I have a good friend who grew up in East Germany in the bad old days. The East German authorities suspected that her family...

I have a good friend who grew up in East Germany in the bad old days. The East German authorities suspected that her family would try to immigrate to the West (which they did), so they naturally told the Stasi–the East German secret service–to watch them (which they did). After the fall of the Wall, the Stasi files were opened and my friend requested to see her dossier. I have to say, it was disappointing. For some reason (perhaps having to do with John le Carre), I thought the Stasi was a ruthlessly efficient, super-clandestine, surveillance-repression machine. But I couldn’t find that machine in my friend’s file. It was boring. She did this, did that, she did the other thing. Why would anyone care?

Read Gary Bruce‘s wonderful The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi (OUP, 2010) and you can find out why. But don’t expect it to make any sense, because the picture Gary paints is of a kind of Bizarro World. Like their handlers in the Soviet Union, the East German communist party was mindlessly paranoid. They saw–or at least claimed to see–“enemies” under every rock. This (mis)perception was the pretext for the creation of the Stasi: it would protect the revolution from said “enemies.” (It would also prevent East Germans from fleeing to the West, but that was just an added bonus.) How?

First, they needed agents. These weren’t hard to get in the post-war years. There were lots of idealistic communists who were quite willing to go to work for the cause. One of the revelations of Gary’s work is that many (most?) Stasi agents believed in what they were doing. Those that didn’t recognized that the pay was good. Next, you needed your trusty agents to recruit “co-workers,” that is, informants. This was not as easy. Gary’s subjects worried a lot about meeting their recruitment quotas; really good informants were hard to find. But generally they found them (or made them up). Finally, you had to have your agents work their informants, that is, meet with them regularly and pump them for valuable information. This was the hardest job of all. Gary’s work makes clear that most Stasi agents viewed the regular meeting (again, they had quotas) as a hassle. More than that, they were generally seen as completely unproductive. We now know what the Stasi agents could doubtlessly have told us long ago: there were no “enemies.” With the singular exception of Poland, no Eastern Bloc state ever hosted anything like an organized “opposition” to communism or anything else. A lot of folks were unhappy with, for example, Party hypocrisy, the price of sausage, or the inability to travel abroad. But there was no “underground” to go into to fight for, well, whatever one might fight for. This being so, the vast majority of Stasi agents worked for decades without ever turning up anything beyond the occasional extra-marital affair–hardly the kind of thing that would endanger the “republic.”

What they did accomplish, and perhaps what the Stasi itself was meant to accomplish, was to frighten the populace. You don’t need to watch everyone to give the impression that everyone is being watched and, if “seen,” being punished. In the end, the myth of the Stasi was more important for the stability of the East German regime that its practice.

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