East German Secret Police: 5 Things You Might Not Know About The Stasi

Cold War Studies

One in 6

Sometime a sense of perspective cannot be applied to history. When we talk of the casualties of the First World War, the extend of the Empire of Alexander the Great, the manpower needed to build the Pyramids, the scale can distract and distort. When discussing the scale of a secret police, a sense of perspective can be a very important detail. The idea of a clandestine control of actions and thoughts requires as much manipulation of subtlety and nuance as the regular police require force and consent. Few secret polices could claim to have had as much influence and subconscious control of their people as the Stasi had.

The Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, could claim to have had around 40,000 operatives in a country of around 80 million people, while their Soviet equivalent, the KGB, had around 500,000 agents in a country with a population north of 280 million. The Stasi is estimated to have employed around 100,000 full-timers in a nation of just 17 million people. That works out at around 1 Stasi operative for every 163 citizens of the German Democratic Republic, compared to 1 in 2000 in Nazi Germany and 1 in over 5,000 in the Soviet Union. The upshot was that everyone, but everyone, knew that anyone could be a Stasi member and reporting back on their activities to their hierarchy. Throw in the informers and that number comes down to around one snoop per 66 East Germans, and that number, too, does not include the inoffizielle mitarbeiter (IM), the network of informers that the Stasi maintained on a temporary basis. With them, it is closer to one in six.

The truth is that nobody really knows exactly how many people were on the Stasi payroll. Documents were destroyed in the chaos of the Wende – as the Fall of the Wall is known in Germany – and even then, the exact methods by which people were employed was often irregular and clandestine. Many of the IMs were coerced into their roles, given the option of snooping on their neighbours rather than facing charges themselves. After all, it was better to use people already in positions at schools, universities, workplaces and the like than it was to parachute operatives into them. A good deal more were bribed, offered perks to which only the East German elite had access, manipulating using state propaganda or simple threatened.

The records that remain – thousands if not millions of documents were burned as soon as the Wall came down in 1989 – are open to the public at the East Berlin location of the Stasi headquarters. When former East German citizens came to view the information that was held on them, they were shocked to discover not only the extent of the surveillance, but also the identities of their nearest and dearest who had finked on them over the forty years of communist rule. In the post-Wende fallout, many of the most respected East German professionals, from academics to artists, doctors to sports people, would have their pasts exposed and their deceits towards fellow citizens laid bare. Plenty would be fired for their actions, plenty more would be ostracized from their neighbours.