FEARSOME OR FUTILE? THE LIMITATIONS OF STASI SURVEILLANCE IN EAST GERMANY – BY LUCY COXHEAD.
The East German Ministry of State Security (commonly known as the ‘Stasi’), exercised unquestionably high levels of surveillance and social control over the East German population from their establishment in 1950, until their dissolution following the revolution of 1989. The Stasi described itself as the ‘Sword and Shield’ of the Communist Party, symbolically reflecting the fearsome reputation they enjoyed, both inside the GDR and overseas. The power and influence of the Stasi has been well documented in both academic studies, personal testimonies and depicted in films such as The Lives of Others (2006) and Barbara (2012) demonstrating how East German citizens were subject to incessant and intrusive monitoring, with the result that thousands experienced restrictions on their mobility and their freedom to publicly express or communicate both personal and political views. There are even numerous reports of family members spying on one another. What has been less well-documented, however, were the limitations to Stasi influence in the GDR. Despite their powerful and fearsome reputation, the Stasi’s desire to ‘know everything about everyone’ was ultimately inconceivable. While this topic remains under-studied, more recent research has revealed the existence of numerous mistakes in Stasi files, highlighted certain limitations to Stasi surveillance, and illustrated the continued ability of many individuals to subvert Stasi influence. Together, these mechanisms helped to undermine, and ultimately destroy, Stasi control over the East German population.
STASI SURVEILLANCE TACTICS
The Stasi was established in 1950, to help the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) wage a cold war against both domestic and ‘Western’ enemies. Betts argues that the power of the Stasi was built on ‘a severe code of conformity and model citizenship’ (Betts, 2010, p13). As the Stasi developed, their operational remit expanded rapidly, as did their staff base, with a growing number of full-time Stasi agents supported by a much broader network of spies and informers, recruited from their own citizenry. Shortly before their dissolution at the end of 1989, records indicate that the Stasi employed 91,105 full time staff and about 176, 000 informers to watch over a population of 16.4 million, with recent research suggesting that the general practice of ‘snitching’ among East German society was also much more widespread than previously thought. The extent of Stasi operations is also revealed by the sheer extent of the archival holdings, with shelves of files that stretch for 180 kilometres (Dennis, 2003, p. 7).
Between 1950 and 1989 the Stasi took surveillance to unprecedented levels in their attempts to gather ‘deep knowledge’ about all aspects of their citizens’ lives, with the use of intrusive techniques including extensive monitoring of both postal and telephone communications, the bugging of workplaces, social spaces and private homes, and human surveillance. One former Stasi officer who was interviewed by Anna Funder revealed various tactics they used to compile information, including the existence of a ‘coding villa’, where Stasi officers regularly encoded transcripts of thousands of telephone conversations and the use of officers in civilian clothes or various disguises to make observations on the ground, often assisted by the concealment of recording devices and cameras in coats and bags. Funder alleges that the Stasi even used radiation marking to track objects and people, in their attempts to know as much as possible about their perceived enemies (Funder, 2004, p153, p.191)
The information collected was used to manipulate and control the population, and it is clear that in many cases the Stasi had the ability to directly influence and disrupt people’s lives, using their power to ‘punish’ unruly citizens. Ulrike Poppe, an East German dissident, was subjected to intensive Stasi surveillance and harassment after she refused their ‘invitation’ to become an informer, and later discovered that not only had her own house and telephone been bugged, but her friends’ bedrooms were also bugged and video cameras were installed in the apartment across the street, to enable the Stasi to watch her every move. ‘Julia’ also became a Stasi target after she developed a relationship with an Italian businessman who had visited the GDR. When she was interviewed by Anna Funder for her book Stasiland, Julia described how at first, although she often heard strange noises on her telephone, and her personal letters frequently arrived opened, with stickers claiming they had been ‘damaged in transit’, she underestimated the malevolent reach of the Stasi, even laughing off their initial interest in her:
“I lived with this sort of scrutiny as fact. I didn’t like it, but I thought: I live in a dictatorship, so that’s just how it is … When I hung up [the telephone] I’d say goodnight … and then I’d say ‘Night all!’ to the others listening in. I meant it as a joke … if you took things as seriously as people in the West think we must have, we would have all killed ourselves!
I’d say to myself: look it can’t be that bad! What can they do to me? I mean, I wasn’t afraid they’d collect me in the night and lock me up and torture me”
– From Julia’s Story, in Funder, Stasiland, p.99; pp 106-107.
However, Julia went on to describe how the Stasi were subsequently responsible for her exclusion from education and employment, effectively isolating her within East German society and deliberately subjecting her to high levels of psychological trauma and personal humiliation as their campaign against her escalated, before ultimately attempting to recruit her to work for them as an informant in exchange for allowing her an ‘easier’ life in the GDR – an offer which she successfully resisted. After this, Julia saw that the power of the Stasi ‘can be so dangerous, so very dangerous, without me having done anything at all’ (Julia quoted in Funder, 2004, p114). These cases effectively illustrate how, in many cases, by preying on members of a society who attempted to live their lives as normally as possible under the pressures of Communist control, the Stasi had the ability to essentially turn East Germans into prisoners within their own country. However, while evidence suggests that many East German citizens did agree to spy for the Stasi, the refusal of either Ukrike or Julia to succumb to Stasi pressure to inform also illustrates the capacity of others for resistance and defiance.
THE LIMITATIONS OF STASI SURVEILLANCE
The Stasi were undoubtedly a powerful and fearsome presence in communist East Germany, with the ability to influence and even destroy people’s lives. However, there were still some limitations to their influence. Despite their ruthless monitoring, the Stasi aim to discover ‘everything about everyone’ was not feasible, and the popular myth of the Stasi as all-encompassing, ultra-efficient and omnipotent force can be challenged. Herr Bock, a committed former Stasi officer interviewed by Anna Funder, confirmed that he thought that, over time, the expansion of the Stasi’s operational remit became so broad that it was ‘too wide to be carried out…within available resources’ (Funder, 2004, p.200) Over time, the Stasi began to struggle to process the large amounts of information they were recording, as agents were overwhelmed by a flood of data, much of it mindless trivia, meaning that sometimes even potentially significant information was missed or overlooked. Paula Kirby, a British citizen who worked as a teacher in the GDR during the 1980s (making her an obvious target for Stasi surveillance), described how their presence made her ‘cautious but not paranoid: after all, I wasn’t spying, I wasn’t trying to foment revolution and I wasn’t a subversive element, so I couldn’t imagine they’d find anything of interest to them even if they were watching me’ (Hignett & Kirby, 2014). Access to Stasi files has indeed shown that agents often recorded vast amounts of unnecessarily banal information about their subjects, such as ‘where Comrade Gisela kept her ironing board… and how many times a week Comrade Armin took out his garbage’ (Dennis, 2003, p. 3). Similarly, when Ulrike Poppe gained access to her own Stasi files, she discovered that most of the information recorded from years of intensive surveillance “was just junk.” (Curry, 2008).
Paula Kirby also states that despite its fearsome reputation today, the Stasi was capable of almost ‘farcical incompetence’. For example, a letter in her file dated February 1988, referred to her as still being resident in Dresden, although she had actually been back in the UK for nearly six months by then. Kirby also described how she once spent several hours “in full view” of Stasi officers with a British Embassy official, discussing controversial matters like Gorbachev’s reforms and the recent GDR elections, stating that this ‘couldn’t have made things any easier for them if we’d tried’. Yet, the information recorded in her file showed that the Stasi still managed to ‘miss all the interesting bits’ (Hignett & Kirby, 2014). British journalist and academic Timothy Garton-Ash also cross-checked the information recorded in his file with his personal diaries, and detected several mistakes, including information recorded about one journey he made to Poland, where the date recorded was wrong by three months. Despite being subjected to heavy surveillance, Garton-Ash still successfully collected defamatory material about the GDR and continued to publish his work in the West (including a tribute to Robert Havemann, a prominent East German dissident), also broadcasting for the BBC in Berlin using a pseudenom (Garton-Ash, 2009, p.56). Many other ordinary East German citizens also developed ways of avoiding Stasi surveillance, and successfully carved out spaces where they could communicate more freely. While most people continued to conform within the public sphere, by watching what they said and did, the private sphere became a place of freedom, dissent and resistance in the GDR, with ties between families, friends and communities often strengthening rather than weakening, despite the pressure of the system (Gieseke, 2014, p120).
FEARSOME OR FUTILE?
Despite their best attempts, the Stasi were ultimately unable to fulfil their desire to ‘know everything about everyone’. The Stasi undoubtedly maintained a fearsome presence in East Germany until 1989, and many victims of Stasi repression are still living with the consequences today. However, the available evidence suggests that as their operational remit expanded, Stasi officers were flooded with high levels of meaningless data, so that important details were often overlooked and mistakes were sometimes made. During the final years of communism in East Germany, open dissent and individual resistance increased, despite continued pressure from the Stasi. New dissident movements such as the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights were founded, non-conformist bands such as the Klaus Renft combo and the Puhdys resisted Stasi repression by singing lyrics reflecting rebellion, poignancy and hope, while ‘anti-communist’ youth cultures such as punks, hippies and skinheads railed against state attempts to regulate individuality and self-expression. Ultimately, despite enjoying high levels of power and influence, the Stasi proved to be incapable of controlling the rising social, economic and political currents to hold back the tide of change in East Germany.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
LUCY COXHEAD has recently completed her BA (Hons) in History at Leeds Beckett University and will graduate with first class honours in July 2015. Lucy is also a co-recipient of the Deans prize for Outstanding Student Achievement in History in 2014-15. During her final year of study, Lucy studied Communist Eastern Europe, where she specialised in researching the role of the Stasi for one of her assessed essays. Her history dissertation researched the emotional impact of World War One, revealed through soldiers’ diaries. She is now planning to work for a year before thinking about continuing her academic studies at postgraduate level.
Betts, P. (2010) Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bruce, G. (2010) The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cook, D. (2011) ‘Living with the Enemy: Informing the Stasi in the GDR,’ The View East.
Curry, C. (2008) ‘Piecing Together the Dark Legacy of East Germany’s Secret Police’, Wired.Com
Dennis, M. (2003) The Stasi: Myth and Reality. New York: Routledge.
Funder, A. (2004) Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. London: Granta.
Garton-Ash, T. (2009) The File. London: Atlantic Books.
Gieseke, J. (2014) The History of the Stasi: East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945-1990. New York: Berghahn Books.
Hignett, K and Kirby, P (2014) ‘Interview: Paula Kirby on Life in the GDR’, The View East.
Shingler, J (2011) ‘Rocking the Wall: East German Rock and Pop in the 1970s and 1980s’. The View East.
BOOK REVIEW: Herbie Sykes, The Race Against the Stasi: The Incredible Story of Dieter Wiedemann, the Iron Curtain and the Greatest Cycling Race on Earth. (Aurum Press, 2014).
The Race Against the Stasi tells the story of Dieter Wiedemann, a small town boy with a love of cycling, who became one of East Germany’s sporting elite. In 1962, he was even chosen to represent the GDR in the annual Peace Race, the ‘Tour de France of the East’ and the biggest event in the sporting calendar for cycling enthusiasts in the Eastern bloc. During the summer of 1960 however, Dieter Wiedemann fell in love with Sylvia Hermann, a girl from the Western zone of Germany who was visiting relatives in Dieter’s home town of Floha. After Sylvia returned home, the two wrote to one another regularly, a correspondence that they maintained after the closure of the inner-Berlin border in August 1961. (“You assumed it was a temporary thing” said Dieter, when discussing his reaction to the construction of the Berlin Wall “The feeling was that the politicians would sort it out somehow, and that things would just go back to normal”).
As time passed, the division of Germany assumed more permanence, travel between East and West became more restrictive and it became increasingly clear that Dieter and Sylvia could not be together unless one of them was prepared to ‘switch sides’. So in 1964, when Dieter was sent to participate in a cycling qualification race taking place in Giessen, a town in West Germany not far from where Sylvia and her family lived, he began plotting his escape. On 4th July 1964, he took advantage of a break in training one afternoon to ‘take his bike out for a ride’, and never returned. Dieter was granted asylum in the FRG and started a new life there; gaining a professional contract to ride for the West German cycling team ‘Torpedo’, and even competing in the Tour de France in 1967. Dieter and Sylvia married, and raised three children together. Fifty years on, Herbie Sykes tells the story of Dieter Wiedemann for the very first time, drawing on a potent combination of personal testimonies and archival research.
While the love story between Dieter and Sylvia lies at the heart of this tale, it would be wrong to dismiss this as merely a Cold War romance; a pair of star-crossed lovers, separated by the ‘iron curtain’. The Race Against the Stasi also provides some fascinating insights into life in the GDR. Wiedemann’s story highlights the politicisation of sport in East Germany; sporting success was hijacked as propaganda, used to create popular patriotism within the GDR and raise the regime’s prestige overseas, with the sporting elite viewed as ‘diplomats in tracksuits’. Full-time sportsmen benefitted from generous state funding and enjoyed a privileged status, including the opportunity to travel overseas to compete. Sporting success bought material benefits and a certain amount of political influence, as shown by Dieter’s intervention to ensure that Sylvia was granted a rare travel permit for a second visit to Floha in 1964. However, poor sporting performance could also attract political pressure, as Dieter discovered when the GDR teams’ third place finish in the 1962 Peace Race was deemed ‘unsatisfactory’, bringing him to the attention of the Stasi who were ‘looking for someone to blame’.
While Dieter’s relationship with Sylvia was clearly the biggest catalyst for his decision to defect to the West, HE also outlines his growing frustration and resentment with the politicisation, oppression and tightening of social control following the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the more restrictive aspects of life in communist East Germany. In The Race Against the Stasi Dieter describes how, after 1961, his refusal to join the Communist Party led to questions being asked about his lack of ‘ideological loyalty’ to the regime, which begin to have an adverse effect on his sporting career:
“I just wanted to be able to race my bike, and to feel like I had the same chance as everybody else. Now it really dawned on me that I didn’t and probably never would have … I wasn’t political at all, but nor did I want my life to become politicised … the country was getting more and more oppressive. There were more police, more people being arrested and more Stasi” (Dieter Wiedemann, quoted in The Race Against the Stasi, pp168-173)
The Race Against the Stasi is structured around the different ‘lives’ of Dieter Wiedemann – his life in the GDR up until 1964, His ‘second life’ in the FRG following his defection, and his ‘third life’ as represented through reports and documents taken from Wiedemann’s Stasi file, which only became available after the collapse of communism and the reunification of Germany. Personal testimonies feature heavily throughout The Race Against the Stasi, as in addition to the inclusion of detailed narratives from Dieter and Sylvia, Sykes has collected testimonies from a range of other individuals who are connected to the story. Throughout the book the various narrators are allowed to ‘speak for themselves’, and Sykes’ own ‘voice’ (as author/interviewer) is almost entirely absent, limited to a short introduction and a few concluding comments. This is a very effective narrative trope, and the inclusion of multiple supporting narratives generally works very well (for example, the dual narrative between Dieter and Sylvia, describing their first meeting was a particularly nice touch) although there are also a few places where the rather frequent jump between multiple narrators is a little frustrating.
Sykes has also carried out painstaking archival research, as illustrated by the many documents interspersed throughout the narrative, including relevant press reports from Neues Deutschland and other media, multiple copies of confidential reports compiled by the Stasi, copies of some of the letters Dieter had written to Sylvia 1960-1964 (none of Sylvia’s letters to Dieter have survived as they were destroyed by his family after he left), and personal photographs of the couple and their families. The inclusion of so many sources interspersed throughout the book is a great addition, providing some wonderful insights, although at times the sheer volume of sources included does break-up the narrative flow. The extracts from Dieter’s Stasi file provide a great snapshot of the high levels of surveillance and social control that existed in the GDR, but also illustrate that errors and oversights were still possible – given their interest in Dieter, it seemed almost unbelievable that the Stasi remained largely unaware of the close relationship he had formed with Sylvia until after his defection, even with their frequent exchange of letters 1960-64 and Dieter’s personal intervention to request a permit to allow Sylvia to visit him shortly before his defection.
Finally, Sykes does not shy away from highlighting the damage that Dieter’s decision to leave the GDR caused for those he left behind. While Dieter and Sylvia got their ‘happy ending’, his family suffered terribly – not only had they lost Dieter, but they were subjected to close Stasi surveillance and endured numerous socio-economic sanctions (Dieter’s father lost his job and his younger brother, Eberhard, also a talented cyclist, was prevented from ever racing professionally). Ultimately, their family relationship was fractured beyond repair:
“Looking back, I suppose we were all victims … and no relationship could survive all that without being seriously compromised” (Dieter, quoted in The Race Against the Stasi, p386)
“At times, at the start, it felt like my whole life was a fight between East and West” (Sylvia, quoted in The Race Against the Stasi, p318)
The story of Dieter Wiedemann is an intriuging tale, encompassing a potent combination of politics, sport, love and betrayal. Herbie Sykes impresively balances the political and the personal, making The Race Against the Stasi an enjoyable, compelling and highly recommended read.
I’m very pleased to be able to publish this online interview with Paula Kirby – a writer who lived and worked in Dresden, East Germany during the 1980s. During her time in Dresden, Paula was monitored by the Stasi, and she recently gained access to her Stasi file. Paula is currently writing a novel set in 1980s East Germany and she also regularly tweets about the GDR – you can follow her on Twitter @PaulaSKirby (and we think that if you’re not already following her on Twitter, then you really should be!). Here, Paula reflects on her experiences of living and working in East Germany.
Hi Paula! Thanks very much for agreeing to share your experiences with us. Could you begin by telling us a little about the time you spent living and working in East Germany?
Of course – I was there for two years, from September 1985 to the end of August 1987, teaching English in the Intensive Language Centre of the Technical University of Dresden. My students were predominantly men aged 35+ who were already well established in their careers and needed to improve their English, usually in preparation for a stint “building Socialism” overseas: common destinations for my students included Ethiopia, Libya and Iraq, where English would be more widely understood than German. For me, the allure of the GDR was curiosity, plain and simple: the chance to see and experience a country that had always intrigued me, but which I had assumed would always remain a mystery.
What did you expect life in communist East Germany to be like? Was the reality similar to how you had imagined it?
My degree subject was German and one of my Final Year modules had included the study of a few works of GDR literature; as a student I’d also made two or three day-visits across Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, so I knew about the greyness and the strange sensation of stepping back in time by a couple of decades or so; I knew there wouldn’t be much in the shops; I knew East Berlin felt like an oasis of calm and tranquillity after the (equally but oppositely thrilling) spectacle of West Berlin. I had seen the Berlin Wall and knew that GDR citizens were not free to travel; and I had heard of the Stasi, of course, though I wasn’t sure how much of what I thought I knew was true and how much merely Cold War propaganda.
Nevertheless, the GDR was full of surprises. Shall I start with the good ones? Dresden was beautiful: literally breathtakingly beautiful, or at least, the city centre was. The half-finished suburbs full of hideous tower-blocks were as ugly in Dresden as they were elsewhere in the GDR, but much of the historic old town had been lovingly rebuilt after the war, and even the modern areas, such as the Prager Strasse pedestrian zone, where my flat was, were amazingly light and spacious, with dancing fountains and flower-beds bursting with colour, and people sitting outside at the street cafés, lapping up the sunshine while drinking coffee and eating cake. This was not what I had been expecting of a city behind the Iron Curtain!
Then there was Dresden’s astonishing cultural provision – It wasn’t just that there was an abundance of cultural offerings, but that the appreciation of culture clearly had mass appeal. The famous Old and New Masters art galleries were always busy, and I don’t think I ever went to a classical concert in the enormous Kulturpalast (‘Palace of Culture’) that wasn’t absolutely packed. And not just with the kind of people you might have expected to see in the West, where such things tend to be perceived as middle-class pursuits. In the GDR there was nothing elitist about going to a classical concert or opera: it was simply something enjoyable and stimulating that was accessible to all. Tickets for the newly re-opened Semper Opera House were only on sale once a week, from Monday lunchtimes, and people would start queuing before dawn, even in the depths of winter, in order to be sure of getting them. Cultural events were heavily subsidised so, even though the opera tickets were still fairly pricey in relation to average wages, they bore no resemblance to the obscene prices charged in the West; and other cultural events were truly affordable for all. This was something I loved, and I still think that life in the GDR was enormously enriched by it.
Another highlight of my time in Dresden were my interactions with friends, colleagues and students. One of my strongest memories is of laughter: whether in the classroom or staffroom, at a local restaurant or over a bottle of wine or whisky at home, we spent a huge amount of time laughing. Not that that, of itself, is anything particularly unusual: it just wasn’t what I’d been expecting of the GDR, which I’d assumed would be altogether grimmer in character. Also, in a society where there was simply no point spending your life in the pursuit of material gain because, no matter how much money you amassed, there was very little to spend it on, people had the mental space to focus on other things: like friends and family, going mushrooming in the woods, going for bike rides: the simple life. There was a simplicity and a warmth in the interactions I shared in that was quite delightful and very different in character from anything I’d experienced in the West – I suspect that plays a large part in many former GDR citizens’ nostalgia for those times.
There were some bad surprises too – the political propaganda I had been expecting, of course: just not that it would be quite so relentless. It was in the textbooks I was expected to teach from, it was on TV, it was in the newspapers, it was on banners draped above shops and offices, it saturated the endless staff meetings, it was even lit up in red neon letters on a block of flats near my home (“Socialism will triumph!”). The same goes for the bureaucracy: it wasn’t unexpected, but the extent of it and the frustration that went with it (and the number of times you would wait for hours to see an official, only to be curtly turned away because you didn’t have a particular form with you, or you did have the form but you hadn’t already waited two hours somewhere else to have it stamped by another official first …), these were things to which I eventually became accustomed but never reconciled.
While nearly all East Germans I got to know socially and professionally were warm and welcoming, an encounter with people in their official capacities was often stressful. Most shop assistants, waiters, post office clerks, ticket desk staff and even doctors’ receptionists often seemed to go out of their way to convey their low opinion of you and their resentment at having to engage with you. “Customer service” seemed an unknown concept, and to go shopping or to the local post office was to face an almost certain lecture on the many ways you had failed to live up to expectations. You would be scolded for not having wrapped your parcel properly, for not standing at the right place in the queue, for not stepping up to the counter quickly enough when it was your turn, for not having your ID ready to show, for not having the right change, for giving them too much small change, for speaking too quietly and, of course, for speaking too loudly. Such encounters were a constant test, it seemed: one we were all doomed to fail. In fact, of all the challenges of everyday life in the GDR, this was the one that ground me down the most.
How do you think your status as a foreigner (and particularly, your identity as a Westerner ‘behind the iron curtain’!) impacted upon your experiences in East Germany?
On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.
For the same reason, travel to other countries within the Soviet bloc was difficult. (To be fair, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, it wasn’t straightforward for GDR citizens either.) I had a visa permitting me to travel between the GDR and non-socialist countries as often as I wanted, but no visa permitting me to travel within the Soviet bloc. These days travelling from Dresden to Prague simply involves a train journey of about two and a half hours. Back then when I wanted to visit Prague I was told I’d have to go to East Berlin (a two-hour train journey from Dresden) in order to get a visa to enter Czechoslovakia; but once I was there, the embassy refused to give me that visa because I didn’t yet have a visa to leave the GDR for another socialist state. For this I had to return to Dresden and apply to my local police station, after which I had to go back to East Berlin for my Czechoslovakian visa. And both visas had to be paid for in hard currency, of course. Even once all that was sorted out, the train journey to Prague took a good four hours because of the border – where, of course, the passport and customs officials were particularly interested in the passenger from the West…
I think generally, as Westerners living and working in the GDR, we fell between two stools. In some ways it worked in our favour: we could, after all, nip across the Wall to West Berlin whenever the urge for an orange or some real news became too strong, and we were free to leave permanently whenever we wanted. However, unlike lifelong residents of the GDR, we were entirely dependent on the products available in the shops. People who were permanently resident there often had allotments where they grew their own fruit and veg; or if they weren’t gardeners, they were good at, say, DIY and could repay the favour of a few kilos of soft fruits in the summer by being willing to fix a neighbour’s dodgy plumbing. Partly because of the poor supply situation and partly, too, because of the interminable bureaucracy, GDR life was eased considerably if you had “Vitamin B”, where the B stood for Beziehungen: contacts. But such contacts take time to build up, so we temporary residents were at a disadvantage: a disadvantage that would have immediately disappeared if we’d had enough Western currency, of course!
How aware were you of the Stasi during your period of residence in Dresden?
I was aware of the existence of the Stasi, and I assumed they’d be at least a little bit interested in me, as a Westerner, but back then no one had any sense of the sheer scale of Stasi operations. My approach, especially in my first year there, was to be cautious but not paranoid: after all, I wasn’t spying, I wasn’t trying to foment revolution and I wasn’t a subversive element, so I couldn’t imagine they’d find anything of interest to them even if they were watching me.
That all changed after my then-partner Knut and I applied for permission to marry and for him to leave the GDR and live with me in the UK. We were never in any doubt that this would not endear us to the GDR authorities, and after that I was much more careful about what I wrote and said. We were quite certain that our letters and phone calls to each other would be monitored – and my letters and phone calls home as well – so I began to take the ‘invisible ear’ into account when deciding what to write and say.
Generally I think most East Germans adopted a similar kind of approach to the one I had taken in the early part of my time in Dresden: they would be somewhat cautious about what they would say, and to whom. Publicly people would repeat or even initiate all the slogans and stock phrases required of them, while perhaps taking a decidedly more sceptical tone in private. Among family and close friends people were sometimes surprisingly forthright about their true feelings, though many will have been devastated after the collapse of the GDR to discover the extent to which the Stasi exploited this too.
You recently requested access to your Stasi file. What motivated you to do this and what did this process involve?
For the applicant the process is quite straightforward,: simply complete the form on the website of the BStU, the Germany authority now responsible for managing access to the remaining Stasi files, and then wait. In my case, it didn’t actually take too long – I heard back within two months that there were index cards referencing me and that it was therefore likely there would be a file, and I received my copy of the full file just over a year after that. That may sound a long time, but the usual waiting time is currently at least two, sometimes even three years, simply because there are still so many new applications coming in and the documents can be spread over several different former Stasi offices, which makes tracking them all down a huge task. You also have to bear in mind the sheer size of the archive: some reports say that, if placed upright in a single line, the files would stretch for 80 miles, others that they’d stretch for 120 miles. Whichever is nearer the truth, the scale is truly staggering, especially when you consider that the population of the GDR was less than 17 million.
As for my motivation, I’d always known I’d do it one day. I had always wanted to get a clear picture of the kind of thing the Stasi were interested in, and the extent to which they had had me under surveillance. Most of all, I wanted to see whether I could work out who, if anyone, had been spying on me. I am fascinated by the notion of layers in relationships: the bits that are visible and the bits that are concealed. Was there someone I had thought of as a friend who had actually just been acting a role with me? If so, it would mean that the memories I had of my time in Dresden – my understanding of my own story, if you like – would be at least partially false. This is also a central theme of the novel I am currently writing.
The initial confirmation from the BStU that there probably would be a file on me was a bit of a shock, and had me reaching for the Remy Martin! Which was strange, really, because it was exactly what I’d been expecting (a Westerner who tried to marry a GDR citizen and leave with him: how could there not have been a file on me?), but that first letter from the BStU transformed the thought from the hypothetical to the real, and really did give me a jolt. By the time my file arrived I’d got used to the idea and, perhaps more importantly, had seen a copy of my former partner’s file so already had a bit more of a sense of the kind of thing it was likely to contain. I was still very curious to see it, but nowhere near as agitated as I’d imagined I would be.
Wow – so what kind of information was contained in your file? Were there any surprises? What have you learned from reading it?
There was less in both my own file and that of my then-partner, Knut, than I’d expected, but as I read and digested what was in there, it became clear that we weren’t talking about a “Lives of Others”-style round-the-clock surveillance, but merely the gathering of what might later become the evidence for the prosecution, so to speak. The crimes of which they suspected us were, in Knut’s case, being likely to try to leave the GDR illegally; and in mine, espionage, passing on secret information and – I still can’t quite say or write this without laughing – people-trafficking! And they clearly weren’t interested in anything that might suggest we were not guilty – so no wonder both of our files were relatively short.
The first thing that struck me was that it was clear from both files that they never for one moment gave any consideration whatsoever to granting our application to marry. It clearly never crossed their minds that our relationship might be genuine, even though it is also clear they were monitoring our letters and phone calls, and would therefore have had evidence enough to show that it was. They could have turned the application down right at the start, rather than leaving us in suspense for over a year.
Knut had already been under surveillance before our application, simply because he had the “wrong” friends: two who had emigrated legally to West Germany, and two others who had attempted to escape and had been caught and imprisoned. These four friendships alone were enough to bring him to the attention of the Stasi. Not only that, but to earn him the Stasi code-name of Karzinom: Carcinoma. That, I think, shocked me more than anything else I found in either of our files. The sheer malevolence of that code-name blows any notion of a cold, unemotional, detached state-machine out of the water and suggests real hatred towards those the state considered its enemies. However, my own code-name was Stachel, which means “thorn”, as in “thorn in our side” – and I rather liked that!
In my case, the Stasi had created various index cards with my details on them even before I arrived in the GDR (there were 20 on me in all), but there is little record in my file of any active interest in me before Knut and I submitted our application to marry. Two or three notes make it clear that the Stasi occasionally debriefed an IM (unofficial informer) about me in my first few months in Dresden, but since the file doesn’t go into detail about what was said, I assume they had nothing of interest to tell.
The second thing that stands out in both files was how jumpy the GDR was about our having any contact whatsoever with the British Embassy in East Berlin. I had quite a lot, of course – I generally dropped in there for a decent cup of tea and to read the British newspapers whenever I was in Berlin, and the embassy was also a good source of data and statistics about the UK that proved useful for my teaching. The letter below, which was written in December 1986 and sent between Stasi departments, noted my contacts with the British Embassy, suggested they should be viewed in the light of increased espionage activity on the part of the NATO states, and asked the recipient to consider assigning an IM (unofficial Stasi informant) to me. There is no formal record in my file of this having been done, though there are a few observation sheets from June 1987 that suggest it might have been:
Naturally, once Knut and I had submitted our application to marry and for Knut to join me in the UK, I visited the embassy more often. I had several meetings with officials there, all of them very friendly and positive and, of course, I always told Knut afterwards what had been said. It came as no surprise, of course, to find this information recorded in Knut’s Stasi file, but what was extremely odd was that the file claims it was Knut who had been to the British Embassy and had these discussions with the Consul and others there, which is entirely untrue. Was this a deliberate distortion of the facts in order to make the case against him as damning as possible, or a genuine misunderstanding by the Stasi? I will never know.
Despite its fearsome reputation today, the Stasi was capable of almost farcical incompetence, something which becomes clear from a copy of a second letter that I found in my own file, as shown below. This letter was dated February 1988, and was sent between Stasi divisions in Dresden. It related to something that had happened seven months earlier, in June 1987, when an official at the British Embassy in Prague had been on a visit to Dresden and had, of course, been trailed by the Stasi. According to the letter in my file, he had been seen entering my flat at 6.13 pm, but “no further information concerning the duration of the visit is available”. On the basis of this, the letter asks the recipient to try to investigate the nature of the relationship between the embassy official and me, and the possibility of using me to report to them on his activities:
There is so much about this that is just breathtakingly inept! First, the letter refers to my still being resident in Dresden in February 1988, but by the time it was written I’d been back in the UK for nearly six months, since my GDR visa had expired at the end of August 1987. Secondly, the letter was written less than a month after the GDR had finally deigned to tell Knut that our application to marry and for him to leave had been turned down, so it is safe to say it would have been a particularly unpropitious time to ask me to do the Stasi a favour.
And it gets funnier: when I read this letter in my file I hunted out my 1987 diary and turned to my entry for the day of the embassy official’s visit. Not only had he not been alone when he visited me, his companion was an official from the British Embassy in East Berlin. Given the extreme concern about my contacts with the British Embassy that is apparent in the rest of my file, I am quite sure that the presence in my flat of officials from not one but TWO British Embassies would have left the Stasi hyperventilating, if they’d only known about it! And since both officials entered my flat quite openly and together, I can only assume that whoever had been given the task of trailing the official from Prague that day had taken a very narrow interpretation of his instructions and had seen no reason to mention the existence of a second visitor.
Even more amusingly, my diary reveals that we were only in my flat a very short time before walking to the restaurant of the Interhotel right next to my apartment block, where we spent several hours in full view of anyone who cared to see us, in animated discussion about the GDR, the CSSR, Gorbachev, perestroika, glasnost, the GDR elections and much more besides. One of the very reasons the GDR built so many Interhotels was to make it easy for the Stasi to keep an eye on Western visitors, so really, we couldn’t have made things any easier for them if we’d tried. Yet they still managed to miss all the interesting bits. I am irresistibly reminded of this, possibly the best commercial of all time.
Today, the topic of East Germany still clearly holds a great deal of interest for you. You regularly tweet old photographs and snippets of information about the GDR. What is your aim in doing this?
I just want to give people a glimpse inside a land that few of them will have seen for themselves and which is now gone for ever. I want to give them something that takes them beyond the stereotypes and the clichés and gives them a more rounded sense of a real country where real people led real lives that, in many respects, weren’t so very different from our own. A country where, just as in the West, children played on swings and struggled with their homework, and grown-ups had to buy petrol and scrub the bath and peel potatoes; where, it is true, there were few luxuries and many frustrations, and where non-conformity could be dangerous, but where people also tried to get on in their careers, raised families, had friends round for supper, built sandcastles, swept the front path and baked cakes …
There’s no hidden message in my tweets and I actively avoid giving my personal opinion in them wherever possible. I’m not interested in either demonising or sanitising the GDR. I just want to convey a sense of what it felt like to live there: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always real.
I think it’s unfortunate that today, so many people seem to want to deal exclusively in black and white. While there were aspects of the GDR that were, in my view, inexcusable, and I would never wish to downplay the persecution of those who dared to express thoughts and pursue goals that did not conform to the state ideology, it was not (for most people) the relentlessly grim and terrifying place of Cold War propaganda; and while there was also a great deal that I remember with fondness, nor was it the paradise on Earth that many of the Ostalgiker would have us believe. The reality was far more varied, far more complex and, above all, far more interesting. That’s what I try to convey through my tweets.
A lot of your tweets relate to everyday life in the GDR. Why do you think it’s important for people to know about everyday life under communism, as well as focusing on the ‘high politics’ of the Cold War?
Any study of an era that excludes the daily experiences of the people who lived in it must inevitably be incomplete, and why should anyone with any interest in the subject be satisfied with that? But for me the main motivation is quite simply fascination with the subject. The GDR existed until less than 25 years ago. Less than 25 years ago, it was right on the front line of the Cold War. Less than 25 years ago people risked being imprisoned or even shot simply for trying to leave their country: and this just 600 miles – a couple of hours’ flight – from London. This is very recent history, and for those of us in the UK, very local history too. Before the fall of the Wall the GDR was shrouded in mystery because the Iron Curtain put it beyond reach. It seems ironic to me, and also rather sad, that it largely remains shrouded in mystery because in the rush to reunification so much seems to have been erased from view.
I am also fascinated by the apparent split personality of the GDR: for me, and I think for many others who lived there too, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. There was much that I loved and valued and feel nostalgic for; but also much that I hated and am glad has gone.
That’s interesting – so what do you think about the legacy of the GDR today, and the notion of Ostalgie? Do you think it is true to say that there is still an East/West divide evident in Germany today?
I think the East/West divide is still very marked in Germany today, in all sorts of ways: a variety of reports suggest that incomes are still markedly lower in the East; unemployment higher; life expectancy shorter. And, according to this Gallup poll, people in the East feel they are having a harder time of things in general. It was interesting to see the results of last year’s Bundestag election too: while the results overall gave the right-of-centre CDU victory in most areas, both West and East, the image below showing the proportions of second votes for the far-left Die Linke party indicates far higher support in the East. I know that friends of mine in the East still feel that West Germans look down on them and, for instance, that they are at a disadvantage when competing for jobs or contracts in the West. The divide is most certainly still there.
As for Ostalgie, this comes in a variety of forms, I think. Humans are prone to nostalgia, of course, and nostalgia isn’t known for sharpening the accuracy of our memories: how many of us don’t secretly hold to the view that our childhood summers were sunnier and our Christmases more snowy? But I suspect that, in the case of the GDR, nostalgia is being exacerbated by the feeling among some former citizens that the world they grew up in hasn’t just been left behind by time but has been deliberately destroyed.
The most conspicuous kind of Ostalgie is the pure, un-nuanced version, which simply holds that everything damals (“back then”) was better. There are countless such groups on Facebook, where, if you were to believe everything you read, you would be convinced that everything damals tasted better, no one went without anything, the queues and the patchy supply situation only made shopping more interesting, the Trabant was the best car in the world, industrial pollution didn’t harm anyone, people rarely fell ill, national service in the army was the best laugh ever, and people who fell foul of the Stasi must have done something to deserve it. I have even seen a number of comments suggesting that we shouldn’t make such a fuss about people shot at the Wall, because they knew what the risks were and had only themselves to blame. Everything was for the best, in the best of all possible GDRs.
Personally, while sharing the nostalgia for some aspects of the GDR (if offered a trip in a time machine, I would set the dial firmly for Dresden 1985 and zoom back there like a shot; not because it was so wonderful, but because it was so interesting), I have little patience with those who are determined to whitewash history so completely.
However, there is also a more nuanced form of Ostalgie which I think is more defensible and represents a much more serious challenge to the reunified Germany. One of the enduring resentments felt by many in the East is that, whereas what they wanted was a genuine unification – a new Germany comprising the best aspects of both republics – what actually happened felt more like a takeover, or even a conquest. There was an assumption on the part of West Germany that everyone in the East accepted that the West was superior in all respects; and I think that assumption was largely false. There were many things about the GDR that much of the population genuinely valued: low rents, full employment, state childcare, good schools. It wasn’t that most GDR citizens despised socialism and longed to be plunged into full-on capitalism: what many of them wanted was not primarily a higher standard of living but more personal freedom. And while reunification has given them that, it has also brought with it a whole raft of problems that were unknown in the GDR, where virtually no one needed to worry about not being able to afford the basic necessities, and where there wasn’t the endless pressure to consume, consume, consume. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that some people in the East feel alienated in the new Germany, or that Ostalgie groups regularly talk about having had their Heimat (‘Homeland’) taken away from them.
Finally, I should, of course, add that Ostalgie is far from universal. There are some who were treated appallingly by the GDR state and who hate every reminder of it; and many more who have embraced the freedoms and opportunities brought by reunification that they would never have experienced under the old GDR regime. As with most things about the GDR, the Ostalgie phenomenon is more complex than it may at first appear.
Many thanks, Paula!
The recent NSA scandal has triggered comparisons with the East German Stasi, demonstrating that even twenty five years after the collapse of the GDR the Stasi still act as a a default global synonym for the modern police state. In this blog post, guest author Rachel Clark, a final year History student at Leeds Metropolitan University, explores the intrusive methods used by the Stasi in their ruthless and relentless pursuit to ‘know everything about everyone’ in the GDR.
‘Everything about everyone’: the depth of Stasi surveillance in the GDR.
By Rachel Clark.
The whistle-blower scandal currently dominating the USA has resulted in some uncomfortable comparisons being drawn between the actions of the US National Security Agency and the activities of the East German Stasi, arguably the most formidable security service in modern European history. One former Stasi officer has even commented that ‘The National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance capabilities would have been ‘a dream come true’ for East Germany. NSA supporters have emphasised the necessary role that the agency plays to protect national security interests, whereas the Stasi’s sole objective was to act as the ‘sword and shield’ of the East German communist party and ensure their continued supremacy. In order to fulfil this role, the Stasi developed an extensive range of highly intrusive methods.
Stasi Surveillance Tactics
The establishment of communist regimes across Eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War II led to a severe expansion of domestic security services as these ‘overt socialist dictatorships’ required complete ideological compliance from the populations under their authority. The East German Ministry of State Security (MfS), otherwise known as the Stasi, was founded in 1950, and would soon go on to develop a fearsome reputation both within and beyond the GDR.
The Stasi aimed to rigidly monitor and ruthlessly suppress any potential dissent or non-conformity. In the Stasi mindset, knowledge was power, and inStasiland Anna Funder describes how the Stasi strove to ‘know everything about everyone’, scrutinising not only the political conduct of suspected opponents but also their personal lives, infiltrating leisure clubs and social societies, their working lives, and even studying their sexual habits. The 2006 thriller The Lives of Others depicts Stasi surveillance tactics in East Berlin, as the film’s protagonist, Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler rigorously monitors his allocated target by eavesdropping on and recording their most private moments, including their personal conversations, telephone calls, and even their lovemaking. Gerd Wiesler effectively illustrates how the Stasi operated with no limits to privacy and had no shame when it came to protecting the party and the state.
Stasi tactics involved serious breaches of privacy, but the organization simply operated ‘above the law’. Various methods of comprehensive surveillance and control over communication were utilised by the MfS, including the opening of personal mail and the tapping of telephone calls, and by the 1960s 3,000 Stasi officers had been assigned to telephone surveillance. Personal correspondence was opened religiously, with little effort made to disguise mail that had been tampered with. Julia, a citizen of the former GDR who was placed under intense Stasi surveillance due to her a relationship with an Italian man, described to Funder how her letters used to frequently arrive ripped open, with stickers claiming they had been ‘damaged in transit’ (Stasiland). Recording devices were secretly installed in suspected dissident’s homes and regular ‘home intrusions’ (apartment searches) were conducted while residents were out, although the Stasi often deliberately left discreet signs of their presence, designed to intimidate the individual they were monitoring.
Ulrike Poppe became one of the most heavily targeted individuals in the GDR due to her unrelenting support for democracy, and she was intimidated and harassed by the Stasi on a daily basis. Poppe recalls how Stasi officers often flattened her bicycle tyres and due to their desire to acquire as much information about her as possible, the homes of her friends and acquaintances were bugged and cameras were installed across the street from her apartment. This level of personal persecution was a tactic often utilised against Stasi targets, as they endeavoured to strike fear and unease into all sectors of society. The Stasi’s relentless methods were somewhat of an ‘open secret’ among the GDR populace, most of whom became resigned to living under the ever-watchful eye of the organisation.
Such a wealth of information resulted in the formation of files containing remarkably detailed descriptions of citizen’s lives. After the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the MfS, the Gauck Agency (BStU) seized control of these files and early in 1992 public bodies and individuals were access to these surveillance records. 180 kilometers of files, 35 million other documents, photos, sound documents, and tapes of telephone conversations were released for public viewing. This exposed the depth of observation that East German citizens had been subjected to, highlighting the shocking crimes and breaches of privacy committed by the Stasi. Historian Timothy Garton-Ash was conducting research for his PhD in East Berlin in 1978, and as a western intellectual he was closely observed by the MfS. In 1997, having accessed his file, Garton-Ash authored a book The File: A Personal History, describing his experiences with the Stasi and recording how he had been ‘deeply stirred’ by reading his file, a ‘minute-by-minute record’ of his time in Berlin’. After reading her file, Ulrike Poppe was also surprised by the depth of Stasi knowledge, everything had been recorded, no matter how trivial, as her file contained a record of her every movement and was full of ‘just junk’.
Ardagh estimates that secret files were kept on about one citizen in three, highlighting the enormity of the Stasi library. In order to gather such extensive amounts of information, the MfS established an immense network, comprised of both fulltime, paid Stasi officers and a large quantity of informers. At the height of Stasi dominance shortly before the collapse of communism in 1989, estimates suggest there were a staggering 97,000 people employed by the MfS with an additional 173,000 informers living amongst the populace, resulting in an unprecedented ratio of one Stasi officer for every sixty-three individuals. If unpaid informers are included in these figures, the ratio could have been as high as one in five. (Figures from Ardagh, Germany and the Germans and Funder, Stasiland).
It was the widespread recruitment of Inoffizielle Mitarbeiters (IM’s, or ‘unofficial collaborators’), that allowed the Stasi to construct such an impressive
army of spies and conduct such intense levels of surveillance. The recruitment of informers enabled the Stasi to infiltrate all aspects of daily life. In the GDR ‘everyone suspected everyone else, and the mistrust this bred was the foundation of social existence’ (Stasiland p.28). Former citizens of the GDR often say that the most distressing element of retrieving ones Stasi file was the revelation that trusted friends, family members and colleagues had been secretly relaying information about them to the MfS. Though such a revelation is obviously upsetting, Dennis argues that a large number of IM’s were blackmailed or coerced by the Stasi (Stasi, p.243). Potential IM’s were subject to strict Stasi scrutiny to ensure they were ‘appropriate’ targets and all of their personal details would be closely examined, including their sexual behavior. Any potential ‘flaw’ uncovered could serve as a means of blackmail to ‘persuade’ potential recruits to inform on others; again illustrating the famed Stasi obsession for personal information.
A Modern Day Stasi?
The Stasi operated with cunning and coercion and their intense levels of intimidation and surveillance successfully created a culture of fear in the GDR. Following the East German uprising of June 1953 the GDR was often perceived as ‘one of the most quiescent’ of the east bloc states (Anatomy of a Dictatorship, p.5) and it is significant that there were no further outbreaks of mass political stability until communism collapsed in November 1989. The fearsome reputation of the East German state security survived the collapse of communism and the end of the GDR itself, as shown by the fact that contemporary security establishments such as NSA are likened to a ‘modern-day Stasi State’. In today’s increasingly digital age, some of the old Stasi surveillance tactics such as opening letters seem a little out-dated, but the digital advances of the twenty first century pose some interesting debates as it can be suggested that today’s technological capabilities may succeed is making the modern populace as vulnerable to personal infiltration as those who lived under the Stasi. Perhaps we should consider whether hacking email accounts, Facebook ‘stalking’, CCTV surveillance and GPS tracking are really so far-removed from tearing open letters and tailing individuals as they go about their daily activities?
About the Author:
Rachel Clark has recently completed her BA in History at Leeds Metropolitan University and will graduate with First Class Honours later this month. During her final year of study, Rachel studied the history of twentieth century East Central Europe, specialising on the role of the Stasi for one of her research essays. Her final year dissertation, which researched the treatment of shell-shock in the First World War, was awarded the class prize. Rachel plans to spend the next year travelling and hopes to continue her academic studies at postgraduate level when she returns.
Curry, C. (2008) ‘Piecing Together the Dark Legacy of East Germany’s Secret Police’, Wired Magazine
Dennis, M. (2003) The Stasi: Myth and Reality Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Fulbrook, M. (1995) Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989 Oxford: Oxford University Press. .
Funder, A. (2003) Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall London: Granta Publications.
Funder, A. (2007) ‘Tyranny of Terror’, The Guardian
Garton-Ash, T. (2007) ‘The Stasi on Our Minds’, New York Review of Books
Ghouas, N. (2004) The Conditions, Means and Methods of the MfS in the GDR; An Analysis of the Post and Telephone Control Gottingen: Cuvillier Verlag.
Koehler, J, O. (1999) Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police Colorado: Westview Press.
Pittaway, M. (2004) Brief Histories: Eastern Europe 1939-2000 London: Hodder Arnold.
A few weeks ago I was interviewed for ‘The Degner Defection’ – a BBC Radio 4 feature that told the little known story of East German motorcycle racer Ernst Degner and his daring defection to the West at the height of the Cold War. The programme aired on Monday 13th February.
A rising star in the GDR, Ernst Degner was determined to win but was also increasingly determined to escape from the repressive East German regime. After forming an alliance with Jimmy Matsumiya, a ‘fixer’ from the Japanese Suzuki team, Degner defected during the Swedish Grand Prix in September 1961. This was the race where Degner could have secured the 1961 125cc World Championship for himself, and for East German team MZ, but his engine failed early in the race, leading to charges that he had deliberately sabotaged his bike to facilitate his escape. Degner’s defection was fraught with risks coming so soon after the German border closure and construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. His family also narrowly escaped, after his wife drugged their two sons and concealed them in the boot of a car to smuggle them through the border crossing into the West.
Degner not only successfully escaped along with his family, but also took much of MZ engineer Walter Kaaden’s pioneering technology with him, and the following year Degner went on to win the 1962 50cc world championship for Suzuki. However many aspects of Degner’s life (and his tragic death in a Tenerife hotel room in 1983) remain shrouded in mystery and controversy.
‘The Degner Defection’ features personal testimony from Degner’s family, his former competitors and many of those who worked with him on the race circuit, mixed with expert analysis from Stasiland author Anna Funder, racing commentator Murray Walker, and myself – you can hear me briefly talking about the construction of the Berlin Wall and the political climate in Germany in 1961. If you missed the 30 minute programme when it aired on Radio 4 on Monday 13th February, it is still available to listen online via the Radio 4 Homepage and on BBC iplayer. It’s a fascinating story of a daring defection at the height of the Cold War, amidst espionage and double dealing, all taking place in one of the world’s most dangerous sporting arenas, so is well worth a listen! Also, look out for a future guest authored blog post coming soon here at The View East, written by producer James Roberts, who will be sharing some of the additional information that his research into Degner’s story uncovered!
The past few days have seen a series of fresh revelations about the notorious East German Secret Police – the Stasi. Firstly, previously classified documents released from the Stasi archive have revealed that East German officials were secretly negotiating the extradition of notorious Nazi War Criminal Alois Brunner from Syria during the 1980s, an event which failed to transpire due to the revolution of 1989. However, the West German intelligence agency BND also recently admitted to the shredding of a 518 page secret file on Brunner during the 1990s, leading to claims of a cover up and allegations that Brunner may have been working as an informant for the BND after he became resident in Syria in the 1950s in return for high level ‘protection’.
Secondly, evidence has emerged to suggest that the Stasi may have played a larger role in the 1967 shooting of student Benno Ohnesorg than previously thought, an event which is widely credited as the catalyst for the radicalisation of the West German left. Karl-Heinz Kurras, the Berlin policeman who shot Ohnesorg had previously been ‘outed’ as a Stasi agent in 2009, a development which spawned a new investigation into Ohensorg’s death. Now a leaked prosecutor’s report has claimed that Kurras fired at Ohensorg deliberately. The report has also given rise to claims that that Horst Mahler – a founding member of the radical Baader-Meinhof gang, who conducted a violent terrorist campaign during the 1970s, during which time many of their members were given refuge in the GDR – also worked as an inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (informal collaborator) for the Stasi until 1970.
However, my favourite Stasi-related story this week has to be the publication of this collection of archived images. The photographs, unearthed from the Stasi archive by photographer Simon Menner and published this week by Spiegel Online, were originally taken as part of a course designed to teach Stasi officers ‘the art of disguise’ and show individuals clad in various guises!
[For a wider selection of photos see Spiegel Online. The photographs are currently on display in a Berlin exhibition, ‘Pictures from the Secret Stasi Archives’]
These photos are rather amusing, reminiscent of bad 1980s spy movies involving secret agents with fake moustaches who look anything but inconspicuous – and having viewed the photos, I couldn’t help but conclude that had I been a citizen of the former GDR I probably would have suspected anybody who wore sunglasses of being a Stasi officer! Other photographs in the collection have more sinister undertones however, including photographs of private homes – taken before the Stasi conducted secret searches, in order to document the rooms so that they could later be restored exactly to their previous condition to hide any traces of their presence.
In her book Stasiland, Anna Funder also discusses the art of Stasi disguise; describing the boxes of fake wigs and moustaches and the list of coded observation signals discovered in the old Stasi offices after the revolution of 1989, leading her to liken the Stasi to ‘rather nasty boy scouts’. In a meeting with one former Stasi officer, Herr Christian, Funder describes how he demonstrated ‘a sense of fun’ about his former occupation. Part of his account is reproduced here:
“There are parts of it [working for the Stasi] that were fun though … I think I had the only job in the world where I got to go into a warehouse each morning and decide, ‘who will I be today?’”[He laughs] “I got to choose a disguise. Sometimes I’d be a park ranger – that was a green uniform, sometimes a garbage collector in overalls, or someone come to repair the wiring. I really liked being a Western tourist because the clothes were much better quality – real leather gloves – and I got to drive a Mercedes, or at least a VW Golf … But do you know what was best? Best of all was when I’d dress up as a blind man: I’d have the cane, the glasses, the armband with three dots. Sometimes I’d even get a girl as a guide on my arm. I’d have to remember to take my watch off though! Yes, being a blind man is the best way to observe people…”
Herr Christian goes on to confess that he still works as a private detective today, so is ‘pretty much doing the same job now as back then’. And Herr Christian is by no means an isolated case – after the fall of the Berlin Wall tens of thousands of ex-Stasi men sought alternative employment as private detectives, security agents and policemen (see this Spiegel article on ‘Stasi Recycling’ for more details). So, even today, many former Stasi agents seem to have found it difficult to leave their former ‘spy games’ behind.
For a full review of Anna Funder’s Stasiland, see my previous blog post here
For more on the Stasi, see the previous post by guest author David Cook ‘Living with the Enemy: Informing the Stasi’.
The East German State Security Service, commonly known as the Stasi, was founded in February 1950. For forty years, the Stasi maintained a frightening reputation for surveillance, infiltration and terror, leading Historian Timothy Garton Ash to comment that the word ‘Stasi’ has become ‘a global synonym for the secret police terrors of communism’. The tentacles of Stasi power and influence were so far reaching that it was recently revealed that the Stasi had even compiled a secret dossier on Erich Honecker, leader of the GDR 1971 – 1989; using information obtained about Honecker’s attempts to collaborate with the Nazis during the Second World War to force him to resign in October 1989. In January 1990, shortly after the collapse of communism in the GDR, crowds of protestors stormed and occupied the Stasi headquarters in Berlin; an act symbolising the people’s victory over one of the greatest evils of state socialism in the GDR. The Stasi kept meticulous records about those placed under surveillance, with over 180km of shelved Stasi files surviving the collapse of the GDR. In the post-communist years this information was declassified and between 1992 and 2011 an estimated 2.75 individuals have requested access to their files. In many instances people discovered that people they had trusted – family members, close friends, neighbours and work colleagues – had worked as informants for the Stasi. In this article, guest author David Cook explores the key role played by Stasi informers in the GDR, considering the motivations of those who agreed to work with the Stasi and the impact of popular participation on wider society.
Living with the Enemy: Informing the Stasi in the GDR.
By David Cook.
The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was the golden child of the Soviet Union, often portrayed as the torch bearer for the communist system around the world. Yet its people still could not be allowed the freedom to air their individual opinions, the views of the state were final and absolute, and to contradict the party was considered no less serious a crime than treason itself. A powerful police organ was needed to keep the people in check, a progenitor of fear that would bend the populace to the will of the state. In the GDR the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS), commonly known as the Stasi, was the tool used to attempt to mould the East German people to the Communist Party’s (SED) requirements. However, police and party pressure alone is not enough to oppress an entire country; popular participation is ultimately key to any regime’s survival. In the case of the GDR, its own people helped to maintain the party’s power through their role as police informers. Informers played a crucial role, acting as a vital cog in the vast machinery of the East German police state; both responding to and perpetuating the climate of fear that permeated throughout East German society.
By 1989, when the Berlin Wall collapsed and communism in East Germany came to an end, it is estimated that the MfS had 97,000 official employees as well as approximately 173,000 unofficial informers. Roughly this translated as a ratio of one agent per 63 of the population, a position far in advance of the Soviet Union’s KGB, that even at its height could only manage one per 5830 people (Figures taken from Anna Funder, Stasiland, Granta: 2004). The Stasi amounted to a small army infiltrating the very fabric of the communist regime, whose sole purpose was the surveillance and repression of the East German people. Fear of the state – and of the Stasi as a tool of state control – was widespread, and this terror was used as a vital tool in the creation of a malleable citizenry.
There were a variety of things that could bring a person to the attention of the Stasi. Once the MfS had targeted a suspect the goal was often to engender self-doubt in that person, to prevent them from living any semblance of a normal life, and if indeed they were guilty of some form of ‘subversion’, to encourage them to further implicate and discredit themselves. Ulrike Poppe was one such individual whose work in dissident peace and feminist movements were deemed to be a threat to the stability of communist East Germany by the Stasi. Between 1973 – 1989, Poppe was arrested a total of 14 times. For 15 years she was placed under surveillance, followed by her own personal MfS agent and subjected to daily harassment. In this way the Stasi undermined their targets’ self-confidence and peace of mind, rather than physically beating them. Although physical coercion was employed by the Stasi, the evidence indicates that they often preferred to utilise more ‘subtle’ (but equally effective) means of psychological torture. Isolation, sleep deprivation, disorientation, humiliation, restriction of food and water and ominous threats against the subject and their families combined with promises of leniency if they ‘confessed’ were all commonly cited interrogation tactics. The MfS was not concerned with human rights and paid no more than lip service to the notion of a democratic legal process and legitimate trials, as illustrated by the head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, who maintained a policy of: ‘Execution, if necessary without a court verdict.’
One victim’s memories of Hohenschönhausen, the feared Stasi prison in East Berlin:
For the police state to function fully however, participation from amongst the populace was key. Their vital tool here was to be the Inofizelle Mitarbeiter (I.M). IMs were unofficial collaborators who informed on work colleagues, friends, and even their own spouses. Informers were a part of everyday life, supplying the Stasi with the banal trivialities that they deemed necessary to neutralise their targets. During the lifespan of the communist regime in East Germany it is estimated from existing archival material that there were up to 500,000 informers active at various times. Or more starkly one in 30 of the population had worked for the Stasi by the fall of the GDR. Informers were controlled by their own special department, HA IX (Main Department 9), often referred to as ‘the centre of the inquisition.’
People were not often willing informers however, and it would be wrong to accuse the majority of East Germans of freely consenting to work with the Stasi. Motives for becoming an informer appear to be numerous, and this topic has provided the basis for many historical works. Yet as crucial as they were to the oppression of the population, what drove so many East Germans to inform on their own people? Robert Gellately in his article, Denunciation in 20th Century Germany, posits a view of a ‘culture of denunciation’ that was a hangover from the Nazi period. People became I.Ms for a number of reasons in his view: for personal gain; so visits to the West would be granted; from a desire to change the system from within; or in the majority of cases through blackmail and coercion by the Stasi. Fear then, was also used as a tool to recruit informers from the general populace.
Timothy Garton Ash’s book, The File, is based on his own personal Stasi file as he tracks down and talks to many of those that informed on him, noting the motivations behind their actions. Each of the informers exhibits differing reasons for their collaboration, all of which are covered by Gellately’s theory. ‘Michaela’ was an art director and as such was encouraged to inform on those the Stasi deemed interesting in order to make her job easier. Visas enabling visits to art exhibits in the West or much needed budget increases could be obtained in exchange for information. Whilst ‘Michalea’ was an example of someone working for the police state for personal gain, two other examples in Garton Ash’s book were recruited through blackmail. ‘Schuldt’ was persuaded to become an informer due to fear of his homosexuality being made public and his life ruined; ‘Smith’ on the other hand collaborated to prove his innocence in the face of accusations of being a Western spy. In this way the Stasi was able to build up a frighteningly vast network of informers utilised to collate data on anyone deemed of interest to the state.
Fear, as illustrated in the cases of ‘Smith’ and ‘Schuldt’, was the most powerful weapon possessed by the Stasi. It was a weapon they utilised freely, creating large networks of informers and ensuring the system survived. The MfS were the source of this fear in society at large, creating a resigned conformity amongst the masses that kept them subordinate to the whims of the SED. This is the crucial role played by the security apparatus in a truly repressive police state. Without the conformity of the lower levels of society the system would have collapsed. The majority of the population learned, from a dread of the consequences, to live with this authority in return for living a semblance of a peaceful life. Reicker, Schwarz and Schneider describe the day to day life of a GDR citizen as such: ‘The daily lie, which everyone participated in to some extent … Once you learn to accept the big political lie you allow yourself little lies in other places. Unconsciously.’ It was this willingness by the German population to be subjected to authority, and the all powerful nature of the MfS, that Funder argues led to the relatively low level dissident movement within the GDR.
Everyday life was pervaded by the party ideology, the individual was disregarded and the regime elevated above it. Virtually no corner of life was left untouched by the influence of the party and its ‘guard dog’, the Stasi. The security apparatus infiltrated and manipulated the educational sector; determining who could study at university and which subjects were ‘suitable’ for academic research and teaching, with almost a quarter of staff at the East German Humboldt university in the Stasi’s employ. All communication in and out of the communist state was monitored and intercepted by the MfS. In East Berlin, 25 phone stations enabled the tapping of up to 20,000 calls simultaneously. Figures show that 2,300 telegrams a day were read by the Stasi in 1983 alone. Interception of packages also proved to be a favoured method of state security, and one that provided rich dividends. Estimates taken from surviving archival material put the figure of currency seized by the MfS as equalling 32.8 million DM. (Figures taken from Mike Dennis, The Stasi: Myth and Reality, Longman: 2003)
Life was controlled by the MfS and the SED, with all methods utilised to prevent contact with the western world. People adapt however, and East Germans developed ‘coping mechanisms’. Secret codes and gestures were developed to indicate when known Stasi informers or operatives were nearby. Even today the terror of the MfS remains a powerful force in the everyday life of former GDR citizens, acting as a kind of ‘wall in the mind’. Claudia Rusch, the daughter of an East German dissident, leaves no doubt as to the GDR’s status as a police state in her description of life under the former regime:
“That was the real strength of the state security; to produce the effect that millions of people behaved towards one another with anxiety, self-control and suspicion. They ensured that if you told a political joke you automatically lowered your voice. Anticipatory obedience spread through every sinew of society and intimidated a whole nation”.
(Claudia Rusch, quoted in Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State, Yale University Press: 2005)
The people of East Germany were browbeaten by the Stasi’s propagation of fear, its far reaching tentacles spread through society in the form of informers hidden in plain sight. Any person deemed of particular interest had an MfS file which would contain an almost minute-by-minute account of the suspect’s life, from which the MfS could create any motive for action they deemed necessary. Fear pervaded all aspects of life in the GDR, the population cowed by the threat of MfS reprisal, unable to build the foundations for an opposition movement. In the pursuit of blanket surveillance of the population, the Stasi gained a terrifying level of power over the East German people and could manipulate them at their whim. Agents of the state were everywhere, in the workplace, the classroom and even sleeping in the same bed. In this way conformity was enforced through implicit, rather than explicit terror.
About the Author:
David Cook has just completed his BA (Hons) in History at Swansea University, graduating with first-class honours in July 2011. During the final year of his study he specialised in the study of Cold War Eastern Europe. Following university David plans to travel, before eventually undertaking a Masters degree in History.
For more information on this topic see:
Timothy Garton Ash, The File: A Personal History, (London: Atlantic Books, 2009)
Mary Fulbrook, Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)
Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Hoenecker, (London:YaleUniversity Press, 2005)
Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, (London: Granta Books, 2004)
The influence of popular culture was viewed as dangerous and potentially subversive in communist Eastern Europe (as previously discussed on The View East here). Consequently, the regimes in power attempted to monitor and control the music scene. Musicians were faced with high levels of censorship, while those who were unwilling to conform to state restrictions frequently became targets for harassment and repression. This article, by guest author James Shingler, considers the impact of popular music in the GDR during the 1970s and 1980s. By exploring the changing relationship between state authorities, musicians and music fans in the GDR during the latter decades of communist rule, James suggests that by the end of the 1980s the music scene had become an important platform for promoting reform and resistance.
Rocking the Wall: East German Rock and Pop in the 1970s and 1980s
By James Shingler.
Throughout the forty years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) viewed the impact of popular music on East German youth culture with a mixture of suspicion, distain and hostility. The official view promoted by the SED was that popular music was nothing more than a dangerous American cultural weapon designed to corrupt its young people, turning them away from socialist ideals. The cultural, economic and political freedoms expressed through Western popular music were of great concern to the Party, so as the Cold War developed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the SED increasingly took a hard line towards popular music. However, the early 1970s saw a relaxation of the hard line policies that the SED had implemented in the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than outright repression, the official policy became one of attempted cooperation between the Party, musicians and fans. The accession of Eric Honecker as General Secretary in 1971, combined with a period of détente in the Cold War, led to some liberalization of popular music in the early 1970s.
The early 1970s saw the official release of records by a number of Western artists in the GDR, including The Beatles and Bob Dylan as well as home grown rock bands such as The Klaus Renft Combo and The Puhdys on the state record label AMIGA. East German rock music developed its own distinctive style and grew rapidly throughout the 1970s. The SED actively encouraged musicians, so long as they were prepared to comply with the Party line, something which was policed by the requirement for a state-issued Auftrittserserlaubnis (performance permission) to allow groups to play publicly. Political controls over the media, such as the 60/40 clause (which stated that 60% of all music broadcast or performed had to come from the GDR or other Socialist States); the fact that Western bands were not permitted to play in East Germany and the state monopoly over the production and distribution of records meant that ‘approved’ East German rock bands were essentially ‘protected’ against foreign competition.
However, state policy remained restrictive and was frustrating to those artists who expressed themselves in a way that the SED disapproved of. Song lyrics would be examined by officials before artists were permitted to release their records on AMIGA. Failure to comply with official guidelines had far reaching consequences as illustrated by the case of the Klaus Renft Combo who were banned in 1975. On 22 September 1975, the band were summoned to the Ministry of Culture to perform in order to have their Auftrittserserlaubnis renewed. On arrival however, the band were told by a member of the committee that ‘we are here to inform you today, that you don’t exist anymore’. The committee told the band that their lyrics ‘had absolutely nothing to do with socialist reality… the working class is insulted and the state and defence organisations are defamed’. In the aftermath of the hearing the band discovered that not only were they unable to perform concerts, but that the Ministry of Culture had reprinted the entire AMIGA catalogue so they could leave the band out. As Renft acknowledged ‘we simply did not exist anymore … just like in Orwell’ (Klaus Renft speaking to Anna Funder, Stasiland, Granta: 2004). Shortly after the hearing Renft defected to West Germany where he found employment as a radio DJ. Two of his colleagues in the band, Gerulf Pannach and Christian Kunert, were less fortunate and were imprisoned until 1977 when West Germany bought their freedom.
The Klaus Renft Combo, a successful East German rock band who were banned by the authorities in 1975:
The early 1980s marked a high point for indigenous popular music in the GDR with bands such as The Puhdys, City, Karat and Silly achieving widespread popularity. These bands wrote their own music and sang in German, in stark contrast to earlier groups who had largely replicated songs by Anglo-American artists, and held relatively privileged positions in the GDR music scene, as reisefähige (travel-capable) bands. This led to limited musical exchange between East and West Germany, with The Puhdys, City and Karat permitted to tour inWest Germany, while the SED also allowed a limited number of Western artists to play in the GDR.
The Puhdys, an indigenous East German rock band, were widely tolerated by the authorities:
Regardless of the privileged positions that these bands held, they still were subjected to a lyrical tightrope between expression and censorship, which meant that any critical sentiments had to be concealed. According to Toni Krahl, the guitarist and singer of City‘every line was weighed and politically sounded out… not only by the censors, but also by the audience’. Maas and Hartmut state that ‘the poetry of GDR-rock was highly developed and the audience became use to reading between the lines’ (Maas, Georg and Reszel, Hartmut, ‘Whatever Happened to…: The Decline and Renaissance of Rock in the Former GDR’, Popular Music, 17/3 (1988), pp. 267-278). Despite the popularity of these bands they received criticism from punk and dance fans who suspected that established rock musicians were too close to the powerful. The biggest GDR musicians thus found themselves stuck in the middle of conflict between the Party and young people. As Olaf Leitner states ‘the leadership [the SED] demanded conformity, the fans opposition’ (Olaf Leitner, ‘Rock Music in the GDR: An Epitaph’, in Ramet, S.P (ed.), Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia, Westview Press: 1994).
While more mainstream artists enjoyed relative success and freedom, the early 1980s also saw the emergence of a distinctive GDR punk rock scene, which was quickly dismissed by the SED and the FDJ as subversive and a dangerous phenomenon. The East German punk scene differed from Western punk; according to Patricia Simpson in Britain and the United States punk was seen as a response to ‘unemployment, to middle-class lifestyles, ethics, and privilege, and to cultural boredom’. Punk bands such as The Sex Pistols and The Clash in the UK and The Ramones and The Dead Kennedys in the US ‘adopted forms of an ideology that was anti-ideological and behaviour that mocked approved social customs and manners by inverting gestures of the socially acceptable’. Conversely, punk in the GDR adapted the sound and fashion of Western punk to the political, social and cultural environment that existed in East Germany at the time. Simpson argues that, ‘with no official unemployment to complain about, for example, GDR punk instead negated the prevailing work ethic, whose purpose was to maintain freedom or strengthen socialism’. In the West, punk was viewed as a nihilistic movement where as in the GDR, punk was fuelled by optimism and an aspiration to revolutionise society (Patricia Simpson, ‘Germany and Its Discontents: Die Skeptiker’s Punk Corrective’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 34/3 (2000), pp. 129–140).
East German punks remained on the outskirts of mainstream society; a Stasi report from 1981 estimated that there were around 1,000 punks and 10,000 sympathisers in the GDR (Mike Dennis, The Stasi: Myth and Reality, Pearson: 2003). Punk was primarily an underground movement; many bands performed concerts in their own garages and recorded and distributed their music on self made cassettes. However, as the movement grew, Stasi agents were increasingly able to infiltrate the punk scene. As with jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and beat music fans in the 1950s and 1960s, punks were subjected to a campaign of repression from 1981 onwards, involving the usual Stasi tactics of arrests, interrogations and prison sentences. The SED associated punks with degeneracy, especially in their appearance, believing that their scruffy clothes and dyed hair portrayed an aggressive, provocative manner. A Mohican hairstyle was often sufficient for a punk to be hauled into custody by the police. The Stasi banned punk bands viewed as hostile toward the GDR. In August 1983, members of the East Berlin punk group Namenlos were arrested and sentenced to between 12 and 18 months in prison for ‘disparaging the state’. Members of the punk scene were also routinely recruited by the Stasi as Inoffizieller Mitarbeiters (Unofficial Collaborators) to report on other punks. In the mid 1980s Frank Zappe, bass player in Leipzig based band Wutanfall was recruited by the Stasi as an Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter after a period of sustained pressure. Zappe talks about his experiences with the Stasi in the video below:
The Stasi were so successful in infiltrating the punk scene that one punk band in Jena consisted entirely of Inoffizieller Mitarbeiters! The late 1980s saw a shift in Party policy in relation to punk as certain groups, such as Die Skeptiker were professionalised by the State. Just as it had done with rock groups in the 1970s and early 1980s the Party offered support to punk bands in the form of recognition, record contracts, and sponsorship of the FDJ, in return for their compliance.
The Beginning of the End
By the late 1980s, there were a number of different musical styles that were fashionable within the East German music scene. There were around 400 professional groups in the GDR ranging from mainstream rock groups such as The Puhdys and Silly to the punk rock and heavy metal of Feeling B and Prinzip. However, East German music fans also had a healthy appetite for Western popular music. A small section of records by Western artists deemed acceptable by the SED including Phil Collins, Michael Jackson and Santana were released on AMIGA throughout the 1980s. However, these records were only released in small numbers and were difficult to get hold of. Most music fans simply resorted to taping their favorite song directly off West German radio stations and exchanging them with their friends and other music fans.
The summer of 1987 saw West Berlin host a series of open air concerts close to the Berlin Wall. Artists including David Bowie, The Eurythmics and Genesis appeared to large crowds in front of the Reichstag. On the other side of the Wall, thousands of East German fans tried to get as close to the Wall as possible to hear the music coming from the West. They were met with heavy resistance from the guards policing the border, which led to clashes between border guards and young East Germans. Realising that suppressing popular music in the aftermath of the riot would only inflame tensions, the SED attempted to win back the support of East German youths. The following year a series of concerts were organised in East Berlin, designed to counter performances from Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd that were taking place close to the Wall in the West. In East Berlin, Western stars, such as Big Country, Bryan Adams and Marillion performed alongside East German bands like City. On 19 July 1988, Bruce Springsteen performed the biggest rock concert in the history of the GDR in front of 160,000 people. During the concert Springsteen told the crowd ‘It’s nice to be in East Berlin. I’m not for or against a government. I came to play rock ‘n’ roll for you, in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down’. Springsteen’s words reflected the mood of young people in the crowd, sparking wild cheering and celebrations.
Bruce Springsteen performing to large crowds in East Berlin in July 1988:
In September 1989 the new opposition movement Neues Forum (New Forum) issued a declaration known as Aufbruch 89 (Initiative 89) which called for ‘democratic dialogue’ and ‘a political platform for the whole of the GDR that should enable people from all professions, trades, social circles, parties and groups to discuss and work out society’s vital problems’.
In the same month, singer-songwriters Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel drafted a document dubbed the Rocker Resolution which was signed by a number of well known artists including Toni Krahl and Tamara Danz, lead singer of Silly. The Rocker Resolution became an important part of the reform movement within the GDR. The state controlled media refused to publish the Resolution, so bands and artists were encouraged to read the declaration out at concerts and other public events to spread the message across the country. The widespread distribution of the Rocker Resolution lead to an extraordinary meeting of the SED’s Committee for Entertainment in October 1989, which resulted in ‘the first official acknowledgement of and reaction to the worsening political situation in East Germany’ (Schulz, Hiltrud, Ear to the Wall:Rock in Late 1980s East Germany, 2008). According to Toni Krahl the aim of the Resolution was ‘not to open borders or to unify Germany, but to democratise the GDR’.
The fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the beginning of the end for the GDR and symbolized the start of the re-unification process that was completed on 3 October 1990. On 21 July 1990, Pink Floyd performed their album The Wall at Potsdamer Platz, among the ruins of the Berlin Wall, with guest appearances from artists including Van Morrison, The Band, and Bryan Adams. The concert was attended by an estimated 500,000 people, from both Western and Eastern Germany.
About the Author:
James Shingler has just completed his BA (Hons) in Modern History and International Relations at Swansea University, UK. During his final year of study James researched and wrote his history dissertation about the influence of Western popular music on youth culture in the GDR between 1949 and 1990. James is now planning to study for a MA in History at Swansea.
For more information on this topic see:
Dennis, Mike, The Stasi: Myth and Reality, London: Pearson Education Limited, 2003.
Fenemore, Mark, Sex, Thugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll, New York: Berghahn Books, 2007.
Funder, Anna, Stasiland, London: Granta Books, 2003.
Leitner, Olaf, ‘Rock Music in the GDR: An Epitaph’, in Ramet, S.P (ed.), Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia, Oxford: Westview Press, 1994.
Maas, Georg and Reszel, Hartmut, ‘Whatever Happened to…: The Decline and Renaissance of Rock in the Former GDR’, Popular Music, 17:3 (1988), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 267 – 278.
Poiger, Uta, Jazz, Rock and Rebels, California: University of California Press, 2000.
Schulz, Hiltrud, Ear to the Wall:Rock in Late 1980s East Germany, DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Simpson, Patricia Anne, ‘Germanyand Its Discontents: Die Skeptiker’s Punk Corrective’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 34/3 (2000), Michigan: Michigan State University pp. 129–140.
The East German Uprising of June 1953: Western Provocation, Workers’ Protest or Attempted Revolution?
On 16 June 1953 construction workers on Stalinallee in East Berlin downed their tools and went on strike. The initial strike spread quickly: by the morning of 17 June 40,000 demonstrators were marching in East Berlin, with a wave of similar strikes and protests recorded in numerous cities, towns and villages across East Germany. By the afternoon, the situation had escalated to such an extent that Soviet tanks had rolled out onto the streets of Berlin. Subsequent clashes between troops and protestors left at least 40 dead and over 400 wounded. By the evening of 17 June the situation in East Berlin was under control, with 700 protestors arrested for their involvement in the uprising. In the following days levels of dissent dwindled across East Germany. The East German Uprising was the first serious attempt to challenge communist authority in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of Stalin’s death, and the level of discontent demonstrated took both the East German authorities and the Soviets by surprise. In this article Rosie Shelmerdine explores the true nature of the East German rebellion by asking whether the events of June 1953 are best considered as ‘Western Provocation, Workers’ Protest or Attempted Revolution?’
The East German Uprising of June 1953: Western Provocation, Workers’ Protest or Attempted Revolution?
By Rosie Shelmerdine.
‘The Soviet forces … have for the most part restored order in the Soviet sector of Berlin. The provocative plan of the reactionary and fascist-like elements has been wrecked … the provocation was prepared in advance, organized and directed from Western sectors of Berlin. The simultaneous actions in the majority of the big cities of the GDR, the same demands of the rebels everywhere as well as the same anti-state and anti-Soviet slogans, serve as proof for this conclusion.’ – Grechko and Tarasov, leaders of the Soviet Forces in East Germany, reporting on the East German Rising after order had been restored by Soviet troops (17 June 1953)
The above extract, taken from a report written by two leading members of the Soviet forces in East Berlin on the evening of 17 June, blamed an attempted Western putsch for the escalation of events in East Germany. A more detailed report submitted to the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) in the aftermath of the crisis on 22 June reinforced this claim, stating that:
“Hostile forces, with direct support and under the leadership of American agencies and the peoples’ enemy and the warmongers in Bonn, organized an attempt for a fascist coup in the GDR in the period from 16 June 1953 to 22 June 1953. Besides their daily propaganda attacks by radio, leaflets and printed press, etc., [these hostile forces] increased their subversive activities following the death of Comrade Stalin … supported by their spy centers existing in the GDR and by those groups of agents smuggled in during the uprising … they temporarily managed to engage broad segments of workers and employees, in particular in Berlin and Central Germany, for their criminal objectives”
Today, the typical communist response of blaming the West has long been disregarded, with recently released documents indicating that although radio broadcasts from West Berlin probably helped to spread news about the initial protests more widely across the GDR, the Western powers were keen to avoid any direct involvement in the uprising. Rather, events in East Germany in 1953 were clearly driven by internal tensions. Today however, historians remain divided about the true cause and nature of the East German Uprising of June 1953; with some blaming worker discontent arising from economic concerns, while others attribute the escalation of events to a more general dissatisfaction with the SED regime, felt by a broader section of the population. In fact, both explanations have some merit but taken alone both views are too simplistic, due to the intrinsically linked nature of the political and economic spheres under state socialism.
In their initial report, Grechko and Tarasav justified their claims of a centrally organised Western plot by stressing that strikes occurred simultaneously in the majority of the big cities of the GDR, all having the same demands and the same anti-state and anti-Soviet slogans. The strikes were certainly widespread: after the call for a general strike by workers in East Berlin, strikes were called in 593 factories across East Germany, with about five per cent of the total East German workforce taking part. Grechko and Tarasev also reported on 17 June that: ‘The following numbers of people took part in the demonstrations: up to 15,000 in Magdeburg, up to 1,500 in Brandenburg, up to 1,000 in Oranienburg and Werder, up to 1,000 in Jena, 1,000 in Gera, up to 1,000 in Soemmerda, up to 10,000 in Dresden, up to 2,000 in Leipzig, 20,000 in Goerlitz’.
However, many of the workers involved in the strike action subsequently stressed the spontaneous and largely uncoordinated nature of the events of June 1953. One worker at the Agfa film factory at Wolfen near Bitterfeid later declared: ‘It wasn’t planned at all, everything happened spontaneously. Workers from nearby factories didn’t know what was happening in our factory until the moment we found ourselves in the street’, while a factory worker from East Berlin also claimed that ‘It was all improvised. We had no linkups with any other towns or factories’.
While occurring on a much larger scale than previously, the events of June 1953 were not an isolated event: smaller strikes had sporadically occurred throughout June, and dissatisfaction had been growing in the GDR for several years.
Video Footage from East Berlin, June 1953:
The first serious disputes between East German workers and the regime were recorded as early as 1951. (Arnulf Baring, Uprising in East Germany, Cornell University Press: 1972). East German leader Walter Ulbricht’s announcement of his intention to accelerate the building of socialism at the second Party Conference of the SED in July 1952 made the economic situation in the GDR worse. The ‘systematic implementation of socialism’ in East Germany resulted in a further campaign against independent farmers and businessmen and a deliberate concentration of investment in heavy industry at the expense of food and consumer goods, creating widespread shortages. As a result, by the end of 1952 living standards had fallen below the levels of 1947. It is therefore not surprising that a key demand made by protesters in June 1953 was for a reduction in the price of goods bought by ordinary consumers. To make matters worse, on 14 May 1953 a ten per cent increase in production quotas was announced, with no corresponding increase in wages, which effectively meant a pay cut for the already struggling workers. The final blow came with the announcement of the ‘New Course’ on 9 June which, while reversing many of the more coercive policies of the previous year, did not change the recently proposed increase in production quotas.
It was the initial demonstrations against these heightened production quotas by construction workers in East Berlin on 16 June that triggered a wave of strikes across East Germany. There is certainly evidence to suggest that these strikes were fuelled by economic discontent: popular demands were certainly economic, with chants such as “we demand lower quotas”, while of a population of over 17 million, only half a million people participated directly in the protests, and these were predominantly workers, those who were most directly affected by the new economic policy. The uprising found relatively low levels of support amongst church leaders, East German students, and intellectuals. This suggests that at its heart the risings were a workers’ movement focused on economic demands. Baring claims that it was only after these demands were granted that political demands were voiced: fuelled by the initial hesitation and perceived weakness of the government, the workers decided to exploit this opportunity, turning their economic grievances into a political protest. By the afternoon of 17 June calls for a General Strike were being broadcast through a hijacked loudspeaker van.
It would be misleading however, to categorise the events of June 1953 simply as an economic uprising. Whilst the majority of the strikers may indeed have been workers, it was not an exclusively workers-based movement: farmers, youths, housewives, school children and members of the middleclass were all involved too. In addition, Gareth Dale argues that political demands were actually heard at a very early stage in the protests: before the strikes had turned into a full-scale rebellion, Dale claims that there were already calls for the resignation of the East German government, free elections, freedom for political prisoners, the legalisation of strike actions and the removal of sectoral borders and occupation forces from Germany.(Gareth Dale, Popular Protest in East Germany 1945-1989, Routledge: 2005)
This was not the first time that economic dissatisfaction had boiled over into more politicised demands in East Germany. At the end of 1952, enraged by the overly-generous Christmas bonuses that the SED used to reward favoured employees, workers walked off the job in Weissenfels, Glauchau, Schkopau, Plauen, Cottbus, Berlin and Magdeburg. Despite being triggered by economic discontent, these protests also soon reached beyond monetary considerations, becoming more politicised as workers began to criticise the press and the SED’s lack of democracy. Similar kinds of protests and criticisms were also recorded in April 1953. (Gary Bruce, Resistance with the People: Repression and Resistance in Eastern Germany 1945-1955, Rowman and Littlefield Ltd: 2003)
Furthermore, a dramatic increase in Republikflucht (emigration to the West) suggests that dissatisfaction was rife long before the uprising of June 1953. According to data from the Central Administration of the GDR National Police, during the first half of 1952, 57,234 people defected to West Germany; during the second half of the year, there were 78,831 further defections and during the first quarter of 1953 alone, 84,034 people defected (including 2,718 members and candidates of the SED and 2,610 members of the Free German Youth League!). Evidently then, the SED policy of the accelerated building of socialism was unpopular with many people. In a memorandum written on 6 May 1953, Lavrentiy Beria, at that time a leading member of the post-Stalinist leadership of the USSR, explains the cause for the high number of defections as follows:
“the desire of various groups of peasants to avoid entering into agricultural industry cooperatives currently being organized, by fears among the small and middle-size private businessmen that their personal property and assets will be confiscated, by the desire among a number of youth to avoid serving in the GDR armed forces, and by the difficulties experienced in the GDR with regard to the supply food and merchandise available to the inhabitants”.
Beria thus points to economic grievances as being the principal cause for the defections, although this is not surprising: given his position as a leading communist, Beria is unlikely to admit that it was in fact criticism of the government or socialism per se that caused them to leave. Instead, the common excuse of influences from the West and short-term economic strain was used. Yet the defections also highlight that whilst farmers may have been worried about losing their land, the fact that they were prepared to abandon this land and leave the GDR completely shows that deeper dissatisfaction was present. Further evidence of this is provided by the USSR Council of Ministers who recognised on 2 June that ‘there is a serious dissatisfaction with the political and economic measures carried out by the GDR among the broad mass of the population’. The fact that by June, even the Communists were admitting to political criticism is significant. It is clear that whilst economic hardships were at the forefront of the demands, so too were political ideals, and thus it was both economic and political issues for which people were striking.
However, this is not surprising, as due to the nature of the socialist state, economic and political demands were intrinsically linked, to the extent that they were often impossible to separate. In the case of the workers for example, the factories were under centralised control, so economic grievances were also criticisms of government policy. Bruce quotes an SED member in a report on his trip to Halle in July 1953, who claims that the main slogans were ‘cleverly disguised as smaller, more immediate economic demands but which are increasingly brought to the fore are: free elections, release of all political prisoners since 1945, apolitical unions’. The fact that political demands were made from the beginning of the protests show that the protestors were dissatisfied with the entire regime, and not just the economy.
Assessing the East German Uprising of June 1953.
Why, then, was it in June 1953 that this long term dissatisfaction exploded into mass demonstrations? Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953, the resultant power struggle in Moscow and early hints about a policy of ‘de-Stalinisation’, led to demonstrations not just in the GDR but also in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary between May and June 1953. This suggests that Stalin’s death triggered widespread hopes of an opportunity for change. But there are unique circumstances that explain why it was the GDR where this quickly escalated into a popular uprising. Whereas the process of full Stalinisation had occurred throughout the rest of Eastern Europe soon after the end of the Second World War, due to the uncertainty over the future of a divided Germany the implementation of socialism was not pushed in East Germany until 1952. The East Germans had thus only recently been presented with the economic shortages and hardships that the construction of socialism entailed. The timing of Ulbricht’s push towards full socialism was also out of kilter with the mood in the Kremlin. In fact, the Soviet leadership had viewed Ulbricht’s announcement of the ‘acceleration of socialism’ with concern, calling him to Moscow and advising him to slow the pace of industrialisation. The ‘New Course’ subsequently announced in East Germany in June 1953 effectively reversed the harsh policies that Ulbricht had introduced only the previous year, but upheld the unpopular increase in production norms. This partial reversal in SED policy thus awakened widespread hopes that further reforms were possible, and a belief that an opportunity now existed to affect political change. In June 1953 it was hoped that popular protest could genuinely challenge the government, and thus the simmering discontent that had previously been manifest in small strikes and protests exploded into a popular demonstration against the government and its policies.
The East German Uprising was more than merely militant workers hoping for economic improvement: it stemmed from long term economic and political discontent, and was a genuine attempt to reform not only the work norms, but the government itself. Significantly, this was the first real attempt to reform communism in Eastern Europe, an attempt that ended in Soviet military intervention. This was the first time that Soviet tanks would appear on the streets of Eastern Europe to quell rebellion, but it was not to be the last; beginning a tradition that would be repeated in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
About the Author:
Rosie Shelmerdine has just completed her BA (Hons) in History at Swansea University, UK, graduating with First class honours in July 2011. During the final year of her degree Rosie specialised in the study of Cold War Eastern Europe. She is taking a gap year to go travelling, and then hopes to continue with postgraduate study in History.
I recently read Anna Funder’s book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (Granta Books, 2003). Funder, an Australian journalist who lived and worked in Berlin for a couple of years in the late 1990s, became fascinated by the experiences of people in the former GDR during her stay, a place where, as Funder describes ‘what was said was not real and what was real was not allowed, where people disappeared behind doors and were never heard of again, or were smuggled into other realms…’.
Funder provides a well-researched overview of the scale and scope of the Stasi in the former GDR presenting some interesting (and at times quite mind-boggling) facts and statistics: in just 40 years the Stasi generated the equivalent of all records previously produced in Germany since the Middle Ages; laid out upright and end to end the files the Stasi kept would form a line 180km in length; when the wall fell the Stasi had 97,000 official employees and an additional 175,000 informers in a country of 17 million people, giving a ratio of one Stasi officer or informant per 63 citizens (a higher ratio than the KBG in the Soviet Russia at the peak of Stalin’s terror and, if part-time informers are added to the total of Stasi representatives in the GDR, some estimates place the ratio as high as 1 Stasi representative per 6.5 citizens). She describes the methods employed to keep citizens of the GDR under such close surveillance: the boxes of fake wigs and moustaches found in Stasi offices to assist surveillance operations (one former Stasi officer she interviewed demonstrated ‘a sense of fun’ about his former occupation describing the joy of choosing different disguises by coming into work and deciding ‘who shall I be today?!”) and the list of observation signals displayed in the old Stasi HQ (‘like a choreography for very nasty scouts’ observes Funder).
But this was not a simple case of grown men harmlessly living out their boy-hood spy-game fantasies (and Stasi officers were – almost overwhelmingly – male). Other methods employed by the Stasi were legally and morally suspect even in the totalitarian climate of what was allowed in the communist GDR. The ‘standard practices’ applied of course: mail would be opened and inspected, telephone calls intercepted and residences and hotel rooms bugged – but the Stasi even went as far as to develop a method of connecting individual typewriters to the print they made (‘as if to fingerprint thought’ Funder muses sombrely). Smell sampling was also widely employed as ‘evidence’, interrogation subjects were frequently subjected to sleep deprivation to gain ‘confessions’ (which was technically illegal, even in the GDR) and following the death of a number of communist-era dissidents from a rare kind of cancer in the 1990s – all of whom had been held in Stasi prisons around the same time – evidence was uncovered of the use of radiated tags and sprays to ‘mark’ people and objects that the Stasi wanted to track. The full extent of the Stasi’s penetration into East German society will probably never be known – despite the opening of Stasi files to the public in August 1990 and continued revelations about their activities being uncovered today, in the panic during the events of November 1989, the Stasi were ordered to dispose of many of their ‘most incriminating files’, which were shredded and destroyed (Funder describes how over 100 burnt out shredders were discovered in a room at the fomer Stasi HQ in Normenstasse, Berlin following the collapse of communist authority in the GDR).
All of this is, of course, fascinating. But what really makes Funder’s book is the ‘human element’: the personal stories she collects from people who had lived in the former GDR and their experiences of dealing with the Stasi. Funder draws perspectives from both sides, speaking to those who represented and actively participated in the power structures of the old GDR (including numerous ‘Stasi-men’ who she contacts though newspaper adverts) and also to some of those who opposed, rejected or confronted the regime in various ways. She is always clear about the importance of this material, stating that ‘for anyone to understand a regime like the GDR, the stories of ordinary people must be told’. So we are told the stories of Herr Winz, Herr Christian, Herr Bock and Herr Bohnsack (all former Stasi employees), of Hagen Koch (who had been appointed as Eric Honecker’s ‘personal cartographer’ and had personally walked the streets of Berlin in August 1961 to paint the line where the Berlin Wall was then erected) and of Carl Eduard von Schnitzler (who had presented Der Schwarze Kanal (‘The Black Channel’) a propaganda programme broadcast across the GDR from 1960). Conversely, Funder also explores the experiences of those such as Miriam Webber (who became an ‘enemy of the state’ after an attempt to cross the Wall into West Berlin when she was just 16, and whose husband Charlie later died in mysterious circumstances whilst being held in Stasi custody), Julia (Funder’s landlady who was targeted by the GDR after establishing a long-distance relationship with an Italian man and pressured to inform on her friends and family)and Frau Paul (whose seriously ill baby was being treated in a hospital in West Berlin when the Wall was suddenly erected, who was later arrested and imprisoned by the Stasi and offered the chance to visit her son if she agreed to act as their ‘bait’ in a sting operation to arrest someone they were after while she was there – she declined their ‘offer’ and as a result would not see her son until he returned to East Berlin several years later, a virtual stranger to her).
These individual stories all combine to provide some intriguing insights into life in the former GDR, but what is perhaps most fascinating is the degree to which they illustrate that its history cannot be understood in simple black and white. Instead, a massive grey area exists when attempting to explain or understand the system that developed under communism, and the motives of those who chose to participate in, or oppose it. So while many of the former Stasi-men show little regret or remorse about their former roles (‘We had people everywhere!’ proudly proclaims Winz, while von Schnitzler still steadfastly maintains that the Berlin Wall was ‘humane’), their stories reveal how many of them too were damaged despite – or because of – their involvement in the system. So Christian was arrested, imprisoned and later demoted to manual work on a building site for three years after he failed to disclose his extra-marital affair to his superiors (‘Any one could have an affair of course’ he explains, in an attempt to describe the perverse logic behind his arrest ‘but EVERYTHING had to be reported’) and it emerges that Koch ran into problems when he married a girl who the Stasi viewed as ‘GDR negative’ and was later arrested when he attempted to resign from the Stasi, while his wife was forced to divorce him under threat of losing their son if she did not (they later re-married).
Conversely, despite several people recounting their awful experiences with the Stasi, many former citizens that Funder spoke to continued to display significant amounts of nostalgia – or ‘Ostalgie’ – for the former GDR now that it no longer exists. Post-socialist development and re-unification have failed to live up to the expectations that many held in 1989, and ironically, many mourn the loss of ‘security’ they now associate with the GDR in a time when people recall that ‘prices were lower, everyone had work and transportation was free’. The current system is ‘better than the Weimar Republic and better than Hitler, but bring back the Communists!’ one elderly woman confides to Funder, and even Julia, who was targeted and persecuted by the Stasi, talks of the rise of problems such as unemployment, drugs, homelessness and prostitution which she still identifies today with ‘the West’ and seems to equate the fall of the Berlin Wall with the loss of her own personal security (for reasons that become apparent as her story unfolds).
You get the sense that Funder is trying her hardest to remain impartial, but nevertheless some of her frustration with this ‘Ostalgie’ does come through when she talks of the post-communist ‘myth’ that has emerged about how life was better in the GDR in many respects because ‘if you didn’t buck the system then it wouldn’t harm you’ – despite the stories she collects clearly demonstrating the opposite – and the tendency of some she encountered to present the GDR as ‘simply a harmless welfare state that looked after people’. As a result, while the primary focus of Stasiland is to explore life in the period before 1989, some interesting contemporary perspectives also emerge, particularly in relation to the existence of ‘mauer im kopf’ or ‘the wall in the head’ that still appears to influence many in Germany today.
Stasiland is available from Amazon.co.uk: