In the weeks following the East German state’s announcement to relax border restrictions, the Stasi headquarters was in chaos. Officers had been ordered to destroy any files that could incriminate the Stasi in criminal behavior. For days on end, Stasi employees burned or shredded incriminating documents. The guard, who has been describing the history of the fall of East Germany to tourists, falls silent.
The shredded surveillance documents are an important symbol of the legacy of the state, and the ongoing ethical challenges of dealing with this legacy. The fact that the Stasi were instructed to destroy these documents also signals that many in the East German government recognized that they were behaving immorally by monitoring innocent people. And again, notice how this was initially presented as the museum employee’s account of history, even though Funder went on to amplify it with her own knowledge of the events. This is similar to the way flashbacks sometimes work in movies: a character describes his or her memories, which gradually become the movie itself.
After the fall of East Germany, Mielke was roundly criticized, and—along with Erich Honecker—accused of treason. Mielke was sent to various prisons, and Honecker was prosecuted for executions. He later fled to Chile, where he died of cancer. There was a vigorous debate in Germany over what should be done with the Stasi files—should they be used to prosecute the Stasi, or should they be burned, protecting citizens’ right to privacy? In 1990, the newly elected parliament passed a law allowing surveilled citizens, and nobody else, to read their own files. Germany was the only country in the eastern bloc that “opened its files on its people to its people.”
Mielke and Honecker were secretly despised in East Germany for many years—and after their state collapsed around them, they were prosecuted and punished for their decades of ethical and human rights violations. The shredded documents pose a moral challenge—by allowing individual people to read their own files, however, the new German government may have been trying to distinguish itself from its secretive, authoritarian predecessor. However, as Funder later shows, this is largely a symbolic gesture, since the shredded files are being reassembled at an extremely slow rate.
Alone with the tour guide in the museum, Funder tells the guide that she’s trying to learn about people who confronted Stasi leadership. The guide tells Funder that she should speak to Frau Paul. The guide then leads Funder through the rooms of the Stasi HQ. In a room that used to be Mielke’s person quarters, Funder finds a cleaning woman. The woman tells Funder that she lived under Mielke and, like most, “conformed” to the rules. The woman mutters that there’s no unity in the new Germany—some people even want the Wall back. She draws Funder’s attention to a smudge on the wall, where a Stasi officer must have rested his head while leaning back in his chair. No amount of cleaning will get rid of the smudge. The building, she adds, is still full of the smell of old men.
We won’t meet Frau Paul until later in the book; however, the cleaning woman’s observations about conforming are very important, since they suggest that most people in East Germany survived by compromising their values and cooperating with the corrupt Stasi. (Funder doesn’t interview many such people, however—presumably, the people who compromised their values would be reluctant to speak to an Australian journalist). The smudge could be another symbol for the messy, dirty legacy of a troubled past.