What Happened to East Germany's Brutally Effective Secret Police After the Wall Fell?

On November 9, 2006, as the free world celebrated the seventeenth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demise, an 83-year-old man died in a peaceful slumber at his home in the German capital city. The man was Markus Wolf, who during the Cold War led the foreign-intelligence section of East Germany’s secret-police apparatus: the Ministry for State Security (Ministerium fuer Staatssicherheit), known colloquially as “the Stasi.” The Stasi’s most renowned spymaster, he controlled thousands of agents, whose purpose was to infiltrate important Western institutions and government positions. Often mistaken as the inspiration for John le Carre’s shadowy Karla character, Wolf for years remained a mystery to Western intelligence services, who didn’t even have a picture of him until the late 1970s—several decades into his career. Historians have marveled at his success in leading the Stasi’s foreign wing, known as the HVA, or Hauptverwaltung Aufklaerung. Perhaps his most well known accomplishment is having one of his agents, Gunter Guillaume, become a trusted aide to Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor.

Seven years after Wolf’s death and twenty-five years after the Wall’s, the West still doesn’t appreciate the breadth and depth of the Stasi’s brutality. (The KGB still reigns in the popular imagination as the ultimate secret-police force.) Formed after the Second World War in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, the Stasi grew to become the most potently effective Eastern bloc intelligence organization. They possessed a more impressive informant network than even the KGB. When East Germany crumbled, the Stasi employed upwards of 190,000 unofficial informants. By 1989, approximately one out of every 90 East German citizens was a Stasi informant. Referred to as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (“unofficial collaborators”), most were simply ordinary German citizens, tasked with reporting everything they could about possible (real or imagined) anti-regime activity, as well as details about family and friends. Even children were involved in spying on their parents.

The Stasi’s methods of controlling the East German population were often wickedly creative. Even among those fairly knowledgeable of the German language, the word “Zersetzung,” used in a political context, is likely unfamiliar. Translated variously as “degradation,” “decomposition,” “disruptiveness,” or “disintegration,” the word is most often used in a biological sense. When it comes to espionage, Zersetzung refers to the Stasi’s practice of destroying a target’s personal life. The methods, however, were much more subtle than the word implies. The Stasi perfected their ability to torture people indirectly—a kind of psychological death by a thousand cuts. Zersetzung, for instance, often involved breaking into the homes of those considered enemies of the East German government. Stasi agents would then begin a series of bizarre and unorthodox moves, designed to delicately frighten and manipulate the target into anxiety and paranoia. This might include taking pictures off the wall or moving items in the house: small, often nearly imperceptible offenses that former officers said would demoralize the opposition by invading their private spaces without overtly threatening or harming anyone. One tactic, for instance, involved sending dildos or vibrators to the target’s spouse. Consider how finely tuned must be someone’s manipulative ability in order to think of such schemes.

As an important side note, the Russian FSB, successor to the KGB, has continued Zersetzung as a useful tactic against certain Westerners. Luke Harding, a correspondent for The Guardian, has documented the Russians’ harassment of British and American diplomats. Employing a strategy eerily redolent of Stasi activity, the FSB has broken into targets’ homes, moved certain items, and even purposely triggered alarms. The U.S State Department has acknowledged that “home intrusions” have become common, and one State Department cable was clear that “we have no doubt that this activity originates in the FSB.” It ought not to be forgotten that Vladimir Putin, in his salad days as a KGB officer, was stationed in the East German city of Dresden.

Since there was no Cold War analogue of the Nuremberg trials, nor any anti-Communist version of Simon Wiesenthal, it’s understandable to ask what happened to members of the Stasi after the East German regime disintegrated. Wolf fled to Russia, which denied him asylum, and he was eventually caught while traveling through Bavaria. He was charged with treason, though his sentence was suspended. In logic that one suspects would never be applied to Nazis, it was argued that Wolf’s activities were legal at the time he performed them.

Most other ex-Stasi agents simply re-entered German society, though not always smoothly, along with all the ex-politicos, border guards, and other Communist functionaries. Reporting not long after the Wall fell, Steven Emerson discovered that

With the disbanding of the Stasi, 85,000 full-time officers lost their jobs virtually overnight. No more than 10,000 have since found gainful employment, most of them in various Government ministries, including 2,000 in the Ministry of the Interior, which formerly oversaw the Stasi. The rest have joined the growing ranks of East Germany’s unemployed; some get by on standard unemployment benefits, while others receive no Government compensation at all. Many are embittered at finding themselves excluded, even ostracized, by their fellow citizens.

A quarter century on, many of them are not the slightest bit embarrassed by their past work for the secret police; on the contrary, they are boldly proud. There even exists an organization, the amusingly named Society for Legal and Humanitarian Support, dedicated to assisting ex-Stasi officers and other former East German bureaucrats. For them, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a tragedy rather than a triumph for liberty. “What happened that day has been a burden to people like us,” Hans Bauer, chairman of the group, told Reuters in 2009.

Though the post-Communist German government shied away from hiring too many ex-Stasi officers for state positions, pilfered documents from Wikileaks show that the German government does employ them in (of all places) the federally administered archive of Stasi records—a revelation that caused some dismay in German society. Many other ex-Stasi personnel eventually went on to careers in the private sector. After the Wall fell, it was, oddly enough, the newly reunified German government that urged corporations to absorb former Communist encryption experts, fearing they would otherwise be driven to aid Western enemies with their skills. One German company, Rohde & Schwarz SIT GmbH, a supplier of encryption and communications technology to NATO, employs plenty of former Stasi codebreakers.

Of course, most ex-Stasi employees are not figures like Wolf and Guillaume. They did not have careers full of secret intrigue and romantic exploits. Most did not kill, torture, or even tap phones. They were probably paper-pushers of one sort or another—doing their routine jobs to support families or, sadly, to avoid the suspicions of those for whom they worked. Still, it was Hannah Arendt who so ably explained what paper-pushers are capable of, and how evil is more likely to be living next door than lurking in the closet.

Editor’s note: this is part 5 in an ongoing series exploring the history of dictators, tyrants, criminals and their evil ideologies. See the previous installments: Part 1: “Why It’s OK to Be Intrigued by Evil Dictators” and Part 2: “Does Everybody Want Freedom?” Part 3: “Like a Serial Killer, Mao Zedong Manipulated Everyone,” Part 4: “Mike Tyson: He Has a New TV Show, But Does Anyone Care?.” Have ideas for who you’d like to see Robert explore next? Get in touch on Twitter: @RobertWargas and@DaveSwindle