Some memories drift cotton candy sweet. Some slap like saliva on cement. Such is the memory evoked by Newt Gingrich’s comments about a sort of test: I instantly saw the crude maps of spy networks on display at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig, Germany.

The Stasi were the secret police of the German Democratic Republic, the administrative name for the control of the portion of east Germany that included Leipzig. I was fortunate to visit this jewel box city in the summer of 2001; when it was still un-McDonaldized; when there were still three months before jets crashing into skyscrapers would skew views even further.

The Peaceful Revolution transformed Leipzig from a Soviet controlled state to nascent democracy in 1989. A dozen years later, it felt more recent, especially in the dusty preserve of the Stasi headquarters. Nothing had changed since the evil watchers left following a protest 300,000 strong on October 30, 1989. Nothing.

In one section of  twisting corridors were the offices held by the mail trackers. The Stasi read every piece of mail going in or out of Leipzig. If an envelope got damaged, they recreated one down to the postal stamp; they had drawers full of fabricated disks with the city name spelled out. Sometimes the Stasi got it wrong. No matter. Every resident of Leipzig knew their mail was not private. That’s why they developed elaborate systems of codes and clues with the placement of stamps, or a turn of a common phrase.

There were dozens and dozens of bottles with fabric scraps rolled inside, fabric that captured the scent of the residents who had been called to headquarters and led to sit on fabric placed on the folding chairs. Ten or 15 minutes later, the fabric was swiftly labeled, sealed, and catalogued. The Stasi kept the scent bank in case they needed to use dogs to sniff out a rebel, agitator, traitor, or malcontent.

The Stasi Museum left me feeling sick. The magnitude of the effort. In every block of flats, a captain was responsible for pressuring the other residents for details on the lives of the few each was assigned to watch. The only way the state blanket could hold was to staple neighbor against neighbor. And they did their damnedest. For years —  it could be argued — they succeeded.

And this is what Newt wants for us? Americans spying on Americans, loyalty oaths, patriot tests?

The deeper I go in ancestral research, the more common motivations emerge to explain why my forefathers risked everything to come to the New World. Freedom of worship. Freedom to own land unencumbered. Freedom to raise a family without interference from a head of church or a head of state. Sounds Tea Party by today’s standards.

But aren’t many Americans — almost all from so many different nations — trying to deny these same freedoms and opportunities to the immigrants of today?

Official link to Stasi Museum

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