This year, Germany is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the peaceful revolution in East Germany. In 1989, the Communist regime was moved away, the Berlin Wall came down, and one year later, the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, in the East was unified with the Federal Republic of Germany in the West to found today's Germany. Among many other things, Germany inherited the archives of the East German secret police, known as the Stasi. Only two years after its dissolution, its documents were opened to the public, and historians such as me started to study these documents to learn more about how the GDR surveillance state functioned.
Perhaps you have watched the movie "The Lives of Others." This movie made the Stasi known worldwide, and as we live in an age where words such as "surveillance" or "wiretapping" are on the front pages of newspapers, I would like to speak about how the Stasi really worked.
At the beginning, let's have a short look at the history of the Stasi, because it's really important for understanding its self-conception. Its origins are located in Russia. In 1917, the Russian Communists founded the Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, shortly Cheka. It was led by Felix Dzerzhinsky. The Cheka was an instrument of the Communists to establish their regime by terrorizing the population and executing their enemies. It evolved later into the well-known KGB. The Cheka was the idol of the Stasi officers. They called themselves Chekists, and even the emblem was very similar, as you can see here. In fact, the secret police of Russia was the creator and instructor of the Stasi. When the Red Army occupied East Germany in 1945, it immediately expanded there, and soon it started to train the German Communists to build up their own secret police. By the way, in this hall where we are now, the ruling party of the GDR was founded in 1946.
Five years later, the Stasi was established, and step by step, the dirty job of oppression was handed over to it. For instance, the central jail for political prisoners, which was established by the Russians, was taken over by the Stasi and used until the end of Communism. You see it here. At the beginning, every important step took place under the attendance of the Russians. But the Germans are known to be very effective, so the Stasi grew very quickly, and already in 1953, it had more employees than the Gestapo had, the secret police of Nazi Germany. The number doubled in each decade. In 1989, more than 90,000 employees worked for the Stasi. This meant that one employee was responsible for 180 inhabitants, which was really unique in the world.
At the top of this tremendous apparatus, there was one man, Erich Mielke. He ruled the Ministry of State Security for more than 30 years. He was a scrupulous functionary — in his past, he killed two policemen not far away from here — who in fact personalized the Stasi.
But what was so exceptional about the Stasi? Foremost, it was its enormous power, because it united different functions in one organization. First of all, the Stasi was an intelligence service. It used all the imaginable instruments for getting information secretly, such as informers, or tapping phones, as you can see it on the picture here. And it was not only active in East Germany, but all over the world. Secondly, the Stasi was a secret police. It could stop people on the street and arrest them in its own prisons. Thirdly, the Stasi worked as a kind of public prosecutor. It had the right to open preliminary investigations and to interrogate people officially. Last but not least, the Stasi had its own armed forces. More than 11,000 soldiers were serving in its so-called Guards Regiment. It was founded to crash down protests and uprisings. Due to this concentration of power, the Stasi was called a state in the state.
But let's look in more and more detail at the tools of the Stasi. Please keep in mind that at that time the web and smartphones were not yet invented. Of course, the Stasi used all kinds of technical instruments to survey people. Telephones were wiretapped, including the phone of the German chancellor in the West, and often also the apartments. Every day, 90,000 letters were being opened by these machines. The Stasi also shadowed tens of thousands of people using specially trained agents and secret cameras to document every step one took. In this picture, you can see me as a young man just in front of this building where we are now, photographed by a Stasi agent. The Stasi even collected the smell of people. It stored samples of it in closed jars which were found after the peaceful revolution. For all these tasks, highly specialized departments were responsible. The one which was tapping phone calls was completely separated from the one which controlled the letters, for good reasons, because if one agent quit the Stasi, his knowledge was very small. Contrast that with Snowden, for example. But the vertical specialization was also important to prevent all kinds of empathy with the object of observation. The agent who shadowed me didn't know who I was or why I was surveyed. In fact, I smuggled forbidden books from West to East Germany.
But what was even more typical for the Stasi was the use of human intelligence, people who reported secretly to the Stasi. For the Minister of State Security, these so-called unofficial employees were the most important tools. From 1975 on, nearly 200,000 people collaborated constantly with the Stasi, more than one percent of the population. And in a way, the minister was right, because technical instruments can only register what people are doing, but agents and spies can also report what people are planning to do and what they are thinking. Therefore, the Stasi recruited so many informants. The system of how to get them and how to educate them, as it was called, was very sophisticated. The Stasi had its own university, not far away from here, where the methods were explored and taught to the officers. This guideline gave a detailed description of every step you have to take if you want to convince human beings to betray their fellow citizens. Sometimes it's said that informants were pressured to becoming one, but that's mostly not true, because a forced informant is a bad informant. Only someone who wants to give you the information you need is an effective whistleblower. The main reasons why people cooperated with the Stasi were political conviction and material benefits. The officers also tried to create a personal bond between themselves and the informant, and to be honest, the example of the Stasi shows that it's not so difficult to win someone in order to betray others. Even some of the top dissidents in East Germany collaborated with the Stasi, as for instance Ibrahim Böhme. In 1989, he was the leader of the peaceful revolution and he nearly became the first freely elected Prime Minister of the GDR until it came out that he was an informant.
The net of spies was really broad. In nearly every institution, even in the churches or in West Germany, there were many of them. I remember telling a leading Stasi officer, "If you had sent an informant to me, I would surely have recognized him." His answer was, "We didn't send anyone. We took those who were around you." And in fact, two of my best friends reported about me to the Stasi. Not only in my case, informers were very close. For example, Vera Lengsfeld, another leading dissident, in her case it was her husband who spied on her. A famous writer was betrayed by his brother. This reminds me of the novel "1984" by George Orwell, where the only apparently trustable person was an informer.
But why did the Stasi collect all this information in its archives? The main purpose was to control the society. In nearly every speech, the Stasi minister gave the order to find out who is who, which meant who thinks what. He didn't want to wait until somebody tried to act against the regime. He wanted to know in advance what people were thinking and planning. The East Germans knew, of course, that they were surrounded by informers, in a totalitarian regime that created mistrust and a state of widespread fear, the most important tools to oppress people in any dictatorship.
That's why not many East Germans tried to fight against the Communist regime. If yes, the Stasi often used a method which was really diabolic. It was called Zersetzung, and it's described in another guideline. The word is difficult to translate because it means originally "biodegradation." But actually, it's a quite accurate description. The goal was to destroy secretly the self-confidence of people, for example by damaging their reputation, by organizing failures in their work, and by destroying their personal relationships. Considering this, East Germany was a very modern dictatorship. The Stasi didn't try to arrest every dissident. It preferred to paralyze them, and it could do so because it had access to so much personal information and to so many institutions. Detaining someone was used only as a last resort. For this, the Stasi owned 17 remand prisons, one in every district. Here, the Stasi also developed quite modern methods of detention. Normally, the interrogation officer didn't torture the prisoner. Instead, he used a sophisticated system of psychological pressure in which strict isolation was central. Nearly no prisoner resisted without giving a testimony. If you have the occasion, do visit the former Stasi prison in Berlin and attend a guided tour with a former political prisoner who will explain to you how this worked.
One more question needs to be answered: If the Stasi were so well organized, why did the Communist regime collapse? First, in 1989, the leadership in East Germany was uncertain what to do against the growing protest of people. It was especially confused because in the mother country of socialism, the Soviet Union, a more liberal policy took place. In addition, the regime was dependent on the loans from the West. Therefore, no order to crash down the uprising was given to the Stasi. Secondly, in the Communist ideology, there's no place for criticism. Instead, the leadership stuck to the belief that socialism is a perfect system, and the Stasi had to confirm that, of course. The consequence was that despite all the information, the regime couldn't analyze its real problems, and therefore it couldn't solve them. In the end, the Stasi died because of the structures that it was charged with protecting.
The ending of the Stasi was something tragic, because these officers were kept busy during the peaceful revolution with only one thing: to destroy the documents they had produced during decades. Fortunately, they had been stopped by human rights activists. That's why today we can use the files to get a better understanding of how a surveillance state functions.
Bruno Giussani: Thank you. Thank you very much. So Hubertus, I want to ask you a couple of questions because I have here Der Spiegel from last week. "Mein Nachbar NSA." My neighbor, the NSA. And you just told us about my neighbor, the spies and the informant from East Germany. So there is a direct link between these two stories or there isn't? What's your reaction as a historian when you see this?
Hubertus Knabe: I think there are several aspects to mention. At first, I think there's a difference of why you are collecting this data. Are you doing that for protecting your people against terrorist attacks, or are you doing that for oppressing your people? So that makes a fundamental difference. But on the other hand, also in a democracy, these instruments can be abused, and that is something where we really have to be aware to stop that, and that also the intelligence services are respecting the rules we have. The third point, probably, we really can be happy that we live in a democracy, because you can be sure that Russia and China are doing the same, but nobody speaks about that because nobody could do that.
BG: When the story came out first, last July, last year, you filed a criminal complaint with a German tribunal. Why? HK: Yeah, I did so because of the second point I mentioned, that I think especially in a democracy, the rules are for everybody. They are made for everybody, so it's not allowed that any institution doesn't respect the rules. In the criminal code of Germany, it's written that it's not allowed to tap somebody without the permission of the judge. Fortunately, it's written in the criminal code of Germany, so if it's not respected, then I think an investigation is necessary, and it took a very long time that the public prosecutor of Germany started this, and he started it only in the case of Angela Merkel, and not in the case of all the other people living in Germany.
BG: That doesn't surprise me because — (Applause) — because of the story you told. Seen from the outside, I live outside of Germany, and I expected the Germans to react much more strongly, immediately. And instead, the reaction really came only when Chancellor Merkel was revealed as being wiretapped. Why so?
HK: I take it as a good sign, because people feel secure in this democracy. They aren't afraid that they will be arrested, and if you leave this hall after the conference, nobody has to be afraid that the secret police is standing out and is arresting you. So that's a good sign, I think. People are not really scared, as they could be. But of course, I think, the institutions are responsible to stop illegal actions in Germany or wherever they happen.
BG: A personal question, and this is the last one. There has been a debate in Germany about granting asylum to Edward Snowden. Would you be in favor or against?
HK: Oh, that's a difficult question, but if you ask me, and if I answer honestly, I would give him the asylum, because I think it was really brave what he did, and he destroyed his whole life and his family and everything. So I think, for these people, we should do something, and especially if you see the German history, where so many people had to escape and they asked for asylum in other countries and they didn't get it, so it would be a good sign to give him asylum.
BG: Hubertus, thank you very much.
Tour the deep dark world of the East German state security agency known as Stasi. Uniquely powerful at spying on its citizens, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the Stasi masterminded a system of surveillance and psychological pressure that kept the country under control for decades. Hubertus Knabe studies the Stasi — and was spied on by them. He shares stunning details from the fall of a surveillance state, and shows how easy it was for neighbor to turn on neighbor.
Hubertus Knabe studies the history of torture, oppression and surveillance in former East Germany.
Hubertus Knabe studies the history of torture, oppression and surveillance in former East Germany.