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Author Topic: Familiarity with the Stasi?
wetwilly
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Do you guys know what the Stasi was? I'm writing a story in which it plays a big role, and I'm wondering how familiar the general public is. If you don't Google it or otherwise look it up, if I just refer to the Stasi with no explanation of what it is, do you know what I'm talking about?
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genevive42
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Not a clue.
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Meredith
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Nope.
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extrinsic
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I am, but then I came up during the Cold War, read quite a few spy thrillers involving West and East Cold War tensions in and about Germany and Soviet Block Eastern Europe, and an avid history aficionado.
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Pyre Dynasty
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Nada.
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Robert Nowall
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Don't underestimate your readers. If you want to put a reference to the East German secret police in your story, go right ahead.

If they get it, they get it. If they don't, and they're curious, they can look it up and figure it out. And if they aren't curious, what are they reading your story for in the first place?

(As far as secret police go, I remember learning about the Kampetai from a misspelled use of the word by Eric Frank Russell...)

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wetwilly
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This is more than a reference; it's a major element of the story. Just trying to figure out how much explanation is needed.
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extrinsic
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Since the Stasi is a central motif of the narrative, I think a large amount of context and texture is called for, no matter how familiar readers are with the Stasi. Rather than comprehensive explanation, revelation and imitation emphasis is more artful. Spy thriller writers manage showing the Stasi by agents' eventful interactions with characters in suitable settings.
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Reziac
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I used to read a lot of espionage, so when you mention Stasi, I'm all prepared to be frightened by an outfit that doesn't play nice by the rules of international intrigue.

But for those who don't know the term .. yeah, what ex says. The reason I have the automatic skin-crawl reaction is because various authors showed intereactions with characters that really defined what the Stasi were for me.

It need not be overt interaction. Frex, young Hans comes home and starts to rant about what the Stasi did in the village, and Papa says, "Be silent, do you want to get shot?" Overly simplistic but you get the idea.

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wetwilly
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Thanks, friends. This gives me a general gauge of people's level of familiarity. It looks like I need to assume my reader has never encountered the term "Stasi" before, and treat it like a completely fictional group that I made up and have to introduce to my reader. Annoyingly, I think this means I've started my story in the wrong place.

And Reziac, it would worry me if you knew what the Stasi were and it didn't make your skin crawl.

Extrinsic, I'm also a history aficionado, but not as avid as I wish I had time to be. I was torn between becoming a history teacher and an English teacher. I chose English, but it was pretty much a 50/50 toss up. The Cold War in general, East Germany specifically, has been a pet topic of mine for a while now.

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Owasm
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You might want to see the movie 'The Lives of Others'. It's about a member of the Stasi spying on a famous person. It's a great movie and will augment your research and give you a feel for the times and might present an idea on how to approach introducing your audience.

[ January 21, 2014, 10:25 AM: Message edited by: Owasm ]

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extrinsic
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I think the most insidious characteristics of the Stasi are that almost all East Germans unofficially participated in informing against others to some degree and that to discredit dissenters and quell dissent Stasi agents would mess with people's minds and rearrange people's private possessions in their private spaces, and other more nefarious psychological harrassments, Zersetzung.

I think there is ample potent macabre humor potential from Zersetzung for a narrative in the vein of Stalag 17. For that matter, there's plentiful humor in a society where everyone is an informer. What a society.

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Reziac
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I'm reminded of this comic tale of the informer society:

A phone rings at KGB headquarters.
- Hello?
- Hello, is this the KGB?
- Yes. What do you want?
- I'm calling to report my neighbor Yankel Rabinovich as an enemy of the State. He is hiding undeclared diamonds in his firewood.
- This will be noted.
- The next day, the KGB goons visit Rabinovich's house. They search the shed where the firewood is kept, break every piece of wood there, but find no diamonds. They swear at Yankel Rabinovich and leave.
The phone then rings at Rabinovich`s house.
- Hello, Yankel! Did the KGB come?
- Yes.
- Did they chop up your firewood?
- Yes, they did.
- Okay, now it's your turn to call. I need my vegetable patch plowed.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by wetwilly:
Thanks, friends. This gives me a general gauge of people's level of familiarity. It looks like I need to assume my reader has never encountered the term "Stasi" before, and treat it like a completely fictional group that I made up and have to introduce to my reader. Annoyingly, I think this means I've started my story in the wrong place.

Not necessarily. All it means is that we need to rub up against the Stasi, either directly or indirectly, so readers can get a feel for them. As I mentioned this can be very small things, just to show some interaction, or the reactions of common folk. No need to build them up from scratch, especially if your story uses them as an environmental factor rather than as the primary setting.

After all, when I read espionage and similar thrillers, I started off knowing absolutely nothing about the Stasi, yet it didn't take long before I was informed with an opinion, courtesy more of secondhand reactions than firsthand experience.

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wetwilly
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@ Owasm: I'll check it out.

@ extrinsic: Zersetzung is definitely interesting, and I really want to use it in my story, but I don't think there is room for it in this one. It pains me, because it is so bizarrely interesting that they did that.

@ Reziac: Service with a smile! Your friendly neighborhood KGB!

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extrinsic
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A Stasi joke about finding employment after the Iron Curtain came down:

New Jobs for Secret Police

Incorporating jokes in narratives and other folk items like gossip, rumor, legend, and myth genres rounds out an otherwise one-dimensional motif. Gossip and rumor can be true and still be gossip and rumor.

One of my favorite KGB jokes tells of a miraculous Soviet wristwatch invention akin to Dick Tracy's, that does everything but wash dishes. Problem, the batteries that power the watch fill up two large suitcases.

A piece of gossip about Stasi informers that made the rounds back in the '90s tells of neighbors finding out their neighbors informed on them. They didn't make much complaint because they too had informed on their neighbors. Everyone informed on everyone. Too much information overloaded the entire system. In an odd twist, many social watchers came to a conclusion that unintended and at times intended citizen civil resistance by frequent and plentiful informing to tyrannical GDR authority contributed to its downfall. Informing which was done for the rewards in a materially deprived society, rewards which became less and less valuable and numerous. Hilarious.

I'm sure Zersetzung can be arranged to a similar effect, say one cell of Stasi agents perpetrating it on another competing cell. A humor factor could be from how no one could be sure of being a target. Or contrarily, targets knowing they are targets and making things more interesting, say with practical joke boobytraps. An agent sneaks into another agent's office and moves his file cabinets around. In the process, the trespassing agent unwittingly picks up an invisible dye intended to mark pickpockets for capture by law enforcement. Hilarity ensues.

By the way, this actually conflates several shenanigans Dad and his workplace cohort engaged in during my childhood. Dad enlisted his four sons to help move several file safes from their normal places in the cubicle office he worked in. The dye boobytrap was a little different, an otherwise legal material scent that triggered police dogs. Back when weapon carrying wasn't such a serious issue, long ago, putting a metal silhouette of one in luggage passing through a metal detector, a military ship or such, caused a few laughs and snarls. Lighters too, when going into a munitions handling area.

[ January 23, 2014, 11:09 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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I think nearly all readers will understand there was a Cold War between the US and the Soviets, and that each side had intelligence services, and that in totalitarian states the distinction between police, political operatives and spies was somewhat nebulous. I doubt many readers under 35 or so will know what the secret police in East Germany was called.

More of concern is that many younger readers might not even know that Germany was divided, or the which of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland and the Deutsche Demokratische Republik where which. They may not be aware of the key frontline role East Germany played in the Warsaw Pact, and probably don't know about critical details of life behind the Iron Curtain, such as the non-convertibility of the Ostmark into "hard" currency.

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wetwilly
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I know a decent amount about the topic because it happens to have touched on my life peripherally (very peripherally; no real personal experiences or anything), and I got interested in it and sought out the information myself. I am gathering that knowledge about this chapter of history may be more obscure than I thought. In writing this story, I'm pretending it's a fictional world that I have to introduce to the reader, but one someone else created. So kind of like fan fiction. Only I'm the only fan.

People at least know about the fall of the Berlin Wall, right?

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Robert Nowall
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Well, there's no real direct impact of the Stasi on my life; I owe my knowledge of it to a relentless exploration of history over the years.

As for people knowing about this or that, there's the old Steve Martin routine: "How many people remember the Earth blew up two years ago?"

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extrinsic
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I have a more than passing acquaintance with intelligence operations, military and civilian, law enforcement and corporate, and the thin line between justifiable and corrupt actions.

I'm developing a short story that involves a happenstance private investigator who stumbles into a web of intrigue. The actual act of investigating is immediately the cause of the reactive corrupt action. But for the investigation, the corruption coverup might not have happened. Based on personal experience.

One place I lived intelligence agent students practiced their trade craft in town. They were prohibited by policy from doing so--that didn't stop them. I developed an ability to recognize training operatives and their handlers plying their trade and messed with their minds. Zersetzung.

Many of my acquaintances have been in the trade. Some, even their closest relatives don't know their real missions. Their cover stories held up to scrutiny, but I knew due to recognizing their circumstances as clandestine cover and operational deployment.

But for a chance turn of events--I was predestined for the trade myself. Whew!?

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wetwilly
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On a side note, the fall of the Berlin Wall is the first event of historical importance that I remember happening. I think I was in 4th grade. Maybe that's part of why my interest has been drawn to the topic. At any rate, this story is going to be a challenge to, being my first venture into historical fiction (alternate history, but still, other than the one change that makes it "alternate," the other 90% is all historical fiction). I'm finding it quite a stretch for me as a writer, but I think it has potential to be a really good story once I get it right.
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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
One place I lived intelligence agent students practiced their trade craft in town. They were prohibited by policy from doing so--that didn't stop them. I developed an ability to recognize training operatives and their handlers plying their trade and messed with their minds. Zersetzung.

I'm reminded of the old TV series, Under Cover:
(forum won't let me post the wiki link, but it might refer to the 2nd run, which isn't the one I mean, but anyway...)

One of the ongoing themes was more-experienced agents messing with the minds of younger agents, particularly when one got too big for his britches or started making unwarranted assumptions, and needed a good dose of reality.

I remember two incidents in particular:

In one, a young agent had been getting cocky, and his latest Big Find was a photo he'd sniffed out from the routine satellite surveillance shots, showing a bunch of new missile silos in Russia! Look at all these rings in the photo, they weren't there last year, they're new silos, I tell you!!

After a suitable uproar and plenty of chance to show off, one of his superiors takes him into the back room, and shows him a printout of that very photo... with half a dozen unwrapped condoms strategically placed. Those, says his superior, are your silos (of course everyone else in the office was in on the joke). Took the young agent down about six pegs, and taught him not to lurch to conclusions.

In the other, Flynn (John Rhys-Davies, who was wonderful in this role) takes a bunch of very junior agents on a training run. There doesn't seem to be anything TO it, tho -- just follow orders. Which made no sense. Drive to the middle of nowhere, get out of the van, walk away, WTF?? By this time the trainees are bored, annoyed, and rebellious.

Don't want to obey? Fine. Flynn gets out of the van and starts walking off. After a few moments his students (who'd been muttering about driving off and leaving Flynn to his folly) became uncomfortable and got out to follow him.

And the van blew up.

An object lesson on trusting your superiors, even if you don't know what's going on.

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kmsf
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Yes, but I majored in German in the 80s and 90s. I'd think you could introduce readers well enough, though. But the story itself has to be compelling no matter the players and place. Scary bunch of people. They had the admiration of the KGB. They're still around, they've just changed businesses.
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Robert Nowall
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Well, apparently, my first memory of news is the Kennedy assassination. I know where I was when I heard and what I did that day...but it's problematic, 'cause I don't know if I remember, or if it's been reinforced by being told and going over books and videos of the day.
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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
Well, apparently, my first memory of news is the Kennedy assassination. I know where I was when I heard and what I did that day...but it's problematic, 'cause I don't know if I remember, or if it's been reinforced by being told and going over books and videos of the day.

I remember exactly where I was -- I was getting something out of my locker at school. (I was 8.) Some other student came up to me and said, "The president's been shot." I didn't believe it and thought no more about it, until I got home and presumably saw it on the nightly news. I remember being at my locker when I heard it. I don't remember ANYTHING from the news (even tho it was probably the total news focus for the next month, and I did watch the news most days).
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Meredith
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OT, but it sounds like there are several of us of about the same vintage.

I don't remember hearing the news when JFK was shot. I do remember the funeral. The black horse with the boots turned backward made a big impression on me. JohnJohn's salute. The guy who couldn't quite get through Taps. The twenty-one gun salute. Everywhere being kind of quiet and empty that day.

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Robert Nowall
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I don't think I remember the funeral from direct memory...just sitting in front of the TV when Cronkite came on and announced Kennedy had been shot. I was two and a half, so my attention probably wandered...
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