07/18/2013 01:19 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

Pushed to the Margins

Most people who worked with the Stasi tried to hide their collaboration. There were some even in the East German opposition movement who, it was later revealed, worked with the intelligence services. Wolfgang Schnur, for example, was a lawyer who defended dissidents and Church members in the East German courts. In October 1989, he cofounded the opposition group Demokratische Aufbruch, which would eventually join the Christian Democrats and vault Angela Merkel to the chancellor position. Shortly before the March 1990 elections in East Germany, however, Schnur was revealed to have informed on his clients under the codename Torsten. It was the effective end of his political career.

After the Berlin Wall fell, sociologist Irene Runge talked openly about her collaboration with the Stasi even as she participated in the new political structures, like the Round Table. "I was sitting for one of these independent groups, and I told them I had had Stasi contacts," she told me in a conversation in her apartment in Berlin in January. "Someone said, 'It's great you are talking about it. It's the past. That's how we see it: we talk about it to solve it.' Well, this attitude changed very soon into hate and self-administered justice."

She lost her job at the university. Whenever she was about to publish an essay in a book or participate in a conference, letters of denunciation would arrive with the publisher or the conference organizer.

What has been so frustrating to Irene Runge is that no one was particularly interested in the details of her relationship with the Stasi, only the fact of the relationship. But history, as she points out, is more colorful than black and white.

She was always a kind of an outsider in East Germany. She spent her early years in New York City and accompanied her parents to East Germany as political returnees. She'd been raised on stories of anti-fascist resistance, and she was a believer in the GDR. But she didn't have an easy time at school in this new land, and the suicide of her mother was an additional sorrow. As a teenager she became pregnant and dropped out of school.

"I was a dropout," Irene Runge told me. "I found a job at the East German news agency. The head was a friend. She had also returned from exile and helped lost kids like me. I wanted to be a Party member. I was considered a radical leftist and anarchist, so the Party didn't take me. Today I know they didn't take me because I was seen as somebody for other uses. What happened then is that a man approached me and talked about what a good political figure I was and how bright I was and how much I could support the system by fighting the Nazis. I had no problem with that, and I wanted to be active. So I joined."

It was not an easy relationship. In some ways, her meetings with her Stasi contacts were more like therapy. "Mostly I talked about my own doubts and my own conflicts and my own problems with understanding the system and these weird things that were going on in everyday life and what others said," she related. "This was the only place where I could talk openly. I got answers that today I would say were sometimes simple and stupid. But I was impressed because these were very simple people."

Ultimately, however, she fell out with the Stasi, first over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and then over the treatment of dissidents like Wolf Biermann. "Then I found out that they spread rumors that 'she is with the Stasi,'" she continued. "I was upset. I hadn't talked because I had signed an agreement to keep the secret, and they tried to hit me this way. About all these weird tactics we learned afterwards what they meant to do."

This conflictual relationship, which has boiled down over the years to "collaboration," represents only a small part of Irene Runge's life. As a sociologist and journalist, she has written about aging and immigration and her life as a Jew in Germany. And that was what we spent most of the time in her apartment talking about, just as we did 23 years ago when I first met her in East Berlin. But her openness in talking about her episode with the Stasi has overshadowed what has been a very full and eventful life.

The Interview

Do you remember where you where and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

We were at home. I called two friends. One said, "I am so tired, and I am not interested." And the other one was crying and saying, "This is the end." Both answers I remember exactly.
It didn't shock me, but I didn't expect it to happen at all and not this way.

We took our little car, our Trabbi, and we drove to the crossing at Heinrich-Heine Street. There were a lot of people there. After a while the border was opened, and people started to push in. In the middle somebody yelled, "Whoever goes over now will never be allowed to come back." About half the people, including us, started to turn back, but it turned out it was a joke. So we walked over to Moritzplatz, which was unexpectedly as bad as a grey place in East Germany because it was a run-down area in the middle of nowhere. Then we called somebody we knew, because we had a few coins in western money. They hadn't heard the news yet, but it did not make them pick us up for a talk, a drink, or a walk. Then we were standing there not knowing what to do. So we walked back. And it wasn't clear what that event really meant. That woman who was crying maybe felt more deeply about it than I did in those days.

So your reaction was...

Enjoyment and shock. You know, this was not my first time in the West, so for us it wasn't such a big thing. I had already been there and I never really cared for West Germany or West Berlin. This wasn't the goal of my life. I liked New York, and I would have loved to see Paris again. So it was more curiosity to go over like others and come back.

Two days later we had this big Jewish conference in East Berlin, so I was quite busy in preparing that. That went ahead, and many more people came than we expected. While the Germans were rushing over to the West, unless they were too unhappy with the fall of the Wall, our people came from the West to the East, which by the way was still complicated at that time because the legal situation wasn't clear. Many Jews from the East came to the conference because they were so confused, especially the Holocaust survivors. A year before they wouldn't even have thought of coming, but all of the sudden they were sitting in the first row. These were the Jews who I never thought would join a Jewish get-together, which I thought was interesting only for myself and my age group.

When we prepared that conference about Jews in Germany over the last 40 years, I believe that none of us thought then that the Wall would ever collapse. Maybe I was much too DDR-like to understand that a country can just be blown away. This was really hard to believe, even though I remember that months later George Mosse said that we should stop talking about Gorbachev. Because Gorbachev and the whole Soviet Union would be gone soon, and I thought, "Well, that can't be after 70 years." I was not able to think of the end. It's like you can't say, "I am dead." It's impossible: we can only believe that we are alive. It's the same with a country: you think it will continue, with better terms and with other people, new times, new politics. You think there might be a federation of the two Germanies. But not one Germany: that was not possible for me to imagine. But that was the reality.

I want to come back to that, but remind me: your parents came from New York in 1949 and you were quite young. What was your reaction to coming here, if you can remember to back then?

I was seven, and it was definitely different. But immediately when we came we were integrated in a circle of people who also came back, but before us, so I think the difference in people wasn't so big for me. But life itself was different. Later on, when in school I wasn't allowed to wear my American clothes and blue jeans anymore, it became even more complicated. But in the beginning I didn't understand the differences and the language. I learned it in the streets, and I loved the ruins. I was digging around in Leipzig trying to find corpses. Maybe I was more alone. Kids like me were kept away from "normal" Germans. The parents gathered with people of their kind. We were among ourselves, among left-wing Jews and non-Jews who came back from all sorts of exiles. It was hard to meet with neighbors who had an unclear past. Most of our people came from Western exile, which often followed the Spanish war and the camps in France. I think they were probably easier to deal with compared with those who came directly from the camps and prisons or from exile in the Soviet Union.

Also they came from the better professions. My father was a self-made man in America. He had a business, a book and arts store in the 42nd street subway, which was a place where many left-wing immigrants would meet. When the newly established East German leaders, mostly survivors and returnees themselves, offered him to come back to the Soviet Zone and take over intellectual responsibility for the new Germany, he of course did it. Later he actually added professor to his name, or others added it to his name, which fitted him well. He wasn't a professor, and he didn't go to any university. But he was much brighter than many people that went to university, because people like him in those days read day and night.. He was an intellectual with enormous wisdom and strategic abilities. And he wrote books. He was lacking what we call formal education, which made him aggressive towards some of those with formal education and no wisdom. Also, in the beginning everybody not considered to be on our side was understood to be probably a Nazi. But it wasn't talked about like this. It was what I felt as a child: who you were allowed to play with and who not. When I brought somebody home with known anti-Nazi parents I heard: "Oh, it's so nice that you brought so and so," but with others it was different. I did not bring them. So, I think it took a while to adjust. In the first weeks or month I didn't even know that we were in Germany! Today children my age know the world already. But in those days they put you in a boat, you get off somewhere, you arrive, that's it and you can't go home. It was a different way of bringing children up, which is definitely - looking back - not too good a way.

Was there a point when it became clear to you that you were living in Germany and you had once lived in a different place?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.