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Big Bruder Watching

The East German brand of tyranny

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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The snooping didn’t stop with the 91,000. In 1989, the Stasi had 173,000 informants on its books. They were given the generic, now reviled, name of unofficial coworker (IM​—​Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter) but were then subclassified according to a distinctively totalitarian taxonomy. This included Secret Lead Informants (GHI), and below them, trusty Full-time Unofficial Coworkers (HIM), and below them, lowly Societal Coworkers for Security (GMS), and then, forming part of the base of this unlovely pyramid, Sporadic Contact Persons (KP) and Collaborative Operational Partners (POZW). In 1988, there was one informant for roughly every 76 preretirement adults in sleepy Perleberg District, a total that Bruce contrasts with one snitch for every 16,800 people in the Ukrainian regional hub of Kharkov at the depths of Stalinist terror.

The Gestapo, of course, benefited from the willingness (for varied reasons) of so many Germans to volunteer information on their neighbors to authorities for whom they had some sympathy. As “the sword and shield” (naturally the iconography was borrowed from the Soviet secret police) of a regime profoundly disliked for most of its existence, the Stasi had to be more proactive. Bruce shows how it recruited (predictably, a mixture of carrot and stick) and why. One Kurt Wollschläger was chosen because of the need to ferret out grumblers at the local river port. That Wollschläger was separated from his wife was, the Stasi (prudish when it came to behavior within its own ranks) reckoned, a plus: He had more time to hang around in bars. That he was a former Nazi was no problem.

Informants would report regularly to their handlers, a snippet here, an observation there, sometimes harmless, sometimes not, and sometimes, perhaps most characteristically, as a piece in a complex composite portrait being assembled of an individual that the regime was beginning to distrust. If it looked as if those suspicions might have been justified​—​the bar was low: no laws needed to have been broken​—​the screws would tighten, relentlessly, remorselessly, but not necessarily attributably. There was not always a warning chat. A job would be suddenly lost; new employment would be hard to find. A child would not win that university place. Ugly gossip might be circulated. The phone would ring at night, with only silence at the other end​—​a perfect expression of this shadowy, subtle, and devastating form of repression.

There was a word for this: Zersetzen (“to undermine” or “to break down”). For outright dissidents, for those “preparing to flee the Republic” or those whose mutters of discontent had tipped over into something more insistent, there was prison (and, on occasion, the bullet). The more fortunate won exile, or had exile forced upon them. For the law-abiding who never crossed such lines, there was always the reality or the risk of Zersetzen, a vital element in a system of understated control that Bruce describes as hovering “ominously in the distance, always threatening, always unsettling, a constant potential threat.” And it worked. The German Democratic Republic was, almost until the end, one of Moscow’s better-behaved satellites.

Coerced good behavior should not be confused with enthusiasm. An appropriately skeptical Bruce reports on reprehensible efforts by some historians to strip that ill-mannered adjective “totalitarian” from the regime that collapsed with the Wall: “Welfare dictatorship .  .  . post-totalitarian bureaucratic dictatorship .  .  . thoroughly ruled society .  .  . forced through society” and, thanks to its colossal number of informants, “participatory dictatorship” are amongst the euphemisms that have slithered into view. We can only speculate at what motivates such nonsense: Is it the persistent academic desire to minimize the crimes of the left, or is it an unwillingness to come to terms with the full implications of
past horrors?

Such poisons have a way of seeping out from university campuses, but in the case of the former East Germany, their potency is reinforced by the natural tendency of its onetime citizens to allow past moments of personal happiness to cast a favorable glow over the republic in which they once endured: “Oh, it wasn’t all bad, you know.” Bruce handles this difficult topic with considerable subtlety before concluding that one can no more put a boundary between everyday life in the fallen republic and the ever-present awareness of the Stasi’s presence than “one can encircle a scent in a room.”

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