A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 211


East German Communist biggy Erich Honecker with CPUSA leader Angela Davis. Photo by Peter Koard

Sunday, May 2

Readers could never be sure that the outlandish stories related by Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski were really nonfiction as he claimed. For instance, one anecdote in his book The Emperor concerned a member of Ethiopian autocrat Haile Selassie’s court—a figure known as the Minister of the Pillow. This person’s only known assignment: to quickly and discretely insert a pillow beneath the feet of the diminutive Selassie whenever the Emperor chose to sit on his grand throne. 

The pillow helped to disguise Selassie’s short stature—and made him seem less like the preposterous Lily Tomlin TV character Edith Ann who sat in an oversize chair with her feet dangling above the floor.

Could there really have been a Minister of the Pillow?

Similarly, many stories about the East German secret police seem ripped from Kapuscinski’s pages. Could these honestly be true?

Before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany was an East Bloc ally of the Soviet Union that kept an extremely close watch on its citizenry.

The East German Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, was the vast “internal army by which the government kept control,” in the words of Anna Funder, author of Stasiland. “Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasized through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub.” 

In the last year of its existence, the Stasi employed 97,000 full-time operatives and had 173,000 unofficial informants in East Germany—a country of 17,000,000 residents. That works out to one operative for every 63 people. In Nazi Germany, there was only one Gestapo agent for every 2,000 citizens.

And during the forty-odd years that the GDR lasted, the Stasi arrested 250,000 people.

There are countless weird stories about the Stasi, some of which are related in Funder’s book. 

For instance, she says that the Stasi developed a quasi-scientific, “smell sampling” method for keeping track of people. Everyone has his or her own peculiar odor, they believed, which we leave on everything we touch. Such smells can be captured and, with the help of “sniffer dogs,” used to find a match. To that end, the Stasi had a vast inventory of jars for smell samples, consisting things like soiled clothing stolen from people’s apartments. “The Stasi would take its dogs and jars to a location where they suspected an illegal meeting had occurred, and see if the dogs could pick up the scents of the people whose essences were captured in the jars.”

Icky, no?

Another story. The Stasi had elaborate plans for a final day of confrontation with internal enemies of the regime—a Day X. On that date, yet to be determined, Stasi officers would arrest and jail precisely 85,939 East Germans, all listed by name on the plans. They imagined how all available prisons and camps, including former Nazi detention centers, schools, hospitals and factory holiday hostels, would house these prisoners 

Tis the final conflict, as “The Internationale” would have it.

To write her book, Funder found many people who had contact with the Stasi. In one case, a young woman was summoned to a Stasi major’s office, Room 118 at a police station. There, the officer produced a pile of her private love letters, communications with a former Italian boyfriend whom she had met during a trip to Hungary, and he grilled her about them. The Stasi officer, who was exaggeratedly polite, focused on individual words in their “private lovers language,” including their pet names for each other. He knew a great deal about this boyfriend—his job, his house in Umbria, the make of his car. The Stasi were “very interested” in this friend—but the woman said she couldn’t help them since the two had split up. The major let her leave, but gave her his business card and said she should not hesitate to call.

Which she did later, after discussing with her mother this invitation to become an informer. When the Stasi officer came to her home along with another official, the woman told him she was going to invoke her right to communicate directly with the country’s Communist leader, Erich Honecker, and make a complaint. Weirdly, this seemed to set the officials back on their heels—there was no need to get Berlin involved, they said. She never knew why the Stasi feared this communication with Honecker…but somehow, she had won.

Not everyone won, of course. Between 1961 and 1988, over 100,000 GDR citizens tried to escape to the West and over 600 of them died in the process. The Berlin Wall—known internally as Die Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or the Antifacist Protection Rampart—was, the East German regime declared, “a service to humanity” in that it walled out imperialism. And of course it walled out most everything else.

Dinner: chicken salad and tomato-red pepper soup.

Entertainment: episodes of the old sitcoms Cheers and Seinfeld.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 210


A 1937 gathering of ex-slaves in North Carolina. Photo: Library of Congress

Thursday, April 29

By accident, I am reading two history books at once. And although they concern places that are vast distances from each other and developments separated in time by a century, there is a similarity: Each volume looks at the disintegration of a system of near total political control.

I’ve long meant to read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 but have been put off by its 700-page girth and by the fact that its subject seemed so irrelevant to our current-day experience. But the latter objection faded in the face of the recent presidential election, with its resonance to the Compromise of 1877, which placed a losing candidate in the White House.

So I picked up the book while we were in the city getting vaccinations during March.

Meanwhile, our viewing of Hulu’s Deutschland 83 made me want to know more about East Germany, its secret police, and its deformed socialism. I read an e-book version of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, which contains some reminiscences of the German Democratic Republic, and I endeavored to get an e-book history of East Germany from the library. But until recently, I was unable to acquire a copy of Anna Funder’s Stasiland.

So lacking any other book, I began reading Foner—and it turns out to be fascinating. I keep reading snippets of it out loud to Emily: Listen to this!

Then, 70-odd pages into Foner, the library informed me that Stasiland was available. I was afraid that if I turned it away, I’d not get another opportunity. So I got it—and it’s pretty fascinating, too. 

I had first thought I would only read Foner’s account of the hard-to-imagine, corrupt deal that in 1877 placed the losing Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, in the White House and sent winning Democrat Samuel J. Tilden home—in exchange for withdrawing federal troops from the once-traitorous, southern states. 

“Huh?” any sane person might say. “How’s that? Come again?”

What does the movement of federal troops have to do with a national election? Well, back then the South’s white voters were a key component of the Democratic Party’s constituency. The presence of occupying federal troops kept whites from terrorizing blacks—which was particularly important once the 1870 15th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed black males the right to vote. But if the two parties could agree—in a backroom deal—to let southern whites retake political control of their states…well, then, just who would occupy the White House seemed a minor matter. Right this way, Mr. Hayes.

(It’s probably unnecessary to point this out, but the two parties have switched ideals and constituencies. The GOP is now the party of white supremacy and voter suppression, and the Democrats are the party with the large African-American constituency. And we wonder why Europeans are mystified by our political history.)

By the turn of the 20th century, virtually all blacks were disenfranchised by the legislatures of every southern state. Back then, southerners used devices such as literacy tests and poll taxes to deny ballots to African Americans; today, they’re using gerrymandering, shorter voting hours, withdrawal of absentee balloting, and more to lock out black voters. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are some of the “listen to this” revelations of the first 100-odd pages of Foner’s Reconstruction.

Although the war’s end was two years away, the institution of slavery had begun to disintegrate by 1863. Reports of “insubordinate” slave behavior multiplied across the south. Lincoln’s “emancipation proclamation” declared slaves to be free—but only those still inhabiting the Confederate territory. Nevertheless, thousands of blacks began enlisting in the Union Army, and that alone gave them new status: In army courts blacks could testify against whites and by 1864, they received equal pay with white soldiers. Many learned to read and write, and they debated the future society amongst themselves. When William T. Sherman’s army overwhelmed Atlanta and marched to the sea, thousands of former slaves marched behind it.

Former slaveholders admitted that they had never really known their slaves at all: Why were the slaves deserting, one planter wondered, if they had been “content, happy, and attached to their masters” as he had believed?

So what exactly would the former slaves do now? Various ideas contended: In Louisiana, sugar-plantation owners hastened to reaffirm their loyalty to the union—and federal authorities required their former slaves to continue laboring amid the sugar cane as wage workers. On Georgia’s Sea Islands and rice coast, on the other hand, Sherman issued a “field order” that transformed former slaves into small landholders. Each slave family was granted 40 acres of land and possibly the use of an army mule.

Louisiana’s always surprising demographics played a formative role in shaping reconstruction. New Orleans possessed a large, wealthy, and educated community of free blacks. Many spoke only French and educated their children at private schools in New Orleans or Paris.  But in spite of their elevated rank, these people allied with the former slaves and agitated for the vote and other rights.

And as Richmond fell and the war came to a close, the former slaves paraded through southern city streets celebrating. Four thousand blacks paraded through Charleston behind a banner reading “We Know No Master but Ourselves.” In Richmond, blacks mobbed the streets, dancing, praying, and singing. Abraham Lincoln himself walked about the former Confederate capital accompanied only by a dozen sailors. Even today, it’s hard to imagine such spectacles.

In coming posts I will provide some equally startling details of life in East Germany.

Dinner: more artichoke chicken, American picnic potato salad, and a green salad

Entertainment: episodes of the German drama The Typist.