Imagine a country where everything you do, everything you say, is being monitored and recorded and listened to, in a way that could result in your death. It’s happened before.
As those of you who have been keeping up will know, I went to Berlin last week. It’s a really weird city – it was the aggressor in ‘the war to end all wars’, underwent massive financial crisis, was overtaken by a fascist dictator, was the nerve centre for the worst human atrocity of all time (the Holocaust), was utterly destroyed in the Battle of Berlin, was split in half by a law, was split in half by a wall, was the image of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, was reunified and now might be about to leave a period of economic prosperity, dragged down by Greece and the Euro zone.
That leaves a lot of scars.
As you walk around Berlin, you see a lot. You see the difference between Eastern and Western architecture (you can actually see the divide from space – the East has yellow streetlights, the West has white). You see buildings with facades cracked by bombs. You see buildings scarred with bullet holes. You see countless Holocaust memorials. And you see the Wall.
The Berlin Wall has put up by the Soviet puppets East German government in 1961 to stop the flow of migration out of the communist East into the capitalist West, most of which was young workers. So an Iron Curtain fell across Europe. All eyes were on East Germany, to see what would happen. Germany had to be a perfect Communist state, or no one would ever take it seriously again. They needed a way to keep the people in line.
So on the 8th of February 1950, the SED party in East Germany made Wilhelm Zaisser the Minister of State Security in the GDR. He was the head of the new Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or Ministry of State Security – shortened to Staatssicherheit. Or the Stasi.
My inner German teacher is telling you to pronounce it ‘shtasi’. Just saying.
From there, the Stasi became the strings that allowed the Government to control the people. It grew and grew and grew. The Stasi is, as far as we know, the most complete, effective and repressive secret service ever. Literally no one was safe. Anyone you knew could be an informer. Your boss, your assistant, your neighbour, your partner. Anyone.
Here’s some numbers (numbers are good). The KGB, who are a pretty pervasive security agency, topped out at about 490,000 employees. That’s one for every 5700 people in Russia. Actually that’s an estimate – the numbers of employees has never been declassified.
The Gestapo, Hitler’s secret police, had a much higher police:population ratio. At the peak, there was one Gestapo officer for every 2000 Germans. Which is a lot.
If you look at the number of official Stasi employees in 1989 (the year that East Germany collapsed), there was one Stasi employee for every 177 people. Ten times more pervasive than Hitler. Which is saying something. But (unfortunately for freedom of speech) that’s not the end of it. There were 91,015 full-time Stasi employees in 1989.
The number of unofficial informers has never been uncovered. When Stasi HQ got the news that the Wall had fallen, they literally started shredding documents until the shredders broke. When the activists finally got into the Records building, they found the stairs blockaded with a wall of burnt-out shredders that had collapsed under the strain of shredding so many secrets. But there are estimates.
The reasonable estimate for the number of Stasi informers is one informer for every 50 people – that’s 40 times worse than the Nazis. 315,000 people at least. But that is, after all, the conservative estimate. What’s the point of this blog if not to use the wildly speculative numbers? Here they are.
According to one estimate, there was one Stasi informer for every 6.5 people in the German Democratic Republic. That’s around 2.1 million informers. If you say that on average 3 people live in a house, statistically between you and two next-door houses there will be at least one informer.
At the Stasi museum in Berlin there are lots of cameras. Cameras that go in watering cans, in ties, in buttons, under hats and in birdhouses. There was a camera that is designed to be drilled through a wall. A camera lowered through the air ducts. Cameras, and microphones, and phone tapping devices. I couldn’t find a breakdown of what Stasi employees did, but it’s a fair bet that a good proportion of them were listening to other people’s calls. In the book ‘Stasiland’ by Anna Funder, she interviews a person whose friends and her always finished phone conversations with “Goodbye all”.
The Stasi weren’t just secret police, though. There was a model of the Stasi headquarters in the museum, with all the buildings labelled. There was a building of ‘Economy Control’, and a building of “Health Services”. It wasn’t just a device to spy on the public, it was a device to control the public.
If you think that the East German government must have been control freaks in order to set up this kind of operation. You might be right. Or you might be wrong.
When the GDR government set up the Stasi, they forgot to put any controls on it. The Stasi head didn’t have to answer to the Cabinet equivalent, or even the Head of the GDR himself. Apparently, the head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, always carried a red suitcase with him – a little like the Chancellor of the British Cabinet today. Unlike the
s**thole honourable George Osborne, that suitcase contained a set of secrets on the General Secretary (the top man in the GDR), Erich Honecker. It was a blackmail box. It actually might have not been the General Secretary controlling the Stasi, it might have been the Stasi controlling the General Secretary. And it was the General Secretary who controlled the government, who in turn controlled the entire country. And if the Stasi controlled Honecker…
Of course, after the GDR fell apart, the Stasi was disbanded and the most complete security force in the world was disbanded. And of course, nothing like it could ever happen again. Obviously – in this internet age, we would know about that kind of thing. You couldn’t do that kind of thing – spy on the entire population of a country. Could you?
Cough cough NSA cough cough cough GCHQ cough cough Facebook data monitoring cough cough Google cough cough.
I’m sorry, I had some political dissent stuck in my throat.