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Jewish World Review May 14, 2002 / 3 Sivan, 5762

John H. Fund

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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."


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 to protect."

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 bring.


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