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

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

Mike Wood - April 21, 2017

The world of Cold War spying is often depicted as a glamorous business, with clandestine meetings, ingenious gadgets and high drama. While there might have been some allure in espionage in the latter part of the 20th century, it certainly didn’t exist in East Germany. Instead, there was the constricting arms of the Stasi, the secret police and intelligence agency combined into one that was at the heart of life in the communist sector.

Movies such as Bridge of Spies, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Funeral in Berlin depict the hijinx of agents crossing the Berlin Wall, but the definitive cinematic portrayal of the East German era is The Lives of Others, a low key, intense story of a Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler’s increasing infatuation with a bohemian couple. His slow descent into obsession, the tedious scrutiny with which he follows the pair around and the inevitable meeting of Wiesler’s professional spying and personal fixations is beautifully played out, creating an essence of what the Stasi meant to the East German people. The line between the state and the individual blurred, completely. If one was looking for a cipher with which to decode the totality of the Stasi, The Lives of Others might well be the perfect option.

It bears mentioning because, before the film came out in 2006, the story of the Stasi was not well known outside of Germany. The actions of the CIA, MI6 and the KGB – or earlier of the Gestapo and the NKVD – are far more suited to the silver screen and the internal politics of East Germany is hardly the sexiest of subjects. But for those living in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), the Stasi was omnipresent and omniscient, the force that must always be considered and feared, the hidden hand in almost every aspect of life. Their secrecy was their strength, so let us talk you through a few of the methods in which they exerted their control over life in East Germany.

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

The Sword and Shield

The Stasi – to give them their proper name, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or Ministry of State Security – was a secret police like no other. We might balk at the idea of a state secret police at all, they had been a feature of every regime that had ruled Germany previously, from the Kaiser’s Preußische Geheimpolizei to the Nazi Gestapo. Each government that had ruled Germany – and indeed, most other countries too – attempted to control the political actions of the populus and to limit perceived threats to the stability of the nation. When the Stasi were founded in 1950, it wasn’t seen as controversial.

Indeed, the Stasi was seen as a localized extension of the KGB, the Soviet Security Service that had arrived when the Russians had liberated Berlin from the Nazis in 1945. They were tasked with maintaining political support for the East German regime and for identifying perceived enemies of the state. After an uprising by workers in 1953 – campaigning for a state that was more like socialist which they had been sold by the authorities, with fairer wages and better conditions – was put down by the government and the Soviets, the need for a stronger secret police was clear to the DDR’s hierarchy. The irony of workers striking and marching – the tools of the political left – against an ostensibly leftist government was not lost on Bertolt Brecht, a prominent poet, playwright and communist, who penned a poem called “Die Lösung” (The Solution) that read:

After the uprising of the 17th of JuneThe Secretary of the Writers UnionHad leaflets distributed in the StalinalleeStating that the peopleHad forfeited the confidence of the governmentAnd could win it back onlyBy redoubled efforts. Would it not be easierIn that case for the governmentTo dissolve the peopleAnd elect another?

The grounds for further surveillance and further repression of dissent was clear, and the Stasi was the tool by which it would be enacted. The motto of the Ministry for State Security was that it was the “Sword and Shield of the Party”, the defence of the ideals and the attack against its enemies. Under Minster Erich Wollweber and later, more notorious head Erich Mielke, the reach of the Stasi would extend into every aspect of East German life. Initially that meant officers undercover in workplaces and universities, then it meant inside apartment complexes and social organizations like sports clubs and churches. The infiltration, however, was just beginning.

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.

East German Secret Police: 5 Things You Might Not Know About The Stasi
Odour samples kept by the Stasi. Wikipedia.


The methods by which the Stasi spread their wings within East German society were astounding. The concept of Deutsche Gründlichkeit or “German Thoroughness”, the stereotype by which Germans are seen as efficient and dedicated to detail, might have been invented for the Stasi. Their obsession with knowing everything, with record-keeping and clandestine monitoring is legendary. This ran the gamut from traditional surveillance methods such as informers, tapping phones and intercepting mail to truly bizarre practices such as voyeuristic pinhole cameras in hotel rooms and taking skin and sweat samples from interrogation rooms.

While previous secret police in Germany were limited by technology, the Stasi were children of the technological age and put all the post-war advances in miniaturization to their use. They would break into a suspect’s house while they were out and place tiny microphones behind light switches, in the corners of rooms, underneath cabinets and more to eke out every word that was uttered in the house. Alongside that, every telephone conversation would be monitored, with an estimated staff of 2,000 Stasi officers whose sole job was listening in on the phone calls of suspected dissidents. House renovations in East Berlin still occasionally uncover wires and microphones dating back decades.

A key difference between the surveillance of the Stasi and that of the Gestapo – aside from the huge advances in technology on which they could call – was the time that they had to perfect their methods. The Nazi regime lasted from 1933 until the end of the Second World War, just 12 years in total, while the Deutsche Demokratische Republik was in place for over four decades. By the end of the communist government in the early 1990s, the Stasi had a population that by and large had grown up with the idea of agents being everywhere and who understood that the political police were as much a fact of life as the trains and the buses. That says nothing of the years of research and development that went into perfecting methods of surveillance. They even had a word for it: “Zersetzung”.

Zersetzung, roughly translated as “decomposition”, was the process by which dissent was dissipated while maintaining the illusion that it existed. The hierarchy within East Germany had realised that their state had become a PR nightmare – in short, the methods of beating up dissidents looked awfully like the previous regime, while being forced to erect a huge wall to stop people leaving in droves never points to a successful country – and that the tactics had to change. Thus a policy of infiltration and sabotage was enacted that caused opposition groups to fall in on themselves rather than having to be crushed by the regime.

Dissidents knew that the Stasi was watching and the Stasi knew that the dissidents knew that they were there, so they fomented distrust and spread misinformation to turn opposition activists against one another and to undermine any nascent trust that they might have built with their comrades. Whereas informants had previously been kept secret, the Stasi were happy to let it been known that they had plenty of snoops on their side and regularly spread rumours that certain people within opposition groups were actually in their employ.

This was one form of societal subversion, of turning people against people, but they would back it up by turning people against themselves. Psychological torture was used to make suspects uncomfortable and stressed, from overt methods such as having them visibly followed or stopped and searched in front of friends and colleagues to miniscule, nagging tactics such as moving objects in the house or resetting alarm clocks and ringing doorbells with nobody there.

The effect was a pervading dread of the Stasi, a mistrust of other individuals and general feeling that the subject themselves was going mad. Eventually, it became futile to resist. Post-Wende reports suggest that 10,000 people were directly subject to the harsh methods of Zersetzung, with some five thousand thought to have been permanently mentally damaged by the tactics used by the Stasi.

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

The Stasi beyond East Germany

The reach of the Stasi within East Germany was extensive, but it was far from limited to just the confines of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Their arms extended all over Europe – particularly, and unsurprisingly, into West Germany – and their influence was felt at the very highest echelons of government. Similarly to the KGB, the Ministry of State Security was not just responsible for internal security, it was also the foreign intelligence agency, a CIA and FBI and House Un-American Activities Committee all rolled into one.

Their infiltration of institutions in West Germany and particularly West Berlin was massive. Those who had studied in the East were often recruited and sent back to the West and groomed for decades, waiting for the moment at which they would become useful to the DDR regime. The Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter system that was in place across East Germany would be replicated over the border, with the same methods of coercion, blackmail and bribery used to keep agents onside. It is estimated that, while the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA), the foreign intelligence section of the Stasi, employed around 4,000 people, a similar number of people were thought to be on their contact book and in their sphere of influence beyond their borders.

They were supplemented by East Germans with travel privileges to the West – academics, students and artists, for example, were tasked with reconnaissance. High profile known Stasi agents in the West included Gabriele Gast, deputy head of the Soviet section of the West German intelligence agency and Günter Guillaume, personal secretary to Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of West Germany.

The Stasi was born as an offshoot of the KGB, and thus they shared many methods of intelligence gathering. There is an argument to be made that the Stasi never gained full independence from the KGB, certainly in the international departments, and as late as 1978, KGB officers possessed the same powers inside East Germany as they did inside the Soviet Union. Even the armed section of the Stasi – responsible for protection of high-ranking dignitaries and the government of the DDR – was named for Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, forerunner to the KGB.

As they had been formed under the auspices of the KGB, so Stasi agents built secret polices in other communist nations. They aided the governments of Cuba under Fidel Castro, Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser and Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, as well as in Ethiopia, Uganda and Syria. Their loyalty was not just to the cause of communism, however: money was funnelled to neo-Nazi groups in West Germany with the intent of undermining their neighbours, while they also funded the Rote Armee Fraktion, a leftist guerrilla group that attacked businessmen and politicians in West Germany.

East German Secret Police: 5 Things You Might Not Know About The Stasi
Stasi Chielf Erich Mielke (center). Wikipedia

Stasi post-Wende

How was it possible for such an all-pervasive police force to allow their people to rebel against them, almost overnight. While it might suit a narrative that the people rose up and overthrew the hated secret police, the truth is a little more complicated. The Stasi were the self-appointed “sword and shield of the party”, but they were still subservient to the Socialist Unity Party itself, which was turning an already terrible job of running the country into a catastrophic one. Events outside of the country would also overtake the East German regime.

Before the Monday Demonstrations – the prime social movement seen as overthrowing the DDR government – had even began, the Hungarian government had already opened their border with Austria, allowing East Germans to travel through and leave the country. The protests inside the DDR began in September in Leipzig, by October the government had largely resigned and by November, the borders to the West were open. The regime was done and their secret police began to panic. Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi for more than half of its existence and one of the most hated figures in the whole DDR, resigned on November 7. Two days later, the Wall fell.

For the Stasi rank and file, the Wende was met with panic. Operatives tried to burn documents, stuffed shredders full of them and even ripped them apart by hand. They continued apace for over a month before news got out that they were destroying the legacy of decades of snooping. In mid-January, a protest against the Stasi lead to the storming of the the Normannenstraße headquarters, in Berlin’s Lichtenberg district. In among the crowd were many of the IMs, looking to find the evidence of their own involvements and destroy them.

The question of how to deal with the legacy of the Stasi is one that continues to go largely unanswered in the former East. Initially, an agency was set up by the government of the newly united Germany to deal with the millions of documents that the Sword and Shield had kept on its own people. In 1992, the Stasi Records Agency released the documents to the public, allowing people to access their own files and to finally discover the details of their lives that had been deemed threatening to their former state. This was a more controversial decision than might have been expected: when the files were released, it became possible for people to uncover those that they knew who had provided the Stasi with information about them. Marriages and lifelong friendships were destroyed, family members estranged from one another, high-ranking officials in all walks of public life denounced and fired. Stasi members were targeted and ostracized, as they had once targeted and ostracized others.

Many leading Stasi officials were tried and convicted for their crimes while with the Ministry. Erich Mielke, the former head, was sent to prison while Erich Honecker, the long-standing leader of East Germany, was convicted for the human rights abuses that had occurred under his regime, particularly the killings of those attempting to cross the Berlin Wall. The East Berlin headquarters of the Stasi still stands and is now a museum, showing the extent to which a government was willing to go to know everything about its people.