To the staff of Radio London's German service
September 17, 2017 12:44 PM   Subscribe

The East German secret police went to extraordinary lengths to track down people who wrote letters to the BBC during the Cold War. Those found were often arrested and jailed, like Karl-Heinz Borchardt, who wrote the following: I have only just started listening to your programme, 'Letters without signatures', but I like it a lot, since it airs opinions you don't find in our media. I am 16 years old. I will write to you regularly, mainly about young people and their views on world affairs. In my view, the west did not intervene strongly enough in Czechoslovakia. Does a country which fought so hard for its freedom have to carry on marching to the tune of the Soviets? Warm regards from a schoolboy
posted by stillmoving (17 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I wish they had done a little more digging on why the show was finally canceled. They have some hints, but that sounds like an interesting story.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:16 PM on September 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Great piece (by Abby d'Arcy); thanks for posting it! This is really telling:
"You should be happy to live under socialism," were the words of welcome from a young officer as he arrived at the prison. "Under the Nazis we'd have had you up in smoke a long time ago."

Those words have stuck in his head. The identification with the Nazis.
posted by languagehat at 1:20 PM on September 17, 2017 [18 favorites]

That handwritten letter really raised the hairs on the back on my neck a bit; something about that is just really real in a way that cuts right through the years, and it... transported me, I suppose. Thanks for the post.
posted by Wolfdog at 1:56 PM on September 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

Thank you for this.
posted by greermahoney at 3:36 PM on September 17, 2017

The associated article linked at the end - Rocking the Stasi - is just as interesting:
After the Wall came down and the GDR disappeared so too did the Stasi. Former officers like Jürgen Breski have had much time to reflect on their attempt to control everything - and why it failed.

"From today's perceptive much seems pointless, a waste of effort," he told me. When it came to punk music "sometimes we had influence, but in the end there were no results" .

And what about the young people persecuted, sometimes imprisoned, for their love of music?

"Today I'd be against doing something like that. But you grow up in a society, grow with this society's norms, you profit from them. And when later you have the chance to see that from a different perspective you say: 'OK - it shouldn't have been that way.'"
posted by Pinback at 4:06 PM on September 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

If you want to see a great miniseries set around the Wall and early 1970s Berlin, check out The Same Sky from ZDF and Czech TV, now available on American Netflix (w/English subtitles).
posted by JoeZydeco at 4:12 PM on September 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

I wonder about all the unsaid parts of this story - which is a classic fragment of the madness of Cold War broadcasting, to be sure, and totally fascinating. How much about this is in the extant Stasi files? If the programme was shut down by MI6, what was its purpose in letting it run in the first place? If you look through the declassified CIA cold war files, there's a lot of interest in the opinions and conditions of the populaces of the Eastern Bloc, for psychological and economic monitoring purposes, so which spies exactly did the producer hope to keep away from the letters by locking them in a BBC safe? (Which would not have been safe from MI6.)

The BBC German Service, like all the external services, was funded by the Foreign Office until the end of the Cold War, which is something of a clue. Unsurprisingly, there's not much out there about the exact relationship and editorial implications of this - a nascent project into the German Service appears to be underway, but it's hard to imagine a touchier subject to the establishment...
posted by Devonian at 4:20 PM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Of course, that was the DDR Stasi. The current neoliberal surveillance-industrial complex isn't dangerous at all. In fact, no lessons could be drawn from the history. Nothing to see here.
posted by runcifex at 6:34 PM on September 17, 2017 [9 favorites]

The penmanship and knowledge of international affairs for a 16 year old is impressive.
posted by destro at 7:22 PM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Reading this story makes me even more worried about Google and Facebook.
posted by storybored at 8:24 PM on September 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

"under the nazis we...

That's really the essence isn't it? Same people, different structure. Haters looking for someone to let them.
posted by Iteki at 9:23 PM on September 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hell, the NKVD even re-used some of the Nazi concentration camps
posted by thelonius at 9:51 PM on September 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

One part of this story doesn't quite make sense to me; how did the mail get out of the DDR? There's a bit in the article about the BBC changing the address every few weeks. But couldn't the DDR government just intercept all mail to whatever address was most recently announced? Maybe they mostly did, which is how this poor boy was captured.

(For a more light-hearted bit of postal war see Postkrieg, also here with many pictures. The DDR and GDR used to issue snarky stamps about each other, then refuse each other's mail that used those stamps. Not just Germany either, there's a funny US/Czech one too.)

I'm in Berlin now. One thing that really impresses me about modern Germany is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the contemporary process of struggling to cope with its evil history. Mostly Nazi history, but Stasi abuses too. The Topography of Terror museum is phenomenal in this way, a detailed examination of how the German State oppressed and murdered so many of its own people. (Mostly about Nazis, but with some Stasi information as well). I keep thinking about what a similar process would like like for America, particularly our history of slavery. I feel the Germans have done a much better job of that than we have.

Another key piece of this; Stasi records are preserved and available to German citizens under careful policies. It's a bit like how you can request your own FBI file in the states only much, much more sinister. The Stasi records office is run as a service for Germans now.

Thanks for that recommendation of The Same Sky. Along those lines is also the 2006 movie The Lives of Others. A friend also recommended the TV drama Weissensee.
posted by Nelson at 1:15 AM on September 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

That's really the essence isn't it? Same people, different structure. Haters looking for someone to let them.

I have some bad news for you about West Germany
posted by indubitable at 7:40 AM on September 18, 2017

couldn't the DDR government just intercept all mail to whatever address was most recently announced?

I wondered the same thing.
posted by Borborygmus at 8:08 AM on September 18, 2017

Great article. Another show to check out is Deutschland 83 which is on Hulu. About a young spy from the DDR. I was recently in Berlin for the first time since 1991. Wow, that things have changed would be an understatement. We attempted to bike along a large portion of the wall and even though it is a bike path it proved difficult to find a lot of the time. A really interesting museum is the Museum at the Kulturbrauerei. The exhibit focuses on the daily lives of people in the DDR. I learned about worker diaries which are fascinating. At many places of work people were organized into small worker groups of around 12 people. Each group was responsible for keeping a diary about work and their lives and goals. They included things like group vacations, birthday celebrations etc. They were often decorated and very detailed. Really a fascinating look into something I knew nothing about.
posted by misterpatrick at 12:13 PM on September 18, 2017

I went to the Stasi museum in Berlin today and they had a brief display about mail security. It says that all mail in the DDR was regularly inspected by the Stasi (Department M) and that mail to "hostile media agencies" like the BBC was withheld. So no answer to my question about how the letters got through, just more reinforcing it's amazing that they did. Perhaps the BBC's changing addresses somehow helped?

The other part I found interesting about the Stasi and mail was that they took pains to conceal their interception of mail. The Stasi agents would pretend to be postal workers, and most mail was steamed open / resealed in an undetectable way. As totalitarian as their mail snooping was, they still acted like it wasn't happening.
posted by Nelson at 10:27 AM on September 19, 2017

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