The Ministry for State Security (German: Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS) or State Security Service (Staatssicherheitsdienst, SSD), commonly known as the Stasi (IPA: [ˈʃtaːziː]), was the official state security service of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). It has been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies to have ever existed. The Stasi was headquartered in East Berlin, with an extensive complex in Berlin-Lichtenberg and several smaller facilities throughout the city. The Stasi motto was "Schild und Schwert der Partei" (Shield and Sword of the Party), referring to the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (German: Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED). Erich Mielke was its longest-serving chief, in power for thirty-two of the GDR's forty years of existence.
One of its main tasks was spying on the population, mainly through a vast network of citizens turned informants, and fighting any opposition by overt and covert measures, including hidden psychological destruction of dissidents (Zersetzung, literally meaning decomposition). Its Main Directorate for Reconnaissance (German: Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung) was responsible for both espionage and for conducting covert operations in foreign countries. Under its long-time head Markus Wolf, this directorate gained a reputation as one of the most effective intelligence agencies of the Cold War.
Numerous Stasi officials were prosecuted for their crimes after 1990. After German reunification, the surveillance files that the Stasi had maintained on millions of East Germans were laid open, so that any citizen could inspect their personal file on request; these files are now maintained by the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records.
The Stasi was founded on 8 February 1950. Wilhelm Zaisser was the first Minister of State Security of the GDR, and Erich Mielke was his deputy. Zaisser tried to depose SED General Secretary Walter Ulbricht after the June 1953 uprising, but was instead removed by Ulbricht and replaced with Ernst Wollweber thereafter. Wollweber resigned in 1957 after clashes with Ulbricht and Erich Honecker, and was succeeded by his deputy, Erich Mielke.
In 1957, Markus Wolf became head of the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA) (Main Reconnaissance Administration), the foreign intelligence section of the Stasi. As intelligence chief, Wolf achieved great success in penetrating the government, political and business circles of West Germany with spies. The most influential case was that of Günter Guillaume, which led to the downfall of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in May 1974. In 1986, Wolf retired and was succeeded by Werner Grossmann.
Although Mielke's Stasi was superficially granted independence in 1957, until 1990 the KGB continued to maintain liaison officers in all eight main Stasi directorates, each with his own office inside the Stasi's Berlin compound, and in each of the fifteen Stasi district headquarters around East Germany. Collaboration was so close that the KGB invited the Stasi to establish operational bases in Moscow and Leningrad to monitor visiting East German tourists and Mielke referred to the Stasi officers as "Chekists of the Soviet Union". In 1978, Mielke formally granted KGB officers in East Germany the same rights and powers that they enjoyed in the Soviet Union.
The Ministry for State Security also included the following entities:
Between 1950 and 1989, the Stasi employed a total of 274,000 people in an effort to root out the class enemy. In 1989, the Stasi employed 91,015 people full-time, including 2,000 fully employed unofficial collaborators, 13,073 soldiers and 2,232 officers of GDR army, along with 173,081 unofficial informants inside GDR and 1,553 informants in West Germany.
Regular commissioned Stasi officers were recruited from conscripts who had been honourably discharged from their 18 months' compulsory military service, had been members of the SED, had had a high level of participation in the Party's youth wing's activities and had been Stasi informers during their service in the Military. The candidates would then have to be recommended by their military unit political officers and Stasi agents, the local chiefs of the District (Bezirk) Stasi and Volkspolizei office, of the district in which they were permanently resident, and the District Secretary of the SED. These candidates were then made to sit through several tests and exams, which identified their intellectual capacity to be an officer, and their political reliability. University graduates who had completed their military service did not need to take these tests and exams. They then attended a two-year officer training programme at the Stasi college (Hochschule) in Potsdam. Less mentally and academically endowed candidates were made ordinary technicians and attended a one-year technology-intensive course for non-commissioned officers.
By 1995, some 174,000 inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (IMs) Stasi informants had been identified, almost 2.5% of East Germany's population between the ages of 18 and 60. 10,000 IMs were under 18 years of age. From the volume of material destroyed in the final days of the regime, the office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records (BStU) believes that there could have been as many as 500,000 informers. A former Stasi colonel who served in the counterintelligence directorate estimated that the figure could be as high as 2 million if occasional informants were included. There is significant debate about how many IMs were actually employed.
Full-time officers were posted to all major industrial plants (the extensiveness of any surveillance largely depended on how valuable a product was to the economy) and one tenant in every apartment building was designated as a watchdog reporting to an area representative of the Volkspolizei (Vopo). Spies reported every relative or friend who stayed the night at another's apartment. Tiny holes were drilled in apartment and hotel room walls through which Stasi agents filmed citizens with special video cameras. Schools, universities, and hospitals were extensively infiltrated.
The Stasi had formal categorizations of each type of informant, and had official guidelines on how to extract information from, and control, those with whom they came into contact. The roles of informants ranged from those already in some way involved in state security (such as the police and the armed services) to those in the dissident movements (such as in the arts and the Protestant Church). Information gathered about the latter groups was frequently used to divide or discredit members. Informants were made to feel important, given material or social incentives, and were imbued with a sense of adventure, and only around 7.7%, according to official figures, were coerced into cooperating. A significant proportion of those informing were members of the SED; to employ some form of blackmail, however, was not uncommon. A large number of Stasi informants were tram conductors, janitors, doctors, nurses and teachers; Mielke believed that the best informants were those whose jobs entailed frequent contact with the public.
The Stasi's ranks swelled considerably after Eastern Bloc countries signed the 1975 Helsinki accords, which GDR leader Erich Honecker viewed as a grave threat to his regime because they contained language binding signatories to respect "human and basic rights, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and conviction." The number of IMs peaked at around 180,000 in that year, having slowly risen from 20,000–30,000 in the early 1950s, and reaching 100,000 for the first time in 1968, in response to Ostpolitik and protests worldwide. The Stasi also acted as a proxy for KGB to conduct activities in other Eastern Bloc countries, such as Poland, where the Soviets were despised.
The Stasi infiltrated almost every aspect of GDR life. In the mid-1980s, a network of IMs began growing in both German states; by the time that East Germany collapsed in 1989, the Stasi employed 91,015 employees and 173,081 informants. About one out of every 63 East Germans collaborated with the Stasi. By at least one estimate, the Stasi maintained greater surveillance over its own people than any secret police force in history. The Stasi employed one full-time agent for every 166 East Germans. The ratios swelled when informers were factored in: counting part-time informers, the Stasi had one informer per 6.5 people. By comparison, the Gestapo employed one secret policeman per 2,000 people. This comparison led Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal to call the Stasi even more oppressive than the Gestapo. Stasi agents infiltrated and undermined West Germany's government and spy agencies.
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The Stasi perfected the technique of psychological harassment of perceived enemies known as Zersetzung (pronounced [ʦɛɐ̯ˈzɛtsʊŋ]) – a term borrowed from chemistry which literally means "decomposition".
|…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.|
|—Hubertus Knabe, German historian |
By the 1970s, the Stasi had decided that the methods of overt persecution that had been employed up to that time, such as arrest and torture, were too crude and obvious. It was realised that psychological harassment was far less likely to be recognised for what it was, so its victims, and their supporters, were less likely to be provoked into active resistance, given that they would often not be aware of the source of their problems, or even its exact nature. Zersetzung was designed to side-track and "switch off" perceived enemies so that they would lose the will to continue any "inappropriate" activities.
Tactics employed under Zersetzung generally involved the disruption of the victim's private or family life. This often included psychological attacks, such as breaking into homes and subtly manipulating the contents, in a form of gaslighting – moving furniture, altering the timing of an alarm, removing pictures from walls or replacing one variety of tea with another. Other practices included property damage, sabotage of cars, purposely incorrect medical treatment, smear campaigns including sending falsified compromising photos or documents to the victim's family, denunciation, provocation, psychological warfare, psychological subversion, wiretapping, bugging, mysterious phone calls or unnecessary deliveries, even including sending a vibrator to a target's wife. Usually, victims had no idea that the Stasi were responsible. Many thought that they were losing their minds, and mental breakdowns and suicide could result.
One great advantage of the harassment perpetrated under Zersetzung was that its subtle nature meant that it was able to be plausibly denied. This was important given that the GDR was trying to improve its international standing during the 1970s and 80s, especially in conjunction with the Ostpolitik of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt massively improving relations between the two German states.
Other files (the Rosenholz Files), which contained the names of East German spies abroad, led American spy agencies to capture them. After German reunification, revelations of Stasi's international activities were publicized, such as its military training of the West German Red Army Faction.
Directorate X was responsible for disinformation. Rolf Wagenbreth, director of disinformation operations, stated "Our friends in Moscow call it 'dezinformatsiya'. Our enemies in America call it 'active measures', and I, dear friends, call it ‘my favorite pastime'".
Recruitment of informants became increasingly difficult towards the end of the GDR's existence, and, after 1986, there was a negative turnover rate of IMs. This had a significant impact on the Stasi's ability to survey the population, in a period of growing unrest, and knowledge of the Stasi's activities became more widespread. Stasi had been tasked during this period with preventing the country's economic difficulties becoming a political problem, through suppression of the very worst problems the state faced, but it failed to do so.
Stasi officers reportedly had discussed re-branding East Germany as a democratic capitalist country to the West, but which in practice would have been taken over by Stasi officers. The plan specified 2,587 OibE officers (Offiziere im besonderen Einsatz, "officers on special assignment") who would have assumed power as detailed in the Top Secret Document 0008-6/86 of 17 March 1986. According to Ion Mihai Pacepa, the chief intelligence officer in communist Romania, other communist intelligence services had similar plans. On 12 March 1990, Der Spiegel reported that the Stasi was indeed attempting to implement 0008-6/86. Pacepa has noted that what happened in Russia and how KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin took over Russia resembles these plans. See Putinism.
On 7 November 1989, in response to the rapidly changing political and social situation in the GDR in late 1989, Erich Mielke resigned. On 17 November 1989, the Council of Ministers (Ministerrat der DDR) renamed the Stasi as the "Office for National Security" (Amt für Nationale Sicherheit – AfNS), which was headed by Generalleutnant Wolfgang Schwanitz. On 8 December 1989, GDR Prime Minister Hans Modrow directed the dissolution of the AfNS, which was confirmed by a decision of the Ministerrat on 14 December 1989.
As part of this decision, the Ministerrat originally called for the evolution of the AfNS into two separate organizations: a new foreign intelligence service (Nachrichtendienst der DDR) and an "Office for the Protection of the Constitution of the GDR" (Verfassungsschutz der DDR), along the lines of the West German Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, however, the public reaction was extremely negative, and under pressure from the "Round Table" (Runder Tisch), the government dropped the creation of the Verfassungsschutz der DDR and directed the immediate dissolution of the AfNS on 13 January 1990. Certain functions of the AfNS reasonably related to law enforcement were handed over to the GDR Ministry of Internal Affairs. The same ministry also took guardianship of remaining AfNS facilities.
When the parliament of Germany investigated public funds that disappeared after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, it found out that East Germany had transferred large amounts of money to Martin Schlaff through accounts in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, in return for goods "under Western embargo".
Moreover, high-ranking Stasi officers continued their post-GDR careers in management positions in Schlaff's group of companies. For example, in 1990, Herbert Kohler, Stasi commander in Dresden, transferred 170 million marks to Schlaff for "harddisks" and months later went to work for him. The investigations concluded that "Schlaff's empire of companies played a crucial role" in the Stasi attempts to secure the financial future of Stasi agents and keep the intelligence network alive. The Stern magazine noted that KGB officer Vladimir Putin worked with his Stasi colleagues in Dresden in 1989.
During the Peaceful Revolution of 1989, Stasi offices were overrun by angry citizens, but not before the Stasi destroyed a number of documents (approximately 5%) consisting of, by one calculation, 1 billion sheets of paper.
With the fall of the German Democratic Republic the Stasi was dissolved. Stasi employees began to destroy the extensive files and documents they held, by hand, fire and with the use of shredders. When these activities became known, a protest began in front of the Stasi headquarters, The evening of 15 January 1990 saw a large crowd form outside the gates calling for a stop to the destruction of sensitive files. The building contained vast records of personal files, many of which would form important evidence in convicting those who had committed crimes for the Stasi. The protesters continued to grow in number until they were able to overcome the police and gain entry into the complex. Once inside, specific targets of the protesters' anger were portraits of Erich Honecker which were trampled on or burnt. Among the protesters were former Stasi collaborators seeking to destroy incriminating documents.
With the German Reunification on 3 October 1990, a new government agency was founded called the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic (German: Der Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik), officially abbreviated "BStU". There was a debate about what should happen to the files, whether they should be opened to the people or kept closed.
Those who opposed opening the files cited privacy as a reason. They felt that the information in the files would lead to negative feelings about former Stasi members, and, in turn, cause violence. Pastor Rainer Eppelmann, who became Minister of Defense and Disarmament after March 1990, felt that new political freedoms for former Stasi members would be jeopardized by acts of revenge. Prime Minister Lothar de Maizière even went so far as to predict murder. They also argued against the use of the files to capture former Stasi members and prosecute them, arguing that not all former members were criminals and should not be punished solely for being a member. There were also some who believed that everyone was guilty of something. Peter Michael Diestel, the Minister of Interior, opined that these files could not be used to determine innocence and guilt, claiming that "there were only two types of individuals who were truly innocent in this system, the newborn and the alcoholic". Other opinions, such as the one of West German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, believed in putting the Stasi behind them and working on German reunification.
|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.|
|—Hubertus Knabe, German historian |
Others argued that everyone should have the right to see their own file, and that the files should be opened to investigate former Stasi members and prosecute them, as well as not allow them to hold office. Opening the files would also help clear up some of the rumors that were currently circulating. Some also believed that politicians involved with the Stasi should be investigated.
The fate of the files was finally decided under the Unification Treaty between the GDR and Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). This treaty took the Volkskammer law further and allowed more access and use of the files. Along with the decision to keep the files in a central location in the East, they also decided who could see and use the files, allowing people to see their own files.
In 1992, following a declassification ruling by the German government, the Stasi files were opened, leading people to look for their files. Timothy Garton Ash, an English historian, after reading his file, wrote The File: A Personal History.
Between 1991 and 2011, around 2.75 million individuals, mostly GDR citizens, requested to see their own files. The ruling also gave people the ability to make duplicates of their documents. Another big issue was how the media could use and benefit from the documents. It was decided that the media could obtain files as long as they were depersonalized and not regarding an individual under the age of 18 or a former Stasi member. This ruling not only gave the media access to the files, but also gave schools access.
Even though groups of this sort were active in the community, those who were tracking down ex-members were, as well. Many of these hunters succeeded in catching ex-Stasi; however, charges could not be made for merely being a member. The person in question would have to have participated in an illegal act, not just be a registered Stasi member. Among the high-profile individuals who were arrested and tried were Erich Mielke, Third Minister of State Security of the GDR, and Erich Honecker, head of state for the GDR. Mielke was sentenced to six years prison for the murder of two policemen in 1931. Honecker was charged with authorizing the killing of would-be escapees on the East-West frontier and the Berlin Wall. During his trial, he went through cancer treatment. Because he was nearing death, Honecker was allowed to spend his final time in freedom. He died in Chile in May 1994.
Some of it is very easy due to the number of archives and the failure of shredding machines (in some cases "shredding" meant tearing paper in two by hand and documents could be recovered easily). In 1995, the BStU began reassembling the shredded documents; 13 years later, the three dozen archivists commissioned to the projects had only reassembled 327 bags; they are now using computer-assisted data recovery to reassemble the remaining 16,000 bags – estimated at 45 million pages. It is estimated that this task may be completed at a cost of 30 million dollars.
The CIA acquired some Stasi records during the looting of the Stasi's archives. The Federal Republic of Germany has asked for their return and received some in April 2000. See also Rosenholz files.
The Anti-Stalinist Action Normannenstraße (ASTAK), an association founded by former GDR Citizens' Committees, has transformed the former headquarters of the Stasi into a museum. It is divided into three floors:
The ground floor has been kept as it used to be. The decor is original, with many statues and flags.
Former Stasi agent Matthias Warnig (codename "Arthur") is currently the CEO of Nord Stream. German investigations have revealed that some of the key Gazprom Germania managers are former Stasi agents.
Former Stasi officers continue to be politically active via the Gesellschaft zur Rechtlichen und Humanitären Unterstützung e. V. (GRH, Society for Legal and Humanitarian Support). Former high-ranking officers and employees of the Stasi, including the last Stasi director, Wolfgang Schwanitz, make up the majority of the organization's members, and it receives support from the German Communist Party, among others.
Impetus for the establishment of the GRH was provided by the criminal charges filed against the Stasi in the early 1990s. The GRH, decrying the charges as "victor's justice", called for them to be dropped. Today the group provides an alternative if somewhat utopian voice in the public debate on the GDR legacy. It calls for the closure of the museum in Hohenschönhausen and can be a vocal presence at memorial services and public events. In March 2006 in Berlin, GRH members disrupted a museum event; a political scandal ensued when the Berlin Senator (Minister) of Culture refused to confront them.
Behind the scenes, the GRH also lobbies people and institutions promoting opposing viewpoints. For example, in March 2006, the Berlin Senator for Education received a letter from a GRH member and former Stasi officer attacking the Museum for promoting "falsehoods, anticommunist agitation and psychological terror against minors". Similar letters have also been received by schools organizing field trips to the museum.
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