Stasi Winter, by David Young
It is always slightly difficult to review a book which is the latest in a series without revealing too many details of previous stories, which might compromise readers’ enjoyment of them, if they are able to find them; but necessarily, some backstory facts must be given, so I will try to keep these to a minimum, as a reading of the whole series—ideally in sequence, although that is not always possible—is definitely recommended here. I might have mentioned previously that I have some tangential experience of the former East Germany, having worked there for six months, albeit three years after die Wende, the local name for the change in government which occurred after 1989 when the border between the democratic West and the “democratic” East was breached, and the former communist state was dismantled: I will refrain from commenting on the repercussions of what occurred, because opinions are quite polarised, according to one’s political affiliations, but it was an exciting time, and I was privileged, in a way, to have experienced it, even if at some remove.
The Stasi in the title was the colloquial name for the successor to the Gestapo, the wartime secret State police, and it is a shortened form of Staatssicherheitsdienst [State Security Service], which itself is part of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit [Ministry for State Security]. This was a terrifying organisation, not least because it was all-pervasive in East German society, willingly & wittingly fuelling the crippling paranoia with which ordinary East Germans had to contend on a daily basis, even the informers & salaried staff at all levels. The winter is 1978-9, and it was referred to as a “catastrophe winter”, even if not as severe as that of 1962-3, which I remember as being exceptional in Britain. The setting is the far northern island of Rügen, on the edge of the Baltic, which was the location of Hitler’s massive holiday resort building of Prora, built but never used by the Kraft durch Freude organisation [strength through joy] for its intended purpose*. The main authorial device, which has been borrowed from the earlier winter, is that the sea froze to such an extent that escapes to ‘the West’ over the frozen water, by Republikflüchtlinge [escapees] camouflaged by white bedsheets, were possible and did, indeed, take place.
In addition to the police characters, another returning character here is a 20-year old woman, Irma Behrendt, who four years previously had regretfully informed on her own mother, in an attempt to prevent her being sent to prison for inadvisable associations, but which only achieved the exact opposite; this outcome was compounded for Irma by being trapped in the rôle of regular informer. She had had a difficult childhood in the nearby Jugendwerkhof Prora Ost [translated in the book as “severe reform school, dedicated to socialist re-education”], where she had been treated as little more than a slave. Now she has a boyfriend, Laurenz, but he is boring, and she is attracted to the cavalier & piratical Dieter, who is one of the construction brigade working on roads, bridges, and the harbour at the larger town of Sassnitz, at the northern end of the east-facing bay where Prora is sited, Prorer Wiek. Working in a construction brigade is a standard punishment for men who refuse to do national service, which is a step up from imprisonment, the punishment which might have been expected from this repressive régime. Irma is immediately drawn to the potentially dangerous Dieter, and it transpires that he and two of his associates are planning a Republikflucht [escape from the republic], but Irma sees the advantage of joining them, despite the obvious risk, rather than informing on them, as should be her albeit unwelcome duty.
What the conspirators don’t know is that they are being watched by the local Stasi, and they are joined by two VoPos [Volkspolizei, People’s Police officers], Major Karin Müller and Hauptmann [Captain] Werner Tilsner [a Stasi informant], alongside Kriminaltechniker [forensic officer] Jonas Schmidt, from Berlin. Müller had wanted to leave her position as head of the Serious Crimes department of the VoPo, to take up a teaching position at the police college, after some stressful & dangerous previous cases, but it was made very clear to her that this wasn’t an option, so most reluctantly she agreed to head this latest investigation. The head of the Jugendwerkhof Prora Ost has been found dead in suspicious circumstances: ostensibly suicide, but why would an otherwise intelligent woman go out shopping, dressed only in light clothing, in the severest winter weather in living memory? Of course, Karin is only too aware that this investigation could be a poisoned chalice, so she realises that she will have to proceed very carefully, not least because both refusal to comply, and awkward revelations in the case could jeopardise the tenancy of her Berlin apartment, which she shares with her infant twin children and her maternal grandmother, Helga, but also because Tilsner would be reporting back on her every move.
It is not absolutely necessary to have a detailed knowledge of the former East Germany or the German language to be able to enjoy this book, although they undoubtedly enrich the experience. The sense of nervousness & paranoia comes across very well, which elevates this above an average police procedural, and the dénouement, involving a Soviet icebreaking ship, is nicely tense, with a happy resolution for at least some of the protagonists. I will certainly keep my eyes open for other books in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2020, by Zaffre, London, ISBN 978-1-78576-546-9.
*This is a town in itself [although not shown on all maps, for obvious reasons] near the Ostseebad [Baltic resort] of Binz, and there is an English translation of a very helpful website about Prora here.