The Judas Tree is the story of a betrayal. How it began, and what caused it. Who was hurt. Who was destroyed. Treachery in all its forms has intrigued me for years, and lurks at the core of nearly all my books. IM is the abbreviation used by the former East German secret police to denote their informers. It stands for Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or Unofficial Collaborator – a delicate euphemism if ever there was one. When I began to read about the Stasi files, I realized I had discovered traitorousness cum laude. Betrayal as a way of life. It doesn’t get worse than this.
My story begins in 1985. Anne leaves Provence to study for a year in Leipzig. She falls in love with Matthias, marries him, and settles in East Germany. She is a violinist, he is a cellist. They play music together, and stay out of politics. But in 1990, visiting her family in Uzès, Anne is killed in a car crash. Matthias is devastated. He does not attend her funeral. He declines invitations to visit. Until, three years later, he abruptly announces that he is coming to France. Anne’s parents and her sister Sophie are perplexed. Why is he coming now? What has happened to change his mind?
Matthias stays with Sophie and her husband Olivier at their house near Uzès. He is dazzled by the light and colours of the Provençal spring. Back home in Leipzig, it’s still winter, but Sophie’s garden is alive with the colours of spring. While Olivier is at work in the hospital, and Sophie is restoring pictures in her studio, Matthias sits on the terrace, on the bench beneath the deep pink blossoms of the Judas tree, and plays his cello. He is profoundly troubled, that much is clear, but Sophie is hesitant to ask what he is doing in France.
As for Matthias, he doesn’t know how to tell her why he has come. How can you explain to someone who has not lived in East Germany what it was like? How can you explain what people did and why they did it? Two weeks earlier he saw his secret police file. It has turned his world upside down.
The Stasi had ninety thousand full-time employees and about twice that number of IMs. They infiltrated every aspect of East German life. People were forced to inform on families and friends, and everything they said went into the files. When Germany reunified, the files were opened and everyone was able find out who had informed on them. Many people got unpleasant surprises. Matthias is one of them.
I started reading about the Stasi files in 1999. That gave me the idea for The Judas Tree. My daughter was studying in Leipzig that year. I paid her a visit, stayed a few days, walked around town, and tried to imagine what it must have been like ten years earlier. I had introductions to a lawyer and a university teacher, who between them told me a lot about life in the DDR, though they both turned evasive when the Stasi came up.
I visited the former Stasi headquarters, now home to the Gauck Behörde, the agency that controls the files, and explained that I was doing research for a novel. I didn’t get to look at any files – people are only allowed to see their own – but a very helpful lady showed me round, provided indispensable trivia on how the file numbering system worked and what colour the files were, and gave me a glimpse of the reading room where people went to have their souls turned inside out. She was too young to have had a file herself. She said that, for some people, reading their file can be a life-shaking experience: “Sie müssen zurück in ihrer Seele gehen.”
I used Provence as the framework of the book because I wanted a relaxed, aesthetically pleasing West European setting to contrast with glum communist Leipzig. The contrast worked two ways: I could show the dour, traumatized DDR through the eyes of a naïve young foreign student (Anne), and depict lush, romantic Provence from the viewpoint of a middle-aged man who has never travelled outside his own country before (Matthias).
Uzès is an enchanting town, and I’d been there several times visiting friends who have a house in the garrigue. (Technically, no, it’s not Provence, but it’s not very far away.) I stole my friends’ house, plagiarized their children’s childhood memories, and made them drive me round local cemeteries looking for Anne’s final resting place.
We made a trip to the Musée du Désert, and I worked out the story of Matthias’ ancestors who emigrated to Germany. “Le Désert” is how French Protestants refer to the century between the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the French Revolution when they were forced to worship in secret.
Visiting another friend in Anduze, I located Emmanuelle’s house and chose the scene of the car crash.
The events of The Judas Tree are related by eight different narrators. Sadly, publishers hated this, but it was the only way to do it. None of the characters is quite what they seem. Everyone has secrets, they all know things that no one else does, and they all know things they cannot share with anyone else. They tell the reader what they cannot tell each other. We learn what Matthias cannot tell Sophie, what Anne could not confess to Matthias, what Olivier is reluctant to tell Sophie about her sister.
Conflicting accounts of life in East Germany come from Werner, the dissident who believes that his ideals have been travestied; Dieter, the Stasi officer who thinks what he did was justified; and Anne, who is trapped into doing what she never thought possible. In his review of The Judas Tree, the literary blogger Paul Samael writes that the book “brilliantly conveys the emotional/psychological impact of the Stasi’s grip on East German society, reminding us just how insidious and corrosive a force it was.”
Researching the Stasi was a peculiarly unpleasant experience. I couldn’t sit and read about the organization and its operating methods for more than an hour or two. I needed to breathe fresh air. The Stasi did not have the same reputation for brutality as the KGB. It used means other than violence to reach its ends. It did enormous psychological harm. There were no physical wounds and no death camps, but that doesn’t mean it left no scars. They were invisible, that’s all.
The German word for what the Stasi did is Zersetzung, which defies translation. The aim of the Stasi was to destroy DDR citizens from within. Its goal was to undermine their sense of self.
In the Gulag or the torture chamber there is you and there are them. You know where the boundaries are. But in the antechambers of the Stasi, you fuses with them and them with you. They creep insidiously under your skin and into your pores, they follow you, they inform on you, they pick through your things. Your will seeps away, and your identity with it. The KGB evokes outrage, and the Stasi profound disgust.
I set the East German part of the book in Leipzig for two reasons. One, because most non-German writers stick to Berlin; and two, because what happened in Leipzig fits in perfectly with my story. For years Leipzigers attended Peace Prayers every Monday evening to protest the missiles that Soviets and Americans were positioning on German soil. The Friedensgebet was held in a historic Leipzig church, the Nikolaikirche. The Protestant Church had always enjoyed a relatively protected status in East Germany, due to the stand it had taken against the Nazis. During the 1980s, as discontent with the regime grew, people saw the church as a place they could go to speak about their problems, learn about other people’s, and feel they were not alone.
In 1989, the congregation of the Nikolaikirche started to hold a silent march in support of free emigration. By then people were fleeing the DDR in their thousands. First they fled through Hungary into Austria; later they stormed the walls of West German embassies in Budapest, Warsaw and Prague. The bemused elderly leaders were incapable of reform. “Would you feel obliged to decorate your flat if your neighbour decorated his?” demanded General Secretary Honecker. All they knew was repression. More police were sent to the Monday night demonstrations. Leipzigers were undeterred. The number of marchers went from five hundred to ten thousand in the space of a month.
One of the demonstrators on the street is Anne. She has been attending the Peace Prayers for months. Despite the danger, she rejects Matthias’ pleas to stay away. On Monday October 9, 1989, there are rumours that the police will shoot. Matthias begs her not to go. Anne stands firm. Matthias goes with her. There are seventy thousand marchers on the Leipziger Ring that night. The police hold their fire. There is no violence. The marchers are carrying candles. You need two hands to carry a candle: one to hold it, and one to protect the flame and stop it going out. You cannot carry stones or sticks as well.
“We had planned everything,” said a member of the Central Committee later. “We were prepared for anything. Only not for candles and prayers.”
The Leipzig demonstration deals a death-blow to the regime. One month later, the Wall comes down. The nightmare is over.
Or is it? Anne’s relief turns to terror as it becomes clear that Germany will reunify, and the Stasi files will be opened. Matthias will see his file, and discover the truth she has tried to conceal. What is she to do? No one can help her. Julien, her father, admits that when she came to him for advice he had none to give. Luise, her mother, has never got past the tragedy she lived through as a child in wartime Germany, when her father Ernst betrayed his family to the Gestapo.
Sitting under the Judas tree in Sophie’s garden, lost and desperate, Anne comes to think that, like her grandfather Ernst, she has only one way out.
January 2017: An updated version of The Judas Tree is available on Kindle, and a new print edition will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.