What the Secret Police Left Behind
IT was a typically bustling day in Berlin when I decided to visit the former headquarters of the Staatsicherheit, or ``Stasi'' as the East Germans call it. Of course, they don't want to waste too much breath these days when talking about the secret police. The function of the strong-armed Staatsicherheit, which means literally ``state security,'' was to monitor the lives of ordinary citizens, specifically those considered questionable or dangerous to the state. In reality, this meant that anyone who valued individuality and privacy had a file in his name. Personal files were kept on each targeted individual and were housed in the Stasi headquarters in East Berlin, just outside the city center.
My ``accomplice'' for the exploration of the Stasi headquarters was Heike, a native East German. Her friend Dorit was busy inside working as part of a citizen's action group designed to prepare the formerly off-limits building for conversion to a museum. Heike trembled a bit as we stood outside waiting for a brief and informal passport check.
``I never thought I would enter this building,'' she said quietly. ``Never.''
Heike is 29 years old and grew up in East Berlin. She managed to escape from East Germany in 1984 with a false West German passport. Since then she has earned university degrees from Heidelberg University in West Germany and from the University of Louisville in the United States. She is working toward her PhD at Harvard.
``Because my family is involved with the church I had difficulties adapting to rules of East German society,'' she explains.
Heike's father was a high official in the East German Baptist Church before the move toward reunification began. Because of her family's radical status, Heike was sent to a special high school for students associated with the church. She describes it as being placed in a nook. But after graduation she was repeatedly denied admission to the university. She blames this on the FDJ, or Communist Youth Organization, a social group for East German youth designed to encourage the marriage of communist ideals and social activities.
``If you weren't a Communist, you could forget the university,'' explains Heike. ``I followed my parents advice and refused to join the FDJ.''
After repeated attempts to gain admission, she secretly joined the FDJ. The next semester she was admitted to Humbolt University in East Berlin.
``We all had to act loyal to the state and the FDJ system,'' she remembers. ``But one could never tell who actually worked for the Stasi. My parents were furious with me.''
Heike, like any young East German at that time, had to struggle to survive. There was undoubtedly a file on her, along with ones on the rest of her family. This was on our minds as we entered the Stasi headquarters, enjoying the recent graffiti applied to the entranceway.
Inside we met Dorit and went up to the fifth floor, a sterile environment with wood-paneled walls and decor reminiscent of interiors from the '50s.
``What we have here are prime East German furnishings considered luxurious for the time,'' explained Dorit. ``You couldn't buy this stuff on the outside.''
She had a handful of keys and we began to unlock doors. The office suites felt like apartments, each with a massage room and full bath with West German plumbing. Countless rooms formerly unseen by Western eyes lay before us, containing not only communist relics and propaganda, but also personal belongings of secret police members. We opened cabinets containing everything from baby lotion to broken wrist watches. It was like breaking the seal of an old deck of cards buried in a secret chest. The musty cabinets smelled of Russian tobacco and the silver polish used for shining Stasi belt buckles.
Heike found a foil package and held it up like a fish by the tail. ``Wow! Look at this! A Christmas Santa!''
We proceeded to explore the building with the citizen's action group and unlocked some formerly very private doors. One office was so off-limits that it had an elaborate system of buzzers and electronic door locks, a service window to pass through food from the kitchen across the hall. The door couldn't be unlocked so one member of the group climbed through the tiny window. After a few minutes he began to pass through the window strategic defense maps and other maps showing where people tried to escape over, under, or through the Berlin wall.
``This room was completely top secret,'' explained Heike. ``It's unbelievable to stand here. They would do something against every escape technique they knew of so that no one could try to escape the same way. This is really scary stuff.''
After a few hours of dust and door opening we all retired to an office filled with propaganda statues and relics. We passed around some lemon water and talked about the Stasi system. Soon Heike noticed a few stapled pages on a desk. It was a contract for unofficial workers of the Stasi, fully revealing the benefits and privileges laid out for these people who cooperated - a binding contract, signed and witnessed.
Every social group in East German society had at least one person who worked unofficially for the Stasi. This allowed the official workers at headquarters to compile information about every social organization whether in university, garden club, work, church, tennis club, or hobby group. The Stasi were not after normal criminals who committed murder but instead sought political enemies of the government.
``People were already checked out for saying the wrong statement,'' recalls Heike. ``I don't mean people working on a revolution, just people who said that they didn't like this or that action. They already got a file.''
Having relatives in Western countries or an interest in the church meant that you were closely monitored. The country was too big to check out everyone. But if you were suspected of having dangerous ties, the phone would be tapped, the mail would be checked. This placed a huge emphasis on the unofficial workers who were lured by the material advantages offered by the Stasi. They hid their real occupation from colleagues and friends. Their job was to inform the official Stasi members of the happenings in each district. There were also other techniques, including blackmail, used by the Stasi officers to attract unofficial recruits.
``In our church there was one leader who was married and had an affair with another woman,'' recalls Heike. ``The secret police found out and proceeded to ask him to work for them as an unofficial worker. They threatened to tell his wife and the people of his church about the other woman. They were relentless.''
Stasi cops also visited jails and attempted to bribe prisoners who were usually placed there for political reasons. But most recruits were lured by the material offers.
``An unofficial worker received so many advantages. I mean East Germany has a problem with housing and these people got better apartments, more money, and always a car ... even if it was a Trabbi.''
For a new, clanking, two-stroke Trabant a person had to wait 10 years. The unofficial workers could obtain new cars immediately. There was always suspicion when a neighbor easily got a new car and two years later got another. The ghost workers also gained easier admission to the university and could freely select a field of study. Other students were given very little choice.
Normally in East Germany one was not allowed to travel outside of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, or the Soviet Union.
``All the unofficial workers had the chance for trips to other countries,'' remarks Heike. ``At my university there was a guy who just picked up and left for a vacation in Greece. That was impossible for normal people.''
But the most terrifying aspect of the Stasi was not the unjust worker recruiting system, but the psychological pressures placed on those who trusted friends, colleagues, and even family members. Everyone knew that someone in his or her group was working for the Stasi. These people protected their own interests and made themselves as invisible as possible. That created the feeling of distrust even among close friends.
Heike remembered more than a few uneasy days in East Berlin. Even in her study group, an intimate 10 or 11 people, there was tension.
``At first you expected everybody to be the person,'' she explains. ``Now after the thing is over and everything comes to the surface it is astonishing to find out who worked for the Stasi. The people are so surprised. They say, `What? This person? I never would have thought of him.' They were always such good people, or so you thought. A lot of people who you never, never would have suspected were suddenly coming to the surface.
``But this atmosphere was actually quite awful in the sense that you really had to be careful to talk about only normal stuff, you know, your apartment, furniture, the weather, or family stories, because you never knew who the person was. People distrusted each other, which was not right. Later when you found out that someone really didn't work for the Stasi it was hard. You always thought, `Wait, do I really know who this person is?' Your talks were already quite unnatural.''
No one could really tell exactly how much they were being watched. Out of fear, some people worked for the Stasi rather than to face the possibility of going to jail for a long time simply due to suspicion. The common people were at a disadvantage.
Heike remembers the consequences of her escape. ``Seeing what happened to my own parents, I really think that one of the worst punishments was the fear of being checked out. You really didn't know what these people planned to do with you. The fear was to not know what happens next. After I disappeared to West Germany, the Stasi didn't believe that my parents knew nothing about my escape. They took my Dad's passport away. Before he had been allowed to travel to Western countries because of church conferences. They told him he could never travel again.
``Soon they changed their tune. One day he got visitors from the secret police and they said that it surely would be no problem, he could travel again, and all they wanted was for him to give information about several colleagues of his. And then they added that it was no problem for his wife to go with him on vacation to some Western country. No problems. That's why I didn't tell them about my escape. I didn't want them to go through this danger.''
With the removal of the wall, Heike was reunited with her family and friends, many of whom she had not seen in six years.
``It's such a funny feeling now ... to come and go freely.''
The Stasi police were good at making not only other people miserable but also themselves. Several faults in their system existed in the headquarters itself. Since each official worker was responsible for a geographic area and they compiled so much information from unofficial workers, they had no way of actually coordinating their efforts.
The system was complicated further by the power hierarchy within the Stasi. No one knew what officers in other departments were working on. Inside the secret police, there was actually a second and higher secret police which controlled the actions of the lower officers. Therefore, the entire building was one big jumble of power structures and mistrusting workers. The Stasi members experienced the same fear that they created for the general public.
Today, as the new government cleans house at the Stasi headquarters and opens its doors for exhibition, many East Germans are trying to see their files. Officials of both East and West Germany have agreed that Stasi records will not be merged with those of West Germany's secret police. The information in Stasi files also has to be decoded.
``You can't just go there and say, `Oh, that's my file. Let's see what they had on me,''' says Heike. ``Only very high ranking officials knew the code and how to work with these files. If the new government wants to punish these people, they have to first work with some of them. I guess the first one to ask is Erich Mielke, the former Stasi chief. He's already been arrested for sheltering West German terrorists, as if he already didn't abuse enough power. But the people are almost through with head-hunting these Stasi guys. Of course, the files are only of value out of curiosity. What happened then doesn't matter now.''
That's a long way to come for someone who six years ago stood at the border, face to face with 10 years in prison or freedom.