Simon Menner - The Coffee Pot

Simon Menner - The Coffee Pot

Who keeps on moving the coffee pot? That innocent question plunges one East German woman into a dangerous world of deception and betrayal. Photographer and archivist Simon Menner joins Alice Loxton to unravel a Cold War domestic mystery centered around the most inconspicuous of objects.
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A History of the World in Spy Objects - Episode 14: Simon Menner - The Coffee Pot

What are the forgotten tools of tradecraft? Which items might unlock the hidden world of espionage? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects. There’s a saying you’ll know. It goes, ‘A picture is worth 1,000 words.’ Few understand the truth of that sentiment better than the spy. For the undercover operative, the clandestine photograph is an essential part of the intelligence tool kit. In that spirit, comes today’s object - directly from the archives of a dead nation: the German Democratic Republic. The story this picture tells was uncovered by the artist Simon Menner, who has long been fascinated by photographs and the secrets they hide.

SIMON MENNER: I became more and more interested in the medium of photography - not as a photographer per se, but more as someone who is trying to figure out the way images are used in (contemporary) culture. I’m very fascinated by images that are not just what they seem to show. 

NARRATOR: The photograph in question was taken in East Germany at some point in the 1980s. It’s a simple image - one so pedestrian, you’d be forgiven for passing right over it. To unlock the story within, we’ll need to set the scene. We’re in East Berlin, where the shadow of the wall looms large. A neat little apartment belonging to a small family. Each morning before she heads to work, the family’s wife and mother makes herself a cup of coffee.

SIMON MENNER: In the family, she was the only person who drank coffee and so in the morning she had this routine, she made coffee. She was cleaning the coffee maker and then she put it back. And the thing was, she was the only left-handed person in the household as well and, naturally, since she was left-handed, the handle was pointed to the left.

NARRATOR: She completes the routine, gathers her things, and leaves for work. At the same time, her husband heads to the office. Their child leaves for school. The door closes behind them and the small apartment, moments before so alive with the energy of their morning rituals, lies empty. Everything is still. Later that day, a young man walks along the road outside and stops opposite the block of apartments. He’s not due at his appointment until noon and it’s imperative he arrives not a moment before. In the meantime, he takes out a book and begins to read, keeping half an eye on his watch. Just before the hour, he makes his way to the entrance to the block of flats. He walks efficiently but not hurriedly. He doesn’t draw attention to himself. In turn, three men all arrive separately. One by one, they climb the stairs and let themselves into the family’s empty apartment. Once inside, and only then, they greet each other in hushed voices. One of them puts on a pot of coffee, and then they sit down at the kitchen table to talk. Once their discussion has reached its conclusion, they stand, taking care to leave everything that they have touched exactly as they found it. At six o’clock, when the family returns home, the flat appears undisturbed. How many times do they repeat this ritual, undetected? Impossible to say. But one day, something odd catches the woman’s attention. It’s the coffee pot.

SIMON MENNER: Some days she realized it was strange, the handle was pointing to the right when she returned home and she asked her husband about that, and he denied everything. He said, “You’re crazy, what are you talking about, woman? You’re the only one. Of course, I’m not drinking coffee. You know that. We are married.” And they were married for many years.

NARRATOR: But despite her husband’s protests, she was sure she wasn’t crazy. It kept happening. She’d leave the coffee pot with its handle facing left, and return to find it pointing right.

SIMON MENNER: And she was suspicious but it stopped - at one point it stopped - so the coffee maker was always left in the right way with the handle on the left.

NARRATOR: The woman was still uneasy but, with time, the memory faded. The years went by. By 1989, protests erupted on the streets of Potsdam, and all the cities of the East German bloc. People wanted political reforms, freedom to travel, and free elections. “The Wall Must Go”. The GDR’s leaders made desperate concessions and promised more freedoms. But it was too little, too late. On the night of November 9, hundreds of thousands of East Berlin residents broke down the wall that had kept them from their neighbors. People left East Germany in droves but not the woman with the coffee pot.

SIMON MENNER: Her husband died before the wall fell and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as many people in East Germany did, she started dealing with the history of East Germany and she went through the Stasi archive to look at her own files. 

NARRATOR: That archive was - and remains - housed in the newly unified Berlin. In the early 1990s, curiosity got the better of her. She asked for her file to be pulled.

SIMON MENNER: Behold she found this file regarding her own flat.

NARRATOR: She opens the file and begins to read. There before her are the details of her husband’s agreement with the GDR. He had been an informant connected to a web of Stasi agents.

SIMON MENNER: She never learned that her husband, the father of her child, had Stasi contacts. She didn’t know that when she was gone for work her husband rented out the apartment as an informal flat.

NARRATOR: Suddenly, faded memories shift into focus. A half-forgotten mystery presents itself, ready for resolution. In the file is a Polaroid photograph. 

SIMON MENNER: One of the very old ones. The one that your dad might have taken at Christmas or so. The one that magically came out of the front of a Polaroid camera, like these very bulky old Polaroid cameras. This is a strange image because it shows just a coffee maker. It’s a mundane image, an image that normally you wouldn’t take because keep in mind the Polaroid image was always something that had some value to it so the image itself, you chose to take the image. 

NARRATOR: The woman recognizes the coffee pot immediately. It’s the one she still uses every morning. Looking at this photo, in the eerie archive, takes her mind back to that uncomfortable conflict, years earlier. She had been certain that the coffee maker wasn’t as she’d left it when she came home from work. Her husband had accused her of madness and paranoia. 

SIMON MENNER: As a matter of fact, she was not paranoid, she realized something was going on.

NARRATOR: Now, she understands that her husband bluffed his way out of a tight spot. He was a hair’s breadth from being outed as the informant he was and, clearly, he’d been rattled by his wife’s detective work.

SIMON MENNER: And her husband went to the Stasi and told them, “Okay. No no. You have to leave the coffee maker exactly the way you find it because my wife got suspicious.” Then this caused paranoia in the Stasi as a reply because now the agents had to really focus on leaving the coffee maker as they found it before. And so the Stasi took this one image, this Polaroid image, as an explainer on how to leave the coffee maker behind, how to take care of this coffee maker, and how to not leave traces because we left traces so we have to be paranoid about leaving traces or not. And so, this image of a coffee maker is not just the image of a coffee maker. It’s the image of a paranoid system. 

NARRATOR: Simon has found hundreds of images like this one. The inner workings of Stasi agents, trying to hide their tracks. Polaroid cameras were imported to the GDR for this very reason. Before the age of digital cameras and smartphones, how else could an agent create an immediate record of a scene? A reference point to be reassembled, after a property had been ransacked for secrets. Now, those photos exist as domestic postcards from another time, another planet ready to be deciphered by a new generation of truth seekers. I’m Alice Loxton. Join me next week to slip back into the shadows, and bring the covert history of another item into the light.

Guest Bio

Simon Menner is a photographer and author of Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives which examines the information and photos once gathered by East Germany's secret police.

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