3 March 2021
Dave Kellaway reviews Deutschland 83 and 86 Free to stream on All4 network
At the bottom of the screen in the foreground, you see one of those old book size floppy disks but the camera points you up to a row of mostly men in grey suits who are all looking quizzically at it. They look bewildered and concerned. The floppy disk had been filched from the safe of a US Nato general by the spy who had infiltrated the highest ranks of the West German army. It contains NATO military plans. The time is 1983 when Reagan and Thatcher were intent on putting new cruise missiles into Western Europe.
We are in the headquarters of the East German foreign intelligence service. There is a comic element to it but this short scene exemplifies the triumph of this TV series. The East German secret service had no technology that could read the disk. One of the reasons the bureaucratised states in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989 was their failure to keep up with the technology of the capitalist West. Khrushchev, Soviet leader in the sixties, was confident the USSR was going to catch up following its victories (the first sputnik/satellite and the first man in space) in the early stages of the space race. The bureaucratic regimes were unable to match the average productivity of the capitalist worker and so were unable to compete.
If you are going to binge on a box set during lockdown evenings you can do far worse than to watch this series. Its riveting plotlines and characters provide quite a lot of insight into both West and East German society in the first half of the 1980s. It proves Trotsky’s adage about each national political situation being a combination of international elements. We see the Cold War and the anti-colonial struggles played out in a German context of competing secret services marshalled by the CIA, MI6, French intelligence, and the KGB.
1983 is the cradle for the first series. A young border guard with promise is selected by the HVA (East German Intelligence) to ‘replace’ a new aide de camp of a West German general who leads on NATO. Indeed the poor West German is literally replaced by being executed on the train by a woman HVA agent. She pops up throughout the series with mortal impact. Imagine Villanelle in Killing Eve but without the dress sense. Hard to believe how this substitution was possible without anyone noticing, but for the sake of the story it works well. Martin, or Colibri to give him his code name, is the lead character in the whole series. You see him develop his spycraft but unlike the ridiculous James Bond type figures, he is shown to mess things up at times and also to have a certain human empathy. You end up rooting for him since he keeps a certain independence from both sides.
Neither West nor East is spared criticism. We see the discussions of US generals about the possibility of a first strike victory. Andropov, then Soviet leader, also has a first-strike plan. Martin plays a fine game in managing to alert the East about the real/imagined threat. On both sides, the people are kept out of the decision-making. Mass mobilisations in the West are accurately portrayed. The use of contemporary TV news bulletins of both the leaders and the demonstrations gives further authenticity. For those of us active at the time, it takes you right back into it.
The use of contemporary TV news bulletins of both the leaders and the demonstrations gives further authenticity. For those of us active at the time, it takes you right back into it.
A running theme is the way family relations are used both positively and negatively. So we see how the original way Martin is ‘persuaded’ to become an agent is by his mother being promised a kidney operation and his pregnant partner a new flat. His aunt, Leonora, is an intriguing female character and is another agent in the field. Later in the 1986 series, we see the East German state putting the children of those caught trying to cross the Berlin Wall (or in their definition the Anti-fascist Protection Rampart) into orphanages and for adoption. Martin himself is obsessed with being a good father since his own father, another high-up in the HVA, was never there for him. This drives his decisions in the second series.
1986 shifts more into how East German intelligence supported the ANC in the anti-Apartheid struggle and the MPLA in the Angolan anti-colonial war. Martin, who was ‘exiled’ to an Angolan orphanage due to his freelancing actions in 83, links up with Leonora in a plan to get East German weapons to the MPLA. The contradictions of this material help for progressive forces come into focus as the economic crisis back home pushes the HVA to act as a conduit for West German companies to break the sanctions and sell goods, including weapons, to the Apartheid regime. Indeed all the debate at HVA high command turn to raising funds. So the regime takes in millions of tonnes of West German rubbish and sells its own citizens’ blood and plasma. The bureaucrat running the latter scheme enthuses about the super-profits it makes on this since it is all given voluntarily. Worse of all is the way East Germany offers to test drugs for West German pharma companies on its patients. The tests result in the unnecessary death of several patients. One of the storylines concerns an East German woman doctor who wants to stop the tests but is summarily removed.
A subplot involves the Aids crisis. Here we see both West and East refusing to respond adequately because it affected the homosexual community much more. In the West, Big Pharma refuses to invest quickly and effectively in developing anti-Aids drugs. As for the East one of its bureaucrats refuses to even acknowledge the existence of gay people in the socialist paradise. This is later exposed by the West German activists which destroy the lucrative blood trade from the GDR.
Women have equal billing in the key roles which is not always the case in these big TV series.
Women have equal billing in the key roles which is not always the case in these big TV series. They are lead agents as effective and often more brutal than Martin. A black ANC activist comes to Berlin to help set up a secure communications system for the comrades.
East German links with Libya in the time of Gaddafi are shown in the 86 series. Again the retaliation of the US – killing over 70 civilians after one or two of their citizens are killed in a Berlin terrorist attack - is critically exposed. In fact, the HVA is shown to want to distance itself from such tactics.
The sheer scale of the surveillance of the population in the East is shown when at a conference for party workers in a big hotel all the rooms are bugged and put on camera. As the guy on the monitor says to Martin who asks why this is necessary - “it is to protect them from themselves”. We see the sacked woman doctor practically destroy her house trying to find the bug.
The Stasi (secret police) had 90,000 agents and were assisted by 170,000 official collaborators and thousands more who informed occasionally. This made up about 1 to 6 of the population. Its annual budget was $1 billion. Apart from making people increasingly alienated from the system it also drained public resources, making economic development more difficult. The programme also shows that there were many agents working in the West too, including in the peace movement or organisations helping persons to cross over. It meant they directly helped the GDR intercept people trying to escape.
Deutschland 83/86 looks terrific. It has great style as it recreates the world of the 1980s. It is a rival to shows like Mad Men or Miss America in that respect. I liked the set-piece meetings of the HVA high command. You see the bureaucratic system in flesh and blood. Whenever anyone intervenes they have to know the prevailing line and in particular what Moscow wants. The leading techno among them begins to worry about increased readings of radiation in the building and starts carrying a Geiger counter into meetings. He hears about possible accidents in the East but the Soviet comrades reassure him and say they do not want to panic anybody. It is Chernobyl and only when West German TV shows Gorbachev coming clean do they get the truth. At that point, there is a clever reaction shot of the East German leaders turning to the Soviet comrades with looks that could kill.
What is really great about this series is that it is not finished. On this Friday 5th March Deutschland 89 starts. I cannot wait to see how the various HVA people will respond to the fall of the wall. In the last series you could see some of them relishing developing market operations while others were still trying to hand on to some sort of ‘socialist’ anti-capitalist values. Surely Martin will be called back into active service again. How will his moral compass react to the fall of the wall?
Dave Kellaway is a supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.