10 Terrifying Facts about the East German Secret Police
To maintain power for 40 years while their people starved and plotted to escape, the Communist Party had to get very good at controlling people and undermining anti-state activists. But outright street violence and assassinations weren’t good for the Party image, so the Ministry for State Security got creative. Better known as the Stasi (the German acronym), these secret police were the “Schild und Schwert der Partei” (Shield and Sword of the Party). Their sole function was to keep the Communist Party in power. They didn’t care how.
1) They Were Gaslighting before It Was a Thing
The Stasi were prolific gaslighters. In the 1950s, repression was brutal, physical torture. Early in the 1970s, eager to be accepted on the international stage, the East German Secret Police had to get more subtle. The aim of Zersetzung (a repurposed military term meaning disintegration or corrosion) was to “switch off” any activist individuals and groups who might threaten the Party. Police collected medical, school, and police records, interviews with neighbors and relatives, and any other evidence they could get and would then customize a direct hit on an individual’s mental health.
If someone looked like he might challenge the Communist Party’s legitimacy or control, the Stasi systematically destroyed his life. They used blackmail, social shame, threats, and torture. Careers, reputations, relationships, and lives were exploded to destabilize and delegitimize a critic. Some forms of harassment were almost comical: agents spread rumors about their targets, flooded their mailboxes with pornography, moved things around in their apartments, or deflated their bicycle tires day after day. Others were life-altering: Individuals labeled as subversives were banned from higher education, forced into unemployment, and forcibly committed to asylums. Many suffered long-term psychological trauma, loss of earnings, and intense social shame as a result of Stasi lies.
2) They Were (Almost) Everywhere
The Stasi had 91,000 employees at its peak—roughly one in every 30 residents was a Stasi agent. More than one in three East Germans (5.6 million) was under suspicion or surveillance, with an open Stasi file. Another half million were feeding the Stasi information. This level of surveillance and infiltration caused East Germans to live in terror—you really never knew if you could trust anyone—though most had no idea of the scope of these activities until after the Berlin Wall fell.
3) They Kept a Crazy Amount of (Meticulous) Records
Stasi files laid out together would cover about 69 sq. miles. Recording detailed personal information on a third of the populace required a tremendous amount of paper. More pages of printed text were generated by the Stasi than by all German authors from the Middle Ages to WWII. Thousands of citizens were targeted as anti-government “trouble makers,” their homes were searched, phones and cars—if they were lucky enough to have either—were bugged, their letters opened and copied, and their movements secretly filmed or photographed. Every document went into a personal Stasi file. So far, hundreds of millions of files, 39 million index cards, 1.75 million photographs, 2,800 reels of film and 28,400 audio recordings have been recovered from Stasi archives. Millions more were shredded before they could be made public.
4) Their Super-Secret Archives Are Now Public—Sort of
In 1992, the secret files the Stasi had kept on millions of East Germans were made available for review. Citizens can request to see their personal files, which are housed by the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives on 63 miles of dedicated shelving. Sixteen thousand sacks of shredded documents still await reassembly. The agency tasked with maintaining them employed at least 79 former Stasi members as late as 2007, according to Wikileaks. Three million individuals have applied to see their records, with decidedly mixed results. Many former subjects of Stasi investigation or surveillance found out only from these files—20 years later—that their parents, children, spouses, or lifelong friends had been informing against them.
Six more facts at the link. I know an East German woman whose family refused to look at their Stasi files, because they did not want to know who was informing on them and thus potentially lose old friends. The author finishes with this cheerful thought:
Large-scale data collection by today’s National Security Administration and Homeland Security follows the same pattern, according to well-known whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg. The “See something? Say something” culture of citizen informers, the collection of personal info without warrants, and the assumption of guilt all feel eerily familiar.