Americans proudly recall President Ronald Reagan’s historic, moving speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg’s Gate on July 1987, when he challenged then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.”  

That historic event happened a few months later.  On November 9, 1989, the German Democratic Republic announced that travel restrictions for East Germans had been lifted.  That night, hundreds of thousands of people from East Berlin flooded into the western part of the city and, together, celebrated.  The next day, Berliners began discovering the other part of their city.

phoca_thumb_l_menner_01.jpgAmong the remembrance events for the 50th anniversary of  the construction of the Wall, the Jerusalem Post reports that German artist Simon Menner has created an exhibition in Berlin entitled “Pictures from the Secret Stasi Archives,” to alert the public of nefarious actions behind seemingly harmless images that could have as well been taken from any spy film.  [I don’t understand the second part of this sentence.  Do you mean to alert the public of nefarious actions behind seemingly harmless images?  Yes, you are right -I fixed  it as per your observation.  Thanks]

In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the German government created an organization called Bundesbeauftragte fuer die Stasi (BStU) whose mission is to preserve the records of the State Security Service of the former GDR.  BStU was also informally known as “Gauck-”, “Birthler-” or “Jahn-” Behoerde, as per its first, second and third consecutive federal commissioners.

The Ministry of State Security in Eastern Germany, mostly known as the Stasi, was the enforcement arm of the GDR’s Communist Party which by the year the Berlin Wall was brought down, in 1989, had 91,000  employees and 173,081 informants for a country of 16,4 million.  It had the largest number of employees and unofficial informers per head of population of any 20th-century dictatorship and infiltrated every walk of East German life, becoming one of the most powerful secret police and espionage services in the world.        

As a result of the Stasi’s omnipresence, they suppressed political opposition, and caused the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of citizens -not only within East Germany but also overseas, counting on programs for internal repression, international espionage, terrorism and terrorist training, art theft and special operations also in Latin America and Africa.

Although their goals were very similar to Hitler’s Gestapo, their tactics were very different.  The Stasi strove for subtlety, offering “incentives” to those who cooperated, and recruiting informal helpers to infiltrate the entire society.  Instead of physical violence, the Stasi exerted infinite psychological pressure.  

Hundreds of thousands unofficial employees of the Stasi snitched on friends, co-workers and even spouses, sometimes due to extortion by the service and sometimes in exchange for money or perks.  The Stasi excelled at creating a pervasive system of psychological coercion and terror imposed on a whole population through constant surveillance.

The exhibition in Berlin presents never-before-seen photos of actual spies disguised in a variety on costumes destined to camouflage themselves and melt within the population without being suspected.  

To learn those techniques, however, agents relied on their own experiences.  There were courses on how to dress up and blend into the different layers of society. No matter how absurd this may seem now, it was a serious endeavor. Just to have an idea of the magnitude of interference, the Stasi used a network of informants in a ration of one in ninety East German citizens.  

The exhibit likely will stir a debate about problems with surveillance based on the way the Stasi secret police functioned during the Cold War.   One of the reasons Germany has some of the toughest privacy laws in the world is because of its experience with state surveillance systems once used by both, the Nazis and the Stasi.

One part of the exhibition shows a spy in various disguises, from a Russian mafioso wearing a furry hat and trench coat to a casual middle-aged man sporting a cardigan and buttoned-up shirt.

Menner also uncovered Polaroid photos taken by Stasi agents when they secretly searched peoples’ houses on the hunt for evidence they might be betraying the communist state.  He says:  “The people who lived there were never informed when their flats were searched, so the first thing the agents did was to take Polaroid images of the apartment to be able afterwards to put everything back in its original position.” Those photographs show  the insidious invasion the Stasi perpetrated into peoples’ private lives.” [who is the quote from?]

According to Menner, those photographs also underline a universal problem with secret services and preemptive surveillance, while, at the same time, they are silent testimony of how ordinary people were enshrined with great powers and left free to interpret evidence as they wish.

Some of the more surprising images in the exhibition show spies of  Western Allied Forces photographing the Stasi spies, who in some cases seem to be laughing at the absurdity of the situation.

However, after all is said and done, what’s the concern with these surveillance systems nowadays?  

As we evolve into a more technologically advanced world, with Internet cameras and devices widely at the disposal of almost anyone who can afford them, governments have the ability and capability to expand surveillance on their populations in a more efficient and refined way.  

At the same time, contemporary public is still conscious of preserving their privacy which may help explain the massive demand by former East Germans to be shown their Stasi files even until now, 22 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The film “The Lives of Others,” about a Stasi agent who monitors a dissident playwright, won an Oscar-winner 2006.  This exacerbated the amount of requests to review personal Stasi files, which had dipped in the late 1990s, and 2007 saw a five-year high in such requests.  [what requests? to review personal Stasi files -I just added it]

Author John Koehler, Berlin bureau chief of the Associated Press during the height of the Cold War and a U.S. Army Intelligence officer, gives one of the most gripping accounts of the Stasi in his book:  “The Stasi: The untold story of the East German secret police.”  In it, he mentions that between 1950 and 1989, a total of 274,000 persons served in the Stasi.  Menawhile, now the Stasi Records Office spends approximately 175 million dollars a year with 2,000 employees.

An ethical question arises after a country comes out of such a totalitarian regime.  Should they gather all documents and communally decide to destroy them?   In 1990, the German press and citizen committees struggled with that question.  While many were tempted with forgive and forget, others suspected that former Stasi agents were pushing that view.  

Thinkers and political decision-makers hoped that the preservation and reconstruction of the Stasi archives could keep History from repeating itself. They even created an ad hoc word for it in German: Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung something like “power over the past…”

Maybe the best explanation lies in the words of Ulrike Poppe, member of the East German opposition and one of the most surveilled women in communist East Germany. For 15 years, agents of the Stasi followed her, bugged her phone and home, and harassed her unremittingly.  They pushed her to the point that she and other dissidents helped bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989.  

Poppe said, “The files were really important to see….  They explained everything that happened — the letters we never got, the friends who pulled away from us. We understood where the Stasi influenced our lives, where they arranged for something to happen, and where it was simply our fault.”

As I write these lines, I see this as totalitarianism pushed to its extreme in the way the Stasi attempted to dehumanize an entire population.  Yet, despite the blanket surveillance and highly fortified physical borders, Stasi was unable to prevent the collapse of the German Democratic Republic.  

The world may think it is now immune to any similar phenomenon arising in their midst, but it may be worthwhile to think twice, because as the common refrain says, “It can happen here, it can happen anywhere…”  


EB-carlylepic-2Goodwill  Ambassador Eliana Benador is a national and international global  strategist and the former CEO and founder of Benador
Associates. You can  find Eliani at the Goodwill Ambassador or at her website, on Twitter, at her political page on Facebook and her business page on Facebook.