Between the Lines: A Documentary Film
Dirk Simon, the film's author, director, and co-producer; Hope M. Harrison, director of GWU's Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies; Stefan Meining, Wilson Center public policy scholar, and editor for German public television; Andreas Prothmann, counselor for political affairs at the German Embassy. Chaired by Bernd Schäfer, senior scholar with the Woodrow Wilson Center's Cold War International History Project.
Between the Lines is among the first German documentaries to explore the complexities and tragedies endured by those who served as border guards on the Berlin Wall. Director Dirk Simon tells the true story of two border guards: Ulrich Steinhauer and Egon Bunge. Both had been drafted in the East German army and posted on the Berlin Wall to guard the East-West border from people trying to cross illegally. In November 1980, while on patrol, Bunge decided to carry out his own plan of escape, and in the process, killed Corporal Steinhauer. Simon recreates the spirit of the time and introduces viewers to the "human" character of both Egon and Ulrich. The documentary portrays the guards in the context of their personal life against the backdrop of the propaganda of the regime The broader political context of the Cold War illuminates certain procedural problems on the part of the West German justice system in terms of trying fugitives from East Germany who had committed crimes in order to escape the regime. The panel discussion following the screening addressed some of the issues that the documentary raised in terms of Germany's efforts to achieve full social integration in the post Cold War era.
The plot offers an insight into another question as well: the role of Stasi in the 1980's. Why was Egon left alone by the Stasi? Dr. Stefan Meining suggested that in the 1980's the Stasi "walked around" and tried to get publicity, but did not try hard to catch the "offenders." If the same scenario unfolded in the 1950's, Meining said, the Stasi would have tried to capture Egon and to kill him. Simon explained the economic motive behind Stasi's "inactivity" in the case of Egon. In the 1980's, Simon stated, East Germany received substantial amounts of credits in convertible currency. Therefore the Stasi started to weigh the benefit of abducting people against the cost of disrupting the political and economic relations that it had established with the West. The Stasi could have abducted Egon on any day, Simon claimed. According to documents that Simon found on the case, the Stasi consistently kept track of Egon's whereabouts, but decided to push him to the point of committing a suicide instead. Although that plot did not succeed, the Stasi kept sending Egon letters up to November 1, 1989. The destruction of one's personality, Meining asserted, was the best solution for the Stasi. Meining claimed that the Stasi had developed a scientific expertise on how to "go after" people and kill them without a trace.
According to Dr. Prothmann, the Stasi tried to become perfectionists, but could not process the overload of information that came their way. This had emerged as a problem, which arose from the great lengths which the Stasi had gone in order to track people.
With the fall of the regime, Professor Harrison stated, Stasi employees became guards, security guards, real estate agents, travel agents, etc. They tried to re-tool
and find jobs in the new capitalist economy. Yet, the process of bringing the East and West proved to be difficult. People went through trials, which stirred tension between former Stasi employees and the families of the victims. These are still raw wounds. It is hard to bring to justice Stasi employees who committed crimes and at the same time foster integration and cooperation. There is not much black and white in the story of Egon; it lies in the gray area "between the lines."
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program
Drafted by Kristina Terzieva, Program Assistant, History and Public Policy Program