December 6, 2016

A TV Star for the Stasi

stasi room

My new book, The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill, relies on exclusive interviews with key participants and thousands of primary documents, many never seen before by scholars or writers.  Among them are those found in the dozens of secret files in the files of the Stasi secret police in Berlin.  They offer what I feel is the best and fullest picture yet of Stasi infiltration of escape groups, spying on average East Germans and what went on in often brutal interrogation of those detained.

Just one example in the book features a young West German named Manfred Meier who acted as a courier in the major escape action that Daniel Schorr attempted to film in August 1962 for CBS (but was halted after Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk intervened).   He was arrested at the scene and interrogated over and over but would not give up the names of his colleagues.   Here is an excerpt from the book which finds him forced to appear on an East German propaganda TV broadcast.  He later was tried by a state-run court and served two years in prison.   My photo above of recreated Stasi interrogation room.  You can order the book here.

Manfred Meier, also imprisoned at Hohenschonhausen, continued to be questioned by the Stasi, sometimes for hours at a stretch. The focus was on getting him to admit that West German commandos had been planning to shoot up Kiefholz Strasse on escape day. He said he knew nothing about that.

Nevertheless, he was about to become a TV star. One day a Stasi agent informed him, “Good news! You may be here wrongfully. You have a chance to defend yourself!” The Stasi planned to put him on state-controlled TV where “you can tell your story.”

What the MfS wanted was confirmation about plans for violence, and they were leaving nothing to chance. On August 20, the day before the broadcast, a Stasi staffer at the wonderfully named Department of Agitation/Propaganda composed a detailed scenario, in fact a partial script, for the show. “Target of TV talk should be to prove” that on August 7 a “violent border provocation” was prevented only by “the intervention of security organs of the GDR,” the script writer urged. The program would open with the GDR-employed commentator declaring that the Girrmann group was behind this tunnel and used the “firearms and terroristic” tactics they inevitably favored. The TV host should display maps and photos of the crime scene. Then Meier, one of the tunnel’s “organizers,” would be interviewed in depth about his meetings with Sternheimer to discuss the operation and his “reconnaissance” of the Sendler property. Meier would not be asked about any weapons, since it appeared likely he would deny it—the last thing the Stasi wanted to happen.

The script continued with what Edith Sendler was to say in explaining what had happened on escape day, including why she had delayed informing the Stasi about the loud noises she had heard (in this fantasy she thought a worker was “repairing the roof”). She was to express “indignation” over this uninvited invasion of her home, after which the commentator would display photos of the gaping hole in her living room floor. He would hail the Stasi agents for halting the invaders, leaving unsaid that they had let them all escape. After that, in the script, two Westerners who had allegedly worked with the Girrmann Group were to testify about the purchase of American machine guns and possible use of explosives in “border provocations.”

The next morning Meier was given his civilian clothes. Three Stasi agents blindfolded him and marched him to a limousine with darkened windows for the drive to the TV station. (Before covering Meier’s eyes, one of the Stasi men hoisted up his jacket and displayed a pistol, saying “Just so you don’t get any stupid ideas.”) When they got to the studio, Meier declined a cup of coffee, fearing he might be drugged or poisoned. “You can drink the coffee!” an agent assured him. “Only real Cuban beans!”

Then he was interviewed by the GDR’s chief press officer as well as infamous radio propagandist Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. This was a taping for airing later that day, as the Stasi would never trust the uncertainty of a live broadcast. Meier admitted he had taken part in aiding refugees (he could hardly do otherwise) but that wasn’t enough. Over and over the co-hosts tried to get Meier to admit that many escape helpers were heavily armed on August 7 and had planned to spark a bloodbath. He denied it, saying that he would never be a party to violence, and that he had seen no weapons that day. When the interview was over, Meier reflected that, since the session was taped, it would no doubt be edited to twist his answers.

That’s just what happened. His fear of a bloodbath was edited to suggest this was because he knew the Wesst German “ultras” and “gangsters” planned to initiate one. The next day, the East Berlin newspaper Neues Deutschland covered the interview, with a large photo of Meier (“member of the notorious terrorist Girrmann Group”), in horn-rimmed black glasses, at the studio. The headline declared, “Instigators in Bonn and USA Prepared Bloody Actions and Murder.”