David Young: Meeting the GDR Detectives

David Young: Meeting the GDR Detectives

In reading about high-profile GDR cases, the first one you come across is the Crossword Puzzle Murder – where the body of a missing boy was found dumped in a suitcase by the Leipzig-Halle railway line. It was a particularly nasty case. Seven-year-old Lars Bense had vanished in January, 1981, on the way to the cinema in the ‘model’ East German new town of Halle-Neustadt.

The communist authorities were fearful of more similar attacks, and the investigation was given a high priority, under the leadership of the Halle Murder Commission head, Captain Siegfried Schwarz.

Even before finding out about the Crossword Puzzle Murder, I’d been planning to set the follow-up to Stasi Child in Halle-Neustadt (or Ha-Neu as it was and is known, the German pronunciation identical to that of the Vietnamese capital). So it made sense to track Herr Schwarz down.

Initially, that came to a dead end. I got no reply from his publishers in Berlin, even though I knew he’d recently released a non-fiction account of some of his leading murder cases (although not including the Lars Bense case, which is already well-trodden ground in Germany).

But I saw he was doing a book tour and about to appear at Rostock library, on Germany’s Baltic coast (I use the Baltic – or Ostsee – coast as a setting in Stasi Child for my fictional Jugendwerkhof, a kind of youth prison or reform school). The librarians kindly passed a message to him and finally we managed to make contact, through the partner of his friend who spoke English.

Initially we passed questions and answers – through this friend – via email, but Siegfried – or Siggi as he’s known – was keen to meet me, and likewise I was eager to talk further to him, so I made sure that on one of my research trips to eastern Germany I diverted to the Halle area. He lives in what was his former weekend cottage in East German times to the north of Halle – in one of the myriad of streets in eastern Germany still named after Ernst Thälmann (the communist leader throughout much of the Weimar Republic): this sent Google Maps into meltdown with multiple options, but I eventually worked out where I was supposed to be.

From there I took him to Halle-Neustadt, his old hunting ground (ironically he’s still a hunter – of animals and birds now, rather than of killers). Ha-Neu is a fast-decaying collection of faceless slab apartment blocks (Plattenbauten) to the west of Halle – built originally as a dormitory town for the giant chemical works at nearby Leuna and Buna. It’s famous for having ‘streets with no names’ – addresses were simply an incomprehensible six-digit numbering system based on blocks and housing areas (in fact a handful of major roads did have names, even in GDR times: all of them do now).

With his English-speaking friend translating, we passed the time seeking out some of key locations in the Crossword Puzzle case. It got its strange name because Siggi and his team eventually solved it via the handwriting in completed crosswords in newspapers dumped with the body. The more than half-a-million handwriting samples examined to track down the killer is still considered the biggest such exercise ever undertaken in the world.

There were also some fascinating stories about the Stasi. Any regular detective in the GDR will insist that the Stasi and the Kripo worked independently: the Stasi using its covert methods, and the Kripo using traditional techniques of detection. But as we now know, there were Stasi informers everywhere – particularly in the police, which also had formal liaison officers.

The regional Stasi headquarters were on the edge of Ha-Neu. In GDR times, they were sealed off behind a barrier – and even someone like Siggi would have to be escorted to any meetings. He did tell me about one time when he managed to give his escort the slip, and was found wandering alone inside Stasi HQ – much to the anger of Stasi officials.

Because there were no dedicated remand facilities in Ha-Neu, accused people were often held at the forbidding Roter Ochse (Red Ox) in Halle city itself. It was built by Prussia in the mid-19th century — the red bricks giving it its name — as a penal and reform institution. In Nazi times it was a much-feared execution centre, before being used jointly by the police and Stasi in the GDR period. I’ll be using it as a setting in the follow-up novel to Stasi Child.

I left Siggi after a delightful afternoon tea at his hunting lodge home with him and his wife, herself a former GDR public prosecutor, and headed back to Berlin where I had an interview arranged with another famous detective from GDR times, Berndt Marmulla.

Berndt was more senior than Siggi and headed up a special serious crimes unit in Berlin, Department X. Nowadays he works as a private detective in eastern Berlin’s Pankow district.

One of Berndt’s big cases – which he’s written about in his own true crime book (there seems to be a big market for crime in Germany!) – was the so-called Sock Murder. This was another gruesome case where a man was found dead in his Berlin apartment. At first glance, the detectives couldn’t understand how he’d died: eventually a sock was discovered rammed deep into his throat. Some of his solved cases were so impressive they were fictionalised and featured in the GDR’s own crime drama, Polizeiruf 110 (eins-eins-null is the equivalent of the UK’s 999 emergency call).

Perhaps the most useful thing I learned from Berndt was the way Stasi and People’s Police officials at his level and above did liaise on a day-to-day basis – although junior officers would probably not realise this. A key part of Stasi Child is the way one faction of the Stasi ‘uses’ my People’s Police detective to gather evidence about another faction they wish to discredit. It might not have ever happened exactly like that in GDR times, but from what Berndt told me, it wasn’t entirely implausible.

Interestingly, according to some of the former People’s Police contacts I talked to, the Stasi didn’t always know everything, whatever they claimed then and since. I was told of occasions when police colleagues managed to conduct clandestine affairs with female Stasi officials lasting several weeks, without the Stasi top brass knowing anything.

Perhaps the clearest message, though, was that crime detection in the GDR – despite one-party control – was pretty much the same as it would have been in the UK in the mid 1970s when Stasi Child is set. A lot of hard work, rigorous collection and testing of evidence, and a burning desire to see criminals brought to justice. Crime levels were lower than in the west, but there were still plenty of crimes for Siegfried Schwarz and Berndt Marmulla to solve – despite Lenin’s claims that under communism, crime would simply ‘wither away’.