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When the Stasi Came for the Doctor

Gary Bruce is Associate Professor of History at the University of Waterloo.  His newest book is The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi.  The book is based on previously classified documents and interviews with former secret police officers and ordinary citizens and is the first comprehensive history of East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, at the grassroots level.  In the excerpt below Bruce looks at how the Stasi impacted one ordinary man’s life.

Dr. Werner Hoffman studied medicine at Humboldt University in Berlin from 1954 to 1960 before interning until 1963 at the hospital in Fürstenberg in District Gransee…His time in Fürstenberg counted toward his compulsory Landjahr, a year in the countryside required of all new physicians.  In 1962, one year after the construction of the Berlin Wall (which made previously available western medicines nearly impossible to obtain) and while still tending to the medical needs of villagers and miners from the southern GDR who had a union holiday retreat near Fürstenberg, Dr. Hoffman began his specialization in internal medicine at the regional hospital in Schwerin.

While vacationing on the Black Sea…he happened upon a high-ranking administrator in the Wittenberge hospital who arranged for his transfer there…Five years later he was promoted to senior physician in charge of the rheumatism division.  Within the decade, he had become one of the very few surgeons in the GDR who could treat people who suffered from rheumatism in their knuckles, a surgery that was in its infancy in the West as well.

His first misgivings about the regime came in 1972 when the position of chief of medicine opened up in nearby Bad Wilsnack.  Although the position called for expertise in rheumatoid arthritis, Dr. Hoffman was passed over in favor of a younger physician who had no experience in treated rheumatism but was a member of the Communist Party…

Hoffmann knew that in order to one day become chief of medicine he would have to join the Communist Party, and so in spite of what he had seen, he joined the SED in 1974.  He was promoted to chief of medicine of the Wittenberge Hospital in 1978.  Financially, this was a good decision.  In this position he earned 2,500 Ostmarks a month, nearly twice the average wage in the GDR of 1,280 Ostmarks but, remarkably, on a par with Stasi wages, where the average wage for Stasi officers in the regional administrations was 1,700 a month…

Dr. Hoffmann’s position required him to be responsible for every aspect of the hospital, from the care of patients (with 615 beds and anywhere from fifteen to twenty-eight physicians, the hospital was quite large) to ordering rubber gloves to ensuring broken windows were replaced, and that there was sufficient coal for heating…

Shortly after his appointment, the urologist on staff attempted to flee the GDR while vacationing in Romania…the escape attempt caught Wittenberge’s chief doctor completely by surprise.  Months later Dr. Hoffmann and his wife were awaiting a flight to Bucharest…when two Stasi officers arrested them and escorted them…into waiting vans.  He and his wife were transported separately to Alexanderplatz in Berlin, where they were accused of preparing to flee the GDR, just as the urologist had.  In the initial whirr of events, the surgeon had difficulty comprehending what was happening.  When his interrogator asked him if he knew where he was, Hoffmann answered that he believed he was in police headquarters.  The Stasi officer looked at him squarely and, scanning his face for any reaction, said: “No.  You are at the Ministry for State Security.”  Hoffmann was still not terribly nervous because he felt he had a card up his sleeve that would immediately end the interrogation.  When he calmly informed the interrogating officer that he was a comrade, a party member, the Stasi office barely contained his laughter and answered: “Do you have any idea how many comrades we’ve arrested?”

Later that night the surgeon and his wife were transported to the Stasi prison on Demmlerplatz in Schwerin.  During the trip from Berlin, a Stasi officer held a gun at Hoffmann as he relieved himself in a bush at the side of the road.  There was little indication from the Stasi’s actions that they were dealing with a talented, unassuming surgeon who had committed no crime.  As he was being led along the hallway of the prison, the Stasi officer accompanying him turned to him and said that if he called loudly enough, his urologist friend would be able to hear him, a statement that out of the entire ordeal grated on him the most and still visibly angers him.  Further questioning failed to turn up anything untoward in the couple’s actions, and the couple was released.  At 2:00 a.m. they were driven back to their apartment.

The following day two Stasi agents appeared at his office and reimbursed him, down to the penny, for the vacation in Romania that they had prevented him from taking…They then asked him to become an informant.  Given what he had witnessed of the Stasi, its far-ranging powers, its audacity, its self-assurance of its place in the regime, its disregard for party membership, Dr. Hoffman felt he had no choice but to go along with the request.  Every four weeks, Stasi officers went to his office and received reports on the general situation in the hospital.  Hoffmann painted a bleak picture of an insufficent supply of rubber gloves and coal, of operating tables with malfunctioning hydraulics that caused the tables to randomly move during surgery…all of which fell on deaf ears.  In his two decades as chief of medicine, none of the complaints he brought to the Stasi produced any changes to the working environment in the hospital…

Today, Dr. Hoffmann believes that his ordeal that night with the Stasi was an elaborate operation to turn him in to an informant, to give him good reason to fear the consequences of refusal.  Even though his controlling officer denied in an interview that this was the reason behind the operation, it is nevertheless telling that the surgeon believed the Stasi was capable of conducting such an operation for that purpose.  When asked at interview about the intelligence he passed on to the Stasi, Dr. Hoffmann referred only to the information he provided on medical supplies and equipment, but it would have been highly unusual for the Stasi not to have asked him for information on the political reliability of his co-workers.  Preventing the escape of medical professionals to the West was one of the primary concerns of local Stasi officers, who were clearly annoyed by the urologist’s attempted flight to West Germany.  Perhaps Hoffmann limited his discussion to less inflammatory subjects of his reporting.  His suspicions of a far-reaching Stasi were nevertheless confirmed after unification where he learned that his secretary, head of human resources, and the head of hospital administration were all Stasi informants…

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