Taiwan, East Germany, and "The Lives of Others"

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Thursday February 07, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Von Donnersmarck's film, "The Lives of Others," (Das Leben der Anderen) is a film well worth seeing. It is well worth seeing not simply because it won the Oscar Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2006 and numerous other awards, but because it provides a strong, sobering insight into what life is like under a totalitarian regime. Here the regime is East Germany, but the lack of human rights, of freedom of the press, and the constant surveillance by an elaborate system of spies and informants etc. could apply to any one-party state dictatorship, past or present including Taiwan when it was under the dictatorship of the Chiangs and their watchdog, the Garrison Command.

In "The Lives of Others" a Stasi (secret police) agent Herr Gerd Wiesler (HGW) is directed by his chief and past classmate Anton Grubitz to find evidence that could convict a popular dramatist and director Georg Dreyman of disloyalty to the state. Grubitz's motivation comes more from the hope for promotion and power than any sincere ideological conviction.

As for ideological conviction, certainly in any one-party state dictatorship the rare combination of personal honesty, support of the regime and intelligence are hard to find. One commentator suggests it is possible to combine two of the above but not all three. In the film, the Stasi agent Wiesler tries to combine all three but suffers because of it. To see how this plays out, and how the lives of others are affected by the Stasi's methods, you must view the film.

In the reality of East Germany, on which the film is based, the Stasi had over 100,000 employees and over 200,000 informants and files on over six million people. The extent of the abuse of citizen rights and spies only became evident after the Berlin Wall fell (November 1989) and the citizens took control of the Stasi Headquarters (January 1990) and prevented the Stasi from destroying their records.

Parallels abound between the once one-party state of East Germany and its methods of control and those of Taiwan. In both, the existence of that rare combination of personal honesty, support of the regime, and intelligence is hard to find. However, Taiwan suffers in one glaring area. In East Germany, the Stasi were prevented from destroying all their damning evidence; in Taiwan, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has had over twenty years to sanitize their past record. Even now they still block any accounting for their "stolen assets" and past crimes.

As the film ends, the playwright, Dreyman, has managed to survive because Wiesler had withheld some damning evidence against him; Dreyman meets Hempf, a profiteering former minister who has now turned successful businessman. Hempf as if in justification for his continued wealth and position says to him, "Our former little Republic (East Germany) wasn't all that bad was it." Dreyman answers, "To think, people like you once ruled our country." In Taiwan, people like Hempf not only still rule, but even aspire to higher office.