Out of Germany: Stasi's lexicography defies logic

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The Independent Online
BERLIN - Everybody knew Communist officials, throughout Eastern Europe, spoke a bit funny. Party bureaucrats and secret policemen inhabited a linguistic world of their own: never use one word, when 17 will do; never use a phrase that means something when you can use an impenetrable sentence instead; above all, never use words like justice or democracy, except to mean the opposite of the dictionary definition.

It now turns out, however, that even the Communists became lost in this semantic swamp. Things got so bad that the Stasi, the East German secret police, produced a 470-page dictionary - labelled 'Top Secret', naturally - in order to impose a Stasi logic on the world of lexicography.

The Dictionary of Political-Operative Work, first produced by the Ministry of State Security in 1970, and updated in the Gorbachev era, has just been made available by the organisation entrusted with unravelling the Stasi legacy. As I flicked through its pages of surreal definitions, I found myself musing on what I would have done with such a scoop if it had landed on my desk in the old, Communist days. Of one thing I was certain. I would never have believed it to be a genuine Stasi publication. I would probably have decided it was the work of some trenchant East German satirist creating this savage parody of the lunatic world outside.

From 'agents, hostile' and 'appearance, demonstrative-provocative' through 'political-ideological diversion' and 'subversion' ('essential part of the imperialist strategy and policy') to the 'Who-knows-whom Scheme', the dictionary is pervaded with such madness that you wonder how the system that produced it could ever have survived for a day.

Psychology plays an important part. There is 'attitude, hostile; attitude, negative; and attitude, positive'. 'Enemy' gets it own entry. And then there is 'dissident', which begins, 'From the Latin: one who thinks differently'. In the world of the Dictionary of Political-Operative Work, however, 'state criminals and other criminal, decadent, asocial, religiously linked and other persons, who are not in agreement with the world view of the working class and the social praxis in the socialist countries.' Oh, that sort of dissident.

Nor does the Stasi ignore human emotions. Page 163 has 'hate', here defined as an 'essential, defining part of a Chekist's (secret policeman's) feelings, one of the decisive foundations of the passionate and unremitting battle against the enemy'. No wonder the people at Checkpoint Charlie always looked so cross.

There were important reasons to be vigilant, certainly. After all, look up 'counter-revolution', and what do we find? 'In the era of the transition from capitalism to socialism, revolution and counter-revolution clash with especial acuteness. Counter-revolution is the content and chief goal of the strategy of imperialism'.

'Border' gets 27 sub-entries, including 'border provocation' and 'border crossing, illegal ('used or orchestrated by the enemy for political, economic and military weakening, as well as for the international defaming of the GDR'). As an eloquent testimony to the true nature of the East German state, 'unofficial collaborator' gets 53 entries, a do-it-yourself guide to neighbourhood informers, and how to handle them.

On the centres of resistance that led to the collapse of East German Communism in 1989, the definitions become especially poignant. Take 'churches, misuse of': 'a phenomenon of hostile activity, directed towards the incitement, organisation and execution of political underground activity and the creation of internal anti-socialist opposition movements.' (Hundreds of thousands gathered in and outside the churches, in October 1989, demanding an end to dictatorial rule.)

Then there is 'mass-psychological condition, operatively significant', which is 'an expression of the deformation of man through the exploitive order and spiritual manipulation by the ruling class'. This takes the form of 'mass hysteria by counter-revolutionaries, anarchists and others'. (That is a peaceful opposition demonstration, to you and me.)

Bizarre though this extraordinary work appears to be, the reality was, of course, entirely serious. The people who read, wrote and partly believed these outpourings took it as their duty to destroy their countrymen's lives - and felt morally superior while they were doing so.

As one reads through the dictionary, one remembers the madness, and feels relief that the system has finally been destroyed. None the less, the wounds are by no means healed. Under Communism, everyone was involved, and uninvolved. How much should the past be examined? Who should be punished, and who should be ignored? Before, there were answers - ready supplied, in the Dictionary - but no questions. Now, there are questions, and no answers.

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