The Suspicious Society


I sometimes wonder what life was like for ordinary people in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. By ‘ordinary’, I mean people who are law-abiding, live in the suburbs, who’ve got two children, who never get involved with the police, who’ve got office jobs (or whatever), who go to the same place for their annual holidays and don’t get involved in politics – go to demonstrations, sign petitions, that kind of thing. For them, life is centred on the family, the garden and the immediate neighbours. Politics is never discussed – only on election days – and then it’s vaguely embarrassing.

Here is what happened in Germany in 1933: 30 January – Hitler was appointed Chancellor (the Nazi Party had ‘won’ the elections of 1932); 28 February – free speech was suspended, as was freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and other basic rights; 20 March – the first concentration camp opened at Dachau, outside Munich; 1 April – Nazi-organised boycott of Jewish-owned businesses; 7 April – Jews were excluded from government employment, including teaching jobs at all levels.

There is a certain dismal familiarity about all this; and if you substitute ‘Muslims’ for ‘Jews’, it becomes even more familiar.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

It is ridiculous to compare Australia in the 2000s with Germany in the 1930s (we are ‘girt by sea’ in the South Pacific, and cannot fall into the bloody European madness of 70 years ago); but there are, nevertheless, some significant straws in the wind. They are: suspicion; the growing practice of ‘informing’; and the erosion of civil liberties. There is also the collapse and compromising of the major opposition party. (That, however, is ‘politics’ and not worth discussing. The lawns need mowing and the kids have to be taken to cricket practice.)

There was a disturbing phone call on Jon Faine’s ABC Radio 774 morning program the other day. It concerned a woman who was riding in a tram along Melbourne’s Sydney Road. (I should explain that Sydney Road and its environs are peopled mainly by men and women from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The hijab is a common sight.)

The caller to Faine’s program was carrying a small backpack, which she placed under her seat. A woman across the aisle displayed great interest in both the backpack and the caller. The tram stopped and several youths boarded; they were dark-skinned. The woman across the aisle became quite agitated, took photographs of the caller, her backpack and the dark-skinned youths with her mobile phone, and left the tram at the next stop.

‘Dobbing-in’ may well become part of the Australian culture. On the TV, we are encouraged to call a ‘trained operator’ if we see something suspicious (our anonymity is guaranteed); the hidden camera is now a regular part of any commercial ‘current affairs’ show; and the ID card is not far away.

After the last world war, Soviet-controlled East Germany saw the rise of the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security. At its height, the Stasi employed 85,000 people and 400,000 informants – in a population of 16 million. Informing on your family, neighbours and work-mates became part of the East German culture. It was quite normal to inform Stasi of things ‘suspicious’. Is there not a lesson here?

But in East Germany – as it was in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – life, for many people, went on normally. In her remarkable book, Stasiland, Anna Funder tells of her encounter with a cleaning woman in the Stasi HQ, which is now a museum. (The Stasi collapsed when the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989.) The cleaning woman was at pains to tell Anna Funder that she lived ‘normally’ during the Communist regime, that she ‘conformed just like everybody else There were only two [informers]in a hundred.’ Such is the way cultures become warped.

But ordinary people were not exempt from the informer and the secret police. In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn tells the horrifying story of a married couple who were waiting for a train in Moscow. The husband let go of his wife’s arm and said he was going to the lavatory. She never saw him again.

Under the new anti-terror legislation, agreed to by the States and Territories, it is possible to hold a ‘suspect’ for up to two weeks without charge. (It is anybody’s guess what will happen to the prisoner in the holding cell.) The new ‘draconian’ legislation will be in force for ten years; and the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, wants the detention period extended to three months. Apart from protests from civil liberties groups and the Law Council of Australia, the anti-terror legislation caused hardly a ripple among ‘ordinary’ people, who, like the East German cleaning woman, will conform.

There is a further conundrum. Why were some 400,000 people prepared to inform for the Stasi? One can only conclude that the informers were convinced East Germany was under attack from within, and that, over some 40 years, the culture had become so dysfunctional that informing and betrayal had become ‘normal’ in the eyes of ordinary people.

Richard J Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich
Anna Funder: Stasiland
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Gulag Archipelago

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.