Secret police have long helped authoritarian states maintain their control and hegemony on power, normally by operating outside the law to repress any discontent or opposition. Stalin’s Russia used the KGB, Nazi Germany used the Gestapo, and East Germany had the infamous Stasi.
The Stasi were one of the most successful intelligence services in history: they kept almost unimaginably detailed files and records on large quantities of the population, and created an atmosphere of fear and unease that they then proceeded to exploit.
Where did the Stasi come from?
The Stasi was formed in early 1950 with the title of official state security service for the newly formed German Democratic Republic (DDR). With similarities to the KGB, the Stasi’s role involving spying (gathering intelligence) on the population with the aim of keeping the government informed and being able to quash any discontent before it became a threat. The official motto was Schild und Schwert der Partei (Shield and Sword of the [Socialist Unity] Party).
They initially were also responsible for suppressing and spying on former Nazis, and gathering counterintelligence on Western agents. As time went on, the Stasi also kidnapped former East German officials and escapees and forcibly returned them.
As time went on, this remit gradually developed into a wider desire to have information, and therefore control, over the population. Ostensibly this was to keep them safe from disruptive or bad influences, but in reality a climate of fear was an extremely effective tool at creating an obedient population.
Officially, the Stasi employed around 90,000 people. But in order to achieve such levels of effectiveness, the Stasi relied on mass participation. It’s estimated that 1 in every 6 Germans were involved informed for the Stasi, and every factory, office and apartment block had at least one person living or working there who was on the Stasi payroll.
After the collapse of the DDR, the true extent of Stasi surveillance was revealed: they had been keeping files on 1 in 3 Germans, and had over 500,000 unofficial informants. The materials kept on citizens were wide-ranging: audio files, photographs, film reels and millions of paper records. Tiny cameras, hidden in cigarette cases or bookshelves were used to spy in peoples’ homes; letters would be steamed open and read; conversations recorded; overnight visitors noted down.
Many of the techniques used by the Stasi had actually been pioneered by the Nazis, and in particular the Gestapo. They relied heavily on information-gathering and intelligence in order to create an atmosphere of fear and to get citizens to denounce one another: it worked extremely successfully.
Millions more were thought to have been destroyed before they could be collected and archived. Today, those who had Stasi records are entitled to see them at any time, and they can also be viewed more generally with some personal information redacted.
International covert intelligence
Stasi activity wasn’t solely confined to within the borders of the DDR. British and Americans were known to be Stasi informants, and the DDR kept a close eye on any visiting foreigners for any signs of dissent or disruption. Stasi agents also infiltrated foreign embassies, often in the form of housekeeping staff, in order to listen for potential intelligence.
The Stasi also trained security services and armed forces in the Middle East, in countries including Iraq, Syria, Libya and Palestine, which were all sympathetic to the cause of socialism, or at least allies of the Soviet bloc in some shape or form. The full extent of their role in foreign affairs is not fully understood: it’s thought that much of the documentation detailing operations was destroyed during the collapse of the DDR.
Early forms of gaslighting
Those who had been accused of dissent were initially arrested and tortured, but this was deemed too brutal and obvious. Instead, the Stasi spent years perfecting a technique known as zersetzung, which was effectively what we would call gaslighting today.
Their homes would be entered while they were at work and things moved around, clocks changed, fridges re-arranged. They could be blackmailed or have secrets revealed to family members or colleagues. Some had their post-boxes bombarded with pornography, whilst others had their tyres deflated daily.
In many cases, this was a mild form of harassment. The Stasi could trail people on the streets, visit workplaces, block progression to university or in jobs and push people to the bottom of lists for housing and healthcare.
Unsurprisingly, the insidious reach of the Stasi was a serious deterrent to any potential dissenters. Families and friends were known to inform on each other, and voicing criticism of the regime to almost anyone could be a potentially extremely dangerous thing to do.
Fear of having opportunities removed, being subjected to a sustained harassment campaign or even being tortured and imprisoned ensured mass compliance with the regime, despite the hardships it often created.
As the DDR collapsed, the Stasi was disbanded. Concerned that they would destroy hard evidence and paper trails in an attempt to avoid potential future prosecution, in 1991 citizens occupied the former Stasi headquarters in order to preserve the documentation within. The secrets revealed within, including the extent of collaboration and informing, and the sheer amount of information kept on ordinary individuals, staggered almost everyone.