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East German titbits: I flicked through a book about the Stasi by a journalist—it was based on case files and personal histories of Stasi agents. There were two points that struck me, the first was how far the journalist himself didn’t realise he was gripped by a belief system, just like those Stasi agents who thought they served “the socialist fatherland”.

So, for example, the journalist related two case files where people applied to move to the West. One case was a dentist (the wife) and a food engineer (the husband), and the other was a nurse (the wife) and an ambulance driver (the husband). Now, the first couple faced huge problems leaving for the West, so that the husband was imprisoned briefly after a sit-down protest at the local council offices; the other couple, meanwhile, were allowed to leave relatively quickly.

The journalist said that the disparity between these two cases, both in the 1980s, showed how “arbitrary” and “irrational” Stasi decisions were, since both concerned “health workers” or “critical workers”.

Yet all this showed was his own egalitarian bias, not the Stasi’s inconsistency. The Stasi wanted to hold on to skilled workers and professionals. Nurses and ambulance drivers are not skilled jobs; indeed, almost anyone could be an ambulance driver. However, dentists and food engineers (I imagine this means a “food chemist”, as Margaret Thatcher was) are professional roles that are hard to replace. So the Stasi was perfectly consistent, there was no point going through a lot of trouble to hold on to discontented people with inessential skills.

But, for the journalist, steeped in egalitarian beliefs—related, though not identical, to Marxism—it was inconceivable that a nurse and a dentist might not have equal value. What it demonstrates is that the average Westerner (or the average Western journalist, perhaps) thinks in terms that are as egalitarian as his former East German counterparts, albeit with a slightly different inflection (after all, if Marxist economic theory were true, most value in the economy is created by unskilled workers, the proletariat, so if a state lost these people it would be a disaster—whereas you could easily spare the odd dentist, who creates little “value”).

Well, Marxism was just what the East Germans pretended to believe—but we have the same ideas, all “labour”, whether dental work or ambulance-driving, amounts to the same thing (labour hours worked, surplus value extracted). I don’t think the journalist was a convinced Marxist from the way the piece was written, but he had internalised the Marxist view—all labour is equal (with perhaps only differences in sector, “the health sector” being more valuable than the “construction sector”).

The second titbit: the Stasi discovered that a West German couple had visited their old family home in the East, now owned by someone else so they couldn’t access it—it was now located in a tangle of Soviet and East German military bases. The couple were spotted with binoculars near a Soviet base, so the police stopped them and asked them what they were doing, “Looking to see if there are still catfish in the old pond,” they replied.

The Stasi looked into the case, had the couple tailed for a year when they visited the East, and researched the pond—they even read the only academic monograph on the European catfish and summarised it in their case file. They concluded that the catfish was a cover story, because the academic monograph said the catfish grew to a length much greater than the small pond the couple said they wanted to observe. Extensive investigations carried on for a year until they spoke to locals who said that “a fish like the catfish had once lived in the pond”.

Admittedly, the phrase “we’re looking to see if the catfish are still in the old pond” does sound like some spy code (“the pigeons are particularly large in Prague’s parks this spring”)—or, as the Stasi thought, some cover story developed by Western intelligence. However, what it never struck the Stasi to do, in a punctilious and Germanic bureaucratic way, was to check the pond. A simple inspection to see if there were catfish (or catfish-like fish) in the pond would have settled the whole matter.

The Stasi approach illustrates a lack of wisdom—a lack of wisdom that is common in all bureaucracies, though I think the academic monograph is particularly German; it shows that painful Germanic attention to detail and pedantry that is typically Prussian—East Germany including, of course, Prussia. It’s all very correct and abstract, just like Hegelian philosophy (Hegel being another employee of the Prussian state) claimed to be able to tell things about the orbits of planets from pure introspection.

Wisdom wants to see what’s “in the hand”, so the wise course—which would also be “scientific”—would be to go straight to the pond and look to see if there are catfish there (or, and this is crucial, “catfish-like” creatures); but bureaucrats often only recognise “the rules”, so if the fish only looks like a catfish the couple are back under suspicion again; although humans will notoriously say vague things like that all the time, especially about what sounds to be some remembered childhood event “well ‘catfish’ is what we called them anyway”.

So these East German titbits demonstrate two points: 1. we in the West live in an implicit belief system that, while not being as harsh as the East German system, is related to it and makes the same assumptions (egalitarian)—even if these defy common-sense observations, such as a dentist is more valuable than a nurse; 2. bureaucracies, perhaps socialist bureaucracies in particular, lack common sense and are likely to embark on highly rational and “technically correct” investigations based on rules and high-status documents (“monographs”) when a simple series enquiries on the ground over an hour could settle the matter (although it would produce very little pleasing paper work, hence not being a bureaucratic “success”).


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