David Young’s latest novel, Stasi 77, was published by Zaffre on 18 April and it’s an absolute corker! It’s the fourth in a series set in 1970s’ East Berlin and East Germany which features police detective Major Karin Müller. I’ve loved all of them but I think that Stasi 77 is my favourite. It’s also the darkest, as the post below indicates. You can read my review here. To celebrate the publication, I’m delighted to present for the blog tour such a fascinating guest post by David Young in which he discusses the novel’s historical background.
The historical inspiration for Stasi 77
The clue to the year my latest novel is set in, is given in the title. Stasi 77 takes place in communist East Germany in 1977. But that’s true only up to a point – a lot of the action, and the real-life inspiration for the book, is from 32 years earlier. In the case of my protagonist, Major Karin Müller, that’s a whole lifetime ago – the year she was conceived.
What I’ve tried to do is explore the lasting effects of the Second World War on the East German state – a country that actually emerged from the aftermath of the war, and the division of a defeated Nazi Germany into zones of occupation. The Soviet zone was transformed in October 1949 into the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the German Democratic Republic – a new socialist state, but still very much at Moscow’s beck and call.
The inspiration for Stasi 77 came from a Nazi massacre – sometimes considered the worst or most senseless single-day massacre they committed – which took place in the final weeks of the war, on what was later to become East German soil. You can easily find it on the internet although I’m not mentioning its name here, and in the book I’ve deliberately placed a dedication and maps from the time amongst the back matter to try to avoid spoilers.
That’s because I’ve moved slightly out of my comfort zone, and based my sub-narrative – through the eyes of a French slave labourer for the Nazis – very much on real-life events. Everything that happens to my fictional French character up until the point of the massacre, really happened to the labour camp prisoners – although it’s an amalgamation of first and second-hand accounts of different victims and survivors.
Where the fiction starts is in my extrapolation: what would happen if one of the survivors of the massacre (and there only were a handful) came back to what had become East Germany to wreak his revenge?
So my 1977 police case, led by Volkspolizei Serious Crimes Department head Karin Müller and her deputy Werner Tilsner, is pure fiction, bolted onto thinly-disguised fact.
I thought long and hard about the ethics of this. Should you create what is meant to be commercial fiction out of a horrific real-life event? In the end, I concluded that anything that serves to raise the profile of the massacre and its memorial site must be a good thing. If I’m wrong, I apologise.
The other thing I was interested in was what happened to Nazis in East Germany. The socialist state was avowedly ‘anti-fascist’: the Berlin Wall was even officially called ‘The Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’ (or Barrier). A euphemism, of course, and few if any of the GDR’s citizens really believed it existed to keep fascists out, rather than imprison the state’s own population.
But did members of the Nazi party just disappear into thin air in the east, or become communists overnight? In Stasi 77, some of my Nazis become members of the East German secret police, the Stasi. And despite the fictional nature of the 1970s end of the story, the idea of Nazis being recruited in this way is rooted in reality. For example, Der Spiegel in 2014 published research about Auschwitz SS guard Josef Settnik and how the Stasi made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: his past in the SS would be forgotten if he cooperated with the Ministry for State Security and spied on members of his own Catholic community. There are several other examples. The article quotes Henry Leide of the Rostock branch of the Federal Commissioner for the documents of the State Security Service of the GDR as saying: ‘Nazi perpetrators had a great opportunity in the GDR to get away scot-free if they behaved inconspicuously or cooperated.’
At the end of the day, though, the novel is a piece of fiction. It’s also meant to be entertainment, despite its sometimes grim contents. My hope is that if readers are moved by it, they might seek out the real history for themselves. Or indeed include the Memorial at the massacre site on any trips to Germany, in order to pay their respects to the dead.
In these difficult political times in the UK, history is an excellent tutor of what can happen if intolerance, xenophobia and hatred are allowed to flourish.
For other stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster below.