A recent three day visit to Berlin has demanded that I ask myself some serious questions.
The immediate pressure came from a visit to the Stasi Museum, based in the offices of the former East German Secret Police.
The second was my holiday reading – Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time – with its chilling portrayal of the life of the composer Shostakovitch in Soviet Russia.
What was remarkable about the exhibits in the Stasi Museum was the ordinariness of the photographs of the operatives and the sheer scale of the collaboration of the general population. The Stasi boasted an enormous staff, but it was dwarfed by the number of ‘amateurs’, perhaps as many as one in three of the general public.
Julian Barnes portrays an artist whose music lives on, but whose compromises in dealing with power progressively destroyed the man. Time after time he is depicted mechanically reading speeches written for him in support of the regime, just so he will be left alone to write his music.
Having reached a certain age, I have few illusions about my capacity for heroism. However, what was required of the citizens of East Germany was neither courage nor cowardice, but acquiescence. Merely to keep one’s head down, allied to an occasional duplicity, was enough for survival.
So, how would I have got on?
Fortunately, it looks like I will never know as I have been lucky enough to be born into a time and at a place where I am free to listen to unapproved music while thinking and saying what I like. I will never have to fear a midnight knock at the door (at one point, Shostakovitch spent two weeks sleeping on the landing outside his flat, waiting for his arrest, because he did not want his children to witness his humiliation).
I have a friend who regularly puts down knife and fork in a restaurant, looks around the table and says: “Aren’t we lucky.” She is referring to being able to eat what and when we want.
We need someone like my friend to remind us that in other ways too we are lucky, very lucky indeed.