Jewish World Review May 14, 2002 / 3 Sivan, 5762
John H. Fund
Thin moral ice: New revelations from a skater's Stasi files recall an oppressive era
It's been a decade since the
Soviet Union dissolved, but the ghosts of the
Cold War linger on. Just last week, files from the
Stasi, the East German secret police, revealed
that international figure skating star Katarina
Witt, the only woman since Sonja Henie to win
more than one Olympic gold medal, wasn't the
victim of the dreaded Stasi she has long claimed
to be. Rather, the Stasi said she viewed them "as
a partner in whom she can confide all problems."
For years, the 36-year-old Witt has pursued an
expensive legal battle to keep portions of her Stasi files that
would have personal details about her blacked out from
being made public. "I don't want that people read through
my life," she says, reasonably enough. In the 1994
autobiography that recounted how she captivated audiences
at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, she quoted extensively
from her files, although maintaining that some of it - such
as information about her love life - was invented.
However, she nonetheless reported the information in her
book. Witt told reviewers of her book that "I didn't tell
everything, but most of it."
RUMORS OF ESPIONAGE
That prompted questions from journalists who
wondered why, if she was willing to partially disclose the
files to sell her book, she wouldn't release all of the material
that wasn't of a personal nature but would lay to rest
rumors that she had spied for the Stasi.
When ABC News asked last year why she didn't
"open the files and settle it once and for all," Witt bristled.
"Yeah, but why? Why? Tell me why," she complained.
"You know, why do I always have to sit here, now, with my
back against the wall explaining myself, explaining my past. I
give my soul on the ice, but there are some things ... I need
Now we are finally getting an inkling of what she was
trying to protect. The Stasi files reveal that in late October
1989, only two weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the
"ice princess" told her Stasi handlers in their last meeting:
"Had I not had you and your generous support, my success
would not have as great as it has become." The Stasi report
concluded that "Katarina Witt declared that she has to
thank our state and our party for everything that she is. She
will never disappoint our state or turn her back on it."
Witt denies that she collaborated with the Stasi, but her
protestations would be more credible if her comments about
Communism since its collapse weren't so troubling. She did
claim to be shocked upon learning she had been under
constant surveillance, but the London Times noted "she
failed to execute the neat-about-turn" made by other East
Germans who thrived under Communism. In the early
1990s, she declared that "I cannot make any complaints"
about life in East Germany and that "life under communism
wasn't so bad." Amazingly, she maintained that the Stasi
had only "been doing their duty." This about a spying
empire that had 91,000 full-time employees and had so
many informal snoops that it was the most powerful secret
police force in the world in relation to population. The Stasi
imprisoned thousands of people and was found to have
murdered dissidents through radiation poisoning.
Such comments led crowds to boo her at many of her
post-reunification appearances in Germany, but they might
have been forgiven if she had retracted them with the
passage of time and as further revelations about the East
German regime came to light. But just last year, Ms. Witt
said, "I will never turn round and say I lived in a horrible
country and had a horrible time because the success I have
today would never have been possible if I had grown up in
the West. All the groundwork was laid in East Germany." I
wonder what Western skaters such as Nancy Kerrigan or
Kristi Yamaguchi would say to that.
Criticized for her comments, Ms. Witt would now like
to draw her own iron curtain across the first 23 years of her
life before the Berlin Wall fell. Her official website makes no
mention of the words "Communism" or "East Germany."
She has become a thriving capitalist, hawking her own line
of jewelry on the Home Shopping Network and in 1998
posing nude for Playboy for a reported $750,000.
I certainly understand people wanting to make a buck
and having often visited East Germany, I know that people
there had to make compromises with their conscience to
survive or prosper, and that without having lived under one
we can not fully appreciate the pressures a totalitarian can
THIN MORAL ICE
Witt was indoctrinated in "proper behavior toward
enemies of the working class" before her foreign trips and
her obedient behavior led the Stasi to note that "considering
her age, here political and ideological maturity is well
developed." In 1987, Witt was told that if she won a gold
medal at the next Olympics she would be allowed to turn
professional and become rich. But if she failed, she faced a
lifetime of coaching limited to East Germany. No doubt she
"did what she had to do." But she doesn't have a right to
selectively rewrite history about her role during that time.
Normally, given Germany's strict privacy laws, Witt
would have had a strong case in keeping her Stasi files
closed. But because she was declared a "beneficiary" of the
former Communist states, different rules applied. The partial
files released last week show that she and her parents were
given private cars, the state gave her a rare passport
allowing her to travel to the West at will and she was also
allowed to set up her own sporting goods marketing firm.
The Stasi files also indicate how friendly Katarina was
with her "partners" in the East German regime. Egon Krenz,
who later became East Germany's last Communist head of
state, would talk with her using the "du" form of address,
which is reserved in Germany for close family and friends.
Krenz is now serving a prison sentence for his role in the
shooting deaths of over 200 East Germans who tried to flee
to the West.
Meanwhile, Katarina Witt, the woman East
German media called "the beautiful face of socialism," was
most recently a television commentator at the Winter
Olympics. No doubt she has no time for questions about
Mr. Krenz, just as she has no time to fully explain her role in
the former East Germany. I don't believe Witt was a spy for
the Stasi, but it's appropriate that we now learn about the
thin moral ice that Soviet-bloc sports was built on.
Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.
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©2001, John H. Fund