What must it have been like to be a Stasi case officer in the autumn of 1989? What did they do? The answer, in this fascinating piece in Der Spiegel, was that they kept going to the office. In fact, they kept on going about their spooky business – questioning detainees, trying to recruit informers – until the evil day when the mob stormed their headquarters in the NormannenstraÃŸe. This weird transition is captured in the testimony of the last prisoners left in the MfS detention centre.
Take the case of Manfred Haferburg. Haferburg, a reactor engineer from Greifswald who was a shift supervisor on East Germany’s only nuclear power station, was arrested in May, 1989 trying to flee the DDR via Czechoslovakia. His Slovakian girlfriend was in the next compartment on the train and got away. He, however, was extradited back to East Germany and dumped in a secret prison. It was within the HohenschÃ¶nhausen detention centre in Berlin, but the prisoners were deliberately kept in ignorance of where they were. The lights were switched on and off at 15 minute intervals, 24 hours a day. One day, in November, he was dragged from his cell, punched in the guts, and thrown into a van. He expected to be shot, but eventually he was left on a street corner to ask passers-by where he was.
There is a classic Berlin joke about the drunk who gets lost and asks a policeman where he is. The cop tells him he’s on LeipzigerstraÃŸe, Berlin-Mitte. Spare me all the details, he says – can you just tell me which country? In fact, he was in the KÃ¶penick district of Berlin, but the first passer-by he asked of course gave him the street name, and he had to press them to find out he was in Berlin, thus playing out the joke for real.
Round about the same time, another prisoner suddenly received a TV set in his cell. Uwe HÃ¤drich had been arrested for attempting to emigrate on the 13th of September, 1989. The TV could only be tuned from outside the cell, so he could only watch official TV; of course, the famous press conference with GÃ¼nther Schabowski was very official indeed. But that didn’t affect the charges against him. The wall gone and the borders open, he remained detained, accused of espionage and illegally crossing the border, subject to constant interrogation and solitary confinement. (HÃ¤drich was an executive with the DDR’s consumer goods system, and therefore presumably a show-trial candidate.) Eventually, on the 7th of December, the new Modrow government announced that there were no political prisoners in East Germany.
Except for Herr HÃ¤drich, of course. He was suddenly released that afternoon, as if he’d been forgotten about in all the excitement and only now remembered. According to the files, he was the last political prisoner. He went home; back in jail, the Minister of Security himself, General Erich Mielke, had just been booked in and assigned the very cell HÃ¤drich had left.
But the revolution, the emptying of the jails, and the mere arrest of its chief didn’t stop normal operations at the Stasi. At precisely eight o’clock the next morning, a Stasi case officer called on HÃ¤drich to ask him questions about whether he had contacted the Federal German embassy in Hungary. Every day, the case officer arrived to quiz HÃ¤drich, and presumably wrote up his findings back at the office.
HÃ¤drich’s family had begun to go shopping in West Berlin. But HÃ¤drich didn’t dare cross the line, still less refuse to speak to the case officer. The further questioning carried on deep into December, after citizens’ committees had moved into some of the regional Stasi directorates to stop them destroying the files, while HohenschÃ¶nhausen itself filled up with disgraced communists. The East German PTT was renting mobile phones to journalists, devices they had to borrow from Deutsche Telekom’s Berlin operation, and whose very existence in East Germany would have been unimaginably illegal a few weeks before. Every day up to and including the 22nd, the Stasi man made his clockwork appearance and HÃ¤drich answered the questions.
There is something grimly theatrical about this setting. In a sense, HÃ¤drich and his interrogator were the last men still living in East Germany.
Finally, four days after the sack of the Stasi headquarters, he moved to southern Germany and never came back. Well, he did come back once, wishing to speak to the diligent case officer. It turned out that the last spook was now running a souvenir stand on the Alexanderplatz. HÃ¤drich couldn’t speak to him.