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.
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.
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’.