Book Review

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Stasi Child, by David Young

This is the first book in this series, featuring East German Volkspolizei [People’s Police] officer Karin Müller, her deputy Werner Tilsner, and their regular companion on investigations, Kriminaltechniker [Forensic officer] Jonas Schmidt. I have already reviewed a later story, Stasi Winter, very recently and, although I do mention some of the characters’ backstory in it, because I had already previously read the first one, but not reviewed it, I thought it would be worth reacquainting myself with it, and my readers, if you feel that a more detailed knowledge of the characters’ progress would benefit your understanding of the later story [and any others in the series I might be lucky enough to find]. It is February 1975 and, notwithstanding the inevitably bleak east German winter climate, the postwar communist régime is well & truly entrenched and operating relatively efficiently, the way that communist régimes do: enforcing their control through paranoia & terror, with little enjoyment and few benefits for the Citizen Comrades.

At this point in their careers, Karin is an Oberleutnant [First Lieutenant] and Tilsner is an Unterleutnant [Second Lieutenant]; Schmidt doesn’t have a rank, as such, so his designation will not alter, for the foreseeable future, at least. At the instigation of a Stasi [secret police] officer, Oberstleutnant [Lieutenant Colonel] Klaus Jäger, they are requested to investigate an unusual incident: the body of a young girl has been found near the Wall in a cemetery in the Mitte district of Berlin, where they are based, so a short hop in a car from their offices, normally. There is something unusual about the case, though, hence the Stasi’s interest: contrary to the normal demise suffered, according to the official position, by Citizens foolishly attempting to escape the democratic paradise of the People’s Republic, the dead girl was apparently shot from the West while entering the East—the immediately available evidence appears to support this hypothesis. On closer inspection, however, certain elements arouse suspicion, plus the fact that, despite having been specifically requested by Jäger, which is supported by Karin’s superior, Oberst [Colonel] Reiniger, the Stasi’s involvement should not be mentioned, unless absolutely necessary.

The parlous state of Karin’s marriage; her husband Gottfried has only recently returned from a ‘re-education’ stint teaching at the youth reform school on the island of Rügen, in the north of the country [a location which will again feature in the later story]; and a possible infidelity with Tilsner [the complete recall of which is impossible, as a result of excessive alcohol intake the previous evening] at the start of the story, only serve to make life difficult for her: Tilsner seems to affect a blithe disregard for such complications. They have been instructed to ascertain the identity of the victim, but to disregard the circumstances causing her death; of course, telling Karin this is almost guaranteed to have the opposite effect and, before long, she realises that they will have to tread very carefully, despite Jäger’s involvement being a confusing mixture of qualified assistance and admonishment: Karin is canny enough to know that Jäger must be holding something back. Interspersed with the current action, commencing nine months earlier, is the continuing story of another later returning character: the red-haired fifteen-year old Irma Behrendt, who is a resident at the youth reform school on Rügen, whose life is made wretched by the combination of exhausting work & repressive living conditions.

Before long, Karin’s enquiries take the team to Rügen, but at this stage, Irma is not included in the investigation: it is only later, when the focus of the case moves to the Harz mountains, in the centre of the country, but the mid-western boundary of the DDR, that the connection is made. More I cannot reveal! This is a very good introduction to the series, and it lays the groundwork with all the frustrations & complications of living in a repressive country, whose régime many people still found reasons to support, but which is now looked back on with a mixture of many conflicting emotions: I will be very happy to find other stories in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2016 [2015] by Twenty7 Books, London, ISBN 978-1-7857-7006-7.

Book Review

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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.