By Maddie Petherick
During the era of the German Democratic Republic in East Berlin, the secret police force, known as the Stasi, continually kept an eye on citizens of all walks of life who were considered people of special interest. The Stasi was created based on an East German law passed on February 8, 1950, which allowed the police force to start surveillance of its own citizens (Cameron). The goal of the Stasi Police at first was to just to retrieve information about outside enemies. This later developed into attempts to acquire any type of information as part of the efforts to institute total control over society. The Stasi was also involved in the kidnapping of former officials from East Germany who had escaped to the West, holding them hostage as prisoners. The Stasi used special interrogations to extract information from these inmates. If people relented and cooperated, the Stasi might finally release them to the West or back into East German society.
For the Stasi to be as powerful as they were, there had to be numerous officers recording information and spying on people. According to a book published online by the New York Times, roughly 274,000 people served as Stasi officers, and perhaps as many as 500,000 people were engaged as informers. While some claim that that number could even have been as high as two million people, by 1995, 174,000 Stasi Informers had been identified (Koehler). The percentage per capita of spies was the highest of any other totalitarian society of the Soviet Bloc. One in every 6.5 citizens in East Germany was a Stasi spy or a Stasi informer, working either part-time or full-time for the organization (Koehler). In an apartment complex, usually one person was assigned to be a spy, watching and reporting on all the other tenants in a building; these spies were members of the Vopo – or People’s Police. Telephone lines were tapped, cameras were installed inside apartments, and people who visited the tenant were recorded. The Stasi went so far in trying to infiltrate society with spies that people working in churches were recruited to be informers for the party as well (Koehler).
In order for a person to be prosecuted by the Stasi officers, they had to have disobeyed the East German criminal code. The criminal code was written to protect the rights of citizens, “safeguard the dignity of humankind,” and protect freedoms under socialist rule. But, these laws weren’t really used in reality; these laws were used against citizens. An example of this would be if a citizen was found to be in contact with a representative of the western government, in hopes to obtain an exit visa, the citizen could be imprisoned. (Koehler). One other reason why somebody could be imprisoned would be for hostile propaganda. During our trip to a Stasi Prison Museum while we were in Germany, our tour guide informed us that he was arrested by the Stasi. He was imprisoned because he held up a derogatory sign about the government at a rally in front of members of the police force; he did this knowing he would be imprisoned.
This former Stasi prison had quite a bit of history behind it; not all of it was from the time of the postwar Stasi period. The building itself had been a factory before World War II. After the war, the complex was taken over by Soviet Secret Police. The Soviet’s used this building as a detainment camp and housed prisoners there before transferring them to other sites. And finally, the site was turned into a Stasi prison in 1951. At this time, a new building containing more prison cells and interrogation rooms was constructed using prisoners for labor. Then after the Berlin Wall was built in the 1960s, this prison was used to house those who attempted to escape from East Germany. The prison was closed in 1990 when Germany was reunified.
While on the tour, we had the opportunity to walk through the prison cells. Some of them looked like normal cells with bars like what we picture when we think of a prison. These kinds of cells were used for more important people such as former officers and so on. The cells that political prisoners, such as our tour guide, were located in the lower levels of the prison buildings. These cells were called “submarines” and were more of what we think of solitary confinement cells. They were extremely small cells – some with little or no natural light. As a form of exerting pressure on prisoners, the cell could be dark for most of the time a prisoner was held there or to the contrary, the light could be left on all the time. In this way, prisoners had no way of telling what time of the day it was, nor how long one was there. These cells were typically overcrowded as well.
The Stasi prison guards would torture prisoners while in interrogation rooms and while they were in cells to get the information they wanted to hear. While in the interrogation rooms, our tour guide told us the guards would act as their friends and would try to help them in some ways. Some guards would give them something to eat and drink whereas other guards would torture them. The torture could range from anywhere from being beaten, to having nails be pushed under fingernails, to being burned with the ends of cigarettes.
After Germany was reunified, the personal files of all the documentation recorded by the Stasi were made available to the public. “The File” written by Timothy Garton Ash is an example of what kind of information the Stasi informers and secret police were recording. The first few pages of the book, Garton Ash tells of how he is able to recreate, using his Stasi file, his life back in East Germany in the 1980s. The book contains specific details of Ash’s actions, exact times events in his life occurred, and intimate details about people he interacted with.
Hearing the tour guide speak of his experience and how he was treated while being imprisoned for 11 months was astonishing. Seeing the submarines was the most memorable point of the tour, for me. These cells were so small and hearing they had more than one prisoner in there at a time was flabbergasting. The prisoners were shoulder to shoulder in the tiny room while they couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, and couldn’t use a bathroom. Our tour guide also explained there were specific rules during the day, a prisoner could not lie on their bed (if they were lucky enough to have a bed in their cell), they could only sit on the edge of it. Also, during the night, the prisoners couldn’t even sleep because the Stasi would constantly come into the cell either to check on inmates or to call them for night-time interrogations. Checking on the prisoners, depriving them of sleep and carrying out interrogations at the night constituted a system of torture. Guards would bang on the cell doors to wake the prisoners; they would also yell at prisoners in different cells that would echo down the long hallways. Many prisoners claim to have sleeping disorders and psychological illnesses because of the night terrors they experienced while imprisoned.
This site in particular was one of great interest for me. In high school when we were learning about the Cold War, we just brushed over this topic and I never really knew there was a secret police force. Just hearing all the personal stories from the tour guide about the functioning of the secret police, a topic I had learned so little about was astonishing. It’s hard to believe that in the police state, in some cases, the spies were family members and even close friends who turned their backs on each other. The lessons of the Stasi prison seem applicable even today. I would like to think that if something like this were to happen again in my lifetime, I could trust those close to me enough to not share every miniscule detail about me to the authorities. History tends to repeat itself and anything is possible, especially bearing in mind all the technology we have at our disposal today.
Garton Ash, Timothy. The File A Personal History. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Cameron, Joel D. “Stasi East German Government.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Britannica, n.d. Web. 13 June 2017. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Stasi>.
Koehler, John O. “Revenge Versus the Rule of Law.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 1999. Web. 13 June 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/k/koehler-stasi.html>.