Lives of Others: What You Need to Know about Stasi and East Germany

East Germanys secret police force, the Stasi, held power from 1950 to 1990. Established with Soviet help by German communists in the years directly following World War II, the Stasi was responsible for both political surveillance and espionage.

The Stasis intent was to monitor politically incorrect behavior among all citizens of East Germany. At its peak the Stasi monitored roughly one third of the East German population, employing over 90,000 officers and hundreds of thousands of informants.

The rule of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) was based on a worldview informed by Marxist-Leninism and molded by class warfare. The Socialist Unity Party had expectations from “its people,” which it laid down in the form of programs, plans, directives and clear restrictions, which resulted, for example, in political criminal law.

The conceptual eradication of human individuality allowed the Ministry for State Security (Ministerium fr Staatssicherheit, MfS) to categorize the “others,” whom it interrogated and spied on, in order to transform them into objects of its hatred. The abbreviation “Stasi” was the SED dictatorship's secret method of repression.

In 1991, after the Berlin Wall fell, the Stasi was disbanded and the newly reunified government passed the Stasi Records Law, which allowed former East German citizens and foreign nationals to view their Stasi records. To date, approximately 1.5 million individuals had done so.

Starting in 1950, the Stasi intended to serve as a loyal and effective partner of the government, and was extremely efficient in penetrating the lives of citizens not only in East Germany, but also in West Germany and abroad. Approximately one in fifty citizens served the Stasi in some capacity, one of the highest penetrations of a society by any intelligence gathering organization.

To be arrested was seen as proof that one was an enemy or part of a hostile, negative “element.” The Stasi understood its party program as an active and threatening involvement in the lives of others, in order to change them radically when they no longer corresponded to the party's expectations.

The central detention center of the Stasi was in Berlin Hohenschnhausen and young interrogators were trained at the Stasi College. The term “Operative Procedure” was used by the Stasi to designate the highest level of monitoring of suspected individuals. (In “The Lives of Others,” the playwright Georg Dreyman is the subject of an “Operative Procedure.”)

One typical “offense against the system,” punishable by two years of imprisonment, was “illegal border crossing”. Even planning and trying to “flee the republic” was punishable. The fortification of the inner-German borders and the Berlin Wall gave rise to escape agents from the West and whoever contributed to taking someone “abroad” was threatened with a sentence of up to eight years.

After the dissolution of the Stasi it was revealed that often times friends, colleagues, husbands, wives and other family members were routinely filing reports on one another, demonstrating the Stasis grip over the populace.

During the regimes final days, the Stasi attempted to destroy their documents and files, even resorting to manually tearing apart pages when the task proved too great for machines. The new German government confiscated the approximately 33 million pages of trashed Stasi files and began the arduous process of putting them back together for public view, thanks to a declassification act passed in 1992.

After the Stasis disbanding, declassified information revealed the breadth of Stasi activities in foreign countries. It was revealed that the Stasi secretly aided left-wing terrorist groups, such as the Red Army Faction; however their presence also accounted for the successful rescue of hundreds of foreign nationals, mostly leftist activists and politicians, in Chile after the Pinochet Coup in 1973.