This weekend I finished Tina Rosenberg’s The Haunted Land, about the attempts of former Communist countries to come to grips with their pasts. The section about East Germany was particularly good:
Once a girl I went to school with up till twelfth grade called me in 1985, saying she was in the neighborhood. She was here for an hour and we had coffee and cake. My son was here and I introduced him–briefly, he didn’t even sit down. I saw her report. She wrote it was obvious I loved my son, and as a result the Stasi developed a package of measures to take him away, trying to prove I was neglecting him, portraying him as antisocial.
As Rosenberg puts it, East Germany was ‘the most spied-upon people who ever lived’. The Stasi had 6 million informants for a population of 16 million. At a 1989 protest march against the regime, more than half the 70,000 marchers were Stasi informants.
After the army, [the Stasi] was East Germany’s largest employer. There were 2,171 mail-readers, 1,486 phone tappers, and another 8,426 people who monitored phone conversations and radio broadcasts. […] There were dissidents with literally a thousand people spying on them.
This, for me, is the most chilling part:
The genius of the Stasi had nothing to do with political information.[…] Practically no information in the Stasi files discussed East Germans’ political ideas. The dissident groups’ politics were certainly not secret information–just the opposite; dissidents publicized their views all they could. But the Stasi was not interested. Political views mattered only as a recruitment tool.
[…] The Stasi recruited children as young as six. […] The child would tell him who came to the house, what TV channels his parents watched, who their friends were. […] There was no information they didn’t find useful.
What interested the Stasi was the psychological portrait of the person being spied upon, his character, his weaknesses–women, alcohol. […] The informer could leave the meeting having refused to speak of politics, satisfied he had told the Stasi nothing, while in fact it was the chitchat about the subject’s drinking or family problems that gave his handlers exactly what they needed to them blackmail him. The whole purpose of informers seemed to be to collect material to recruit new informers. Perhaps this was the idea: East Germany would be safe only when every East German was Stasi, a chain of people ach informing on the others, 16 million long.