It’s interesting to note how differently Germany and America approach privacy issues. When google maps started photographing German cities for their street view, 244,000 households opted out and Google agreed to blur those properties onscreen. It’s not hard to see where that reticence comes from, first the crackdown on personal freedoms during the Nazi Regime. Our university just recently hosted an exhibit about the White Rose, the student group in Munich that was tried and executed in 1942 and ‘43 for composing and distributing leaflets opposing National Socialism. The exhibit highlights the students’ bravery, and shows the atmosphere of fear and repression. Not just speaking out was dangerous, but listening as well.
My mother tells the story of growing up in Stuttgart, Germany during the war, and how her father would turn the radio down low, put his ear to it and listen to the BBC’s Radio Free Europe. The radio in Nazi Germany was known colloquially as Goebbelsharfe (Goebbels' harp), because it was an instrument of the Minister of Propaganda. Many Germans relied on broadcasts from the BBC to get a more accurate view of the progress of the war. She recalls her father’s horrified reaction when her young brother began humming Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. That was the call sign for Radio Free Europe. And if anyone outside the home heard him humming it, it would be a dead giveaway that the family was listening to the banned program.
That story has always stayed with me, and the stories of children denouncing their parents, knowingly or unknowingly. I could see how easily that could happen. The erosion of personal freedom was so complete that parents couldn’t even trust their own children. The end of the war took that fear away in West Germany, but not in the East. There was a different regime, but the climate of fear and repression remained, in fact may have been even more pervasive with the scores of official and unofficial members of the Stasi, the East German secret police.
As I’ve said, the East German story is not my family’s story, but the East German story unfortunately was not so far removed from the German story under Nazi control. Ellie Meyer is the character in Home Sweet Stranger who stands in for the child who through no fault of her own couldn’t be trusted.
Here's a link to more historical information about the BBC and Radio Free Europe: