East Germany’s Stasi Surveillance: Tactics and Impact

From the Lecture series: The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You

By Paul Rosenzweig, The George Washington University Law School

Post World War II, the internal security force for the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany, was known as the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS—commonly known as the Stasi. Many commentators describe it as the most repressive, and oppressive, surveillance system ever operated. Let’s find out how.

A special agent listens on the reel tape recorder.
From monitoring telephone conversations to reading mails, the Stasi surveillance was all-pervasive. (Image: Only_NewPhoto/Shutterstock)

Early in her career, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was apparently approached by the Stasi and asked to be an informant for the state. She turned down the offer and got off by explaining that she was a blabbermouth who couldn’t keep her mouth shut.

It’s a wonderful story, especially since she became known as a very close-mouthed leader of one of Europe’s most important countries.

With this anecdote, let’s look at some activities that the Stasi—the internal security force of East Germany—undertook during its heyday.

East Germany’s Stasi Culture

The Stasi had, of course, a system for monitoring telephone conversations. It also had what is known as a mail cover system that opened up letters and parcels coming in from overseas, as well as mail to certain targeted people.

It tracked all of the few foreigners who were allowed into East Germany. In fact, there was a division whose job was to detect whether any citizens had illegal western foods in their garbage!

The Stasi Scent Strategy

The Stasi even took odor samples to enrich their files on their suspects. If you go to the Stasi museum today, you can see them—rows of jars with yellow cloth inside.

The Stasi systematically, and secretly, collected the smells of suspected dissidents for use as a comparison. For example, dogs might compare the smell on a flyer for a protest meeting against the smell from a suspected organizer.

This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Statsi’s Army of Informants

What distinguished Stasi from other surveillance systems was the massive number of its informants.

In Germany, they were known as informal collaborators, or—“Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter”—IMs. Though estimates vary, we can say with confidence that in 1989, on the cusp of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German government employed more than 170,000 of these IMs.

When you consider that the entire population of the country was only 16 million at the time, this means that more than 1% of the population served as informants.

Stasi’s Informal Informants

Here’s an example of how such surveillance worked. The German news magazine Der Spiegel once reported how a nosey hausfrau—who had been asked by her neighbors to water their plants while they were away—went snooping through their cupboards and found the makings for a delicious and, by the standards of austere East Germany, lavish West German pudding.

Once the nosey neighbor informed state security, that was enough for the family breadwinner to be fired from his job, and for the entire household to plunge into destitution.

Learn more about spycraft.

Stasi Agenda: Catch Them Young

Perhaps worst of all, some 10,000 of those informants were under the age of 18. They were children, many of them, perhaps, spying on their parents. John O. Koehler’s book Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police suggests that if occasional informants were included, as many as 2 million East Germans were watching their fellow citizens.

If true, such a number surely validates Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal’s belief that the Stasi were even more oppressive than the Nazi Gestapo.

Stasi Versus Nazi

Using Wiesenthal’s figures for the Nazi Gestapo, during World War II there was one officer for every 2,000 German citizens. By comparison, according to John Koehler, the ratio for the Stasi was one secret policeman per 166 East Germans.

General view of the entrance to the Stasi headquarter, now a museum.
On a per capita basis, the Stasi workforce was larger than the Gestapo or the Soviet KGB. (Image: Juan Garcia Hinojosa/Shutterstock)

When the regular informers are added, there would have been at least one spy watching every 66 citizens. When one adds in the estimated numbers of part-time snoops—like the plant-watering neighbor—the result is nothing short of monstrous—one informer per 6.5 citizens.

Some German researchers think Koehler’s numbers are exaggerated. But even if we don’t count the informants, the Stasi workforce was larger, on a per capita basis, than the Gestapo or the Soviet KGB.

Learn more about the Communist regime of German Democratic Republic.

Zersetzung: A Stasi Tactic

Zersetzung was a form of psychological harassment that was designed to wreak havoc on an individual, without any need to arrest or torture the target. As the German historian, Hubertus Knabe puts it:

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.

And, what would some of these techniques be? Some of them were semi-overt: The Stasi would arrange, for example, for your work to go poorly. Though the causes might not be known to the subject of the attack, the effects were pretty evident. Or, it would sometimes spread rumors about a target among his or her friends and colleagues: stories of alcoholism, parental neglect, or the like.

The Stasi Technique: Messing with the Mind

Sometimes, the Stasi would play mischievous mind games with a target. They might, for example, enter his or her house and move the furniture around. Or, they might change the time on an alarm clock, or replace the tea bags with different types of tea.

Other tactics were similarly abusive. Reports exist of the Stasi arranging for a target to get deliberately incorrect medical treatment or to receive doctored photographs purporting to show him in a compromising position. One report, perhaps apocryphal, has the Stasi sending a vibrator to the wife of the target of one of their operations, evidently as a way of sending a message about his lovemaking.

So, why use Zersetzung? For any number of reasons. First, there is the in terrorem effect of the technique. The victim doesn’t know what is happening, and everybody around the target can watch as he or she crumbles under the relentless pressure of state harassment.

Germans today are known to be unwilling to share information they have collected with anyone outside of the German government. They also have different views on how to conduct surveillance. And, given their legacy, we now know why. They have seen the dangers of pervasive government surveillance, and they are afraid of the consequences.

Common Questions about Stasi Surveillance

Q: What was the Stasi in Germany?

Stasi was the internal security force for East Germany, established post World War II.

Q: How did the Stasi use odor for surveillance?

The Stasi took odor samples to enrich their files on their suspects. They systematically, and secretly, collected the smells of suspected dissidents for use as a comparison.

Q: What does Zersetzung mean?

Designed by the Stasi, Zersetzung was a form of psychological harassment to wreak havoc on an individual, without any need to arrest or torture the target.

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