Aktion Licht: how the Stasi confiscated valuables from banks

Most people remember the Stasi from films or books as the nasty security service of East Germany, or the DDR. But the Stasi not only spied. It also carried out ‘projects’ like Aktion Licht: looting and confiscating valuables from East German banks.

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Meet the author: Karin Kalisa and her novel “Sungs Laden”

It just failed – only just – to snow. So it was a relief to enter the warm venue, peel of the wet and heavy winter coat and take a seat. What I and quite a few others were unaware of: we would shortly head for Vietnam! Not physically, but through Karin Kalisa’s new novel.

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Meet the authors: Literature about the Fall of the Berlin Wall

At this “meet the author” event (see previous “Steiners Geschichte” or “Il faut beaucoup“), three authors were interviewed about their books. These books concerned the fall of the Berlin Wall and DDR. They came from three different countries. This ensured three very interesting interviews, followed by a panel discussion, and made for a very  thought-provoking evening.

Journalist Sophie Derkzen who interviewed the three, had just flown in from the US. She mentioned there had been hardly any articles in newspapers related to the fall of the Wall. In this EU member state, all newspapers and opinion magazines had brought out special editions, described timelines of events, interviewed eye-witnesses, discussed its after-effects. I presume Russian tanks being able to occupy your country within twenty-four hours, kind of heightens interest in what goes on “next door”.

The first author interviewed, came from Potsdam. Dr Hans-Hermann discussed and read from his “Chronik des Mauerfalls”, which is already in its twelfth edition. The Wall ripped his family apart, with some members stuck in the DDR; others – including him – living in the West. It is difficult to fathom what this must have been like. His book chronicles the events of the “Wende“, the revolution which led to the fall of the DDR. He was able to talk to many former DDR and West German power-brokers, as well as ordinary people.

Just hearing him read an account of how hours before the collapse of the wall, it was decided DDR people were allowed “out” to the West, but would never be allowed back into the DDR by the Stazi – so would become stateless, homeless, refugees: it was both hilarious in its pettiness, as well as deeply shocking in its cruelty. Nobody living in the West, will ever be able to fully understand what life in the DDR was like.

The second book, “Menschen, Mauer, Mythen”, is one of a planned quartet of books covering the same period. It is written by Dr Ewald König and rectifies a few myths surrounding the events leading to the fall of the Wall. At the time, Dr König was a foreign correspondents allowed to work in the DDR and in Western Germany because his home-country Austria, was neutral. He was at the famous press conference. He mentioned the Leipzig and Dresden protests and events taking place outside Berlin.

The third author, Drs Hanco Jurgens, wrote a book focussing on the effects the disappearance of Wall and DDR had on the Netherlands. According to him, the “Wende” had a great impact on Dutch politics, attitudes, world view. The country is now far more US focussed than a quarter of a century ago.

The event was hosted by the German embassy, which welcomed everybody warmly. Staff ensured there was plenty to drink and served a yummy buffet during the break. Of course there were Kartoffelsalat, Frankfurter sausages, German bread and much more. Most guests could not resist having two helpings of Käsekuchen.

After the break, the panel discussion between all three authors and their audience followed – before a book-signing session. During the discussion, many suddenly realised how this fairly peaceful revolution could have ended quite differently. There was China with its Tiananmen Square and recently, the Arab Spring. As the authors mentioned: peaceful demonstrations do not guarantee a peaceful revolution.

While loitering through a quiet night, I wondered how things might have gone wrong. The fear of those weeks and the speed of events had been forgotten. Everybody had said that fortunately, Gorbachev had been there, not Putin & co. Internet, mobile phones, social media had not yet arrived. Twenty-five years later, circumstances, chronology, events had faded from memory. The first book to read clearly was “Chronik des Mauerfalls”, followed by “Menschen, Mayer, Mythen” and “Köhls Einheit ünter drei“.

Chronik des Mauerfalls” by Dr Hans-Hermann Hertle, Christoph Links Verlag, first published in 1996.
Menschen, Mauer, Mythen” Dr Ewald König, Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 2013.
Kohls Einheit unter drei”, Dr Ewald Köning, Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 2014.
“Na de val”, Drs Hanco Jurgens, 2014

Book Review: “Im Krebsgang”, Günter Grass

Some people may think that the recent downing of flight MH17 is the first time, hundreds of people have become the innocent victims of warring factions or countries. This is of course not true. Hundreds and thousands of innocent people have been and are still being murdered, whenever and wherever humanity is at war.

Günther Grass uses a forgotten act of war which occurred towards the end of the Second World War, to illustrate that such acts and their aftermath will never end. He shows the impact these acts have on the lives of survivors and their kin. He illustrates that people will never stop using such horrifying acts to continue murdering innocents, using the past acts as an excuse to serve their own interests, needs, aims. The last two sentences of the story are: ”Das hört nicht auf. Nie hört das auf.” (It does not stop. It never ends.) And this truth means this small story has no happy end. It does not even offer humanity and the reader any hope.

Journalist Paul Pokriefke tells the story “im Krebsgang”, like a crab going back, forth, sideways. It is his way to try and cope with traumas and horrors and to try and make sense of his family’s history. Of course, the family’s traumas are linked to Germany’s distant past, more recent past, and present.

Pokriefke starts his story by focussing on the lives of three people living in the late 19th and early 20th century. Wilhelm Gustloff becomes an early Nazi supporter and is murdered by Jewish David Frankfurter. To commemorate Gustloff, his name is given to a German cruise ship. Towards the end of the war, this ship will be attacked by the Russian U-boot captain Alexander Marinesko, born in Odessa.

The Gustloff is torpedoed and sinks on a voyage while carrying as many refugees as possible to the relative safety of a German port. Nearly 10,000 refugees, many of them children, do not survive the ice-cold water and ensuing horrors. It is the largest loss of life in a single ship-sinking in history. Yet like so many similar acts of war, this one is largely forgotten, because it suited the then warring parties.

Paul’s mother is one of the few survivors and he is born just before or shortly after the destruction of the Gustloff. Mother and son end up in communist Germany, though Paul is able to flee to the West. He marries, but the marriage breaks down. Once the Berlin Wall falls, Paul’s son settles with his grandmother, in the former DDR, where the spiral of violence continues.

Though the book is no comfortable read, after the first few pages, the reader becomes immersed in the various story-lines. The “Krebsgang” manner of interweaving the various stories, the pacing of incidents, the sympathy the reader feels for Paul and the suspense and dosed revelations make it a good read. After finishing it, the reader certainly has several things to think about.

“Im Krebsgang”, Günter Grass, first published 2002, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2004, 215 pp.
“Crabwalk”, Günter Grass, Faber 2003, 234 pp

For two reviews of the English version of the book:
Observer 2003
Guardian 2003