Resistance and Solidarity

What do Germany, Vietnam and Korea have in common? In the post-WW II period each of these nations was split into two countries, one of which was under communist control, as follows: Germany (East-West), Vietnam (North-South), and Korea (North-South). The unification of Germany occurred in 1990, about one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and resulted in a democratic government for the reunified nation. The unification of Vietnam took place in 1975, after the Vietnam War had ended, and left the entire country under communist rule. The Vietnam War was a conflict between the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, also known as North Vietnam), allied with the National Liberation Front (NLF or “Viet Cong”), and the anti-communist Republic of Vietnam (also known as South Vietnam), allied with the United States. It began on November 1, 1955 and ended with a North Vietnamese victory on April 30, 1975. In today’s communist-ruled Socialist Republic of Vietnam this conflict is commonly referred to as the American War or the Resistance War Against America. The military involvement of the United States in this conflict, in support of South Vietnam and democracy, commenced in the early 1960s and ended in 1973.

East Germany, officially known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), was very much involved in the Vietnam War, but not as an active participant. There was some cooperation between the GDR Stasi and the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security in the late 1950s, and this gained considerable momentum in 1965 after the US intervened in the conflict between North and South Vietnam. From this time on, the East German intelligence services assisted North Vietnam in the modernization of its security services. The GDR Ministry for State Security was asked to share its experience and technical expertise with its comrades in Hanoi—and it did so eagerly. The North Vietnamese came to rely on the support of their East German comrades in the common struggle against the “American imperialists.” East German assistance, which came initially in the form of technical aid and training in how to use modern security and surveillance equipment, was viewed as a “solidarity” contribution. And beginning in 1966, the Stasi’s Technical Operations Sector organized training courses in the GDR for high-ranking North Vietnamese security personnel. In the early 1970s, as the war was nearing its end, the GDR Ministry of State Security trained high-level specialists who later on assumed important positions in the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security. The “solidarity” shipments that the GDR sent to North Vietnam included weapons and were meant to combat “US imperialism” and the so-called South Vietnamese “puppet government” in Saigon. [For the information presented above, I relied chiefly on Wilson Center Cold War International History Project Working Paper #71, “The East German ‘Stasi’ and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War,” by Martin Grossheim (September 2014).]

As Martin Grossheim explains in the working paper referenced above:

While the East German Stasi’s technical assistance was instrumental in protecting high-level communist cadres in the south from being detected by the Saigon security forces and in facilitating their operational work, the modern technical equipment and training provided by the GDR also significantly enhanced the ability of their North Vietnamese colleagues to control and monitor the population—the second aspect of the German-Vietnamese intelligence alliance. (p. 14)

In other words, through specialized training and other means the GDR helped the North Vietnamese security apparatus in Hanoi boost its ability to hunt down and suppress “enemies of the revolution” by conducting covert operations of various types during and after the war.

From time to time in East Germany, there were state-initiated organized events (Aktionen) designed to reinforce the international solidarity of socialist countries such as the GDR and Vietnam. I experienced one such event directly in November 1977, while I was living in a high-rise apartment house located in a district of East Berlin known then as the “Hans-Loch-Viertel.” The address of this building, which was situated in the neighborhood of Friedrichsfelde, in the district of Lichtenberg, was Volkradstrasse 8. It had seventeen floors with one-room apartments that were occupied by retired individuals and couples, as well as persons who were still working, some of whom had children, and students from socialist and so-called third world countries (if I may use the Cold War term that has in the meantime become politically incorrect). The students, most of whom had full scholarships and were pursuing a doctoral degree at an institution of higher learning in East Berlin, were all housed on the top two floors. My studio apartment was on the sixteenth floor. A middle-aged East German woman, who was not a student, occupied one of the apartments on the same floor. Her job was to observe and listen and make sure no one on the two top floors was doing or saying anything subversive. She was a watchdog and probably a secret police informant as well, and—because she had a great deal of power—the foreign students were afraid of her. As doctoral “aspirants” with financial support from the GDR they were all at her mercy, whereas I was not.

My financial support came from an IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) grant I had been awarded in the spring of 1977. This enabled me to return to East Berlin for a two-month period in order to continue work on a major book project I had initiated in the fall of 1975. The project involved interviewing a large number of GDR writers and gathering literary texts and other materials from them; hence, this phase had to be carried out in the GDR. My stay in East Berlin and work as an IREX scholar had the approval of the GDR Ministry of Higher Education and the sponsorship of the Humboldt University, which had agreed to provide me with lodging for the duration of my stay. That is how I came to occupy a very modest apartment, free of charge, in the high-rise building at Volkradstrasse 8.

Apart from diplomats, embassy personnel, and a few journalists from some countries in the West, there were virtually no Westerners living in East Berlin. I was the only Westerner residing in this apartment house. Not long after I moved in, the East German residents became aware that an American was living on the sixteenth floor and everyone knew who that person was. Dress and demeanor were distinguishing factors. Most East Germans had never met anyone from the US and were very curious about many aspects of our life. Still, no one ever said a word to me in the lobby or elevator, as I was coming and going each day, not even “good morning,” and everyone was careful not to make eye contact. When in my presence the East German residents would look straight ahead and keep silent. They, like the foreign students on the top two floors, were afraid. Contact with Westerners could get someone in trouble, everyone knew that, so it made sense to play it safe and keep one’s distance.

The international “solidarity” event I referred to earlier took place in November, about halfway through my two-month residency in East Berlin. One day, as I was walking through the lobby of our building, I saw a large poster on the bulletin board. It was an announcement of a campaign to raise funds for the GDR’s socialist comrades in Vietnam, in order to help them recover from the war against the imperialists and reconstruct their country. Everyone in our building would be contacted by a designated campaign solicitor living on their floor and asked to contribute to this “Aktion.” A donation of at least ten East German marks per adult resident was expected. The goal of the campaign, which was scheduled to last for one week, was to have 100 percent participation from residents in our apartment house. The East Germans, who were all accustomed to contributing on a “voluntary” basis to one cause or another, would of course all make the requested (read required) donation without much prompting. Here, too, no one wanted to get in trouble, so they were of a mind to pay up and be done with it—even if many resented being coerced in this way to do so.

One evening when I was finished with dinner and in my apartment, there was a knock at my door. When I opened the door, the East German watchdog was standing in front of me and asked if she could speak with me for a few moments. I politely asked her to come in and then listened to her appeal for a “solidarity” contribution to benefit Vietnam. She stressed the importance of 100 percent participation from those living in our building and told me I could give less than ten marks, if I so desired. When I told her that I would not be contributing, she asked me to explain why. I replied that while I had not been in favor of the US military involvement in the Vietnam War, I had never been a supporter of the communist North Vietnam regime or the Viet Cong. Hence, I could not in good conscience make a contribution. Disappointed, the watchdog disappeared.

A few days later, shortly after the solidarity campaign had concluded, I saw a new large poster attached to the bulletin board in our lobby as I was leaving the building. This one proclaimed proudly that everyone in our apartment house had supported solidarity with our comrades in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and made a contribution—100 percent. Well, this prompted me to make a beeline to my apartment where I printed the following message in bold black letters on an 8.5” x 11” sheet of typewriter paper.

This is untrue!

The American in Apt. 1605

did not contribute anything!

That evening, when I returned to Volkradstrasse 8, I was in for a surprise. No, neither the secret police nor the civilian police nor the watchdog was waiting for me in the lobby. However, as I strolled through the lobby I noticed that my message had been removed from the bulletin board. I also noticed something else, something new and different. As I walked past East German residents, several of them made eye contact with me and even smiled. I entered the elevator and was treated to more smiles and even a few nods of approval. No one said a word to me about my message, not that evening, not later on. But from that time on, the GDR residents greeted me in the lobby and in the elevator and continued to make eye contact and smile at me. While I was the only voice of resistance in our building, there was apparently a great deal of solidarity with the American dissenter. I had taken a stand publicly on a political issue, and the fact of my refusal to contribute dissolved an invisible boundary between my neighbors and me.