John Green outlines the disappointing failure of the new TV series to accurately portray life and events in East Germany.
The gullibility of even sophisticated audiences and readers when it comes to accepting pure fiction as reality never ceases to amaze me. This is particularly so with portrayals of East-West relations and the characterisation of Communists and former Communist countries. The recent, much-hyped German series Deutschland 83 is no exception. Cold War clichés and the most improbably scenarios seem to be de rigueur. Such fictionalised dramatisations then take on a life of their own, replacing real facts and real events in people’s memories.
The blurb for the new series, which is based on real events, promised to offer a new and different perspective. British-American author Anna Winger, co-producer of the series with her German husband, Joerg, said in an interview about the film:
‘It’s important to remember that a lot of people were happy in East Germany, It didn’t work economically, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel good to be part of it sometimes. The existence of the East made the West more humane but now, in an era of unbridled capitalism, we don’t have that balance.’
Quite promising, you might think. The series does indeed begin quite well with a family party scene in the GDR that doesn’t rely on the clichés of drab-greyness, dour East Germans and low living standards. We actually have attractive looking individuals and young people who could just as easily be from the West, listening to rock music and enjoying themselves. Even when we meet the film’s young protagonist, Martin Rauch, who is a GDR border guard, we are presented with a pleasant young man taking two West German visitors to East Berlin gently to task for buying books in the East with money exchanged illegally. He tells them to scarper, unscathed, but keeps some of their books.
Unfortunately the drama very soon begins to serve the usual stereotyped narratives. When a couple of Stasi agents visit the family home to recruit the young man to work as a mole in the West German Bundeswehr, we are presented with two hard-bitten, stony-faced men, who break one of the young man’s fingers and drug his coffee so that he can be kidnapped.
When Martin wakes up in the West, now as an unlikely agent of the Stasi, he walks into a supermarket and is mesmerised by the array of goods on the shelves. Most GDR citizens regularly watched West German TV and, even if they or their families hadn’t travelled to the West at any time, they would have been used to seeing consumer adverts and programmes that featured big cars, shopping malls and glamour. They would hardly be surprised to see it first hand.
What makes this series very much of a missed opportunity, however, is that the facts of the real story are just as dramatic if less fantastical. In 1983 the world really was on the edge of a nuclear holocaust and it was a single East German counter-espionage agent who saved the day. Ronald Reagan had been elected president of the USA in 1980 and unleashed an unprecedented and hysterical campaign against the ‘Evil Empire’ as he characterised the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies. He, along with his close political ally, Margaret Thatcher embarked on a new and dangerous confrontational policy, surrounding himself with fanatical anti-Communist warriors, like Richard Perle (the Prince of Darkness), Dick Cheney, Caspar Weinberger, Paul Wolfowitz and George Bush who were all determined to confront the Soviet Union and bring about its downfall. After years of detente, the Helsinki Accords and a general easing of tension, the world was once again plunged into a new phase of confrontation that threatened to destabilize post war detente with dangerous brinkmanship.
In 1979, as part of its medium range nuclear modernisation programme, NATO began deploying cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. The first Pershing missiles were deployed in West Germany in autumn 1983. Because of this provocative escalation and the reduction of launch warning time, tensions were stretched to breaking point. The Soviet leadership became convinced that the US was seriously planning a nuclear surprise attack under the cover of carrying out military exercises.
NATO’s giant ABLE ARCHER exercise in 1983 was meant to simulate a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union with weapons. It would take place close to the German-German border. As tension mounted, Soviet nuclear bombers were deployed, on the tarmac at their East German airbases, engines running, waiting for the order to go. If the order had come, most likely nuclear holocaust, at least for Europe and the UK would have ensued. Recently released papers indicate that even among British military leaders Reagan’s reckless agenda aroused concerns that the Russians might take the exercise for the real thing and be provoked to take irreversible action in return.
We were spared this scenario largely due to the efforts of one man: Rainer Rupp, who at the time held a top job in NATO headquarters in Brussels, but at the same time was secretly working for the GDR’s foreign intelligence service. As a student, Rainer Rupp had been an active peace campaigner and was recruited by the GDR to help them monitor Western intentions. He managed to work his way up the hierarchy in NATO, and had access to top level and highly secret documents. He saw his role as keeping the Soviet Union and its allies up to date on NATO strategies in order to help avoid the sort of hellish scenario that seemed to be unfolding.
Richard Perle, State Secretary in the Pentagon for planning and policy, was of the opinion that a limited nuclear war against the Soviet Union could be fought and won without massive damage to the US. Back in the early 1980s the US knew that the Soviet Union had an advantage in terms of both conventional weaponry and size of its armed forces and would prevail in a non-nuclear war scenario, so a pre-emptive nuclear strike was logical from this warped perspective.
In the autumn of 1983 the worst case scenario looked as if it was about to unfold. Reagan’s crusader rhetoric and his Star Wars programme, together with the decision to station Pershings in Europe, had dangerously raised the stakes. The Soviet Union would now have only minutes of warning in the event of a nuclear attack. It considered that NATO’s previous policy of defence preparation had now been transformed by Reagan and his cohorts into one of waging a pre-emptive war. It had already experienced surprise invasions into its territory in the Second World War, which cost the USSR 27 million lives, and it didn’t wish to be caught out again.
ABLE ARCHER took place in that context. The planned combined NATO exercises were viewed by the Soviets as a pretext for a first strike, but they were not prepared to wait and find out. They desperately needed to know urgently if such a plan was indeed about to be put into practice. They were convinced that the exercises were a ruse to initiate a first strike.
The exercises were to be carried out under very realistic conditions, and would take place over ten days, beginning on 2 November and involve all Western European NATO members. The aim was a simulation of a co-ordinated deployment of nuclear weapons and their use. What was particularly alarming was that there were new elements in this exercise: middle-range nuclear weapons were brought onto the field for the first time, absolute radio silence was maintained, and a new code format was introduced for communications. For the first time, leaders of all the NATO countries were intimately involved, which also alerted Moscow to its unusually high political significance. Moscow also thought, wrongly, that the USA had put its troops on the highest alarm stage, DEFCON 1. In reality DEFCON 1 was only simulated during the exercise.
Convinced of an immediate US attack, the Soviet Union put its own strategic nuclear forces on red alert. The smallest mistake could have unleashed a catastrophe. Even Gorbachev later declared that the situation at the time was as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, but with an even greater potential for nuclear holocaust.
At virtually the last minute, Rainer Rupp was able to photocopy a whole swathe of top secret documents that convinced the Russians it was indeed only an exercise, thus saving the day. Years later, at a Berlin conference on international espionage in 2005, the former CIA-head for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Milton Bearden, congratulated the former Head of East German foreign intelligence, the legendary Markus Wolf, saying that thanks to his excellently placed source in NATO-HQ in Brussels peace had been saved in 1983, as he had ‘been able to calm the recipients in Moscow’ and in this way, avoid a nuclear war. Rainer Rupp, the agent who literally did save the world, was given a thirteen year sentence for his troubles after the demise of the GDR and his British-born wife, a clerical worker at NATO HQ was also imprisoned.
That is the real story, but Deutschland 83 has used the realistic background to create a fantasy scenario for commercial purposes. Even though the series attempts to portray daily life in the GDR with some sense of balance and doesn’t hide Reagan’s vitriolic rhetoric or the concerns of NATO generals about his dangerous policies. In the blurb to the series written by Gabriel Tate for the Guardian Guide, he writes:
‘The arms race is on and Ronald Reagan and his Russian counterpart Yuri Andropov are ramping up the rhetoric from the White House and the Kremlin. Germany is caught in the middle, split in half and subject to the whims of its effective occupiers’.
The rhetoric, though, was coming solely from Reagan and the White House, not from Andropov who was acting with restraint and caution. The last things the Russian wanted was a war with the West – they had enough of their own internal political and economic problems to deal with.
The series creates its own fantasy world and thus relinquishes any claim it may have to historical accuracy or real insight. Did the producers not have any proper consultants from the secret services to point out how ridiculous much of the storyline is, and how stilted the dialogue sounds? The idea that East German security services could recruit a young GDR soldier against his will, drug and kidnap him, dumping him in West Germany where, within days, he will become aide de camp to one of the country’s top generals, is extremely whimsical.
The agent is given a cursory training and then let loose on his target. While a visiting top US general and his own chief are out to lunch, he breaks into the latter’s office and photographs secret documents left conveniently behind in an unlocked briefcase, listing all the US nuclear targets in the East. At the general’s house at a party given for the same visiting US general, he slips away from the crowd and telephones his girlfriend in the GDR from the general’s own telephone, only to be overheard by one of the general’s daughters, so has to pop a heavy sedative into her drink very quickly to render her unconscious. His GDR handler meets him and waves copies of secret documents in his face while he is in the middle of a jog at an army training camp. The improbabilities and fantasies mount as the story unfolds.
There is in principle nothing wrong with fiction, however wild and improbable, but when such fiction replaces historical fact in the minds of viewers it becomes dangerously corrupting. It then starts to have more in common with Goebbels’ methodology than Harry Potter. Deutschland 83 is good, gripping entertainment, but it could have been so much better.
John Green is a journalist and broadcaster. He has authored and edited several books and anthologies on a wide range of subjects including political biographies, labour history, poetry, natural history and environmental affairs.