Germany’s Stasi Culture and Its Relevance Today

From the Lecture series: The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You

By Paul Rosenzweig, The George Washington University Law School

Maybe it’s because of their legacy of Nazi-era surveillance and the repressive Stasi culture, but contemporary Germans highly value privacy and limits on state surveillance. But, is this culture of surveillance, especially the oppressive Stasi state, even relevant to contemporary debates? Let’s explore.

Concept of CCTV Camera and surveillance technology on display.
Today, Germany’s Stasi system has become a sort of benchmark in political discourse for the description of systems of surveillance. (Image: Vasin Lee/Shutterstock)

Think of the psychological effects a pervasive system such as the Stasi state must have had on the population. It speaks to the paranoia that builds up once you start to think that some enormous, invisible, sinister organization is out to get you.

The Lives of Others: The Menace of Surveillance

The Academy Award-winning movie, The Lives of Others, tells a story about Stasi surveillance in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin wall.

Broadly, the movie is about a German intelligence officer who is ordered to conduct surveillance on a couple. The Communist Party official, who has given the order, wants the intelligence agency to discover something bad about the man so that he can have his way with the woman.

And the story is about how the act of surveillance affects not only the couple, but also about how being a watcher changes the intelligence agent himself and transforms him. The movie preserves for us an insight into what the Stasi culture was like.

Learn more about the Communist regime of German Democratic Republic.

Stasi System’s Effectiveness

This sense of dread from surveillance is very effective against our real adversaries—we want al-Qaeda to think we know more about them than we actually do. And, in an authoritarian state like East Germany, it was a wonderfully effective means of control.

Zersetzunga—the form of psychological harassment that was designed to wreak havoc on an individual, without any need to arrest or torture the target—was efficient. Holding someone in a cell is expensive; harassing them every third day is much less so.

An added advantage of psychological operations was their deniability. The Stasi could plausibly say it had no idea about what was happening, and thereby allow the East German regime to maintain a false facade of international respectability.

This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Extent of Stasi State

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Stasi tried to destroy many of its files. They were thwarted only when East German citizens stormed the offices and stopped them from expunging the records. Perhaps only 10% of the records were destroyed.

How large is the file system that remains? According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, the surviving files occupy more than 62 miles of shelf space. In addition, there are 16,000 sacks of shredded documents that some are trying to reconstruct.

However, not everybody was in the system. Since the fall of the Wall, nearly 3 million Germans have asked to see their files. And somewhat surprisingly, roughly 50% of those who make the request come away disappointed.

The Chinese Surveillance

Silhouette of a man in headphones with Chinese flag in the background.
The extent of Chinese surveillance is almost parallel to that of the Stasi. (Image: Anelo/Shutterstock)

The Stasi system was not the only one of its kind. Chinese surveillance—what little is known of it—looks very much like that employed by the Stasi. Today, for example, it is standard practice for American businesses to warn their traveling employees not to take along their personal electronics, and to destroy the phones they do take along, before returning to the States.

Consider the story of Hao Jian, an activist who was part of the Tiananmen Square protests. One of his friends who gave a speech in the US said that Hao—who is not allowed to leave China—has his phone tapped by the police, that they read all of his email, and they follow him physically all the time.

Surveillance in Korea

In recent years, Eric Talmadge, a reporter for The Associated Press, was the only Western reporter given regular access to North Korea. Talmadge told The Washington Post that when he is in Pyongyang, he is shadowed constantly by a minder—someone who accompanies him every time he leaves his office or hotel.

The minder seems to be more concerned with making sure that regular North Koreans don’t talk to Talmadge than he is in watching Talmadge himself. When he goes out, Talmadge is not allowed to change his route or stop to interview people at random. And, of course, everything he does electronically is monitored: calls, emails, and Internet use.

Learn more about some of last century’s infamous spies

Why Is the Stasi Relevant Today?

The Stasi have been gone for more than 25 years. So, what does distant history have to do with today? One answer is, as is popularly known, that a page of history is worth a volume of logic; also, 25 years is not so long ago and American policy still revolves, in part, around events that occurred in the 1960s and ’70s.

But the better answer is that for good or ill, the Stasi system has become a sort of benchmark in political discourse for the description of systems of surveillance, and one that is deployed with some regularity.

When former President Barack Obama defended previously undisclosed methods of NSA’s activity, he cited East Germany as a cautionary tale of what could happen when vast, unchecked surveillance turned citizens into informers and persecuted people for what they said in the privacy of their own homes.

Pervasiveness of Stasi Surveillance

Let’s return to one small factual detail from the movie The Lives of Others. One of the heroes, a playwright named Dreyman, after becoming disillusioned with the Communist state, decided to write an exposé and have it smuggled to the West for publication. But there was a problem—Dreyman needed a new typewriter.

So, every typewriter in East Germany was registered with the government—it was identified and associated with an owner, and the government had a sample of how the typeface on that particular machine looked. Thus, Dreyman was worried that were he to use his regular typewriter it would be easy for the Stasi to pinpoint him as the author.

He solved the problem by having a friend smuggle in a new, unregistered typewriter from the West and wrote the story. Later, the discovery of this secret typewriter formed a critical plot point of the movie.

The innovativeness—and poignancy—of Dreyman’s resistance shouldn’t obscure the broader point about the pervasiveness of Stasi surveillance. Among the many examples about surveillance in the former East German Stasi state, Dreyman’s typewriter is the zenith—or more appropriately the nadir—of the surveillance state.

We can ask ourselves whether, in its abusiveness, it has ever since been equaled or not.

Common Questions about the Stasi System’s Relevance

Q: What could be the reasons for the Stasi system’s effectiveness?

There could be three main reasons for the effectiveness of the Stasi system: sense of dread from surveillance; efficacy of Zersetzunga; deniability of the acts.

Q: Why is the Stasi relevant today?

The Stasi system is relevant today, as it has become a sort of benchmark in political discourse for the description of systems of surveillance.

Q: How large is the Stasi file system that remains?

According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, the surviving Stasi files occupy more than 62 miles of shelf space. In addition, there are 16,000 sacks of shredded documents.

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