He, the trained postman who worked for 18 months as a senior physician, outwitted them all: doctors, lawyers, politicians. He has been released from prison and is now with us, Gert Postel, Germany’s most notorious confidence trickster. Welcome.
Two years ago a joke went around, and not just in medical circles: “Do you have a vacant position for a senior physician, there’s a postman I know…”
Like most jokes this one also had a grain of truth in it. It is based on the true story of Gert Postel who is here with us today.
Herr Postel, in January 1999 you were sentenced to four years imprisonment and you served part of the sentence. Now you’ve been released from prison on probation. How does a conman redeem himself?
By writing a book for instance, and the book is on the bestseller list of the magazine Der Spiegel.
It is, again.
Again? Great. Why the book? Was it intended to be a reflection or revenge?
The book is really part of the probation programme. I think when the time comes, when I won’t be able anymore to summon up the energy in order to fight off reports in the Deutsche Aerzteblatt (German newspaper for the medical profession), it will be the book which provides the facts and I’ll be better-known.
Facts? Then I am surprised that you’re here tonight since the book states that at present you were head of a clinic in Odessa.
Yes, but this is something I cannot elucidate any further because it is unsuitable for public discussion. It is also a bit satirical as the whole book is a rather ironic work. My original intention was to write a book that stood out and was different from the usual True Crime Lit à la Dagobert or Dr. Schneider. And when you write about yourself you run the risk of being too close to the subject-matter. That’s why I decided to use irony as a stylistic device.
And you started to write in prison?
The entire manuscript was written in Leipzig while I was awaiting trial.
You are a trained postman and for one and a half years you worked as a senior physician in a Saxon psychiatric hospital. This wasn’t your first coup but the last one we know of. How did you apply for the job?
The position was advertised in the Saechsische Amtsblatt and in the Deutsche Aerzteblatt, among others. Thirty physicians and specialists applied for the position and eight of them were short-listed. These eight applicants had to present a paper to the Appointment Board of the Ministry for Social Affairs.
And what exactly was your lecture about?
“Pseudology of the Fantastic” or “Compulsive Deception as Enhancement of the Self in Thomas Mann’s exemplary figure of Felix Krull”, from his novel of the same title, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man.
I assume you knew the novel by heart (?)
Yes, I thought that the subject was very interesting indeed. What is more, I was certain that sooner or later everything would come to light and therefore I thought: "What a nice subject-matter…"
And your paper convinced the Board, or how did you prepare yourself for job-specific questions? Weren’t you worried about it?
Yes, but my knowledge of psychiatry was in no way inferior to that of the so-called experts. At the hospital I was responsible for further training and qualification and very often I stood there and thought to myself: "Who actually is the fraud, me or them?". For example, I introduced new terminology, terms which do not exist. Right in front of a hundred psychiatrists I talked about the “Bipolar Depression of the Third Degree”. This is a psychiatric term which does not exist and no one asked a single question about it.
Because to ask would be embarrassing. You would admit to incompetence and in these circles you should rather not.
Which other responsibilities did you have in Zschadrass?
I’d like to say something else regarding the job interview. I was asked about my doctorate and about the subject of my thesis. I answered “Cognitive-induced Distortions in the Stereotypical Formation of Judgement”, which is nothing else than the stringing together of meaningless words. The immediate response however was. “That’s wonderful. In this case we’re sure you’ll feel at home here in Leipzig.”
And no one requested your thesis or wanted to read it?
No, you only check on someone when there is the hint of a doubt. If there’s nothing dubious about it then there is, of course, no need to delve any further.
And no one had any doubts?
During the whole period of working as a senior physician I wasn’t criticised by anyone, not once. I was assessed and the senior consultant of the clinic wrote, “Senior physician Dr. Postel exceeds all expectations.” This he later denied, so we reproduced the evaluation in the book.
How did you exceed, what were your achievements?
I don’t think that you have to be particularly intelligent in order to become a senior physician in such a psychiatric institution.
Well, that’s your opinion…
You just have to know how to present yourself, and this is a “science”in itself, based on appearance and pretences. To me it seems to be a study of linguistics. If you have mastered the language, the psychiatric jargon, then you’re able to formulate anything, you can even invent new terms.
Perhaps you can talk like that to a colleague and impress them with hollow phrases but what happens when you have to put it into clinical practice, in front of a patient who needs your help?
Look, I held the position of a senior physician and representative at this clinic. On this level you don’t necessarily have close contact with the patient. Your responsibilities entail more global matters and general management. Almost all my assistants had specialised in Psychiatry; one was a qualified university lecturer in the field. Things ran smoothly and I very often felt just like Team Captain.
OK – so you had to organise, but you never practiced? I would find that reassuring…
Yes and no – I did have some kind of concept. I was against repressive psychiatry as it was exercised in Zschadrass where injections were high on the agenda, Haloperidol was given as medication and patients were restrained to their beds. And I was against all the chemistry involved. If you’re holding a position like mine you are in charge. With this power I could put measures into effect which I thought right.
Yes, you felt they were right but how sure were you from a professional point of view, that everything was in the interest of the patient?
I was positive and anyway, I observed everything closely and I always got the feedback.
You also wrote assessments…
Yes, and special assessments…
Yes, but these were psychiatric assessments and reports which means you could make decisions which as a result had certain consequences for people.
Yes, on a daily basis.
And you never suffered from a bad conscience, after all, someone could have ended up in prison(?)
The assessments were primarily concerned with the question of guilt and responsibility. I was always against the overuse of implementing Section 21 which excluded diminished responsibility. If someone commits a criminal act then they should take responsibility. Moreover, they also have a right to an answer and it shouldn’t be denied to them because of a half-hearted assessment report, although psychiatrists have a slightly different view on the matter.
You were also given the prospect of becoming a senior consultant. How did that come about?
Yes, in addition I was head of a security prison, a special institution that accommodates people who kill their girlfriends while under the influence of alcohol. There was a threat of a large-scale breakout which I prevented, very much to the delight of the minister. Subsequently, he invited me to Dresden.
And how did you prevent the breakout?
I made several phone calls which resulted in the police removing these people and transferring them to other institutions.
However, you didn’t accept the new post as senior consultant, why not?
The reasons are quite trivial, really. I went to the minister and actually I didn’t want it at all. I was satisfied with the situation as it was…
So, you were afraid of insurmountable tasks (?)
Not at all. The higher you climb in this hierarchy the easier it gets. As a senior consultant you can undoubtedly lead a much more comfortable life than a senior physician and as the latter your work is much easier than that of an assistant physician.
Well, these are your experiences. How was the truth finally discovered?
There was an assistant who was very dissatisfied with the senior physician she had to work under. So I took her into my section. The next time she went home she told her parents how happy she was now that she was working with the pleasant Dr. Postel. Well, her parents remembered the name and the bombshell dropped.
You have to explain to us why they “remembered the name”.
When I was young, at the tender age of 23, I was Head of the Health Authority in Flensburg under the name of Dr. Dr. Clemens Bartholdy, but that wasn’t very professional.
And how did that come to light?
I lost an ID-card, one with my real name on it and a professional pass authorised by the town of Flensburg. Both showed identical photographs, yet had different details.
And you were found out(?)
Too bad, not something one should lose…
No, one shouldn’t. But sooner or later the truth had to be discovered anyway but until then I was the gifted senior physician of Zschadrass, and you know, there are good doctors and even very good psychiatrists. Still, that’s the real thrill, for a postman to come along, doing the job for 18 months and with his superiors certifying him “exceptional abilities.”
In this case, you acted relatively openly, you didn’t use a pseudonym. Why so daring this time? All the other times you had assumed a different name.
Yes, but it’s better to use your own name than making one up.
Just in case you lose your ID again….
I don’t know. I haven’t really given it too much thought.
Or perhaps you identified yourself with the role. Did you really live the part and believe you were a doctor?
Oh no, never, then I’d be a bit of a nutcase.
But according to the preface of your book, written by Prof. Dr. von Berg, you are mentally ill. The name sounds familiar. That’s another pseudonym, isn’t it?
Yes, though a lot of people were wondering and said that the book was indeed quite interesting but how did I get the famous Prof. von Berg to write the introduction.
Which in this case means that they haven’t read the book properly, otherwise they’d know about Herr von Berg, he did help you, didn’t he?
I called the senior consultant at the hospital as Professor von Berg and as Director of the University Clinic of Neurology in Muenster and recommended my assistant, Dr. Postel, for the position.
Although in both cases it was you…
Yes indeed, and two hours later Herr Dr. Kroemker returned my call and referred to the telephone conversation he had with Professor von Berg and how he had been full of praise, which I dismissed as exaggeration.
The book tells the story slightly differently. There it says you were huffing and puffing from a bicycle tour…
Which is absolutely true apart from a few literary embellishments. You have to create a bit of atmosphere, you know.
How did you manage to get away from Zschadrass just in time?
Because the senior consultant told me that I was suspected of a serious offence. I was suspended until the next day. With incredible logic I concluded that finally the cat was out of the bag and that I should terminate my stay immediately. In fact, the senior consultant acted as accomplice.
Afterwards you travelled freely through Germany for 11 months without being stopped.
Well, this was a bit unpleasant. It was the worst time, and yes, I was never confronted.
Although there was a situation where it got quite close, right?
Indeed, there was a situation in Berlin where they have this perverse propaganda show called Fahndungsakte (The German version of Crimewatch). It was so malicious I became scared of myself when I saw it. I called a friend who is a lawyer and she pointed it out to me and I thought, it might be perfectly possible that the police were on their way. So I wrote a little note, pinned it to the door saying, “Dear Simone, I’m with Steffi in Bremen. Will be back in a week. See you, yours…”
And it worked?
Absolutely. The police came, they rang the bell, and I came up to look through the spyhole. There they were examining this piece of paper whereas in fact we were only like 10 cm apart from each other. In the end, the piece of paper was the irrefutable evidence: “He can’t be in this flat.” And this was the West German CID (Crime Investigation Department).
Why do you put such a great emphasis on this?
Because the CID in Berlin like to think of themselves as being brilliant and what great guys they are. In this case, they managed to look quite stupid.
Why didn’t you go abroad?
You see, actually I didn’t really want to run away. I just had such a mortal fear of prison. I just couldn’t do it. The weather was too nice to go to the police.
And what was the weather like when you were arrested?
It was slightly colder, in March I think, in Stuttgart. But that was fine and I am very much reconciled with my time in prison. It was an experience of a particular kind and I had the opportunity to do something for myself. I was treated exceptionally well by the prison management and all the officials. I was very happy.
In January 1999 you appeared before a court. We have the original pictures. Here is some footage. It is pure Gert Postel. Did you have any feelings of guilt?
Yes, a bit. Occasionally I feel a bit remorseful, but not always and certainly not now. When I saw how the “real doctors” worked at the clinic the feeling of guilt faded. I came to see things in relative terms.
Nevertheless, you abused the trust of your colleagues.
Now you are starting to take the moral high ground. You see, I gave certain people an opportunity to make a fool of themselves. I held up a mirror to them and in the mirror they were ugly. And stupid as they were, they hit out at the mirror.
Did any of the patients institute legal proceedings against you?
Not that I know of. It was quite interesting. The prosecution in Leipzig was investigating, because if a postman had been a senior physician for such a long time he surely must have made mistakes. But they didn’t find anything at all.
No mistakes… You didn’t have any qualifications to enter a university, still you studied Theology and you even pulled off a coup. You had an audience with the Pope. We have a picture here.
That’s right, I wanted to visit Rome and thought if I go I should meet the Pope. I got my references and letters of recommendation from the Bishop of Muenster, the Cardinal in Berlin and the German Embassy at the Holy See - not very easy.
You are a trained postman, but worked as a doctor, you became deputy head of the Health Authority in Flensburg, or was it director, you had a position as senior physician in Saxony…
…what will I do next?
No, what led you to not being yourself and wanting to reach so much higher?
Psychiatrically speaking you could say…
No, put it simply…
…it is a multi-factual framework of effects where a lot of things come together. It’s a subject that could take up a whole evening. It can’t be explained in a few sentences. Of course, on the one hand I wanted to prove something to myself, on the other, I wanted to demonstrate that any trained goat, or even a postman, could become a psychiatrist. And that’s not polemics.
Though I suppose the experts feel very differently about it.
Absolutely, and that’s what they have to do in order to protect themselves. If they had to admit to it …
But just imagine we’d constantly let loose postmen on the mentally ill. They are not really prepared for you, are they?
I find the harping on about the postman aspect a bit… Yes, once upon a time I was trained as a postman but there was also a personal development. I do not approve of postmen who want to become senior physicians.
But you’ve tried – what did you aim at, you wanted to prove something…
But there are a lot of things I am not really aware of. I am not constantly accounting for my actions. You see, there was probably a key event in my life. My mother was wrongly treated. She suffered from depression. Although she was treated by a psychiatrist and was given a stimulating drug but nothing to relieve her depression, which resulted in her suicide. For me this was a very traumatic experience. Furthermore, I had a girlfriend who underwent special training to become a neurologist. So I met these people who have the audacity, in a psychiatric context, to change people, and partly by force, whereas they couldn’t even cope with their own little lives. And it came to the point when I thought, OK, whatever they were capable of, I could do it better.
And which methods did you use?
Why did you succeed in the end? Do fine feathers make fine birds? Or do the right words at the right time pave the way for careers?
As far as Psychiatry is concerned it can be said that if you’re able to perform linguistic acrobatics you can make a career for yourself. That is what Psychiatry is based on. It is a shallow science. I am not being polemic. There is the evidence..
For the future your lawyer would like to see you in a socially satisfactory position, either with the BND (Federal Intelligence Service) or the Bundesverfassungsschutz (Federal Constitutional Defence Office)…
Or with the Foreign Office…
Indeed, he said this as well. Your former pastor wishes you would work in a convent garden for ten years, and a former fellow journalist said you were already planning the next coup..
Yes, let them all have their thoughts…
And you, what are your plans?
I don’t want to discuss this in public and anyhow, my brain is like a huge warehouse full of new ideas. We’ll see. I think you shouldn’t always plan ahead, things will happen. You have to be alert and courageous.
But now that everyone knows you and what you look like, what chance do you stand to honourably…
It prevents me from committing criminal offences, which is part of my probation.
But you have to cope without a senior physician’s salary? Are you in debt? How will you be able to make ends meet?
I am leading a very modest lifestyle. You see, if your interests are of an intellectual nature you tend to be less concerned with material things, right? Currently, I am studying philosophy, Arthur Schopenhauer. And that’s wonderful. There’s no need for poppycock.
You can’t trade in your Schopenhauer at the bakery though, you can’t pay the baker with Schopenhauer thoughts?
There is no need, I don’t have to worry about the food on my table. I don’t have to give you evidence of my financial situation. That is almost an obscene expectation.
No, I am not expecting that at all but you have to think about “what next?” To be the Pope would be a possibilitiy?
No, I guess I am not humble enough.
When does your probation period come to an end?
In two years, I think. In fact, I don’t really care. It could as well be 30 years. I am not planning any more criminal acts.
PHONE-IN QUESTIONS/QUESTIONS FROM THE VIEWERS
What kind of treatment do you get from genuine doctors who recognise you?
The expert in Leipzig confirmed that I suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder which is a kind of being in love with oneself. In West Germany, however, people are born with it.
Do you follow all media reports about you and do you feel like a kind of celebrity?
No, I am not thinking in these categories and I don’t follow all the media reports. Although it is fun to play along and very interesting.
Why don’t you qualify now for a profession in the medical field?
I’d like to educate myself and as far as I am concerned the study of medicine is hardly beneficial.
That’s your opinion and I have to leave it at that. What has to happen in order for you to be conned?
I’m constantly taken in by conmen. I fall for journalists.
But you can’t lump them all together.
Of course, not. Obviously, it would be really bad if there wasn’t a glimmer of hope somewhere.
In which situation do you feel ashamed of your actions; when was the last time you felt embarrassment?
Oh, permanently. As I said before I often suffer pangs of conscience.
Do they hurt you very often?
They touch me occasionally,
The royalties from your book, will they cover some of your debts?
You have to pay back the salary you received as senior physician.
Which strikes me as very odd indeed. I was assessed as being outstanding in my work, there is written proof. I was urged to consider a position as senior consultant and now they demand the money back. That’s a bit perverse, but well…