In 2013 I met an East German backpacker named Chris in a bar on Brunswick Street. Apart from a seemingly endless supply of unbelievable stories, this East German, or ‘Ossi’, seemed to be secretive often. On our first date, I boldly asked him if he had ever read his family’s Stasi files, to which he responded, ‘some things are better left alone.’ He was fit, with a strong jawline and a scar from a knife attack on his face which he obtained on the U-Bahn in West Berlin. Later, I learnt that it was acne scarring. He had a false Facebook name and an aversion to photographs, despite him thinking very highly of his physical appearance. I must have found his secrecy and paranoia sexy, or something, because we ended up dating and within the space of six months we had travelled through South East Asia, briefly experienced a long-distance relationship and I had booked a one-way ticket to Berlin.
I moved into his Friedrichshain flat on the 17th day of a grey November. I began exploring and made some friends within the first few months. Chris peppered me with questions whenever I got home on where I’d been, what I’d been doing and with who. My naivety told me that his proprietorial ways and secrecy were because he deeply understood the world — I mean, he had survived a knife attack to the left cheek. It was hard for me to see his truth; he had a web of lies and secrets woven strong enough to catch his fall whenever he slipped up, much like the world’s most tightly-knit surveillance system: The German Democratic Republic’s Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (The GDR’s Stasi).
Mass surveillance and the removal of privacy is bound to have some lingering effects on one’s psychology. It became apparent that those effects rippled throughout Chris’s life. He was six when Germany was reunified, which was 25 years earlier, but his actions allowed me a glimpse of life under the Stasi regime. Was it genetics, repercussions or was it simply a case of a man trying to possess and suppress a woman the best way he knew how?
The oppressive totalitarian world that he was born into was known for many things: not just secrets, spies and shortages but also shameless skinny-dipping, having a fifteen-year waitlist for a first car and of course that bleach-blonde permed mullet ‘do. I witnessed much of the resilience of these trends and traits much more than I had imagined, especially that hair-do which was sported mostly by the local supermarket Frauen who never smiled back.
Most of Chris’s friends were also ‘Ossis’ who enjoyed their Ossi Party Kult with shots of Pfeffi — a green, minty-fresh, sickly-sweet schnapps — and East German party snacks, which I often referred to as ‘schnacks’, which amused no-one. These parties functioned like clockwork: ‘schnacks’ and shots at someone’s house, cigarettes in the kitchen, obnoxious behaviour on the tram to get to some party, which was always close to, but never in, Berlin’s famous clubs. I often felt as though Chris and his friends would just ‘make-do’, never aspiring for anything amazing and never allowing pleasure from food, tasteful art or transcendent beats. It was beer and schnapps over martinis or wine; speed over MDMA. I was hit with the same questions over and over about Australia: whether I surfed, how I handled the cold, etcetera. I mostly probed them with questions about the GDR: if they or their family had seen their Stasi files. None of them had. None of their parents had. None of them knew Chris’s secret either. The weight of unexposed knowledge for the Stasi informers must have been heavy.
In order for the GDR to keep an eye on things in East Germany, homes were bugged, walls of homes drilled, telephones tapped, letters opened. Human rights were violated. Neighbours spied on neighbours and reported back to the Stasi. A citizen-cum-informant would spy on the population and be rewarded. Priority on a Plattenbauten to live in or a Trabi to drive — both grim but charming eyesores representative of the GDR era — were offered as blackmail to destroy the future of another citizen. Almost every aspect of GDR life was infiltrated by members of the Stasi. Over five decades, the Stasi employed 90,015 employees and 173,081 informants. Counting part-time informers, the Stasi had one informer per 6.5 people. Almost everything was recorded, organised, and filed in an order that would make any German proud. And then, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, so did fall the totalitarian regime.
My early days in Berlin involved a lot of exploring and a lot of getting lost. I’d regain my bearings by noticing the details of buildings. One morning, I’d fallen asleep on the tram and woke up lost and still drunk. I could tell that I was no longer in the former East Berlin: there were more ornamentations, more balconies, it was brighter, less prudish in appearance and generally more optimistic. Parts of East Berlin, even to this day, hold an air of oppression. The more I learnt and the more I observed, the more the plot would thicken in every neighbourhood, in every street and everywhere I looked.
To get to work each day, I rode my bike past the Spree where escapees had been shot while swimming across for a life in West Berlin. I rode along the East Side Gallery and Karl Marx Allee, through Alexanderplatz and into the suburb of Mitte. The building that I worked in was once a Jewish department store and then it became a giant playhouse for Hilterjugend (a Nazi youth centre), before becoming the headquarters for the East German Communist Party. It is now an exclusive private member’s club with a sexy rooftop pool. It was apparent that everywhere were stories, even under pretentious facades. It became imperative that I learnt as much as I could about the GDR. It was exhausting, overwhelming, exhilarating. I started to get a glimpse of what life may have been like behind the iron curtain. But what especially helped me along, was when Chris began to act like a Stasi informer. Informing who, I don’t know, but I soon understood what it felt like to have thoughts watched and crucial documents detained. Chris became overly suspicious of the friends that I went with to art openings, food events, Berghain, outdoor films and flea markets. These were also people who were making their own observations of Berlin. We’d share our thoughts over wines, table tennis and cigarettes in the park, trying to understand our new baffling city. We made paste-ups at tram stops — each of them a nod to the challenges that come with integration. We danced to Bowie in clubs that he had performed at during the 80’s and we rode around with fairy lights on our bikes to see where Nick Cave used to hang out. For a little while it was the city of my dreams; drabulously fun and dreckadent.
A few weeks before my flight to my new life in Berlin, I received some messages from Chris: he’d decided it was time to expose the truth. We’d just spent six weeks together in Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, I was home in Melbourne and he was about to board a flight from Abu-Dhabi to Berlin. I knew he had secrets. Everyone does. You trust in a new relationship that those secrets will come out with time unless they’re life-changing or urgent. Urgent secrets could include (but are not limited to) having another girlfriend or a child on the other side of the world. Since my one-way flight to Berlin was already booked, Chris must have thought that it was the right time to tell me that when I arrived in six weeks, I should probably avoid a very angry woman called Liesel who was upset about my general existence and that he had a nine-year-old son which neither Liesel nor any of his friends were aware of. For reasons that are still unclear to me, I empathised with him and even commended the courage it took to tell me the truth. I felt privileged being the first to know, apart from his parents or his son’s mother, about his child. I gathered that much of his notable paranoia was from holding onto secrets — not from being born into a socialist society run by fear. I really did see the best in him.
I see a lot of beauty in truth. This is perhaps what I loved about East Berlin, the parts that weren’t yet gentrified anyway. Its drabness, scars and bullet holes were still showing when I got there and many of them still are (I hope). I watched it become ‘beautified’ during my three and a half years there, but I knew what was underneath. Berlin had nothing to hide when I met it, but certainly changed a lot to accommodate its influx of tourists, refugees, ex-pats and wealthy entrepreneurs. If beauty and truth are intertwined, then it makes sense that I never really did get over the fact that Chris had kept those secrets from me. I met his son a few times. We couldn’t understand each other, but I’d sit on the floor building Lego homes while he scissor-kicked my head. It was our thing. I hated it. I never did meet Liesel but can only imagine how she must have felt once she found out that she’d been in a relationship with a man for six years who had a secret son — a scissor-kicking one.
I lived with Chris for a year in Berlin. I realised that I couldn’t be with someone who was obsessed with models, made comments about how much pizza I ate and who put stickers on his fridge. I scribed much of my frustration into my journal and I began to write about relatively painless ways to break up with him. I wanted to sleep with one of my Australian friends and I jotted down those fantasies too. One evening, I was out for pizza and wine with two of my girlfriends when I received a call from Chris which made me shiver from the inside out. I felt colder than I had in that first November. He informed me that he had read my journal from cover to cover. He told me that my journal would be detained before being destroyed and that the locks on his flat would be changed. In the time it would normally take me to inhale a slice of pizza, I had gone from being relatively at ease and hungry to being without a home and sick to the stomach. He hung up. I was single, relieved, but angry and concerned for my journal. I remembered all the things I’d written. It was filled with truth and it was honest but it would have been bloody painful for him to read. I turned to my friends and laughed through my shock, ‘Chris is thought-policing me’.
His secrets were written on paper. Perhaps that’s why he wanted it destroyed. I was mostly upset about the rest of the contents of my journal being destroyed; my creative ideas, fears, dreams and nightmares were all in that journal. And journals for me have always been a safe place where freedom of thought has run wildly across pages. I recalled how he was never interested in reading his Stasi files. Some things are better left alone.
It was then that I realised a modicum of the magnitude of the effects of how it must have been for many living under such an oppressive regime. Before I lived in Berlin, I thought the GDR could be summed up by secrets, skinny-dipping, snooping, shortages and a shit-tonne of paperwork. What was once the paperwork of the most tightly knit surveillance state became the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle: millions of Stasi files were ripped to shreds during the dying days of the East German regime to protect the soon to be ex-Stasi men who were involved in criminal acts against humanity during the GDR. Chris believed that he had a right to my thoughts on paper. He felt as though he had a right to shred up truth, his truth, his life on paper, so that it could never be pieced together or legibly read.