Stasi, history of a political police (GDR)

The Stasi. This famous and at the same time mysterious word chilled the backs of every East German. This now defunct institution was the political police, the espionage and counter-espionage service of the German Democratic Republic, proclaimed in 1949 and disappeared in 1990 with reunification. Here we will summarize its history, study its structure and its functioning, in order to understand what made it famous.

The Stasi: "The shield and the sword of the Party"

As early as 1950, when the SED - Unified Socialist Party - assumed all powers, the Ministry of State Security - better known as the Stasi - was born. It is then a simple tool of repression in order to best ensure the passage towards socialism. But, in 1953, the workers, disappointed and dissatisfied with the regime, revolted. This episode is decisive for the future development of the Stasi, which was unable to anticipate the revolt. The turning point came in 1957, the year in which Erich Mielke was appointed Minister of Security, a post he held until 1989. With the mission of reorganizing the Stasi, he offered him the means to observe and spy on life. East Germans, to identify and dissuade opponents of the regime.

While it initially had a few thousand agents, the numbers soared to reach the figure of 80,000 officers in the 1980s, all trained in a higher law school, located in Potsdam-Eiche, called the Juristische Hochschusle. But these officers did not act alone, and had to recruit Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (IM) - or unofficial informant - estimated at 200,000 when the regime fell. These MIs were in fact ordinary East German citizens who were called upon to collaborate with the Stasi. They were therefore not members of the structure per se, but at least they had to provide reports to their directing officer. These informants were recruited from the entourage of a suspected person, from friends in associations to family, some only having sporadic links with them.

From records, we know that the quality and quantity of information provided by these informants varied between individuals: some provided meager reports of no particular interest while relatives of the suspected person provided much more regular and complete reports. The information gathered was therefore of unequal value: some reports only mentioned a brief encounter in the street, while some informants reported entire conversations. Thanks to these MIs, the Stasi actually managed to enter the life of the "guard", so much so that it controlled almost all social ties of the person being watched. It ultimately looks like a denunciation operation, not spontaneous but carefully organized by the Stasi. It also allowed the informer to position himself as a good socialist, ready to serve the regime.

A vast arsenal of surveillance

The Stasi was carefully divided into sections, each specializing in one type of operation. While one specialized in wiretapping, another was responsible for installing microphones in a room, allowing more intrusion into people's privacy. The mail was followed up by Section M, as opponents sometimes had links with foreign organizations. Privacy is under the control of the Stasi, supported by a legislative framework, which this secret police does not hesitate to override if ever it is coerced.

Section XX is assigned the surveillance of the state apparatus, churches, the cultural field and the so-called "underground political activity", implied by the opposition networks. It is this combination of different complementary sections that makes the Stasi an effective tool for collecting information. When a person appears suspicious, the officers do not hesitate to manipulate the person's head of work, in order to put him under close surveillance at his workplace: his actions and actions could be observed throughout the day. The strength of the Stasi is seen through its cooperation with the Volkspolizei (People's Police): but the second was hierarchically subject to the Stasi, and thus became its simple extension.

Observe and dissuade opponents

It is obvious that not all East German citizens were observed by the Stasi, but the surveillance was organized methodically around the nuclei of opposition. So what were these nuclei during the heyday of Stasi surveillance - which we situate from the 1970s to the end of the GDR? A little explanation is needed. Honecker first secretary of the SED from 1976 to 1989 advanced the idea of ​​an "armed peace" to justify the militarization of the company. This armed peace was accompanied by the constitution of associations for peace, for example Women for Peace in 1982. But these movements for peace are becoming politicized little by little and become circles of opposition, the demands being made from now on. on democratic rights, emancipation. It is therefore around these groups that the Stasi's investigations are concentrated, eavesdropping is increasing, informants springing up.

Second pole of opposition accused of carrying out "anti-socialist activities", closely linked to movements for peace, the Church and religious circles. The activities of the Stasi are therefore focused on these two niches of opponents, each member of these movements being carefully observed in order to gauge their position vis-à-vis the regime and their intentions. So, what if the Stasi had proof that a person or movement had foreign relations, or was considering carrying out operations that hurt the GDR? The methods of the Stasi were ultimately relatively gentle.

First solution, the infiltration of opposition circles, attacking the roots of the problem. By recruiting an informant within an association or the Church itself, the Stasi spread false information about a suspected person, so that he or she is discredited and removed from the movement. In the eyes of those around him, the suspect passed for a "reactionary" wishing to overthrow the regime. Second solution, create a situation of insecurity within a group or association suspected of being a pole of opposition, by sending anonymous letters to certain members and by spreading rumors about the intentions of such and such a person.

A more radical means, psychological terror was also a deterrent, and if it makes you smile, it was just as effective. The mention of the Stasi caused great fear among East Germans, often arousing a certain paranoia within East German society. This psychological terror aimed to "provoke the basis of a certain resignation", through operations of "psychological destruction and destabilization".

The Stasi agents, well trained in the field of psychology, showed great inventiveness: they organized "conspiratorial searches", violated the privacy of the suspect by removing, for example, all the toilet paper rolls, personal items, or by mysteriously repetitively puncturing the opponent's bicycle or car! All this for the sole purpose of instilling mistrust. And if the opponent did not resign himself, he could then be called for questioning in order to "teach him a lesson". However, the use of violence or torture was extremely rare, the pressure tactics of the Stasi secret services were more psychological than physical. The Stasi thus has a wide range of solutions to destabilize the opponent, the last being the most radical: imprisonment.

The end of the Stasi

The practices of the Stasi undoubtedly fueled many fantasies and aroused paranoia among East Germans. During its reorganization in the 1960s, the Stasi became a veritable observation police force, accumulating paperwork, reports and archives. This very large structure even appealed to the goodwill of East German society. However, this permanent surveillance did not suffocate opposition circles: on the contrary, it only increased the ardor of the opponents. So, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. An event that the Stasi had not been able to foresee, reflecting the limits of this vast structure, which nevertheless observed everything.

After the liquidation of the Stasi and then German reunification in 1990, the "Law on STASI Files" was adopted in December 1991. Each citizen concerned was then able to consult his own file in the Stasi archives. This law is also a boon for the historian, who can thereby gain a deeper insight into the functioning of this famous institution.


- Lorrain Sophie, History of the GDR, Paris, PUF, Que sais-je?, 1994

- Poppe, Ulrike, "What do we read when we read a STASI personnel file?" », Genesis n ° 52, September 2003, p 119-132

Video: Stasi. Trailer. Available Now (January 2022).