The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures

Jennifer Hofmann

August 13, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Jennifer Hofmann's debut novel The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures. Hofmann was born in Princeton, New Jersey, to an Austrian father and a Colombian mother, and grew up in Germany. She received her MFA from NYU and currently lives in Berlin.

Zeiger rolled onto Leninallee, followed it northeastward en route to Hohenschönhausen jail. Pairs of red taillights and windshields smeared with wet street dust and droplets of rain. The boulevard was flanked by rows of concrete slab buildings, symmetrically choreographed and angled as if in a giants’ ballet. Elderly Berliners walked the sidewalks pulling caddies of food; people pedaled by on bicycles, their faces protected by shawls. A row of parked police cars stretched along the side of the road, their cherry lights ablaze. Zeiger craned his neck but could not locate the source of the commotion. Maybe a car wreck, a gas leak, or punks throwing rocks at passing cars.

Through his driver’s-side window, broken and permanently cracked, wafted a smell like iron and lignite coal. Childhood memories, postwar smells. Zeiger held a tight grip on the wheel. The line at the bakery had exploded into pieces. Spontaneous, unregistered disarray. Protests in Leipzig a few weeks ago had been planned; the demonstrations last week at Alexanderplatz had been planned; Management’s response to these planned happenings had been planned. Plans were made five years ahead of time. And now the baker’s white apron was splattered with blood.

It had been a month since he’d last seen Lara. Lara, the blinding cherry lights ahead. Lara, the speckle of dried dirt on his windshield. Lara in the stratosphere, Lara in the ether. His whole life had reduced itself to her disappearance. He felt displeased with himself, positively disgusted with himself, as he tallied in his mind the usual routine of fruitless questions: Where had she gone? What had he done? If, as Held had once told him, the weight of the world remains static, and not a molecule of matter is ever lost but is merely recycled, transmuted, into water, into earth, into the energy of thought, was there such a thing as disappearance? And so on and so forth, until he wore himself out. This compulsion, this thinking, the whys and the hows, felt both rousing and banal, unhinged and pedestrian, but it had become a ritual, the twine holding together the softening box of his mind, and so he continued.

In rare pragmatic moments he considered inquiring with someone at the Ministry about Lara’s whereabouts. He could think of some reason for his sudden interest in this innocuous waitress, perhaps turn up a lead, some direction. But it seemed shameful, blasphemous even, to speak her name within something as carnivorous as the Ministry compound, so he decided against it. Meanwhile he left keys in locks, misplaced cooking utensils he had just pulled from cupboards, forgot names, forgot dates, forgot the route to the Ministry lot, found himself smiling submissively at strangers, and had developed a death wish, passive but pronounced.

He glanced at the rearview mirror and into the bloated face of the driver behind him. The driver stared back like a man playing dead in a film. From his inner coat pocket, Zeiger retrieved his cigarettes, fumbled one into his mouth, lit it. The crack in the window sucked out the smoke. The world outside was a vacuum. He turned a dial on the dashboard and the radio sprang to life. A man was speaking, flat and throaty with a Dresden twinge that smacked of stupidity. They all had on those white gloves, yes, said the voice, and those helmets and they all stood straight at attention, those soldiers. And the Comrades in the tank brigade, they had on red berets. And Honecker was there also, and Gorbi, but I couldn’t see them, just heard their voices in the microphone. And there were many pretty banners, yes, the red ones.

This was rerun coverage of the military parade along Karl-Marx-Allee one month ago, the celebration of the Republic’s fortieth birthday. An event that bore strategic rehashing. Everyone had been there. Zeiger too. He would have skipped the parade, turned up at the Ministry, had he not been ordered to observe.

He’d arrived late, when the sidewalks were already crowded, and stood next to the bleachers. He’d purchased a small black-red-gold flag from a boy in blue youth organization garb, held it like a votive candle, stiffly and piously with both of his hands. Just as the Dresdner described on the radio, banners had loomed over the streets like bloodred archangels; one hue to the right and they’d have been brown. There were lashing winds and giddy children; the familiar, celebratory smell of burnt sausage and spilt beer; a thousand smiling mouths and peaks of shrill laughter. From his position at the edge of the crowd, Zeiger wasn’t able to see Honecker or Gorbi. Just beyond the banister, the formation of soldiers stood at attention, the whites of their eyes blazing as they searched the crowd for familiar faces. They were smooth-faced, unnaturally tanned, with shoulders much too slim for the sharp angles of their uniforms. The safety and fate of nations were entrusted to children.

The brass band chugged out the national anthem and led the soldiers down the vacant boulevard. It was a newish composition, not the one he had known as a child. Germany, as it were, was no longer über alles. It had now risen from the ruins, a unified fatherland. These were aspirational lyrics; verboten, as of recently, to avoid mass embarrassment. In their most recent cross-Wall mudsling, West Germany had accused the German Democratic Republic of copying this anthem melody from Kreuder’s Water for Canitoga movie score. A commission determined that the songs did indeed share their first eight chords, and that both were in turn similar to Beethoven’s Bagatelle op. 119 No. 11, which had settled the dispute.

At the parade Zeiger did as he was told — took the temperature, read the crowd. He saw nothing but faces agape with stupid joy. This he later included in his report. What he did not report was the pall that descended over the scene during brass-band interludes. Thousands of onlookers, hundreds of soldiers, tanks, yet a silence so thick it made its own sound. Protesters had accumulated along side streets and they began pitching rocks and shoes at the crowd. Gorbi, Gorbi, Gorbi! they chanted into the aching silence, until the brass band resumed and drowned out their screams.

Do you have any congratulating words? the reporter was asking the Dresdner on the radio.

I would like to say all the best and happy birthday to everyone? the man replied, phrasing it like a question, as a Dresdner would do.

Even though it had been a bore and an embarrassment on an unimaginable scale, Zeiger didn’t remember the day of the parade for its festivities. He remembered that day for Lara, because it was the first day he hadn’t seen her at the corner café.

He turned the radio dial at random and landed on a soft, inoffensive tune, something classical. Along the road concrete slabs were giving way to low buildings and skeletal trees. He passed houses with shingled roofs, meticulous hedges, groups of red-hatted garden gnomes with hatchets and frightening smiles. These were the houses of government officials and Ministry employees, people blind to the things absorbed by Hohenschönhausen jail. On maps, the area just ahead was a pattern of small black dots; no-man’s-land, a hole in the earth. He stopped at the gate, shut down his engine, and peered at the latch in which a guard’s face would shortly appear.

In the silence, the symphony reverberated in all its complexities and soon bled into its mournful end. Eager to catch the composer, he turned up the volume. Three gongs sounded, followed by a disc jockey’s voice: Klassik Radio of the Federal Republic of Germany, playing Schub—Zeiger smacked the dial, shutting him up. He jerked around to check the rear window, all four sides of his car. Nothing and nobody and idyllic silence. By the time he turned back to face the wall, a guard was waiting. As he rolled through the gate, Zeiger stole a glance. The guard’s face revealed nothing under the shadow of his cap.

Zeiger parked his Trabant and took his time crossing the compound courtyard. It was quiet and spacious, angular and beige. Thick clouds loomed, bringing with them frigid sideways winds. A lone tree in the middle of the roundabout swayed catatonically, throwing a complicated shadow on precast concrete. In the far corner, a maintenance worker was wheeling a cart of dead leaves into a warehouse, which many years ago, Zeiger recalled, had served as a main prison building. Before that, it had been a Soviet labor camp for Nazis with useful skills, and before that a Third Reich soup kitchen, its initial use. The prison cells had been so damp and cloistered that the warehouse’s nickname, the U-Boot, had stuck to this day. When contracts were signed and Germans returned, Russian officers were said to have hidden strategically placed piles of shit around the complex, some of which were never found.

The prison complex, built many years ago to replace the U-Boot, was a massive multistory structure with functional charm. Paint had peeled from the facade, exposing patches of brickwork like gaping red wounds. Windowsills were overgrown with pragmatic families of weeds. He examined it for a moment; they were much the same age, he and this edifice. Somehow it had shrunken in size.

The first and last time Zeiger had been to Hohenschönhausen was in 1965, almost twenty-five years ago. The interrogation-preparation module at the Academy had predicted blood and shit. And blood and shit were what he had received. Through a scratched two-way mirror that day, he discerned the broad, immobile shoulders of the interrogator, Ledermann, the back of whose head glistened like black lead. The subject had been stripped naked and put in position at the end of the T. He was Zeiger’s age, but the language of his body read as boyish. Hunched shoulders, head hung low, his ribs lifting with the quickness of a smaller-bodied animal. This was Johannes Held, a young physicist at Berlin’s Technische Universität and recent returnee from a State-sponsored placement at an institute in the American desert.

Behind Held stood an officer, a flat-nosed man with hair on the backs of his hands; a creature of folklore and arboreal fairy tales, a Russian. The spirit in the room was light, like the vaguely recreational mood of men footnoting a game on TV. Held was rambling.

A group of American researchers, so he explained, had strapped dogs into harnesses and shocked their paws with high-voltage bolts. The dogs twisted and turned to escape the pain but realized soon enough there was nowhere to go. Defeated, they endured the shocks without struggle. The interesting part, Held pointed out, was when they unstrapped the dogs and they were free to go: Not one of them moved. The dogs continued to endure the pain, even when unharnessed, convinced, Held explained, of their powerlessness.

Perhaps it was the mention of Americans or some deep-seated feelings for dogs, but as soon as Held had finished, the Russian stepped into the light, caught a lump of his hair in his fist, and began boxing the side of the physicist’s head. Under the thick shadow of his brow bones, the Russian appeared to have no eyes.

It was a ten-minute procedure. Sweat flying at high velocity and sounds like cracking eggshells. Then Ledermann, patient and unmoved, waited for Held to regain his composure, and the room settled back into quiet, and the Russian, having retreated again into his corner, seemed to be gazing with reptilian concentration straight through the mirrored glass, directly at Zeiger. It was a memorable look, predatory and sage, and reminded him of old Slavic fables; of tsars and their stepmothers, cannibal wives turned to geese, young men on endless travels through ice-crusted tundra with rock formations that were giants in disguise; the whole of the Soviet experience.

Zeiger bowed his head and focused on Held, the pearls of black blood dripping from his temple onto his chest. But he couldn’t for long keep his eyes away from the Russian, because Germany was back and Stalin was more than a decade dead, and though their nation was still young, both of them knew that Zeiger’s would be a system so sweeping and efficient nobody would have to get boxed in the head.

Before long the Russian was at it again. Held winced when the brute caught his nails in pliers, he cursed when his tormentor liberated molars from his mouth. But he did not confess. The physicist kept his physicist secrets to himself, which, even though the term had acquired an aftertaste, filled Zeiger with true Prussian pride.

Years down the line, Zeiger spotted the Russian behind a sausage stand at Alexanderplatz, conversing with a group of Vietnamese tourists in khaki pants and visors, inserting for each of them a Ketwurst into a bun.

The worker reemerged from the U-Boot, dragging his shovel with the earsplitting sound of metal on gravel. Their eyes met briefly. Two mortal beings among concrete and stone.

Zeiger was received at reception by a young officer with a gluttonous belly and bags under his eyes who greeted him eagerly, informing him that it was early for interrogations of this kind. This kind being the unscheduled kind. “What ever happened to foresight and planning?” he asked Zeiger as he led him down into the basement and toward the interrogation rooms.

Zeiger hummed in agreement.

The interrogation cellblock was a drafty, windowless tunnel painted floor to ceiling in antiseptic pistachio green, a color complementary to rust and blood. At around four o’clock that morning, they had plucked a soldier off his guard tower post on Bernauer Strasse. He’d been cooperative, the officer explained, had sat silently in the back of the van all the way to Hohenschönhausen jail. From his breast pocket the officer retrieved a stack of papers and a note of instructions for Zeiger. Read the mood, take the temperature, use the soldier to gauge the border guard outfit’s risk for dissent.

Zeiger straightened his back, squared his shoulders. This, thankfully, was not the work of an Unofficial Informant.

It was a joke, a literal one, along with a letter confiscated from his private mail, that had brought this particular soldier to Management’s attention. The envelope was torn, stamped, and pencil-marked in various places, giving the impression that it was by now well-traveled. There was strict protocol for handling confiscated correspondence, each item requiring repeated confirmation of suspicious content by countless people. Zeiger knew some officers in the hermeneutics department, an irritable collection of literary types in knitwear who treated their assignment with Talmudic precision.

He arrived with the portly officer at a cell at the end of the corridor.

“Sport frei,” said the officer, who would serve as guard, before unlatching the door and following Zeiger inside.

The soldier sat at the far end of the interrogation table. He was in the process of probing his ear canal, after which he scrutinized his bounty with calm interest. He was a young one, with a Slavic flatness to the back of his head, early twenties. A little younger than Lara. In the piss-scented light of the desk lamp, the details of his face were vague and unreal. Dampness rose from the wool of his uniform, freighting the room with a smell of stale cigarette smoke and, to Zeiger’s amazement, sweat without the bitter accent of fear.

The rooms hadn’t changed. They were concrete boxes with a T-shaped table at the center. On the interrogator’s side, the roof end of the T, stood a carafe of water and a telephone on psycho-suggestive display. A sign above the door read busy! in bright blood-orange type.

Zeiger took a seat at the other end of the table, avoided eye contact. He shifted his weight on the chair, arranging his buttocks between the screws protruding from the foam and fabric. Bolted to the floor to minimize the risk of being used as a weapon, these chairs had always been uncomfortable. He had urged Management to replace at least the cushions — subjects were most malleable when at ease — but apparently there had never been the budget. He began lining up his things. The letter, his notebook, a single mechanical pencil. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the soldier roll a wad of earwax between his fingers and flick it to the ground. The young man’s hands were fine-tuned machinery, sturdy bones and skin as smooth as sea glass, things to outlive them all.

When Zeiger met the soldier’s gaze, he found him smiling. A row of small teeth, sharp like a bat’s. Razor teeth. It occurred to  him that he had seen him before. Here, a long time ago. Or not so long ago, and perhaps somewhere else. He grasped the paperwork, leafed through the pages, searched for the soldier’s name, found it on the back of the letter. He did not recognize it. He turned to the officer, who had taken a splay-kneed position on the chair behind him, hands folded in his lap and tucked under his belly as if he were cradling a child. It took Zeiger a moment to comprehend that he was sleeping. How much time had passed?

“What’s wrong?” the soldier asked. His smile vanished.

The sound of his voice startled Zeiger. It was high-pitched and wide-awake, and it was not his turn to speak.

“Should we call someone?” the soldier asked. “You look white. No, you look red. You look gray, actually. We should call.” He rose from his chair as if he had germinated, sprouted from it like the bulb of a flower.

“Stop,” Zeiger said. “Sit down.”

The soldier froze. He showed the palms of his hands, a gesture of capitulation, and sank back into his chair.

The guard was snoring now. Deep, slack-jawed sleep.

Zeiger placed his hands on the table. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“Because of a joke, I suppose.”

“That joke,” Zeiger said. “Tell it to me.” “Do you think I’m stupid?”

“That’s neither here nor there.” Zeiger considered picking up the notebook to scribble some perfunctory nonsense. Instead he retrieved a cigarette from his inside pocket. Efficiently, methodically, he began to smoke.

“If it was Dirk who told on me, I swear to God. May I have one of those?” said the soldier, eyeing the cigarette in Zeiger’s hand.

“Maybe after.”

“I really can’t believe someone told on me because of this,” the soldier said. “Was it Thomas? Forget it, I don’t even want to know. So, the CIA, KGB, and Stasi get into this competition about finding the best spy across all agencies. The jury gives each of the three contestants an old skull and asks them to figure out when this person died, right? So, the CIA guy returns after an hour and says, ‘This is a skull from the seventeenth century! I figured it out with a chemical procedure.’ Right? After a while, four hours later or so, the KGB guy returns . . .”

There was no ashtray on the table. A tactical mistake. Zeiger dropped the cigarette onto the floor, extinguished it with a crunch of his sole.

“KGB guy says, ‘This skull belonged to a forty-year-old, and I know because I compared it to all these other skulls.’ Then the Stasi officer returns, right?”

“Right,” Zeiger said.

“Right? So, Stasi officer returns after ten hours. He’s sweating. Shirt’s all dirty and torn. He’s limping. Says, ‘This man was forty-two years old, died in January 1648, was a baker, and had a bitch for a wife.’ The jury says, ‘We’re impressed! That’s correct. How did you figure this out from just looking at a skull?’ ”

The guard behind Zeiger grunted, awake again, and stifled a laugh, startling them both.

“That’s enough,” Zeiger told the soldier. “But I’m not — ”

“I get the gist of it,” Zeiger said.

The soldier slumped in his chair, cocking his head to catch a glimpse of the paperwork Zeiger had arranged on his end of the table. Zeiger checked his watch. He pulled the letter from the table, read the address. A woman’s name, somewhere in Magdeburg. He slid the letter across the T. With the tip of his finger, the soldier pulled it close, placed a hand on it as if for protection.

“Slowly and audibly,” Zeiger said. He leaned back and closed his eyes, going for an off-the-record feel. His inner eye was a landscape of blazing specks, figures with morphing shapes, a coded message. Held came to mind again, and the murderous desert, and Lara, as they usually did at the start of an episode. He could hear the soldier retrieve the letter from its envelope. He heard him clear his throat.

Hi Puppe, 

I didn’t hear back from you after my letter last week. Maybe it got lost in the mail? I have a feeling Jakob really did make good on his threat and is “keeping you company.” I swear to God, if he tries anything I will poke his one good eye out when I’m back on leave. I’ve seen how he looks at you at Youth Center parties. Can’t evade service and then take advantage of my girlfriend, is what I think—

 “Really, all of this?” the soldier said. Zeiger supplied no response.

— You wrote last time that you want me to put more effort into my letters and talk about my feelings. I don’t think I have a lot of feelings. Does Jakob talk to you about his feelings? How does it feel to be unfit for service and have all that spare time on his hands?

I can try to talk about my feelings more, but sometimes I don’t know the difference between a feeling and a thought. And sometimes I wonder why everyone makes such a big fuss about feelings. But if it makes you happy, I can try.

“I can skip reading it, just tell you what’s in it,” the soldier said, staring stonily and attempting a faint smile.

“You’ll go on now,” Zeiger replied, causing the soldier to melt back into his chair.

— So, they moved me to Bernauer Strasse now. It’s quite nice up there on the guard tower. I like the mornings on P4 tower best. There aren’t too many side streets to watch from that angle. And some of the houses on the other side are close enough to make out people and their morning routines. Everyone seems to have a coffee machine.

On the one side, there is the Wedding District. Calm in the morning, but for the construction cranes on duty. Sometimes, when they’re all up and running, it looks like they’re performing a waltz. On this side, our side, is Mitte. No cranes or diggers there, just a lot of silence and blue morning light and those grassy plots where buildings used to stand. Right below me is the death strip, which is really just a strip of dust, all wasteland browns. Families of rabbits live down there. Snow-white ones on suicide runs between those spring guns. Sorry, I know that sounds awful.

A feeling I have sometimes, one that I can tell you about, is that I wonder if anyone ever figured out why they built it where they built it. How they mapped its course. How can there be so much of something where before there was nothing at all?

It gets boring up there. Not like people really try anything. There’s nothing to do but think (I think a lot about you) and I smoke a lot, and pace; once looking West, once looking East. And I try not to stare down into the dustbowl of the strip, though the rabbits are fun to watch when they’re out.

“That’s it,” the soldier said. He dropped the letter and crossed his arms in conclusion.

For a brief moment, as the soldier crossed his legs and assumed a posture he must have hoped looked at ease, Zeiger was stirred by a diffuse, vaguely painful sensation, a stab behind his chest, a quick, melting image of Held. He was almost tempted to leave it there with the soldier, but then he thought of his episodes, their grand plot to kill him. Whatever this new feeling was — compassion, maybe, it occurred to him — it was a symptom, and thus unacceptable. The soldier jerked his chin at the cigarettes on the table.

“You’ll go on now,” Zeiger said.

Tension seeped out of the soldier’s body, crumbling his shoulder. He picked up the letter. Defiantly, and with incredible speed, he read:

— If I tell you about my feelings, is it okay if I ask you not to tell? The truth is, I’m not bored up there. Not because of the death strip or because I’m scared someone will try something bad. It’s that, a few hundred meters off, there is another guard tower. And there’s another soldier up there, just like me, pacing and all those things. Sometimes it’s a stranger, but most of the time I know the guy from mess hall or even as far back as training days or FDJ camp. So, while I’m pacing and checking the perimeter, every once in a while, I pick up my binoculars and try to spot the other guy on the tower. And when I find him, more often than not, I see that he’s looking through his own binoculars directly at me. And then we look at each other. Sometimes for a very long time. And we forget about the death strip or about scanning the streets or jumpers that never do come. Because really all that scares you up there is that other soldier, and that perhaps they could shoot you and make a run for the Wall. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t considered that myself, which I think — or maybe feel? — is the most frightening part of all.

The soldier fell silent. He placed the letter on the table, smoothed it with both hands.

Calls to the warden would have to be made, the soldier put under arrest — threatened dissent. The guard would take care of it, legitimizing his existence. A windless quiet expanded in Zeiger’s mind, filling the room like gas.

The soldier tried another smile. A desperate, sorry smile. The kind dying people save for their kin. “What will happen now?” he asked.

“It depends,” Zeiger said. “Do you confess?”

“To what? The letter, the joke? It seems I already have.” The soldier slid the letter back over the T. In turn, Zeiger retrieved a cigarette and rolled it across the table.

“Cabinets,” the soldier said, inspecting the cigarette like something rare. “Mutti says, Humor means laughing despite everything. Says, Be more frightened of those who don’t joke.

Zeiger lifted his hand, extended a forefinger, and nudged the pencil out of alignment. The soldier smiled on, ignoring the maneuver. He was immune to chaos.


Excerpted from the book The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures by Jennifer Hofmann. Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer Hofmann. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

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