The Stasi: East Germany’s Thought Police

The flag of the GDR. (Wikimedia Commons)

Erich Honecker, head of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from 1971 to 1989, once remarked that “Our GDR is a clean state. The standards for ethics […], decency and morality, are set in stone.” While he may have tried to apply this honourable standard to dealings in the public sphere, the GDR’s state security apparatus — the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS or Stasi — only paid lip service to this ideal. As the “sharp sword of the SED”, the Stasi was granted extraordinary powers in order to combat what Honecker viewed as the GDR’s most pressing  existential enemy: the influence of the West, and the FRG – West Germany – in particular. In order to maintain societal order, the Stasi employed a wide array of tactics to promote zersetzung (decomposition) of  “growths” of counter-socialist tendencies in society: in practice, this meant killing pockets of resistance before they could pose a threat to the GDR. As the Cold War progressed, the Stasi evolved away from harsh tools of repression to a much more effective, and wide-reaching, system that encouraged self-repression and invaded the private spheres of the GDR’s citizens.

Stalin’s Terror

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the immediate post-WWII years, the new Stasi — modelled after the Soviet NKVD  — resembled every other Soviet secret police organization. Staffed by committed ideologues, most of them men, the Stasi targeted a-socials (a distinctly Nazi-esque phrase): people and groups who refused to conform to socialist ideals. These “class enemies”, as Stasi chief Erich Mielke called them, represented a sort of cancerous growth on East German society. Mielke liked to quote “Iron Feliks” Dzerzhinsky, godfather of Stalin’s Cheka, as saying:

…Stasi officers “…must be cleaner, more honest than anyone; […] as clear as a crystal.”

Erich Mielke

In the early years, however, the Stasi rarely shied from getting its hands dirty as it arrested and tortured thousands of suspected “class enemies”. One young man who was seen distributing political leaflets was snatched without a warrant — “one never questioned the Stasi about such legal niceties” — and imprisoned after being subjected to dehumanizing sexual humiliation. He was  made to sign declarations of guilt, and forbidden from interacting with the other prisoners (many of whom, it later turned out, were informants). He was only formally charged and sentenced after a year in jail. In the Stasi jails, individual identities were suppressed and prisoners were subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation, and “nerve-shattering interrogations” that reduced their will to fight back.  

A mock training scenario, depicting a Stasi arrest of a suspected “class enemy”. (Simon Menner and BStU, 2013.)

After the death of Stalin in 1953, however, the Stasi was forced to soften its approach. Jails were shut down as East German society began the first steps towards opening up. In the 1960s, the Stasi began to rely more heavily on covert surveillance and the employment of “unofficial collaborators”, or IMs, to keep tabs on its citizens; the beatings and executions continued, but on a much smaller scale. The system was incredibly inefficient, however: the IM program was unfocused and Stasi officers were soon drowning in mountains of worthless data. They knew “…where Comrade Gisela kept the ironing board in her apartment… and how many times a week Comrade Armin took out his garbage…”, but were becoming increasingly unable to counter emerging threats to socialist conformity. Stasi agents were guided by the Focusing Principle — where IMs were clustered in important areas, like factories and universities — and supposed to only recruit IMs to fill specific needs. In practice, however, most IMs were recruited out of sheer convenience and many of them filed worthless reports in order to appear useful, or to protect their loved ones from the Stasi’s ire. The system was flawed, and the agency floundered in the absence of proper management, mandate and funding.  

The Honecker “Thaw”

Erich Honecker (left) pictured with American political activist Angela Davis in 1972. (Wikimedia Commons)

Erich Honecker was elected General Secretary of the SED in 1971, signaling a period of liberalization in GDR society. For Honecker, stability was the main aim, and covert repression replaced overt Stalinist terror. As East Germans began enjoying new consumerist pleasures, improved apartment living and limited tourism opportunities, the Stasi ballooned. Although the organization’s obsession with hygiene continued — one officer proclaimed that he’d rather feel “a thousand beads of sweat than a single drop of blood” — the secret police were given a broader mandate for enforcing what was known as really existing socialism, or the socialist order of society as dictated by the GDR’s government. The organization quickly grew to become the GDR’s single largest employer, with 91,000 uniformed employees by the end of the Cold War; over 176,000 people served as IMs out of a population of 16.4 million. In the Honecker era, the ratio of people who worked for the Stasi to ordinary citizens was roughly 1:6. In contrast, Russia’s ratio was 1:595, and Poland’s was “only” 1:1,574. Honecker’s GDR rapidly gained the dubious distinction of being the most heavily policed state in the Soviet Bloc, and probably in human history. With such a hold on society, the Stasi no longer had to break kneecaps in order to enforce really existing socialism: now, they broke people’s hearts and minds.

Attacking the Subcultures

A mass congregation in Berlin during the Cold War. (War on the Rocks)

As the 1970s wore on, a number of subcultures began to develop in the GDR, as with every other European country. These groups, which offered an alternative lifestyle to East German materialist socialism, represented a distinct cultural threat to the SED and were the first targets of zersetzung in the 1970s. The most obvious threat came from writers and artists who failed to toe the cultural line, openly discussing alternative forms of governance and subtly critiquing the SED; these “trojan horses of the counter-revolution” were targeted relentlessly by the Stasi, who infiltrated various cultural groups with IMs and intimidated writers with paid thugs. An estimated 10% of people in the East German artist subculture were employed by the Stasi to undermine the effectiveness of their message and covertly promote the SED’s brand of socialism.  

A Stasi informant, or IM, displaying a number of hidden hand signals used to communicate with handlers. Men like this one infiltrated many of the GDR’s organic subcultures and reported their findings to the Stasi. (Open Society Foundations)

Another threat came from the Church. Many religious institutions in East Germany rejected socialism and loudly promoted human rights during the Cold War. According to Stasi documents, Christian homes were immediately distinguished from “normal” homes by their rejection of East German styles and their “gaudy” consumer products. In the Eastern Bloc, churches represented one of the few places where people could speak freely about the failings of really existing socialism; as a  consequence, the Stasi began sending IMs to sermons to spread socialist propaganda and rat out counter-revolutionaries. Soon, many religious circles had been infiltrated and religious people began to understand that free speech was dangerous. Pastors toned down their pro-Western rhetoric, and began speaking more positively of the socialist system.  

Skinheads like these became increasingly common in the GDR during the 1970s and 1980s, raising deep concerns amongst the Stasi rank and file. (All That’s Interesting)

One of the biggest threats to East German social order came in the form of the punks and skinheads. The scenes exploded in the 1980s, as did a rise in hate crimes and conflicts between the two opposing groups. Skinheads in particular caused chaos at football matches, chanting “Heil Hitler!” and “Germany Awake!” while attacking punks and ordinary East Germans. Many youths found an opportunity for previously-denied self expression in these groups: one skinhead remarked that

“…previously, no one took the slightest notice of me. Now that I’ve got a bald head  and the [skinhead] clothes, they all look at me. That’s brilliant and exciting.”

By 1988, the Stasi was tracking 1,067 skinheads and an even larger number of punks (who tended to be significantly less violent). The Stasi stepped up its efforts, sending IMs into these groups and gathering extensive photographic archives of their alternative lifestyles. For the Stasi, skinheads in particular were not disliked for their fascistic ethos so much as their rejection of East German conformity. They were a reflection of a broader counter-cultural movement across Europe, and a representation of (to Mielke at least) Western excesses. Ironically, very few contacts took place between the movements in the GDR and their counterparts in West Germany: the skinheads were a largely organic movement, a predictable rejection of the ever-constricting nature of East German society, and a result of the GDR’s failings in public education. Although the skinhead movement never truly died out — it actually became stronger in the GDR’s jails —  the Stasi achieved marked success in infiltrating these groups and suppressing their activities.

A series of incredibly handsome and convincing Stasi disguises. These images were part of a Stasi manual on disguise that taught IMs and agents to infiltrate subcultures. (Open Society Foundations)

Members of these (and other) subcultures were often conspicuously denied the fruits of the Honecker-era stability: consumerist goods, and social/physical mobility. As well as ratting out free-speaking members of subcultures, the Stasi ensured that “a-socials” were denied  social opportunities. Those who left these subcultures and conformed were rewarded in the form of social status, consumer goods from the West and access to special recreational facilities. Conformists were even allowed access to secret pathways to the West, where relatives could be visited at a distance. When the Stasi compromised “dangerous” subcultures, they offered a strong  alternative: conformity and comfort. Playing the game — wearing the right clothes, joining the right clubs, saying the right things — paid off.

Private Life in the GDR

East Germans on the streets of Berlin in the 1970s. (Life)

Not content with stamping out non-conformist subcultures in the public sphere, the Stasi turned its attention to the private sphere. East German citizens in the Honecker era understood  that the overt forms of rebellion — dressing like a punk, joining a Christian group, chanting “Heil Hitler!” — were forbidden and would result in denial of privileges. Conversations about the West, or the failings of the SED, increasingly took place behind closed doors and only between close friends, colleagues and spouses. The Stasi knew this, and undertsood that even private forms of rebellion posed a threat to the sparkling-clean GDR.

Images from a Stasi surveillance post, monitoring the people who used a particular mailbox. (Open Society Foundations)

The aforementioned ratio of 1 Stasi employee/IM to 6 ordinary East Germans was known (although not the precise figure) to everyone in the GDR. Increasingly in the 1970s and 80s, people found that their private lives were no longer private. Countless examples exist of East Germans whose “a-social” sentiments were betrayed to the Stasi by their closest relations. One woman learned that her closest friend, as well as her boyfriend, were IMs; she was able to read a comprehensive file about herself in the 1990s. A man recalled making brief mention of a desire to flee to the West; his girlfriend quickly told the Stasi and the man was thrown in jail. Another named Chris Hendschke attempted to file a human rights complaint after his wife was harassed by Stasi agents. The police had predicted his movements, however, and managed to intercept Hendschke at the office of human rights. He never learned how the Stasi found him, and he spent a year and a half in jail. When asked to speculate about who informed on him, Hendschke replied “Who knows. Everyone knew everything about everyone else.” As a consequence, an astonishingly low number of East Germans kept diaries, and many began to avoid having meaningful conversations with their loved ones. Everyone had heard a story of someone being turned in by a friend, a parent — or a spouse.  

Jurek Becker. (Wikimedia Commons)

As the prominent Polish-born dissident Jurek Becker once remarked, in the GDR, count less phone conversations were held and letters were mailed entirely for the benefit of the supposed listeners. East Germans “made themselves sick” at public gatherings uttering pro-SED comments and applauding socialist speeches. The Stasi’s IMs were presumed to be “everywhere  and nowhere”, listening to everything and carefully assessing the levels of conformity of every GDR citizen. Soon after the “Honecker Switch” in 1971, the GDR had achieved levels of intrusion into the private sphere that would have made the Nazi Gestapo (who only ever achieved the  1:2,000 ratio of informants to ordinary people) blush: over 180 km of files had been written on East German citizens, and over a million secret photographs were archived. For 16.4 million  people, there were 6 million dossiers. The private sphere was no longer private: communities dissolved and true feelings were suppressed in order to conform.  

Mind Infiltration and Zersetzung

A Stasi surveillance expert caught in the act. (Edward Pentin)

The most insidious manifestation of the Stasi’s reach in the Honecker era was the  way in which it inserted itself into the minds of East Germans. Having eroded the public and private spheres, Stasi efforts targeted individual thought. No longer was it acceptable to keep ones’ opinions to oneself; one had to act in the most ordinary way possible. Especially in the era of nonconformity that spawned punk rock and the skinhead movement, the Stasi made every effort to stamp out dissident thought. Gone were the days of abductions and year-long interrogations: “Iron Feliks” was gone, replaced by a new generation of Stasi officers who intruded into the minds of “class enemies”.  

A collection of Stasi polaroids documenting the interior of a Zersetzung victim’s home. Many of these items would have been shifted or tampered with in order to disturb the victim’s sense of reality. (Open Society Foundations)

East Germans learned to keep their mouths shut, but their actions singled them out to the Stasi. One woman quietly applied for a travel visa; another man wore his hair too long, a symbol of nonconformity and, potentially, homosexuality (a crime of sorts in the GDR). Both were singled out for zersetzung, an effort to erode their sanity through coordinated gaslighting. People like the  aforementioned woman and man were subjected to harassing phone calls, stolen mail, random  attacks, illegal house searches and denial of work opportunities. IMs spread rumours about them, and prostitutes were paid to drive wedges into their relationships. The broader strategy was outlined in Directive no. 1/76, and its goals were:

“…a systematic degradation of reputation, image, and prestige on the basis of true, verifiable and discrediting information together with untrue, credible, irrefutable, and thus also discrediting information; a systematic engineering of social and professional failures to undermine the self-confidence of individuals; … engendering of doubts regarding future prospects; engendering of mistrust and mutual suspicion within groups.”

Stasi Directive no. 1/76

The Stasi formed teams of men who, travelling by van, broke into their victims’ homes and moved all their furniture an inch every day. Efforts were made to destroy the sleep cycles of the Stasi’s targets, distorting their sense of reality. One man, dissident Wolf Biermann, learned in the 1990s that the Stasi had tried to disable the brakes on his car. Gerd Poppe, another nonconformist, was (in a sadly ironic twist) accused of being a Stasi IM and driven almost to  suicide by zersetzung. Tens of thousands of East Germans suffered sustained mental damage, and countless people killed themselves to escape the Stasi’s torment. Escape to the West did not guarantee one’s safety, either: dissident Jürgen Fuchs was followed to the FRG by a Stasi employee. The man’s sole task was to undermine Fuchs’ credibility, planting rumours about him and potentially executing more direct zersetzung efforts against him. 


The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. (Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the most disturbing element of the Stasi’s assault on dissident thought is that few, if any, East Germans knew exactly what was going on until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unlike the use of IMs and listening devices, most people in the GDR were unaware of what was being done to them via zersetzung. No one knew why their friends and family who didn’t quite fit into the socialist mold often went mad, publicly discrediting themselves or committing suicide. East Germans only knew one thing: that they could not trust anyone, let alone their closest relations — not even themselves. Asked about the lasting effects of zersetzung in 2018, Chris Hendschke explained  that he was unable to form close friendships any longer; for him, and countless other East Germans, even owning a Facebook account felt like too much. The Stasi had successfully broken up sub cultures; inserted itself into the private lives of East German men and women; and ensured that people were unable to trust even themselves. Jurek Becker understood this well, remarking sadly that the GDR was fortunate: its citizens subordinated themselves.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • What impacts did the Stasi’s operations have on West Germany?
  • To what extent was the Stasi a manifestation of the Soviet system? What role did the influence of the Gestapo play?
  • Compare and contrast the Stasi with other police-state security organizations throughout history.
  • What are some of the impacts of the Stasi’s operations that remain today in German society?
  • Compare what you’ve read to George Orwell’s 1984. Was the Stasi the archetypal Orwellian security organization, or not?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Betts, Paul. Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic. Oxford: Ox ford University Press, 2010.  
  • Caldwell, Peter C. Hanshew, Karrin. Germany Since 1945: Politics, Culture and Society.  London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.  
  • Colitt, Leslie. Spy Master: The Real-Life Karla, His Moles, and the East German Secret  Police. London: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1996.  
  • Dennis, Mike. Laporte, Norman. The Stasi: Myth and Reality. London: Routledge, 2003.  
  • Koehler, John O. Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police. Boulder:  Westview Press, 1999.  Miller, Barbara. Narratives of Guilt and Compliance in Unified Germany. London: Routledge, 2002.

This article is a revised version of an essay submitted for academic credit at the University of Toronto. Like what you’ve read? Hit the follow button in the bottom right corner for daily facts and articles!

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