The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi

Gareth Dale is intrigued by an account of small-town life in the secret police

January 20, 2011

In respect of the scope of its topic, this book enacts a performative contradiction. Its author is infuriated that too little historiography of the German Democratic Republic focuses on the repressive character of the regime, lamenting that the Stasi "has become a topic non grata". In truth, however, bookshelves creak under the weight of books on the Stasi. That Bruce has found some unexplored territory is because he tightly limits his purview to Stasi activities in two tiny, unremarkable districts in the north German plain.

The result is a readable account of the working lives of small-town Stasi officers. We learn of their views on a range of issues, from the disdain in which they held their superordinates in the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany, East Germany's ruling party) to their memories of Soviet-bloc tourism. ("The beaches of Bulgaria! Oh, the beaches! Herrlich!") We hear their motivations for joining the force, which typically included ideology or patriotism, the elevated salary, or the chance to follow in the footsteps of relatives (and, less commonly, the prospect of apprehending war criminals, or the erroneous belief that the role would resemble that of a private eye). The ideal recruit was male and married to a supportive wife - and considerable suspicion was directed towards one bachelor comrade, a pig breeder who "spent too much time on his farm".

The work itself occupies the bulk of the book. We see officers spending "endless hours of pouring (sic) over writing samples" and other documents, and recruiting and debriefing informants. To this reviewer, some details recounted were new. For example, twice a week citizens could enter the local Stasi premises and discuss issues with a duty officer - the Stasi kept office hours! More extraordinarily, it thwarted 54 attempts to hijack airplanes in the space of just 10 years. (Regrettably, no reference is provided.)

Many tasks that were taken on by the Stasi are, in other countries, assumed by company managers, the media, administrators or police; for example, enforcing labour discipline, or informing policymakers of conditions obtaining in the health service. (One informant, for example, reported that a surgeon under surveillance failed to wash his hands before surgery.)

Others are the stuff of secret police and intelligence services. The Stasi sought to weave webs of suspicion and angst among target groups. It deployed a range of inducements and threats to keep citizens in line, and was able to arrange the offer or refusal of a university place, a promotion, or dismissal from work.

Some of the ploys Bruce uncovers were darkly imaginative - one officer arranged for a pub landlord to distribute free beer to entice a suspect to drink excessively and incriminate himself. Towards dissidents, common tactics included anonymous threatening letters and night-time phone calls to sow distrust and paranoia, or the spreading of rumours that an individual under surveillance was an adulterer or alcoholic. If outright character assassination was required, Stasi officers, aware of their organisation's popular standing, would spread a rumour that the target was a Stasi informant.

The former officers that Bruce interviews did not see their work as morally reprehensible. Anything can be justified in terms of that peculiarly protean concept, "national security". Not without glee, they have observed the post-2001 national security paranoia in the West, noting that many of the same individuals who criticised East Germany for putting security above individual freedoms now defend the USA PATRIOT Act or similar repressive thrusts. The Stasi, Bruce remarks in a fleeting digression from his focus on East Germany, affords a glimpse of what may await us all if civil liberties are eroded further and ordinary citizens are encouraged to engage in mutual denunciation and surveillance.

The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi

By Gary Bruce. Oxford University Press 2pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780195392050. Published 26 August 2010

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