Insights into the Stasi: a surveilled life in former Eastern Germany

By Hannah Rittmeyer

“Happy slaves are the bitterest enemies of freedom.” – Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

In February 2020, I attended a seminar of the Konrad-Adenauer-foundation, where I am a scholar and where I was honoured to spend a day of interesting lectures and readings with Dr. Karsten Dümmel, a contemporary witness of the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR). This experience made me think about how little this important part of German history is discussed in schools and by people in Germany, but probably even less in other parts of Europe and the world. With the current corona crisis, one can observe the long-lasting effects of the DDR regime, particularly with regard to surveillance and the considerably higher fear of many Germans, compared with their European neighbours, of measures like a corona tracking app, curfews and compulsory vaccination. This article wishes to provide some insights and a deeper understanding of the DDR, especially regarding surveillance, mainly pursued by the Ministry State of Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit)commonly known as the Stasi.

It is the 6th of December, 1986, and the days are getting colder and darker. Winter is coming. A mother holds on to her little girl, who bounces up and down on their matutinal walk to nursery and never stops bubbling about her dreams of the night before and her excitement because it is St. Nicholas’ Day. Despite being only four years old, little Sarah is fully aware of the special meaning of that day, having been raised in a Christian household. However, her excitement is owed to the celebration that awaits her and her little friends when the saint will distribute his treats. Eight hours later, little Sarah and her mom are on their way back home. The girl is quiet now, with drooping shoulders and a shuffling gait, silent tears run over her face. All other children got a chocolate from Santa, but Sarah got a rod because her daddy is a dissident. Sarah does not know what a “dissident” means but she will tell daddy to get rid of it when she comes home.
This small scene, described by Dr. Karsten Dümmel, is just one of thousands of small and big measures the Stasi took to break those who opposed them.

What was the Stasi?

The Ministry of State Security was founded on the 8th of February 1950, to ensure the oppression of political opponents and maintain the socialist regime. Yet, it was much more than a normal secret service: it had its own secret police, remand prisons, prosecution systems, penal institutions, judges and lawyers.[1]

Political opponents were divided into “hostile”, “negative-hostile” and “consolidated negative-hostile”. Once ascribed this last status, one was considered lost or “impossible to regain” and the Stasi began to introduce decomposition measures against this person, the so called Zersetzungsmaßnahmen, noted in Directive 1/76 on the Development and Revision of Operational Procedures.[2] It aimed at influencing and destroying an individual’s personality by social isolation and an orchestrated loss of control of every area of their life. These measures devised by psychologists and lawyers of the academy of law of the Ministry for State Security (JHS),[3] aimed at destroying people without attracting too much attention both from its own citizens but especially due to the foreign policy relations. This way, the DDR pretended to be in line with international law and to respect  human rights, as signed in the Final Act of Helsinki in 1975 at the Conference on State Security and Cooperation in Europe.

As outlined above, these measures were not just directed at the victim itself but also at its family, for instance Dr. Karsten Dümmel and his wife were threatened to lose custody of their daughter, if not complying with the DDR rules. Other measures could be city or house arrest, travelling and holiday ban, forced labour, the systematic organisation of private and professional failures, detention or the degradation of the person in its social environment, not uncommon by using anonymous or falsified letters and forged photos. If the outlined measures did not proof to be sufficient to silence someone, the DDR developed its own strategies to eliminate people, again pursuing a subtle approach to not provoke international sensation. One of the most popular documents in this regard is the Toxdat-Studie,[4] a study naming more than 200 toxic and radioactive substances with a detailed description on how to apply them. Even though more research is needed to investigate to what extent the Stasi used the study’s results to harm people, there are strong reasons to suspect that they actively contaminated inmates.

The reasons why the Stasi would start the process of decomposition could be anything that implied doubts or criticism towards the regime or the expression of differing views and thoughts. Dr. Karsten Dümmel, for example, founded a peace and human rights workshop in his local church, that discussed topics like the nuclear armament during the Cold War, and distributed leaflets to make the public aware of such issues. A group that was constantly under pressure by the Stasi was the one formed by writers and journalists, who were not allowed to publish anything critical regarding the regime. Others that had to face severe penalties were citizens who read then forbidden Western literature. A young man who lent four of his friends the book 1984, by George Orwell, was imprisoned for two years and four months without probation.[5]

How was the Stasi  able to discover all these “illegal” activities?

Until the German reunification in 1990, the Stasi had 91.015 official employees, however, during forty years of the regime more than 600.000 unofficial employees provided the Stasi with relevant information. Thus, among using cameras, tapping phones and placing bugs in flats, the Stasi expanded its network everywhere to spy on all the “hostile” persons: schools, sports clubs, unions and so on and so forth. [6]

One example are trade unions, which had a very different character in the DDR than how we know them today. Their assemblies rather had the character of ideological trainings, where differing opinions could be captured very early on. Teaching institutions were a very important part of the monitoring too, hence school inspectors and teachers presented an indispensable part of the Stasi apparatus. This was partly because the youth used to reject that political agenda much more frequently than adults, which made it harder for the Stasi to find the right measures to make them comply. Nevertheless, under the regime (1949-1990) between 12.000 and 17.200 children and young adults under 21 years old worked as unofficial employees for the Stasi.

During the seventh grade, the Stasi started to screen suitable candidates to work at their ministry. The necessary preconditions were: being twelve and not having any relatives in Western Germany. While the evaluation depended on the political stance, the school performance, the position towards state and society, extracurricular engagement and the personal assessment of the teacher. Once selected, the children or young adults had to sign a confidentiality and commitment agreement that they had to reconfirm every year. The responsible officer would then start to give the candidate presents on birthdays and Christmas and take the candidate out to go to the theatre or the cinema to enhance their loyalty. In doing so, the Stasi managed to establish long-term, solid commitment to their cause.

Another striking example of that are the so-called “Romeo and Juliet relationships”: the Stasi would identify a target person (e.g. a woman working as translator for the US embassy) and meticulously investigate what this woman found attractive in men and which interests, preferences and opinions she held. Afterwards they would instruct a “Romeo-agent” to subtly get to know this woman until she fell in love with him. By telling the woman that he was doing research for a Peace Research Institute, the agent would instruct her to steal secret documents from the embassy, thus she would become a really important spy for the regime without even being aware of it.

At no point, did the Stasi consider the psychological consequences for their victims, who quite often only found out about the arranged marriages or the specific nature of decomposition measures after the fall of the socialist regime when they could access their files. In fact, a study from Maercker et al., showed that more than twenty years after the fall of the regime, still around one-third of political prisoners of the DDR suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder while the depression and anxiety prevalence rate were also extremely high.[7]

The systematic surveillance and influencing of citizens, however, did not solely take place on the territory of the DDR, but also beyond its borders. One of the highest priorities in this regard was to influence the political events in Western Germany. One that might exemplify best how far this influence could go is that Willy Brandt, who was chancellor in Western Germany from 1969 until 1974, was not overturned by a vote of no confidence in 1972 because the Stasi paid parliamentarians of the Christian Democrats (CDU, Angela Merkel’s party) in Western Germany to abstain from voting, thus keeping the former German chancellor in power.

The end of the DDR

On the 4th of December 1989, citizens occupied the central offices of the Stasi to prevent files from being burned. Hence, many of these documents could be saved and are now used for historical revision. Nevertheless, this process turns out to be difficult since data protection prevails in historical research and media reports. The criminal prosecution of perpetrators failed to a large extent, because they were not condemned by international law but by the applicable law of the former regime. Even the head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, could not be sentenced on the grounds of his crimes during the DDR period but was sentenced for killing two police officers in 1931 instead. [8]

In fact, the majority of perpetrators started their lives in the democratic system of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland highly privileged, since they earned good salaries in the DDR, so they received a high pension. Another unsolved task is the support of victims as lost life chances and emotional trauma cannot be solved or repaired by laws or fees.

What are the effects today?

Over the last weeks, a protest movement emerged in Germany, accusing the government of gross misconduct with more and more absurd conspiracy theories about the ongoing corona crisis. Despite gaining the impression that these protests are some kind of forum for all those concerned, dissatisfied or angry, a recurrent topic is the fear of surveillance. Many are very sceptical of the widely discussed corona tracking app, assuming that the government would retrace each of their steps, others are frightened of compulsory vaccination.

The reference to a “DDR 2.0.” came up more than once, inter alia, protestors brought a DDR flag to a demonstration and wrote “2.0.” on it.[9] In fact, compulsory vaccination was no rarity in the socialist regime of Eastern Germany and side effects or faults that occurred were strictly concealed.[10] Furthermore, German chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers meticulously avoided the term Ausganssperre (curfew), since curfews are strongly associated with the socialist regime.

In a televised speech to the nation, Angela Merkel, who grew up in former DDR herself, stated that: “For someone like me, for whom freedom of travel and movement was a hard-won right, such restrictions can only be justified in absolute necessity. In a democracy, they should never be decided lightly and only temporarily.”[11]. She therefore stressed that she understands the concerns of German citizens. However, it appears that the historical background is highly emotionalized for scaremongering, particularly by right-wing populists, throughout the corona crisis and that fear towards monitoring and provisions by the government live on thirty years after the reunification. [12]

NOTE:
Special thanks to Dr. Karsten Dümmel, for sharing his shocking, but truly inspiring stories and for emphasizing the importance of bluntly memorizing the past how it was. Dr. Karsten Dümmel was born in the German Democratic Republic. At 17 he became one of the co-founders of an autonomous literary group. At 23 he was a leader of a human rights protection based opposition group. He was arrested four times by STASI, GDR’s secret police, under accusation of taking subversive actions against the state, and put through “Zersetzung” a psychological welfare technique used by the secret police against political opponents. He was condemned to six years of forced labor as a train cleaner, including ban on leaving his place of residence, house arrest, general ban on freedom of movement, and deprivation of his civil rights. I spring, 1988, he was ransomed by the Federal Republic of Germany. Following this, he enrolled to studies in rhetoric and literature. Nowadays, he is a writer, human rights activist, and a witness to the history of GDR. He acts as a spokesperson for Writers-in-Prison of the German Exil-P.E.N. He is also a member of the Circle of Authors of the Federal Republic of Germany and a visiting lecturer at the University of Mostar and the University of East Sarajevo. Since 1997 he is working for the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Leipzig, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Dakar, Bamako, Nairobi and an acting director of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation office in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sources:

[1] Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, ‘Stasi | bpb’, bpb.de, accessed 20 May 2020, https://www.bpb.de/geschichte/deutsche-geschichte/stasi/.

[2] Bundesbeauftragte für die Stasi-Unterlagen, ‘Richtlinie Nr. 1/76 zur Entwicklung und Bearbeitung Operativer Vorgänge (OV)’, Januar 1976, accessed 15 May 2020, https://www.bstu.de/assets/bstu/content_migration/DE/Wissen/MfS-Dokumente/Downloads/Grundsatzdokumente/richtlinie-1-76_ov.pdf.

[3] Agnieszka Bressa, ‘The Academy of Law of the Ministry for State Security (JHS), 1965 to 1990’, accessed 2 June 2020, https://www.uni-potsdam.de/en/standortgeschichte-golm/mfs-academy-of-law.

[4] Bundesbeauftragte für die Stasi-Unterlagen, ‘Projektbericht „Strahlen“- Einsatz von Röntgenstrahlen und radioaktiven Stoffen durch das MfS gegen Oppositionelle – Fiktion oder Realität’, 2002, https://www.bstu.de/assets/bstu/de/Publikationen/E_BStU_Projektbericht_Strahlen.pdf.

[5] Karsten Dümmel, Melanie Piepenschneider, and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, eds., Was war die Stasi? Einblicke in das Ministerium für Staatssicherheit der DDR, 3., überarb. und erw. Aufl, Eine Veröffentlichung der Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V (Sankt Augustin: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2009).

[6] Karsten Dümmel, Melanie Piepenschneider, and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, eds., Was war die Stasi? Einblicke in das Ministerium für Staatssicherheit der DDR, 3., überarb. und erw. Aufl, Eine Veröffentlichung der Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V (Sankt Augustin: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2009).

[7] A. Maercker, I. Gäbler, and M. Schützwohl, ‘Verläufe von Traumafolgen bei ehemaligen politisch Inhaftierten der DDR: Ein 15-Jahres-Follow-up’, Der Nervenarzt 84, no. 1 (January 2013): 72–78, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00115-012-3646-y.

[8] Karsten Dümmel, Melanie Piepenschneider, and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, eds., Was war die Stasi? Einblicke in das Ministerium für Staatssicherheit der DDR, 3., überarb. und erw. Aufl, Eine Veröffentlichung der Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V (Sankt Augustin: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2009).

[9] ‘Der ewige DDR-Vergleich’, accessed 20 May 2020, https://www.rbb24.de/panorama/thema/2020/coronavirus/beitraege/corona-einschraenkungen-verbote-erinnerungen-osten-ddr-.html.

[10] Hubertus Knabe, ‘Coronavirus: Wie Die DDR Mit Pandemien Umging’, DIE WELT, 20 April 2020, https://www.welt.de/wirtschaft/article207370313/Coronavirus-Wie-die-DDR-mit-Pandemien-umging.html.

[11] Jana Hensel, ‘Ausgangssperre: Wenn wir unsere Freiheit lieben, müssen wir jetzt auf sie verzichten’, Die Zeit, 20 March 2020, sec. Gesellschaft, https://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2020-03/ausgangssperre-coronavirus-covid-19-freiheit-angela-merkel-ddr.

[12] Katrin Bennhold, ‘Germany’s Coronavirus Protests: Anti-Vaxxers, Anticapitalists, Neo-Nazis’, The New York Times, 18 May 2020, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/18/world/europe/coronavirus-germany-far-right.html.

Picture credits: Hunter Desportes, Flickr

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