If it had not been for 15 minutes...
In 1979/80 my family took part in the biggest espionage scandal that the former country of East-Germany ever saw in its 50 years of existence.
Sometimes the smallest details can have the biggest impact on a persons life. In my case this small detail is a mere 15 minutes. If it had not been for a certain 15 minute period, I would not be here to talk about these adventures. These pages contain my version of our defection story, with links whenever I can find them. (It may help to have the Google translation page handy for some of those links. Many of the pictures and illustrations have captions that are activated by moving your mouse on top of the picture.)
Our story entails incredible stress, lots of intrigue, cloak and dagger missions and sometimes the most amazing coincidences. All of it sums up to the biggest slap in the face of the (former) East-German intellligence service. It caused the East German government to pronounce a death sentence in-absentia on our little group. In order to bring this death sentence into reality East Germany's government took the extraordinary step of offering a DM 1,000,000 bounty (roughly $600,000 in 1979 dollars) for the succesful execution of the members of our group.
If the whole thing sounds to you like something you might have read in a book, or something seen in a movie - you are right. German television has produced a "made for TV" movie as well as a multipart "20/20" style documentary show. In addition, over the years there were several books published about this entire affair.
So without further delay, lets get into the action.
From official files and documents:
On the 26th of June 1981 Colonel Werner Teske, formerly of the East German Ministry for State Security (MfS) , was led into a small back room of a prison in Leipzig and summarily shot. Some time prior Teske, his wife and even the family dog were arrested by the Stasi on suspicion of espionage. A thorough search of his apartment turned up several missing files hidden in the laundry area.
In his capacity as Stasi agent, Teske was responsible for paying his western sources with "hard currency" such as West Marks or Dollars for the information provided by them. Instead of paying his sources, Teske kept roughly 20,000 West German marks for his own use to purchase Western goods like Jeans, Champagne and canned mushrooms (yes I know - but when you can't buy something like that in your supermarket it becomes a delicassy). All in all he spent the money on numerous items that one cannot buy with East German currency in Eastern stores..
The discrepancies did not remain hidden from the famous German bureaucracy. During his trial he repeated over and over again that if he indeed wanted to inflict damage on the Stasi he could have done so easily in his years of service.
His pleading fell on deaf ears. The outcome of his trial was predetermined by the man in charge of the MfS, General Erich Mielke, who wanted to make an example of him.
For almost sixty years all executions in East Germany took place in the Leipzig prison shown in the pictures on this page.
Unbeknownst that the last seconds of his life were ticking away, Teske was led into a small interrogation room . His jailers read an official notice that his Request for a Pardon was denied and that he should prepare himself to be executed at any time. As soon as the last word had left the jailers lips, the executioner stepped up behind Teske and killed him with a single shot to the back of the head.
On the very same day of his execution the MfS returned Teskes widows national identity card to her along with a note reading " Take a look at the identity card, your marital status has changed". The new entry in status box read widowed.
In the almost sixty years of its existence East Germany witnessed approximatey 500 defections of Stasi personnel. Of that number approximately 120 were kidnapped in Western Europe and returned to East Germany. Seven were executed, three of which were shot whilst trying to defect in the first place.
None of the defectors, executed or jailed, inflicted more damage to the Stasi Intelligence aparatus than the succesful escape of our small group of 3 people, which took place in January 1979, two years earlier .......
My formative years were spent in Oberhof, in the south-western corner of the former East-Germany. For those of you with Protestant affiliations, my little home-town was located about 50KM east of Eisenach and 50 KM south of Erfurt - big time Luther country.
It occured to me that this account might be read by people who have very little information about this part of the world. For those of you who are wondering what the hoopla is all about, let me provide a little background.
Germany at the end of World War 2 was divided between the Allied forces or Great Britain, France and USA on one side and the Soviet Union on the other side. The portion of the country that was occupied by the Allieds became the Bundesrepublic Deutschland - West Germany. The Soviet occupation zone became the Deutsche Demokratische Republik - DDR for short. As a Soviet puppet state and member of the communist block, which included all countries that had been "liberated" by the USSR in the course of WW2, East-Germany was run in typical communist fashion. It was a totalitarian regime with a very small ruling elite. This small group excerted an unbelievable amount of control over the lives of 16 million people. Imagine a place where you can't go on vacation when you feel like it, much less visit the places you'd want to go to. Imagin shops that look worse than the lowest discount stores in the US. Empty shelves upon empty shelves. Imagine a place where you are constantly watched and always worry about the possibility of being put in jail. It took the average East-Germany family almost 10 years of waiting on a list to obtain a new car. Not any special car mind you, but one that was made of a certain type of cardboard - I am not making this up. Imagine living in a country where you always, always felt caged in and restricted. I suppose this might be an impossible situation to imagine for most of you. Just as the freedom that we found in the West was completely impossible for us to imagine.
Even though the country was run in a very totalitarian manner, East-Germany had some successes. Foremost among them, the ruling elite had managed to build one of the most efficient espionage organizations anywhere. The STASI, or alternately known as the "Ministry for State Security" MfS, was belatedly recognized as being amazingly succesful. To this day, almost 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, reports are being generated that show just how ruthlessly efficient and untouchable the STASI had been. From a US standpoint it was always the Soviet KGB that represented the largest intelligence threat. Never mind the KGB, the Stasi was much more dangerous. By the time of our escape I am certain the STASI had infiltrated the West-German government so thoroughly that no Chancellor of the Bundesrepublik could so much as pass gas without the East knowing about it. Even the CIA, in reports as recent as the mid 1990's, showed STASI activity at a level that suprised everyone but especially the West Germans.
Back to my hometown.
Oberhof itself was roughly 300 years old, which isn't that much when considering many towns in this area are over 1000 years old. It's primary industry is tourism. With a population of 3,000 it hosted some 5 - 10,000 tourists at any given point. Aside from tourism, the main attraction for this small town was Winter sports. Oberhof posessed the only artificially iced luge course in East-Germany and even to this day continues to host European and World Championship luge events as well as various levels of national competitions.
As a 12 year old I participated in luge for a couple of years and even won a few medals. Other kids in my highschool class went on to become European champions and I think even Olympic medalists (in doubles). Overall this extremely small town is home to over 14 Olympic champions. (And no, not all of them went to my highschool). The "BSR Oberhof" - the Bob and Luge Club of Oberhof is the most victorious winter-sport club in all of Germany, East and West. Now that's something. It was a picturesque place summer or winter.
A small, quiet town with distinct Western influences, because of the influx of West European athletes for various events, as well as some West German tourists here and there, Oberhof was an almost idyllic place to grow up (compared to some of the bigger US cities for example). The town was sourrounded by forrest. In Winter I would see small groups of deer come almost right up to the back of our apartment building in search for food. The air was clean and crisp. And contrary to other parts of Europe, we had no environmental problems in this little mountain range. No acid rain .
Of course there was one problem. A distinct lack of personal freedom. No freedom of speech. No inalienable right to pursue happiness. If you said the wrong thing you could end up in jail. No freedom to travel. You were stuck in Eastern Europe. Don't even think about summer vacation in Italy or anything like that. And lets not forget the various State sponsored activities that everyone had to take part in. Did you ever wonder where those crowds used to come from that lined the streets during various May Day, or October Revolution parades? They were there in enlightened self interest. If you don't participate you were outcast .
People oftentimes are fundamentally selfish. In East-Germany we had the concept of "enlightened self interest" which described the idea of you playing along with the State so that you can continue to live whatever existence you have lived, absent of the State paying you a visit or screwing up your life.
The fundemental lack of freedom manifested itself in a number of sociologically interesting ways. East-Germany had a high rate of alcoholism and a great deal of promiscuity. If drugs had been available, a great percentage of the country would have been addicted.
Go to chapter 2
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5/2/2004; 8:24:38 PM.
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