Susanne Schädlich

Susanne Schädlich interviewed by Rory MacLean

Susanne Schädlich with Rory MacLean
Susanne Schädlich with Rory MacLean
Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s vital to recall why it remains such an important event – by remembering some of the many lives destroyed by state arrogance and individual cowardice.

In the 1970s Hans Joachim Schädlich was a rising East German literary star. But his texts were too critical to be published in East Germany. So his first book was smuggled out of the country and published in Hamburg. Immediately Schädlich became an enemy of the state. His East German publishing contract was cancelled. He lost his job at the Akademie der Wissenschaften. He was denied work even as a taxi driver.

‘Like many kids of East German intellectuals I was kind of alert,’ his daughter Susanne Schädlich, 43, told me over a steaming glass of peppermint tea on a cold Berlin morning. ‘At home my parents had always talked openly about “dissident” writers. We watched West German television. My father had hosted the East-West authors’ gathering and signed the petition protesting the expulsion of poet and singer Wolf Biermann. So I knew how to behave outside of our home.’

Her father was threatened with prison but the regime – aware of Schädlich’s friendship with Günter Grass – feared western criticism. So rather than subject him to a show trial they simply told him to leave the country too. Five days after she heard the news, Susanne and the family moved to West Germany.

‘My whole life changed from one day to another,’ she said. ‘I had to leave my school, my friends, my beloved grandmother. I found myself surrounded by people who spoke my language, but I didn't feel understood. I was split between two homes.’

Even in exile the Stasi would not leave the family alone. Their agents harassed them, tried to kidnap the father, attempted to force Susanne to return to the east. Hans Joachim developed psychological problems. He and his wife separated. Only when she moved to West Berlin - where she lived for six years - did Susanne start to feel a sense of home again.

‘In those days Berlin was a mirror of myself. It was divided yet defiant. Like the city I was determined to find my own way, no matter what.’

Susanne sipped at her tea. Her literary autobiography Immer Wieder Dezember ("Always December Again") has been published to critical and commercial acclaim in Germany. A reviewer in Die Zeit heralded it as ‘a textbook of German post-war history’.

‘I didn’t set out to write this book,’ she explained. ‘I had wanted to write about the children who were forced to leave East Germany. Adults like the actor Manfred Krug, the writer Utz Rachowski, the poet Sarah Kirsch and Bernd Jentzsch brought about their own exile. Nobody asked their kids if they wanted to go. But then I discovered the truth about my uncle.’

Uncle Karlheinz had been ever present throughout Susanne’s childhood. He was a much-loved, larger-than-life character: a womanising historian who spoke the Queen’s English, smoked British tobacco and wore tweed. He flirted with artists and talked long into the night in the family apartment. His idol was Kim Philby, the MI6 double agent who betrayed hundreds of western agents to the Soviets.

In 1992 – more than two years after the fall of the Wall -- Hans Joachim discovered that his brother had spied on the family and friends for more than a decade. He started his career in 1974 by betraying a young defector, leading to his arrest and imprisonment.

‘My uncle had a choice between good and bad, and he chose bad,’ said Susanne. She insisted that Karlheinz had acted as he did not only because of a commitment to communism or for money (the Stasi allowed him to travel abroad and profit from petty smuggling). ‘He was highly intelligent and maybe – in East Germany in those years – he didn’t know how to use his intelligence.’

Uncle Karlheinz never apologised to his brother. On Hans Joachim’s suggestion he telephoned his other victims and confessed to his actions. But he appeared to feel no remorse. In 2006 – soon after the revelation that he had also spied on Günter Grass – Karlheinz Schädlich shot himself on a Berlin park bench.

‘I constantly ask myself, “Why did he betray us? Did he love us, or did he pretend all his life?” It was like a Greek tragedy.’

His suicide prompted some newspapers to accuse the family of a lack of forgiveness. The charge outraged Susanne and changed the course of her book.

‘It upsets me how this country deals with perpetrators,’ she admitted. ‘We are encouraged to forgive wrong-doers so that we can start anew. Yet my uncle did what he did because he wanted to. In the book I state plainly that he wasn’t a victim of the system.’ She went on, ‘I believe that individuals have to act morally. Germany has had two dictatorships and, if history isn’t dealt with honestly, one can stumble into the same abyss again.’

I asked Susanne about the difficulty of talking honestly about the German Democratic Republic.

‘For forty years East Germany was a dictatorship. But after 1961, most of its almost 17 million citizens did nothing against it. Today when you remind them of this fact, when you tell the truth, they feel personally attacked. They feel a sense of guilt. That makes it difficult to talk about coercion and cowardice. It also engenders a nostalgia – “Ostalgie” – for the past, and an idealisation of the political reality of life in the DDR. This is dangerous as a number of former Stasi members, and informers, hold posts in politics and public services.’

Immer Wieder Dezember combines Susanne’s lean and precise prose with interviews and extracts from letters and actual Stasi files to tell a story of defiance, hope and betrayal against the backdrop of a disintegrating state. Her stroke of genius is to have framed the book as an everyman’s tale. The family name is never mentioned in the text. The characters are known only by their Christian names. And rather than write MY father or MY uncle, Susanne refers to THE father and THE uncle.

‘It’s my story of course, but it’s also broader and more universal,’ she explained. ‘It is a showcase for the perfidiousness of that state and its collaborators and the suffering of many.’

The book also chronicles her search for a place in the world. After West Berlin, Susanne Schädlich studied and worked as a translator in America. Here her two halves slowly came together, as did East and West Germany.

‘I hold inside me now three places: East Germany, West Germany and the United States. So home for me is a kind of mosaic. Home is wherever I am, regardless of the physical location.’

But now she has returned to Berlin to play her part in ensuring that Germans do not forget.

‘We can’t deal with history by putting on rose-tinted glasses,’ she said. ‘We must find the courage to tell the truth.’

Rory MacLean
November 2009
Related links


The World Through the Eyes of German Authors