Surviving – Lessons from East German Activists & the Stasi

I’ve blogged before about my addiction to audio books and my eclectic reading/listening habits. Well, last night, instead of bemoaning my insomnia, I was listening to “Mafia State” an account of Luke Harding’s experiences as a journalist in modern Russia, where he was a target for the rejuvenated Secret Police.

All of a sudden I was jerked completely awake by an account of the current methods used to drive opponents of the state to despair and breakdown. (Apparently the Stasi in East Germany had honed these to a fine art. They found them more effective than conventional torture in discouraging and subverting opposition.)


The approach was known as “Zersetzung”, roughly translated as attrition, corrosion or disintegration. Basically the Stasi harassed their victim till they succeeded in breaking down their mental health and their resolve in campaigning against state authority.

What horrified me was the chilling similarity between these methods and the treatment bereaved families are currently subject to when they attempt to challenge the Health Trusts in whose care their relatives have died.

The Zersetzung of individuals was usually carried out through systematically undermining the quality of life of the target (both socially and in the workplace) with the intention of simply destroying the confidence of the target. The tactics used took various forms, such as spreading slanderous rumours, causing trouble at work etc. Rumours and information (such as about unacceptable political viewpoints, inappropriate behaviour….etc) that were passed on to ….social circles might be based on true facts, but were often plausible untruths that were hard or impossible to refute”

I quote from the article linked to the head of this post. Read it if you’ve a moment.

The Zersetzung of individuals had the aim of ‘switching off’ that person’s efficacy by undermining their confidence and their belief in the value of their activities. The Stasi did not usually care whether an individual was switched off through disillusionment, fear, burn-out or mental illness: all outcomes were acceptable, and people’s mental health and social standing during or after an operation were of no interest to the officers involved.”

Sound familiar?

But what’s heartening about this, with regard to JusticeforLB, is that in the end, the methods didn’t work.

There were three key factors in winning through to justice – the support of friends and activists; the strength and trust within and between campaigning groups; the openness of the groups to acknowledging and discussing the oppressive tactics to which they were subjected.

So, after a depressing  Action week #107days, be heartened.

The grassroots opposition movements made the biggest contribution to the revolution that started in East Germany in autumn 1989 – despite the horrifying levels of repression and surveillance that they had faced for decades.”


Making a Difference – Blogging to Save the World

Why my story – and your story – matters


Why do I blog, why do we blog? What gives us this urge to shout into cyberspace about what we think and do and experience?

So many voices out there, so many different people, hiding away from their families and their real world chores, bent over a keyboard,
And why? Why does it mean that much to them?

For some it’s simple, I suppose. It’s their job. It’s how they hope to make the money to keep their real world lives afloat and thriving.

But for the rest of us?

It’s been puzzling me all week, but I woke up suddenly this morning from a dream in which I was speaking to a group of people, and I felt I knew!

Although we’re, each of us, only one in a huge crowd, we want to be seen and heard. We know in ourselves that what we see and feel can make some kind of difference in the world. We know our story, our unique story, matters.

We might want to entertain or to share the frustrations of our daily lives. We might hope to help others through difficult times. We might want to share the experiences of all the places and people that we love.

But somehow we believe (enough to expend hours of our precious time) that our unique view is worth listening to, that it has the power to enhance and influence other people’s lives.

Of course we might be deluding ourselves. We might be vainglorious, wanting to bludgeon the world into thinking and seeing just like us.

But I don’t believe this of the majority. I think we’re doing the most worthwhile human thing of all – reaching out to others to say “Listen! This is what I’ve learnt along the way. It might lighten your path too!”

We believe our story matters and we need to share it.

We’re witnesses to life, our little bit of it. And by giving witness we can contribute to the whole world wide community, as well as our own tiny corner.

We want to make a difference. But we can only do so if we listen in return.

Because our stories matter.

Each and every one.


Starry, Starry Night and the Magic

Advent 8 On the power of story


I was brought up in the cold, grey north where winters were dark and grim. The culture was pretty grim too, in those days. Bars were for the men and they shut at ten o’clock. Respectable children were not allowed to play out on a Sunday.

My friend told me that when she started school, it was arranged she would walk back to her grannie’s for her tea, before going home. On her second day her grannie asked her how her day had gone.

“I didn’t enjoy it very much,” she ventured timidly

“Enjoy!” said her grannie sternly. “You’re not put on this earth to enjoy! We’re here to suffer and be judged!”

That about summed it up really.

So it wasn’t until I was well into my teens that I encountered the magic of light and joy in a well enacted story.

One Christmas Eve a gang of us teenagers went along on to what was known in Scotland as the Watchnight Service. We weren’t particularly religious. It must have been because one of us was the minister’s son and was under orders to go.

I had never been to anything remotely symbolic in a church before. No gilded statues or lavishly decorated altars for the United Free Church of Scotland where I had gone to Sunday school!

But, at the Watchnight Service in this strange cold church, there was silent darkness until, at midnight, the candles were lit as the words of the King James bible were read out and the old story of new life coming into the world was retold.

It was magic!

The symbolism of the midwinter feast was lived out before us. The darkest time of the year just past and the earth turning again towards the sun with the promise of renewal, survival and spring.

Even nowadays, however much killjoys try to wean us away from magic and the power of stories, we still rebelliously trail strings of pinprick lights over our hedges and around our homes. In the midst of the shopping spendfest we still fall under the spell of flickering candles and starry skies.

Somewhere underneath all the cynical commercialism still lurks the ancient desire to celebrate new life and to welcome the rebirth of light into a dark world.

And discover, in the face of all the grimness of existence, a spark of hope.


It Was Always Thus


As I follow Sara’s terrible account of her slow ongoing torture by the Health Trust whose systems and employees caused her son’s preventable death, I am continually reminded of Dickens’ Bleak House, the first book I studied when I went to university.

It might seem a depressing choice, but it is a good preparation for dealing with the law and other public bodies.

Sara, in her last post, asked how people experience working for public services today.  I fear many of them would recognise Dickens’s Court of Chancery all too well. Cases drag on interminably,  “complainants” become increasingly desperate, their anger either fading into depression, or taking over their lives to the detriment of every other facet of their existence. Relationships break down under the strain.The only beneficiaries are the legal firms growing fat on fees.

Yet today’s LA and Health Trust employees surely cannot be likened to the miserable clerks inhabiting Dickens’s dark world, aware of the situation and sufferings of their clients, but powerless to make any change?

While today’s offices may be brighter and have more ergonomically designed seating, power relationships still remain the same and all the information technology in the world doesn’t change that. Basically, just like Bob Cratchit, employees do what they are told. They know from the example of whistleblowers that, if they don’t, all the employment legislation in the world won’t protect them from being rendered unemployable.

In any office there are nasty people who will take advantage of every regulation and directive to be deliberately obstructive, just as there are others who will do their best, within the constraints of their situation, to be helpful. The majority simply grow indifferent.

That is why #deathbyindifference is so accurate.  Indifference is the default setting for any institution where the majority of employees feel little commitment or calling to their work, where they are powerless to change things and/or have cut-back practises imposed upon them. Patronised (at best) by their employer through tawdry rewards and dumbed down “training”, they soon grow cynical and bitter.

No amount of external inspection or internal paperwork can safeguard clients if the workers simply don’t care. Situations go wrong because nobody bothers to check or to follow up some concern in a timely fashion, or to make sure some point of information was accurate. In the end, somebody lies dead.

In Bleak House Dickens decried the indifference of his own day

Dead, your Majesty.  Dead, my lords and gentlemen.  Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends. Dead, men and women born with heavenly compassion in your hearts.  And dying thus about us every day.


Yet we don’t live in Dickens’s times. Change has been made for the better. It was brought about by the determination and campaigning of individuals who cared. Those who campaigned to force the law to take children out of the mills and the mines, to free the enslaved, to educate the poor.

In JusticeforLB, and JusticeforNico, we have a campaign for our own age. It is daunting and depressing at times, but we tread in the footsteps of all those who battled against the entrenched practices and injustices of the past.

It isn’t easy.

Fighting for the little people never was.


On Smiling Villains and Beacons of Hope

Life’s lessons 11 on Betrayal, Hope and Staying Sane


I always knew that people you loved died. My mother kept one photo by her bedside, the one of a beautiful child I never knew, the sister who died of meningitis before I was born.

I suppose I came into the world in a bid to take away some of that pain.  I certainly provided a bit of noise and distraction. I was never an obedient or obliging child. At the very least I must have tormented my grieving family in such a variety of ways, that they were diverted from dwelling on their sorrow.

In those days you didn’t talk about things. You just got on with it. I don’t know whether it was better or worse. 

When my father died suddenly I remember the teacher who drove me home saying gruffly “Well, I don’t envy you the next days, but we all have to go through it, sooner or later.” I didn’t need him to say more. I knew his words were kind. He was a good man and he had been through the war.

But now, coming towards the end of life, I think that sudden death is not the worst thing to bear. The hardest thing to carry with you, the hurt that defies healing, the lasting bitterness that weighs you down and oppresses your spirit, is betrayal.

So often in the posts related to Justice for LB you hear that pain expressed – that people, who should have cared or protected, betrayed the trust placed in them. They then multiplied the hurt of that betrayal by lying and denying their actions.

Grief, allowed to take its natural course, becomes liveable with in time. It is something we all have to face, like my old teacher said, and in one way or another we muddle our way through to a bearable sadness.

But the cruelty of having to struggle against the odds to establish the truth of a neglectful, untimely, preventable death removes the opportunity to come to terms with loss, obstructs the channels of regaining joy in life.

That the NHS, the service that once shone like a beacon in a naughty world, should be the monster we have to fight, is the grossest betrayal.

Yet somehow this fighting has to be done without losing our sanity. We have to be able to find courage for the battle and believe that we will achieve peace of mind in the end.

Sara has to talk to the Chair this afternoon. We wish her strength and discernment. He may well be a decent man lost in the mire of corporate spin.  He is trapped, restricted in what he can possibly say, but he deserves the chance to act for the good. Sara is giving him that opportunity. Let us pray he is brave enough to take it.

Nowadays I always speak to the people trapped in call centres as human beings. I say to them “Look, I know you have to say these things and it’s not your fault, but this is the help I need.”

It’s surprising how people can act well, when their humanity and the reality of their situation is recognised. Fortunately psychopaths are in the minority, even if it doesn’t always seem so these days.

When my first email account was hacked, I set up another Yahoo account and emailed the hacker at my own address. I explained I was an old lady who hardly went anywhere and that nobody would ever believe I was trapped in Lagos and needed £2000 to get home, so I would be really grateful if I could have my contacts back.

From some distant corner of the developing world he emailed me back to say he was really sorry. He was ashamed of what he was doing but he did the job to fund his way through college as he had no sponsor.

He sent me back my account.