Moving from the Nobel Peace Prize to the Nobel Prize in Literature, I tip my hat to Digby for steering me to this July interview with newly minted laureate Herta Müller, published in Germany’s Die Zeit. She relates some harrowing incidents from her life as a writer during the reign of the madman Ceausescu. This incident came shortly after she was hounded out of her job as a techbnical translator at a factory (all emphases in the original):
Then came the interrogations. The reproaches: that I wasn’t looking for a job, that I was living from prostitution, black market dealings, as a “parasitic element“. Names were mentioned that I had never heard in my life. And espionage for the BND (West German Intelligence Service) because I was friendly with a librarian at the Goethe Institute and an interpreter at the German Embassy. Hours and hours of fictitious reproaches. But not only that. They needed no summons, they simply plucked me off the street.
I was on my way to the hairdresser’s when a policeman escorted me through a narrow metal door into the basement of a hall of residence. Three men in plain clothes were sitting at a table. A small bony one was the boss. He demanded to see my identity card and said: “Well, you whore, here we meet again.” I had never seen him before. He said I was having sex with eight Arab students in exchange for tights and cosmetics. I didn’t know a single Arab student. When I told him this, he replied: “If we want to, we’ll find 20 Arabs as witnesses. You’ll see, it’ll make for a splendid trial.” Time and again he would throw my identity card on the floor, and I had to bend down and pick it up. Thirty or forty times maybe; when I got slower, he kicked me in the small of my back. And from behind the door at the end of the table I heard a woman’s voice screaming. Torture or rape, just a tape recording, I hoped. Then I was forced to eat eight hard boiled eggs and green onions with salt. I forced the stuff down. Then the bony man opened the metal door, threw my identity card outside and kicked me in the rear. I fell with my face in the grass beside some bushes. I vomited without raising my head. Without hurrying I picked up my identity card and headed home. Being pulled in from the street was more terrifying than a summons. No one would have known where you were. You could have disappeared, and never shown up again or, as they had threatened earlier, you could be pulled out of the river, a drowned corpse. The verdict would have been suicide.
A security apparatus like this degrades the very culture and social fabric of a country, because a security apparatus like this involves not only wiretapping but also informants. Müller tells this story, from when she and her husband, Richard Wagner, had left Romania for Germany:
My file at least answered one painful question. A year after my departure from Romania, Jenny came to visit in Berlin. Since the time of the harassment in the factory she had been my closest friend. Even after I was sacked we saw each other almost daily. But when I saw her passport in our Berlin kitchen, and the additional visas for France and Greece, I confronted her directly: “You don’t get a passport like that for nothing, what did you do to get it?” Her answer: “The secret service has sent me, and I was desperate to see you again.” Jenny had cancer – she is long dead now. She told me that her task was to investigate our flat and our daily habits. When we get up and go to bed, where we do our shopping and what we buy. On her return, she promised, she would only pass on what had been agreed between us. She lived with us, wanted to stay for a month. With each day my distrust grew. After just a couple of days I rummaged through her suitcase and found the telephone number of the Romanian consulate and a copy of our door key. After that I lived with the suspicion that in all probability she had been spying on me from the outset, her friendship just part of the job. After her return, I see from the file, she delivered a detailed description of the flat and of our habits, as “SURSA (source) SANDA”.
But in a bugging protocol from 21 December, 1984, a note in the margin, next to Jenny’s name, reads: “We must identify JENI, apparently there is great trust between them.” This friendship, which meant so much to me, was ruined by her visit to Berlin, a terminally ill cancer patient lured into betrayal after chemotherapy. The copied key made it clear that Jenny had fulfilled her task behind our backs. I had to ask her to leave our Berlin flat at once. I had to chase my closest friend out in order to protect myself and Richard Wagner from her assignment. This tangle of love and betrayal was unavoidable. A thousand times I have turned her visit over in my mind, mourned our friendship, discovering to my disbelief that after my emigration, Jenny had a relationship with a Securitate officer. Today I am glad, for the file shows that our intimacy had grown naturally and had not been arranged by the secret service, and that Jenny didn’t spy on me until after my emigration. You become grateful for small mercies. That my file proves that the feelings between us were real, almost makes me happy now.
There’s just one problem. Twenty years after the madman was put up against a wall, Müller says, huge chunks of his security state still remain, intruding on and intimidating the populace and leeching off the country:
For me each journey to Romania is also a journey into another time, in which I never knew which events in my life were coincidence and which were staged. This is why I have, in each and every public statement I have made, demanded access to the secret files kept on me which, under various pretexts, has invariably been denied me. Instead, each time there was signs that I was once again, that is to say, still under observation.
In spring earlier this year I visited Bucharest, on the invitation of the NEC (New European College). On the first day I was sitting in the hotel lobby with a journalist and a photographer when a muscular security guard inquired about a permit and tried to tear the camera from the photographer’s hands. “No photos allowed on the premises, nor of any people on the premises,” he bellowed. On the evening of the second day I had arranged to have dinner with a friend who, as we had agreed on the phone, came to pick me up from the hotel at six o’clock. As he turned into the street in which the hotel was situated, he noticed a man following him. When he asked to call me at the reception, the receptionist said he would have to fill in a visitor‘s form first. This frightened him because such a thing was unheard of, even under Ceausescu.
My friend and I walked to the restaurant. Again and again he suggested that we cross to the other side of the street. I thought nothing of it. Not until the following day did he tell Andrei Plesu, the Director of the NEC, about the visitor’s form and that a man had followed him on his way to the hotel, and later the two of us to the restaurant. Andrei Plesu was infuriated and sent his secretary to cancel all bookings at the hotel. The hotel manager lied that it was the receptionist’s first day at work and that she had made a mistake. But the secretary knew the lady, she had worked in the reception for years and years. The manager replied that the “patron”, the owner of the hotel, was a former Securitate man who, unfortunately, would not change his ways. Then he smiled and said that by all means the NEC could cancel its bookings with him, but that it would be the same in other hotels of the same standard. The only difference being that you wouldn’t know.
I checked out. After that I didn’t notice anyone else following me. Either the secret service had backed off, or they worked professionally, i.e. unnoticed.
In order to know that a shadow was needed at six o’clock, my phone must have been tapped. Ceausescu’s secret police, the Securitate, has not disbanded, just given another name, the SRI (Romanian Information Service). And according to their own figures, 40% of the staff was taken on from the Securitate. The real percentage is probably much higher. And the remaining 60% are retired and living on pensions that are three times higher than those of everybody else, or they are the new architects of the market economy. Apart from jobs in the diplomatic corps, a former spy in today’s Romania can attain any post.
Life in a surveillance state is degrading, which is only one of many good reasons why the Constitution requires warrants for it. But even without your best friend informing on you, the wiretapping is bad enough — which, unfortunately, is a concept our newly minted Nobel Peace laureate seems to have trouble grasping.