My Mayor, My Informant

On Sunday 3 October the run-off election is scheduled for Mayor (Oberbürgermeister) of Potsdam, that city of around 150,000 inhabitants just to the southwest of Berlin which was Frederick the Great’s capital and garrison-town and now is the capital of the state of Brandenburg. There’s a run-off because in the regular election, last Sunday, no one candidate got a majority of the votes, so the competition has now been narrowed down to the top two. Lying as it does within the former East Germany, Potsdam is not surprisingly a rather left-wing place, so it’s no surprise that those two candidates represent Germany’s main leftist party, the Social Democrats (SPD), in the person of incumbent Oberbürgermeister Jann Jacobs, and the formation even more to the left, namely The Left (Die Linke), represented by one Hans-Jürgen Scharfenberg.

Jacobs has been Potsdam’s mayor for a while now, since March of 1999, and he did come out on top of that initial vote with 41%. But Scharfenberg was not all that far behind at 33%, and the guy does have many useful qualities, such as being a shrewd judge of people’s character, and able both to keep a secret and submit thorough, informative reports. How do I know this? Because Hans-Jürgen Scharfenberg is also unique as the first significant German political candidate known to have been an informer back in the day for the East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, better known as the Stasi.

Some good coverage of the Scharfenberg phenomenon is to be found in the German press, of course (like in Die Welt: Stasi informant wants to become Potsdam’s mayor) but also in the press from not so far away to the East in Poland, namely Gazeta Wyborcza (Will a Stasi agent govern Potsdam?). All accounts agree that the guy was very good in those side-activities he engaged in next to his formal post at the Academy for State and Law in Potsdam (from 1978 to 1986). The file he accumulated on people he spied on totals some 300 pages, and he was apparently quick to root out and denounce to his Stasi masters not only colleagues who let it be known that they were trying to find some way to escape to the West, but also those who were womanizers or homosexuals (and so “mennenizers” maybe?) or had other aspects of their personalities or behavior that could constitute weaknesses for the Stasi to use to blackmail and manipulate them.

But then times changed – rather drastically – and Eastern Germany saw the DDR regime’s collapse and reunification with the West. Scharfenberg eventually found his feet in this new world rather well, actually running for Potsdam Oberbürgermeister in 2002 and losing by a total of only 122 votes in the run-off – yes, to the SPD’s Jacobs. The thing is, back then no one other than himself knew about his Stasi background; indeed, he denied anything of the sort and in the 1990s had refused to allow any sort of screening or investigation into his DDR past.

Since 2002, however, researchers rummaging through the extensive archives saved from Stasi destruction at the end of the regime finally came upon information about Scharfenberg and “outed” him, so to speak. Still, he ran again this year for the same Oberbürgermeister post, and he came in second again in the first round. And depending on turnout, how the voters for the candidates who didn’t make the first cut switch their votes (if at all), etc. he could even win on 3 October and become Mayor. (I’ll try to remember to look to see if that happened and let you know via an update to this post, since I realize that, by this point in the post, you’re all dying to know how the story turns out!)

Stasi Don’t Matter?

In other words, his prior work for the Stasi doesn’t seem to matter politically. That’s surprising in one respect because one would ordinarily think that Die Linke would not do well in Potsdam – indeed, that the Left side of the German political spectrum in general would not do well – because Potsdam is fairly prosperous these days as a film industry, computers, ERP software, etc. give it an unemployment rate of under 10% (very good for the East).

The larger issue, though, is of course how someone with such a shady past working directly as a spy for a repressive regime could at all be attractive as an elected public figure. But he is, and this is called Ostalgie or “Eastern nostalgia,” a nostalgia by many Germans living in the East for the DDR where, back then, even if the authorities spied on you all the time, they at least also ensured that you and everyone had a job, an apartment, a pension, etc. – none of them very fancy, but guaranteed (if you didn’t defy the State). For this writer, and for many others I’m sure, such an attitude is hard to understand – but there it is, undeniable, staring us right in the face in the Potsdam mayoral polling figures.

For those needing a subject for their sociology/history dissertation, the obvious comparison here is with attitudes to the Nazis (especially the hard-core: the SS, high regime functionaries) following Germany’s defeat in WWII. Why were Germans willing to definitively reject these after the War yet at the same time harbor this Ostalgie now? Then again: it’s only the former East Germans by and large who feel Ostalgie – back immediately after the war, in the former Soviet sector of Germany, was this particular cohort ever really allowed to confront and resolve the question of how to regard the Nazis among them? Quite possibly not; recollection from my own reading tells me that any and all issues of Nazi guilt were swept under the carpet as the Soviets and their German Communist lackeys rushed to form a Worker’s State to stand in opposition to the fascist-capitalist regime (in their eyes, of course) taking form to the West. So does this affect their attitudes today, more than sixty years later?

UPDATE: Nope, sorry: Hans-Jürgen Scharfenberg lost once again in the run-off election, and this time by tens of thousands of votes, not the 122-vote margin of last time. Gerd Nowakowski has an interesting commentary in Der Tagesspiegel, which is after all a Berlin daily and so very close-by. He says there is no way the ex-Stasi informant Scharfenberg could have won, and that because of a simple fact that I should have picked up on, but didn’t: 3 October, the very same day of the run-off election, was not only also German Reunification Day holiday, but no less that event’s twentieth anniversary!

Just imagine if the Potsdam electors had chosen the Stasi-man, on that of all days! Frankly, whichever official was in charge of setting the run-off election date, once the results of the initial poll showed that it would be necessary, was the one who in effect chose who Potsdam’s next Oberbürgermeister was going to be, by picking a date that in effect ensured Jann Jakobs’ second re-election to the post. I wonder if that person explicitly knew what he was doing – he must have! Shades, perhaps, of DDR-style “democracy”?

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