show that the federal government is spending about 50 million euros per year in federal aid to victims of the Stasi. This sum represents 3% of what the feds pay to former Party functionaries, including Stasi employees, who receive an average of one and a half billion euros per year since 2002. One wonders if they spend any of this money vacationing at an idyllic spot on the Schwielowsee, visiting an old friend.

Tip: “Stasi, Slander, and the Schloss: Remembering the GDR,” appears in this month’s Exberliner. For it, I researched the debated history of Berlin’s various Stasi memorial sites, including early 1990s bickering between victims’ groups and the newly united government about who would administrate the memorials and what they will say. Fans of “The Lives of Others” will learn about what happened to the secret jail as well as Stasi headquarters featured in the movie after 1989. Unfortunately, the article text is only available in print and not on the web, but the magazine can be ordered online.


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