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‘The Death of Others’: the myth and reality of suicide in the German Democratic Republic

By Blog Admin, on 27 November 2014

Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison, by Denis Apel (cc-by)

Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison,
by Denis Apel (cc-by)

An award-winning film reinforces the gap between perceptions of the GDR and its more complex reality, finds Udo Grashoff.

I was about to leave my flat as the phone rang… I picked up; a woman, who introduced herself as the assistant of a West German filmmaker, required my urgent assistance. It was about a funeral oration in a film set in the GDR in the 1980s. In the film, a Stasi officer was assigned to spy on a playwright, Georg Dreyman.  At the funeral oration for a colleague who has committed suicide, Dreyman accuses the GDR authorities of coldheartedly ignoring people who commit suicide. He claims that the state stopped compiling suicide statistics in 1977.

I was consulted on the dates and facts, which made sense as I wrote my doctoral thesis on suicide in the GDR. What I had to explain to the filmmaker’s assistant was rather complicated. Except for the period between 1956 and 1962 suicide statistics were not published in the statistical yearbooks. However, the ‘State Central Bureau for Statistics’ recorded suicides with Prussian accuracy, but kept them a state secret. Besides, in 1968 the GDR Ministry of Health launched a strategy for the prevention of suicide. Two suicide prevention centres were founded. Although there was no public discussion of suicide, there was a limited, if diminishing, coverage of the issue in professional journals. From 1977, even specialists could not access data.

This is not the same as to suggest, as Dreyman does in the film, that statistics on suicide were no longer being kept, but given the context – in 1986, a GDR citizen simply could not know what could only be researched after the Wall came down – I advised leaving the eulogy as it was.

This was in around 2005, and only much later did I realise that I had taken part in the making of ‘The Lives of Others’. To my surprise, the film became a worldwide hit. ‘The Lives of Others’ has shaped the image of the East German dictatorship much more than any scholarly book on the GDR history. The film was praised as highly authentic and historically accurate. Locations like the Stasi prison in Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen were used; details of everyday life in the GDR and especially in the art scene were meticulously reconstructed.

Of course, not everyone bought the story. Slavoj Žižek said that the film failed to show the ‘true horror’ of the dictatorial system. Mary Fulbrook complained that the story did not ‘present the GDR in all its complexities’. Anna Funder doubted that a Stasi officer would have been able to log in false information into Stasi files in order to protect a victim.

I would add another criticism to the list of objections: the film created the impression that the high suicide rate of the GDR was a result of political oppression. In the film a West German magazine publishes an article on suicide in East Germany. That essay written by Dreyman is perceived a political sensation on each side of the Wall. The West German TV news connects the GDR suicide rate to a number of recent suicides by East German artists. I can’t remember whether the filmmaker’s assistant had mentioned that part of the film during our phone conversation. But if she had mentioned it, again I would have argued that no changes would have been needed, because such a report embodied the typical perception of the GDR in the West – at least that of the few journalists and politicians who were still interested in emphasising the dark side of socialism even in the era of detente.

Presumably, the majority of the film’s audience have similarly assumed that Dreyman’s colleague – who hanged himself after being banned from his profession for several years – was a representative case, the tip of an iceberg, one of thousands of invisible desperate deaths, driven to suicide in a system of repression and confinement.

At the start of my research, my own presumptions were not entirely different, I have to confess. My personal experience of the ramshackle GDR as a depressing society had tuned me that way. The suicide rate of East Germany was, indeed, consistently 50 percent higher than in West Germany (about 6,000 suicide cases were registered every year in the GDR until the fall of the Wall). But East German suicide rates have to be viewed in a broader comparative context. European states like Austria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Hungary and Finland also had high suicide rates, despite variations in their political systems. Historically, suicide rates in the parts of the German Empire, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich that later became the GDR were consistently higher than the suicide rate in Western Germany. I have looked at all possible explanations, examined specific social groups such as prisoners, soldiers, youth, reached out to all available statistical data. But the result was surprising once again. In prisons, there was a relatively high suicide rate around 1960, but after 1970 the rate was almost the same as elsewhere. My inquiry into the army yielded a similar result. Regarding the youth, I found a markedly higher suicide rate compared to West Germany until the 1970s. But the generation of young people born in the GDR showed almost no difference in comparison to suicide by their West German counterparts.

Why could I not prove the influence of political oppression? What about cases like Dreyman’s colleague in the film? I spent years investigating individual cases, conducting interviews, reading Stasi files and farewell letters. What I came to realise is that the decision to commit suicide is almost always driven by powerful personal circumstances. Political factors have only a minor impact. Of course, there were exceptions. At certain brief historical moments, politically motivated suicides were common, for instance during the forced collectivisation in spring 1960 when dozens of peasants committed suicide due to psychological terror. Apart from those ‘anomic’ suicides, according to Durkheim’s classic study of suicide social relations (family, religion) and morality are the most important factors.

To conclude, the SED-leaders can be blamed not for the high suicide rate, but for making suicide a political taboo and for curtailing suicide prevention measures almost immediately after they had been introduced. By sweeping the issue under the carpet, the SED unwittingly evoked a persistent myth that was replicated by the film in 2006.

Udo Grashoff is the new DAAD Francis L. Carsten Lecturer in Modern German History at UCL-SSEES. His expertise is in taboo subjects and aspects of the East German dictatorship such as the atmosphere of anxiety, forbiddances, rumours, mindfulness and reading between the lines.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL