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History

Stasi victims confront secret surveillance on stage

In East Germany, the communist party's authority was sealed with secret police, civilian informants and arbitrary arrests. Some of those affected by the subversive methods are sharing their stories on a Dresden stage.

"It's not over yet," says Peter Wachs. Recently, people have been avoiding him. He's even been called a traitor.

It all started in March when a major German newspaper did a story on rehearsals for a theater production called "Meine Akte und ich" (My File and I).

In the non-fictional play, director Clemens Bechtel brings together nine Dresden residents on stage who all had some kind of personal experience with the Stasi - the dreaded state security service in communist East Germany.

Peter Wachs is one of the participants in the play. He plays a special role, however, because he wasn't a victim of the Stasi, but worked as a civilian informant for them for 30 years.

In East Germany, there were many people like Wachs, who unofficially snooped, spied, and tattled. They would let the Stasi know about co-workers, neighbors and friends whose political opinions didn't entirely match those of the communist party.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the East German state, all of these informants became phantoms. No one wanted to admit to having been one. Peter Wachs, who is willing to share his story publicly, is a rare exception.

Scene from Meine Akte und ich, a theater production by Clemens Bechtel at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden

The play is a way for Peter Wachs to work through his own past

Good intentions gone sour

Now Peter Wachs is on stage at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden. It's not easy for him to speak; he has to clear his throat frequently and keeps a distance from the other people on the stage. He doesn't speak in first-person, like the other participants, but says things like, "Imagine you were…"

As a boy, Wachs lived through the Allied bombardment of Dresden in 1945. His hatred of war made him turn to socialism. At the age of just 20, he signed up with the Ministry for State Security - the Stasi. For him, it was an effort to ensure peace.

As a supporter of the system, Wachs was allowed to study in Moscow. But he also experienced first-hand the absurdity of the state: His first girlfriend only dated him in order to snitch on him. The spy himself was not trusted.

Kafkaesque nightmare

In Franz Kafka's novel, "The Trial," his character Josef K. is arrested one morning although he hadn't done anything wrong. "Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K."

Clemens Bechtel opens the play with this quote from Kafka's book, which seems to reflect what happened in communist East Germany. The Ministry for State Security was not only responsible for Cold War spy games abroad, but also for monitoring and intimidating its own citizens.

The Stasi spied on hundreds of thousands of people whose political viewpoints presented a potential threat to the communist state. In many cases, the suspicions were very vague and affected ordinary people who had adapted to the system and had no intention of political subversion.

Informants recorded countless pages of observations, including the most intimate details of their subjects' private lives. Observations often resulted in arrests. And when no solid evidence could be brought, the suspect was watched even more closely - just in case.

Scene from Meine Akte und ich, a theater production by Clemens Bechtel at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden

Even professing socialists like Andreas Warschau were subjected to observation

Betrayed by friends

The participants in the play share the contents of their Stasi files on stage in Dresden. There is Catherina Laube, a theology student who was arrested for discussing forbidden texts in her study group, and teacher Max Fischer who was placed under observation after he refused to become a civilian informant himself.

Andreas Warschau was a staunch socialist who was spied on around the clock after he called for improved working conditions. Gottfried Dutschke was sentenced to prison for not giving the authorities information about his friends' plan to escape from East Germany.

And Evelin Ledig-Adam's marriage broke down because she couldn't live with the fact that her husband, a musician, had become an informant in order to be granted travel privileges.

Like a kaleidoscope, the lives of these very normal people are pieced together with memories, audio recordings, excerpts from Stasi files, and photos with comments about who they once were and who've they become.

Fear is a common thread, as are mistrust and desperation. The Stasi's activities determined careers, destroyed families and ended friendships. It had an impact that is still keenly felt today, more than two decades after the collapse of East Germany.

Scene from Meine Akte und ich, a theater production by Clemens Bechtel at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden

The work of the Stasi cost Evelin Ledig-Adam her marriage

Life after the files 

The play takes viewers into an absurd space, an absurd world "that is marked by fear and the delusion of control," says director Clemens Bechtel.

The work came about as part of the international project "Parallel Lives," in which theaters from six former East Bloc countries work through their experiences with the secret police under the communist regime.

Each country has dealt very differently with its past, Bechtel says. Germany is considered a role model in this area, but the process is far from over.

In 1991, Ilona Rau, another participant in the production, started working for the Germany office tasked with dealing with the stacks of Stasi files and working through their lasting impact on the reunified country. She'll be retiring soon.

"Then maybe there is a life without files," she says at the end of the performance.

DW.DE