Sword and Shield of the GDR
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. This notorious organization grew to be one of the most notorious and effective secret police and intelligence agencies in history. It answered only to the SED Party leadership and singlehandedly controlled all aspects of a secret police, from gathering both domestic and foreign intelligence to operating its own prisons and armed forces. In doing so, the Stasi became its own entity, a state within a state, an organization with its own culture, norms, and values.
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.
Stasi Table Medal
A cased Stasi table decoration that reads “Für den Schutz und die Sicherung der Arbeiter-und-Bauern-Macht” (For the protection and safeguarding of workers-and-peasants-power). These table medals also came in a set of eight medals in a special foldout portfolio to conference delegation members of the DSF Grundeinheit in March 1983 in Frankfurt (Oder).
The Firm and its Function
The MfS was founded to suppress enemies of the Socialist Unity Party and their guiding ideology of Marxist-Leninism both at home and abroad. From 1957 until 1989, Erich Mielke led the Stasi with a penchant for wanting to be informed on everything going on in the GDR. The MfS was created under the guidance of the Soviet KGB, who had officers placed inside each Stasi office throughout the country. The MfS answered only to the leadership of the SED and deeply penetrated into all aspects of society. Erich Mielke even had a red suitcase containing incriminating files on the leader of East Germany himself, Erich Honecker.
The goal of maintaining an ear on all things happening inside the country meant that a vast network of surveillance had to be set up, and smaller offices of the MfS were established in small towns and villages so that their presence could be seemingly everywhere. Secret apartments were also maintained so that handlers could meet with their network of unofficial employees as well. By 1989, the MfS had around 91,000 official employees and 189,000 IMs (unofficial employees/informants) of varying capacities. Beyond internal surveillance and suppressing dissent, the MfS had a special department for foreign espionage, which was under the leadership of Markus Wolf for most of the Cold War. Wolf ran or oversaw many espionage operations including his Romeo spies, such as Günter Guillaume. Around 1,500 agents of the so-called HVA, or Main Directorate for Reconnaissance were station in West Germany and West Berlin. Most foreign espionage of the HVA was carried out there, however, the Stasi was also active in the third world and supported terrorist organizations and the West German radical left. While early methods of suppression of internal dissent involved very overt acts of violence, kidnappings even in West Germany, and public show trials, by 1971, the tactics changed to a more covert form called Zersetzung (decomposition). These methods and tactics were outwardly more subtle, however, they were no less oppressive or destructive to their victims.
For the most part, the MfS recruited its members from the Party, the police and army, and the Free German Youth (FDJ). Members were under the strictest secrecy rules and could not have contacts in the west. The organization was highly centralized and followed what is known as the Line Principle, which followed the power hierarchy from bottom to the heads of regional directorates and up. The MfS was organized on military lines and many full-time employees were issued uniforms based on the designs of the National People’s Army.
SED Party Membership Booklet
A Socialist Unity Party membership booklet with all dues fully paid.
A large vertical banner depicting the emblem of the Socialist Unity Party. The handshake represents the unity of the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party of Germany.
SED Membership Pin
An early 1940s era Socialist Unity Party membership pin. The early versions were larger in size, whereas the later ones were often referred to as the tic tac for its diminutive size and shape.
Wooden Stasi Plaque
The shield portion of a wooden presentation plaque for an MfS officer. The plaque is the emblem of the secretive Stasi.
Officer's Service Tunic
This is an MfS officer’s service tunic and visor cap for the rank of Major. This tunic was produced in the first quarter of 1981. It is almost exactly the same as an East German army tunic. The one distinguishing feature are the maroon colored shoulder boards. Earlier MfS tunics included maroon colored collar tabs as well, but those were replaced by the standard army white collar tabs in the 1980s.
Comrades and Brothers
The MfS was not alone in its efforts against class enemies. Next to the KGB, the MfS had brother organizations in the communist-aligned countries of the Warsaw Pact. The KGB was in control of the MfS but granted it more independence over the years. The working meetings were used to share MfS gathered intelligence with their Soviet counterparts. The KGB was also active within East Germany as well.
The brother organizations of Eastern Europe also assisted the MfS in keeping tabs on GDR citizens abroad. The main priority was given to surveillance in an effort to prevent GDR citizens from escaping to the west. By 1977, the security services of the Warsaw Pact states agreed to set up a joint database, which contained information on over 188,000 individuals the state deemed to be a danger. Only the Soviets had direct access to the data, however.
Romanian Securitate Visor Cap
A visor cap from one of the brother agencies of the Warsaw Pact. The cornflower blue band on this Romanian Securitate visor cap follows the tradition of using blue as one of the main colors of the secret police. The Soviet NKVD and the KGB both used blue to denote their agencies.
The MfS and Society
With a regime that attempted to form new people in the mold chosen for them by the state, the MfS played a vital role in making sure dissent would be discovered and incapacitated before it would become a threat to the ideological indoctrination of the masses. The SED demanded loyalty, and in order to foster this, the SED created a deep web of social control that wove citizens into the fabric of the new society. Schools, universities, the youth organizations, sports, medicine, and even travel and cultural institutions were all connected to the MfS in ways that would allow them to uproot dissent wherever it may exist. This network would also marginalize those that did not fit in with the program. Punks, Christians, and those who refused to do military service or stayed out of the mass organizations were often targets of the MfS.
In the realm of sports, the MfS attempted to control mass sporting institutions while also spying on West German athletics organizations and research facilities. The doping scheme to make GDR athletes more competitive was largely controlled by the MfS, who fed anabolic Steroids to their star athletes without their knowledge or consent. This led to severe medical issues, especially amongst the women’s teams, who experienced dramatic changes to their bodies as they were being secretly dosed by their trainers with MfS supervision and support.
Culture was also a major ideological struggle that involved the MfS. In keeping with the push to control culture and to create a new socialist national culture, SED set up what later became called the Cultural Association of the GDR that controlled mass communication and all institutions associated with artistic expression. The MfS safeguarded the system by rooting out dissidents, banning them from their creative outlets, and suppressing anything that could subvert the SED’s attempts to create a socialist mass culture.
The MfS also focused on work. Since factories were all owned by the state, keeping these vital economic interests safe was a matter of national security. Moreover, the MfS developed a deep network of spies who penetrated major western business concerns in order to steal trade secrets and technology that could help boost the GDR’s economy. Within the travel industry too, the MfS had its presence. All tourist traffic was put under surveillance to prevent GDR citizens from getting in contact with western tourists and to make sure that any tourist coming from the west was not an undercover spy.
To keep the GDR and the Party protected from enemies, the MfS maintained its presence in the armed forces of the GDR, the NVA. Since military service for men became compulsory in 1962, most men had come under the watchful eyes of the MfS at least once in their lives. Informants were placed in every branch and military support organization, from the schools to the uniquely East German construction soldiers, who were seen as a gathering ground for subversives. The MfS even had its own regiment named in the honor of the founder of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky. Although it was referred to as a regiment, it grew to the size of a division that was mainly used to protect government buildings and high ranking Party members and leaders. By 1989, the regiment had over 11,000 personnel that were selected for their loyalty and reliability.
The Berlin Wall
Neues Deutschland Newspaper
This issue of the national newspaper Neues Deutschland was published on August 13, 1961, the day the Berlin Wall was erected. It covers the official explanations and justifications for the construction of the Berlin Wall.
People's Police Visor Cap
A 1963-era visor cap of the People’s Police. Before the GDR founded its army in 1956, the Barracked People’s Police served as the de facto armed forces. They, as well as the regular People’s Police, wore these visor caps before they were updated to include the national emblem of the GDR in. The MfS worked with the People’s Police, especially when the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961.
Berlin Wall Pin
This pin commemorates the construction of the Berlin Wall. It was distributed to the men responsible for its construction. Celebrating the Wall was an important part of covering up what was considered an embarrassment to the regimes. In the GDR, the Wall became known as the "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart;" the official narrative claimed that it aimed to protect East Germans from the negative influence of the West.
Border Guard Uniform
This is an enlisted personnel’s non-career Border Guards of the GDR uniform. The standard camouflage uniforms were also typically worn by those guards that patrolled the death strip that divided the western facing border wall from the one facing east.
Piece of the Berlin Wall
A chunk of the Berlin Wall that was removed by one of the many Mauerspechte, or "Wall peckers," after the border between East and West was opened.
The pants and tunic for an inmate, most likely from the Bautzen prison complex. These types of inmate uniforms were used throughout the GDR’s prison system. The stripes were either green or yellow, and some had special red strips indicating the threat level of the prisoner. This example is from the 1970s.
The People's Police
This is the uniform of an Anwärter of the Barracks Police dated 1981. These units were called upon in cases of national emergencies and crises. During the demonstrations in 1989, the Barracked Police was called into service to suppress the protests.
This is a 1981-dated uniform of an Obermeister of the Transportation Police, or Trapo. They dealt with the security of all transportation but mainly focused on trains and railway hubs. From 1953 to 1957, the Trapo was part of the MfS. Thereafter, it was transferred to the People’s Police until the Trapo was dissolved in 1990.
Prison Police Uniform
This 1981-dated tunic holds the rank of Meister and was worn by members of the GDR’s prison system.
Prison Rules/Code of Conduct
An original document from the Bautzen prison explaining the rules and code of conduct for prisoners. This was generously donated by J. Stejskal.
This inventory token was used by the guards regiment of Berlin.
The MfS Regiment Dzerzhinsky
Dzerzjinsky Regiment Award
This is an award document folder for members of the Guards Regiment Felix Dzerzhinsky. There were two formats for horizontal documents, such as the one pictured above, and for larger format legal-sized documents.
Dzerzjinsky Regiment Medallion
A medallion of the Guards Regiment Feliz Dzerzhinsky. These medallions could be awarded based on service time or to graduates of the Wach- und Sicherungseinheiten school system. The schools offered diverse training courses that depended on the type of service an individual would pursue. The WSE schools provided specialized training in fields from intelligence operations courses to political, legal, and other military occupational training.
Dzerzjinsky Regiment Tunic
A 1973-dated tunic of the Guards Regiment Felix Dzerzhinsky in the rank of Major. In addition to the cuff title, the Guards Regiment had the maroon-colored collar tabs that the standard MfS uniforms ultimately did away with in the 1980s. The tunic came with a Dynamo sports badge, indicating that the wearer was involved in the MfS sports club.
MfS Hochchule Graduation Badge
The graduate badge from the Juristische Hochschule des MfS. The “Academy of the Ministry for State Security” was created on June 20, 1965 in the former “School of the Ministry for State Security” that had existed near Potsdam since 1955. The college reported directly to the Minister for State Security. The JHS never truly became part of the East German university system because it was subordinate to the Stasi and because of strong secrecy requirements for faculty and students. Test certificates, documents and communications only identified the institution as the “Academy of Law in Potsdam” to obscure the existence of the college from the public and its affiliation to the Stasi. March 31, 1990, was the official day on which the JHS was dissolved. Generously donated by R. Pickard.
Dzerzjinsky Regiment Tunic
A blue sonstige college graduate badge for members of the MfS presented in a white plastic case. The badge is a symbol of the academic part of the training officers of the MfS could receive. An older white version of this badge was produced for officers who graduated from the Juristische Hochschule des MfS. This was an MfS college in Potsdam that trained students in careers related to their service within the MfS. This badge was awarded to those who may have had training at civilian or technical colleges that did not involve military studies.
MfS Library Books
Three books from the library of the Juristische Hochschule des MfS in Potsdam. These books were treated as sensitive material and were marked “only for service use”. When a student checked out books from the college, they were placed in a special courier pouch to prevent outsiders from reading its contents. Generously donated by R. Pickard.
Hochschule des MfS Medallion
This bronze medallion from the Hochschule des MfS. The back reads, “ Whenever the working class conspires, it conspires. . . like to sun against the eclipse."
Behind the Scenes: The MfS Objectified
MfS District Office Sign
This district office sign graced the entrance of the MfS Kreisdienststelle (KD) building in Stralsund, Bezirksverwaltung (BV) Rostock. This MfS station employed a number of signals intelligence operations, worked closely in collaboration with the local criminal police, and kept tabs on local anti-foreigner groups and dissidents. In August 1990, the troves of MfS files were put into the control of the senate of the Hanseatic city of Stralsund.
MfS Identity Booklets
A set of MfS identity booklets. These ID booklets were carried by all members of the MfS.
MfS ID Booklet - Interior
A look inside one of the MfS identity booklets.
MfS Identification Pins
Three color-coded MfS identification pins. These pins were made so that individual agents could recognize fellow agents in the field. Many different types of pins were made, including one with a rotatable color wheel.
Marx and Engels Books
East Germany was known as a country of readers and book lovers. To celebrate their love for literature, East Germany produced many kinds of books in miniature form. This book is on the words of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. These books were made as special gifts and the MfS had their own mini books to hand to officers for loyal service.
MfS General's Visor Cap
Since the MfS used military ranks, their generals wore the same garb as the generals of the National People’s Army. This 1970s visor cap is an example of the types that would have been worn by MfS officers of the general ranks.
MfS Sports Club Pennant
A small table pennant from the MfS Dynamo sports club. Zinnwald was a region known for winter sports, and this pennant celebrates the bobsled and cross-country Stasi ski teams.
People's Police Poster
The MfS may have been a secretive agency, but they were not entirely invisible. The MfS put on exhibitions, especially on important days and years that marked a holiday or milestone. This poster is for an exhibit featuring the People’s Police and the Stasi organization for the city of Karl-Marx-Stadt. Generously donated by J. Stejskal.
MfS Cultural Department Medallion
In keeping with the theme of MfS exhibits, this medallion was awarded to members who supported an exhibition presented by the MfS Culture Department. It comes in a white plastic case with a soft blue interior with an inlay for the medallion.
This celebratory kerchief marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of the MfS. It commemorates military defense in addition to the 25-year jubilee.
The MfS made an anniversary pin marking the five-year anniversaries of their founding. From the 20th anniversary onto their 40th, each pin looked more or less the same, although the material may have changed slightly and the 40th anniversary pin no longer had the Roman numerals of the earlier pins. This pin celebrates the 30th anniversary of the organization and was presented in a white plastic case with a soft blue interior.
This ribbon may have been used as part of a funeral wreath in the form of a Trauerschleife, or to celebrate an achievement.
The Meissen porcelain company has a long history of fine ceramic crafts and wears. This tradition continued in East Germany as well. This ceremonial award plate was manufactured by Meissen and was presented to the leadership of the MfS district office in Dresden. It was most likely issued to senior members in an ornate red case. A colorized version of this plate existed as well, that may have been awarded to senior MfS members for 25 years of loyal service.
Historical information for this exhibition was sourced from the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic and from Ralph Pickard's Stasi Decorations and Memorabilia: A Collector's Guide, vol. 1-3. To see more objects from the GDR, visit our Collections page.