Stasi Stealth

The Grey Men: Pursuing the Stasi into the Present by Ralph Hope is not literature, but it makes a convincing case, that following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the 91,000 employees of the East German (GDR) Ministry for State Security (MfS Staatssichereit or Stasi) managed to successfully meld into the new reunified Germany.

Furthermore he shows that they mostly escaped any sanctions for their part in the security apparatus of the repressive communist state, which persecuted and ruined the lives of 400,000 of its own citizens throughout its forty year rule. 

Hope is a former FBI agent, Cold War operative and fervent anti-communist, but he has spent years tracking down the key players and doggedly putting together this story and naming names. I have simply tried to paraphrase it, without cross examination, for this review.

Of those 91,000 ex-Stasi officers, 182 were charged with a crime committed under the communist regime. Of those, 87 were convicted and only one sentenced to prison (he got four years prison for supplying explosives to a terrorist). 

Originally based on Chekist and KGB practices, the Stasi was established in 1950, under Minister Erich Mielke, with a stated goal ‘To Know Everything’ and a red crest of an outstretched arm gripping a rifle and bayonet, with the slogan Sword and Shield of the Party.

Mielke ran the organisation with an iron hand, as its responsibilities grew exponentially to cover state security, foreign espionage, police and judicial ministries. It was accountable to the Politburo of the Party, not the GDR legislature or Volkskammer. The Stasi monitored churches, all media and cultural institutions, prosecuted those who tried to escape to the West, and imprisoned thousand of others for their suspect activities. 

Stasi files were massive – 111 kms of shelves with their brown files full of incriminating evidence of persecution and misdeeds. But unfortunately in the chaos following 1989 the culprits were still in charge till October 1990 and managed to selectively destroy and remove an unknown quantity of files.

Lieutenant-General Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski was in charge of the  Commercial Coordination Unit (or KoKo) of the MfS, which handled billions of hard currency for East German government coffers, from trafficking in confiscated art, firearms & explosives, and most lucratively, selling freed citizens (‘political prisoners’) to West German governments. 

Prior to the dramatic events of 1989, Minister Mielke had drawn up a contingency plan to contain any widespread insurrection against the regime, which was known as Directive 1/67. It included lists of 85,000 suspects to be immediately arrested. Prison and detention centres were prepared by 209 Stasi offices around the country.

Miraculously, that plan was not activated. Mielke had been preparing to celebrate the forty year anniversary of Stasi operations, and failed to send out the secret code word Schild (shield) to trigger those actions.

An interesting side story concerns KGB officer V. Putin almost caught by the ’89 uprising in his Dresden office, where he would’ve worked with the Stasi, and who just managed to skedaddle back to Moscow.

Following the demise of the Wall, those Stasi offices throughout the former East panicked and tried to shred as many files as possible. Finally when this was stopped there were 18,000 bags of partially destroyed Stasi files remaining. Of these, 3,000 which had been machine-shredded, were deemed unrecoverable in 1991 and burned.

The remaining 15,000 bags comprise 6 million pieces of paper fragments, of which only 5% have been re-assembled in the last 30 years – by hand in an office in Zirndorf (not far from Nuremberg). At that rate, it will take another 300 years, although new technology could help, if there is a political will to do so.

Hope is sceptical and thinks that the ex Stasi network has basically succeeded in protecting themselves from justice. Nearly 90% of them were under the age of fifty, and a third under thirty-five, at the time of the Stasi decommissioning in 1990, so they are still very present in business, legal and political circles. 

They are also working determinedly to re-write their history and re-cast themselves as loyal public servants just doing their jobs at the time, and now as victims of political persecution.

Ex Stasi Major General Karli Coburger was a founding member of the revisionist organisation MfS-Insider, and the Society of Legal and Humanitarian Support (GRH) which very successfully defended former Stasi officers in their prosecutions and lobbied for their extravagant pension entitlements. Coburger currently lives in Berlin on his pension.

The Stasi even had their own Law University of Potsdam (JHS), which trained 2,500 MfS officers in pseudo-legal methods to facilitate their mission of state repression. Later JHS was disbanded but in the rush to unify Germany it was agreed that all university degrees awarded in the GDR would be accepted. Even 300 sub-standard doctorates were accepted and the authors could be called Doctor. Many of those JHS graduates seamlessly transferred into legal practice in the new Germany.

The Stasi offices also had their networks of informers, called Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter or IMs, who numbered 189,000 active informants in late 1989. Anna Funder in her book Stasiland has of course written creatively about this pernicious and pervasive system of citizen surveillance and denunciation. 

The East German Ministry of State Security had an average of one officer for every 180 people in the population (compared to 600 for the KGB  during the Cold War), and when you take the IMs into account the ratio is one for sixty-three persons. Extraordinary.

During the forty years of Stasi operations, they dedicated 250,000 employees and 600,000 informants to their repressive task of protecting the state dictatorship. The numbers of East Germans engaged in this massive enterprise of state terror, repression and torture are truly staggering. Knowledge and first hand experience of those activities has to be widespread in today’s Germany.

A hero in Hope’s exposé is Hubertus Knabe, whose family managed to escape from the East when he was young. He heads the Hohenschonhausen Memorial in Berlin, established in the former Stasi headquarters and prison to showcase its evils. He doggedly pursues its mission of raising awareness and educating people about this recent, terrifying chapter of German history.

Retired Stasi officers apparently live in the Memorial neighbourhood still, close to their old workplace, and on occasion come out to heckle the volunteer guides, who are old inmates of the prison.

Hope also relates the successful transition of key political players with probable Stasi backgrounds into the post-reunification communist party. Reportedly with an estimated nine billion euros of ill-gotten secret East German assets.

Seamlessly, the East German SED (Socialist Unity Party) re-named itself the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which eventually folded into Die Linke (The Left party). SED leader Gregor Gysi followed the money all the way too. 

I bought this book (published last year) in May at a Frankfurt Airport bookshop, and wonder whether it will be translated into German or indeed get wide coverage in Germany. 

Maybe Ralph Hope is right to pursue justice for Stasi victims by challenging an apparent omertà on an uncomfortable legacy of reunification, which may have been driven by a collective wish to quickly bury the past. Taking a firm position on that is way beyond my pay grade.  

As noted earlier, I have accepted Hope’s facts and analysis at face value, and will leave it to others to challenge his arguments, estimates or footnote references if necessary.

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