Select Page

The Stasi and the Overcoat

The Stasi and the Overcoat

by William H. Benson

June 14, 2018

The East German communist government collapsed in late 1989, and soon thereafter, its people were amazed to learn that the Stasi secret police had a bulging manila-colored file on many of them.

For decades, across East Germany, thousands of spies had watched for indications of suspicious activity or words that indicated an individual’s dissatisfaction with the communist government.

Fellow workers, neighbors, family members, even spouses, spied on each other and then submitted detailed reports to the Stasi. Officials then added the reports to a person’s file, and then re-stacked the files on metal shelves, seven-shelves high, deep inside a Stasi directorate building.

It was a vast operation of spying, producing reports, and preserving files, mainly gossip, all done in secret. Its purpose: “to root out the class enemy.”

The Stasi, the Ministry for State Security, was formed on February 8, 1950, and was dissolved a month shy of forty years later, on January 13, 1990. One investigator ventured to say, “The Stasi maintained greater surveillance over its own people than any other secret police force in history.”

The Stasi abandoned “arrest and torture,” in favor of psychological harassment. Officials would go into someone’s home and re-arrange the furniture, or change their brands of tea bags, and other tricks designed to let the victims know that officials were watching. As a result, the people crouched in fear. 

At the most, the Stasi employed 91,000 workers, but they relied on 189,000 unofficial spies, a cobweb of unidentified informants, called IM’s, Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter

In late 1989, when East German governing officials sensed the end was near, Stasi employees set to work to shred the files, but the sheer volume was too vast. In early January of 1990, a crowd gathered outside a Stasi office building, and demanded that Stasi officials stop the shredding, and they did, but not before they had shredded millions of pages, about 5% of the total.

Ever since, investigators have dug into some 16,000 huge manila-colored bags of shredded documents, containing about 45 million pages, and worked to re-assemble them, but the job is big.

The remainder of the files stand on the shelves, 69 miles long (111 kilometers), in 13 offices in Berlin and other German cities, and “they contain the everyday results of a people being spied upon.”

At first, there was anxious discussion about whether to seal the files, keep them secret, or allow everyone to see their own file. At some point, the new government decided to permit free access to the files. People read their own file and could, with some effort, identify who had spied upon them.

Numerous Stasi officials were prosecuted for their crimes after 1990, when the files were opened.

How did a secret police organization maintain its power for forty years? One researcher explained, “The psychological terror the Stasi state depended upon, from the first day to the last, was the presence of the Red Army, and the willingness of the Soviet Union to use force. When the Red Army went, the Stasi state went too.” Indeed, the KGB maintained liaison offices in all 8 main Stasi directorates.

Yes, the KGB and the Soviet Union’s Red Army intimidated the Stasi, but in addition, there were thousands of East German clerks who, also out of fear, refused to speak out, and chose to participate in the spying, reporting, and filing.

The Ukrainian writer, Nikolai Gogol, described the justifications that governing clerks make to survive, in a short story he entitled, “The Overcoat.” In his office, the main character, Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, did one thing, copy other documents in longhand, day after day. 

When offered more productive work, like change the header, or reword the documents’ words, Akaky refused. Unthinking and unfeeling, he copied all he was told to copy and would not change. 

Today, in our world of 2018, the internet is wide open, and social media is pervasive. Governments, companies, and institutions struggle to define a person’s right to privacy. The fear is constant that a ruthless government might use the internet and social media, as tools to browbeat, intimidate, and then control a nation’s citizens, obliterating right to privacy, and a host of other rights.

When that happens, the regime will construct a bureaucracy, hire an army of clerks, build thousands of office cubicles, give them each a computer, and set them to work, to shatter other people’s lives. No longer will they need reams of paper, or miles of shelves to hold the files.