Welcome to the virtual exhibition, The Stasi: Sword and Shield of the GDR!
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For background information on the Stasi, read the exhibition notes below.
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The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, Ministry for State Security, MfS, or Stasi, as it was most commonly referred to, was the secret police of the former German Democratic Republic. The GDR was born out of the turmoil of World War II after the Allies defeated Nazi Germany in 1945. The early years of postwar Germany saw the nation divided into four zones of occupation for the country as a whole and the capital city Berlin. The eastern part of Germany belonged into the Soviet Occupation Zone, and the largest sector of Berlin was also administered by Soviet forces. As tensions between the Soviet Union and the western Allies increased, the nations liberated by the USSR became increasingly more drawn into the Soviet sphere of influence with pro-Soviet puppet regimes established in each country. For Germany, the situation dictated events that made Stalin ultimately decide to turn the Soviet sector of Germany into a vassal state to Moscow as well. In 1949, the GDR was formed, and a pro-Soviet dictatorship was established under the leadership of General Secretary Walter Ulbricht. The first dictator of the GDR had fled Germany prior to the Nazi seizure of power and spent the war years in Moscow. Ulbricht was a hardline Stalinist, and, with the Red Army in Berlin, Ulbricht followed and became the ultimate authority in what would develop into a second Germany, a Germany that would be called the first socialist state on German soil. Under Ulbricht, the Communist and Social Democratic Parties were merged into the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) and became the political body that held all of the power in the country.
The communist regime, being Stalinist and highly repressive, with public show trials, purges, and property expropriations being state policy, experienced dramatic waves of citizens fleeing the country for the west. By 1952, the border between eastern and western Germany had been shut, and attempts at escape over the large border area became increasingly difficult. The only place left for citizens to flee through was the escape hatch of Berlin, where the western sectors of the city became West Berlin. With the GDR on the frontline of the Cold War, it was seen as an imperative to set up an organization that had the capability to uncover and destroy enemies of the regime, whether they were foreign spies, grumbling citizens, or anyone seeking to defect. On February 8, 1950, the organization known as the Stasi was founded with Wilhelm Zaisser as its first minister. With this new ministry, the regime had what has been termed the sword and shield of the communist party. The MfS, as it was called by its agents and bureaucrats, would become one of the most notorious and effective secret police and intelligence agencies in history. It was also known as the sister agency to the Soviet KGB, and they placed their agents all over the world to promote and support KGB active measures against class enemies. Moreover, the Stasi created their own networks and operations that supported the overall policies and objectives of the SED and of Moscow.
The Stasi’s first major test came in 1953, which it failed. On 17 June 1953, workers became disgruntled as their work quotas were increased under the Sovietization process in place throughout East Germany. The strikes ultimately became demonstrations against the regime itself and spread throughout Berlin and over 700 other towns. The demonstrations were very difficult for the regime to put down, and ultimately, the Soviet Red Army in Germany had to be called in to crush the demonstrations with tanks. The Barracks Police and Stasi worked hard alongside their Soviet counterparts to quell the uprising, and with the help of Soviet force, the demonstrations were violently put down. The Stasi was, in these operations, reacting to the events and spending the evening rounding up and arresting demonstrators while the SED was incapacitated and unable to control events. The Red Army effectively controlled the state until peace was restored. Ulbricht was ultimately blamed for the crisis, but he managed to survive the uprising and Wilhelm Zaisser, who had called for Ulbricht to be removed from office, found himself being removed instead. The Stasi also suffered for their failures and was downgraded from ministry to state secretariat under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. This arrangement was to last until 1955. The Stasi would evolve over the 32 years it remained in power, however. The MfS would change tactics from overt oppression to more subtle forms of harassment, most notably their covert measures called Zersetzung. This active-measures campaign against perceived enemies of the regime would become one of the hallmarks of the repressive nature of the Stasi dealing with dissidents. It was a covert measures program that attempted to psychologically harass a victim until they, like the term suggests, decomposes into non-existence. These measures frequently broke individuals, ruined families, and destroyed marriages and friendships. Not until 1989 would the extent of Stasi repression become painfully clear, however, when the public stormed the headquarters and attempted to save the files from destruction.
The legacy of the Stasi is a complicated one. There are those who see the Stasi as East Germany’s version of the Gestapo, the feared secret police of Hitler’s Third Reich. Then there are others who claim that the Stasi was an ordinary intelligence agency. While these perspectives seem provocative, the legacy of the Stasi is more complex than these viewpoints attempt to highlight. On the one hand, it is undeniable that the Stasi tortured its victims, albeit not necessarily in the same manner as the Gestapo or to the same degree. If one explores this logic further, it becomes apparent that this perspective has more support. Indeed, it has been stated that the differences between the Gestapo and the Stasi are that one left behind a mountain of bodies, whereas the other left behind a mountain of catalog cards. While this statement turns a difficult history into a digestible platitude, it does point to one of the key differences in how these agencies operated. History provides us with the context of the historical forces under which these agencies existed. Since WWII was a war of the soldier, the Gestapo functioned under the backdrop of a shooting war that their Nazi leaders warped into a eugenic war of racial annihilation. The Gestapo, then, is comparable to a secret soldier hunting the many enemies of the Reich in their eugenic racial struggle against all enemies of the Nazi regime. The Stasi, on the other hand, existed in the context of the Cold War, which has been termed to be the war of the spy. These statements suggest that these two eras are fundamentally different from one another and that the struggles differ so much that conflict has moved to an altogether new realm of combat. That World War II was a global conflict involving the armies of powerful nations on battlefields ranging from Europe, North Africa, Russia, to the Pacific, suggests that the military institutions were the supreme weapons carries of the nations. Indeed, the armies of World War II were supposed to follow the established rules of war, which, especially for the totalitarian regimes, was more of an inconvenience to ignore while the Allies had to fight the fair fight. With the dawn of the Cold War, it appears that the nations of the world have developed new armies that can fight the asymmetrical warfare of the era of the spy. This also meant that these new organizations could be used in ways that established armies could not be deployed for. If it is true that the Stasi was indeed an ordinary intelligence agency, then its operations, within the context of the Cold War, would not have differed too greatly from the intelligence agencies of other nations. The Cold War was ultimately an ideological battle framed by the threat of the spread of communism, certain death in a nuclear holocaust, and the alignment of the world into two ideological camps. The danger that conventional warfare would lead to a catastrophic nuclear exchange may have played a deeper role in the transition from the wars of standing armies to the covert asymmetrical conflicts fought in smaller proxy wars around the world. Where a direct military confrontation between the superpowers would have been global suicide, the smaller battles for influence, resources, and allies within the context of the ideological fight between east and west changed the nature in which wars of the conventional nature would be fought.
What kind of consequences does the influence of unaccountable shadow agencies have for both democracies and authoritarian states? What does this say about the nature of the intelligence communities of the nations of the world? These questions highlight one of the results of having unelected agencies that work in secret and may be less accountable, if not totally unaccountable, to their own actions. In dictatorships like East Germany, the Stasi became its own entity, a state within a state, an organization with its own culture, norms, and values. Unlike the intelligence agencies of the democracies, the Stasi took on the structure of an intelligence organization typical of totalitarian regimes. Whereas democracies divide their intelligence communities into several agencies that each specialize in more specific parts of intelligence work, the Stasi, much like the KGB and other totalitarian agencies, kept all aspects of their work within their monolithic agency, which was subdivided into directorates, departments, or branches. The Stasi was East Germany’s shield and sword, which answered only to the SED Party leadership. To fulfill this role, the Stasi embodied all aspects of a secret police, from domestic spying to foreign intelligence gathering, to operating its own prisons and armed forces.
The goal of this exhibit is to provide a glimpse of a notorious secret police agency whose global impact was far greater than what could have been expected from such a small country. This exhibit will take you on a tour of the MfS through the material culture it produced while juxtaposing these objects with historical information and personal accounts.