Thu 22 October 2020

Mike Stuchbery explains how a journalist’s targeting of neighbours who recorded the Prime Minister-in-waiting has more in common with East Germany’s infamous secret police than they do.

Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson got it upside down when she compared the neighbours who recorded Boris Johnson’s domestic fracas to the Stasi.

Pearson’s desire to ‘name and shame’ those responsible, and have their politics revealed, is far more in line with the techniques of East Germany’s feared secret police.

Life in the DDR

Not only were public and private spaces ‘bugged’ in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, but it is estimated that around 1 in every 100 East Germans – almost 200,000 – reported directly to the Stasi as informants. Very little escaped the eyes of the state.

The erstwhile DDR was hardly the only authoritarian regime to monitor, in complex detail, the lives of its inhabitants. Across the former USSR, and right up to today in North Korea, these tactics are used to identify sources of dissent.

Where the DDR, and consequently, the Stasi, did stand out from other authoritarian regimes was their use of the policy of zerstörung or ‘decomposition’.

The Politics of Personal Destruction

Zerstörung was a multi-faceted, multi-pronged process by which the state first made the lives of internal dissenters difficult, then impossible.

At first, this could be as simple as bureaucracy being turned against an individual – travel permits not being issued in a timely fashion, required documentation going missing, a covert order issued not to employ an individual.

‘Zerstörung’ might involve the inflitration of homes, to rearrange possessions, to subtly mess with the target’s grasp of reality.

A second phase of zerstörung was generally much more overt – letting the target know that they were being watched. This could involve the placement of media articles, real or concocted, damaging to the victim or an exhortation for those who knew more about the target to come forward.

At its most extreme, zerstörung might involve the infiltration of homes, to rearrange possessions, to subtly mess with the target’s grasp of reality. If their potted plants moved around the apartment by themselves, could the target really trust what they were thinking?

The practice of zerstörung continued in the DDR right up until 1989 – when the Berlin Wall fell – and, even today, many thousands of East Germans are attempting to claim damages, having found evidence of their targeting in the Stasi Archives.

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The Authoritarian ‘Wall in the Mind’

For Pearson, a columnist for the right-leaning Telegraph, to cheer-lead for the same kind of tactics that were practised by one of the most notorious Soviet-backed regimes in history is not only baffling, but troubling.

Perhaps it is symptomatic of that same ‘die Mauer im Kopf’ that Byline Times’ Hardeep Matharu recently wrote about – the shunting and shuttering of the perceptions of others behind a mental barrier, where they can’t be critiqued.

Whatever the case may be, it is vital that, not only should we be confronting the full legacy of the authoritarian regimes of the past, but using them as a gauge for our own behaviours in an age where democracy is threatened.

Meet Mike Stuchbery and other Byline Times writers at this summer’s Byline Festival

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