In 1968, Miriam Weber was released from prison in East Berlin, and tried to get past the Berlin Wall, to no avail. Dejected, she prepared to board a train back to Leipzig. However, she realized that she might be able to climb over the barbed wire fence separating the train lines on either side of Berlin. At the Bornholmer Bridge station, she studied the fence that separated either side of the city. After dark, she snuck up to the fence and managed to climb over it, cutting herself badly in the process. As Miriam explains all this to Funder, they both laugh—Miriam was barely more than a child, and yet she had the courage to try to cross through one of the world’s most dangerous places.
From Funder’s perspective (and readers’ perspective), Miriam was doing something incredibly brave when she tried to cross the Berlin Wall. But Miriam wasn’t even conscious of how brave she was being: she was just a reckless teenager without any strong grasp of her own mortality. It was this recklessness—combined with her desperate desire to get out of East Germany—that enabled Miriam to risk her life at the end of 1968.
After climbing the fence, Miriam saw a large watchdog. Luckily, a train passed at the exact time when the dog noticed her, covering the entire station in a fine steam mist and causing the dog to lose Miriam’s scent. Miriam was then able to pass the next barbed wire fence. However, when she’d done so, she accidentally set off the trip wire, triggering an alarm. Eastern German guards arrested her almost immediately. They took her to the hospital, treated the cuts on her hands, and then sent her back to Leipzig.
Miriam came exceptionally close to crossing into West Berlin—only a trip-wire prevented her from leaving her country. Presumably, there must have been some others who managed to sneak into West Berlin around the same time, but Funder doesn’t discuss these people—her subject is the people who lived in East Germany and coped with the state’s surveillance and authoritarianism.
Back in Leipzig, Miriam was placed in solitary confinement again. She was tortured with sleep deprivation, causing her to become disoriented and lose her sense of time. The guards were sure that Miriam had cooperated with an underground escape group—surely a teenaged girl couldn’t have almost escaped from the country on her own. They were particularly bemused that she could have gotten past the dog. The main interrogator, Major Fleischer, would sometimes pretend to be kind to Miriam. But Miriam stuck to her story. After ten days of sleep deprivation, however, Miriam changed her story and claimed that she’d had help from an underground organization.
Sleep deprivation is a common technique in forced interrogations; it causes the victim to lose all sense of time and, eventually, become weak and easily intimidated. Major Fleischer is a perplexing character—one would think that he’s been working long enough to understand that Miriam probably didn’t have help from an underground organization, and yet he seems hell-bent on pressuring Miriam into “confessing” her collaboration. Perhaps his goal is to use this confession as a threat to force her to inform on her friends and family.
Miriam’s story was ridiculous—nobody could have taken it seriously. According to her, she met a member of the underground organization at a restaurant, and the member offered to give her the help she needed to cross into West Berlin, along with a map. At the time, nobody in East Germany would have told a total stranger that they were considering escaping. Nevertheless, Major Fleischer allowed Miriam to rest after she invented her story. She gave him a vivid description of the man who’d helped her.
Miriam portrays Major Fleischer as a rather clueless interrogator—he believes a story that, anyone in East Germany could tell, is patently false. While tortures like sleep deprivation might effectively “break” their victims, the information they finally divulge might then be extremely unreliable.
A week later, Fleischer met with Miriam, furious that she’d lied to him. He explained that now she was up for an even longer prison sentence—but then said that he’d be kind and overlook her lies. Miriam later learned that using sleep deprivation on minors was considered a serious offense, even in East Germany, so Fleischer was just looking out for himself. In the end, Miriam got a year and a half in prison. During her trial, the judge told her that, by crossing the Wall, she could have started World War III.
Even in authoritarian East Germany, there are rules about how officers can and can’t treat prisoners, suggesting that the East German government has at least some desire to protect human rights, even if it often sanctions human rights abuses to ensure its own power. The judge’s claims are absurd and, as with so many other authorities’ claims in this chapter, it’s not clear if the judge actually believes them or if he’s just trying to intimidate Miriam into obeying the law.