Friday, 13 November 2009

Inside the mind of a betrayer


He sat unshaven at one of the bar’s outside tables, in sunlight, nursing a beer and a cigarette. Sometimes he trembled. It certainly looked as if this wasn’t the day’s first drink, nor its last.
This was Sascha Anderson, perhaps the most extraordinary exhibit in the gallery of extraordinary characters portrayed in the BBC’s feature-length documentary, The Secret Life of the Berlin Wall.
In East Berlin, when the GDR still reigned, he was a poet, a radical, a firebrand – among the most influential figures in the city’s subversive underground.
He was also an informer for the secret police, the Stasi.
“Were you a good spy?” he was asked.
He laughed shyly. He sighed and swallowed. He looked everywhere but at his interviewer or the camera. For a quarter of a minute he said nothing. And then:
“In the place that I was, I was the top informer. I have the feeling that I wasn’t just an ordinary spy.” Now a confessional moment – he looks straight at the interviewer. “Of course, I told them everything.”
Harald – we weren’t given his surname – was another radical, a photographer. “When I came to Berlin I noticed a big gap between what the party said and the reality. And that’s the area I occupied.” He took pictures of punks, ruins and desolation, physical and psychical.
The commentary tells us: per head of the population, the Stasi were twelve times more numerous than the Gestapo, thirty-five times bigger than the KGB in Russia. And that’s not counting their network of informers.
Impossible for Harald to escape their notice.
“There were about thirty-five people informing on me. I thought none of them would be close friends, but I recently realised I was wrong.”
One of them was his friend Sascha Anderson.
Harald was asked what he’d tell Sascha if he saw him now: “’Sascha, you arsehole...’”. A pause. “What am I supposed to say? He has to live with his conscience.” This isn’t said unkindly.
And Sascha himself, asked to explain his treachery:
“Someone comes and wants something from you. And if you’re egotistical and altruistic enough, then you say ‘okay – let’s do it. I’ll do what I can and you do what you can. That’s fine’. I’m not the sort of person who makes decisions based on an idea. So, if the Devil looks good, I might say to him, ‘how can I help you, dear Devil?’”
I remind myself that Goethe’s Faust is much nearer to the mental and cultural surface in Germany than Marlowe’s is in England. Then I spool back, because talk of this Devil’s pact has eclipsed the two self-describing adjectives which came before.
“Egotistical” – yes, a spy would be egotistical. But “altruistic”? Regard for others, as a principle of action; opp. to egoism or selfishness – Shorter Oxford Dictionary.
But if he doesn’t seem to have been much of an altruist, neither does he come across as a great egotist.
“I sensed they wanted something from me. Someone is taking you seriously and listening to you. So I offered myself up. Every gap in the conversation was a chance for me to say: ‘I am the right man for you’.”
Was that egotism, or an appeal for respect from someone who felt misunderstood, undervalued, overlooked? See the film, and you find it hard not to feel sympathy for him, which I found fascinating and disturbing.
He was asked whether, if he’d stopped informing, his Stasi comrades might have put him in prison. He replies, nodding:
“Usually traitors who betray the secret service are given the harshest punishments.”
“What is the punishment for traitors who only betray their friends?” he’s then asked.
He swallows. Grins unhappily. Says nothing.
Another place, another age, another interview...
FAUST: Where are you damned?
MEPHISTOPHILIS: In hell.
FAUST: How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?
MEPHISTOPHILIS: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
From Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604)
The Secret Life of the Berlin Wall was produced and directed by Kevin Sim and was a Diverse Production for the BBC.

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