Viewing Jonestown’s History from the Winner’s Perspective

This summer I spent time in Berlin, the city formerly divided between the East and the West by a large concrete wall. When the wall came down, a whole country, Eastern Germany, disappeared with it and the story of that country is now largely told through the outsider’s – the “winner’s” – perspective.

In her book After the Wall, Jana Hensel reflects upon how, after the reunification, her own memories of the country she grew up in were changed by the expectations of visitors from the West who had come to see the deprivation and repression of the former German Democratic Republic:

Sadly for us, our country disappeared when we told these stories. In the mistaken belief that anecdotes were the stuff from which our new lives were made, we convinced ourselves that we liked telling our stories and even began exchanging them among ourselves. In the process, we lost touch with our true experiences, and one memory after another slipped away. Places like St. Nicholas Church as the site of the Monday Rallies or the Stasi Museum were not part of our childhood. They are symbols of its ending – of the demise of the GDR (24).

I visited the former East Berlin while I was there. It had been 20 years since the wall came down, and apart from some examples of decidedly Eastern European architecture, the differences between the East and the West were all but gone. My search for remnants of the old times, whatever they were, and led me to the Stasi-Museum.

The Stasi-Museum is located in the building which used to house the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, the Ministry of State Security, a building much feared by the citizenry of the GDR. This feeling must have rubbed off on one of my fellow visitors. I met him just outside a large conference room which sat at the end of a long hallway on an eerily empty floor where the offices of the minister and his staff used to be. His eyes wide with a mixture of excitement and horror, he said, “I can barely bring myself to take pictures.” His voice was a loud whisper. “This is where they used to kill people, you know.”

“This is the conference room,” I replied, but he just looked at me like I just didn’t get it and walked away.

I met him again on another floor, and again he shared his observations with me – his fellow outsider, voyeurs into a re-written past – and again it was in a whisper: “Around the corner, that is where they really killed people.” I turned the corner to find a mock-up of a prison cell. Next to it was a large sign which specified in bold letters: “This Cell Is Not Original To This Building But A Replica Of A Cell From [Name Of Prison]”.

Later on the subway, I reflected upon my experiences in the museum and those of Ms. Hensel, and how they in many ways seem to apply to Jonestown and Peoples Temple too. As St. Nicholas Church has become a symbol – not of the lived experiences of Ms. Hensel, but of the way outsiders interpret the events that led to the end of GDR – so has Jonestown become a symbol, not of the lives that were lived there, of the hopes and dreams and work of the people there, but of their tragic demise and everything that we, the outsiders, choose to read into that. And once it has taken on this new meaning, it is so difficult for us, the outsiders, to escape the gravity of that symbol and see beyond the meaning we read into it ourselves. When we see pictures of Jonestown, we strain to find that sign with the Santayana quote about remembering the past which we have seen in the gruesome photos of the aftermath. We look for Jim Jones’ “throne” from which he issued so many orders, including – at least in our minds – the order to die. We wonder which building housed the radio room mentioned so chillingly in the death tape, and which housed the medical dispensary where the poison was kept, and which was the guest house where two lawyers were warned about the imminent carnage. All these images are true to the actual events, but they have often disappeared into that black hole of Jonestown as a symbol. They prevent us from seeing Jonestown as anything but a site of death and horror. They stop us from asking proper questions about the story of Peoples Temple and listening properly to the replies we get. Can we break free from that field of gravity of Jonestown the symbol? It will require a conscious effort to continuously re-examine the questions we ask and our reasons for asking them. But it is important that we try.


Hensel, Jana: After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life That Came Next, New York: PublicAffairs, 2004

Stasi-Museum, Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Normannenstr., Ruschestr. 103, Haus 1, 10365 Berlin, Germany

(Rikke Wettendorff is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of articles on this site is here. She may be reached at Rikke@Wettendorff.Net.)