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East Germany’s Stasi a Quarter Century After It Was Dissolved


Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

The great riddle of German reunification involves the two dogs that didn’t bark. The first dog was the Stasi, the East German secret service, which did so little to prevent the demonstrations of 1989 from bringing down Party chief Erich Honecker, the Berlin Wall, and then the entire Communist regime. The second dog was the East German people, who exacted so little revenge against the Stasi after the once-powerful institution was unmasked. Of course, there may well be a relationship between these two dogs. After all, dogs often bark in response to one another.

The first dog didn’t bark, it seems, because the Stasi expected some kind of deal that would have prolonged the life of the East German state with West German cash. It was not an entirely unrealistic expectation. The West German government had paid for all sorts of things in the past, including the exit of East Germans and the dismantling of the automated tripwire at the Wall.

“I talked to a lot of the Stasi people, and they said that they were told during the period of upheaval, ‘Stay in your barracks, don’t do anything. The Wall’s open, we’re going to cut a deal, and everything will be okay,’” David Crawford told me. “If these people had been told, ‘Stay in your barracks, we’re going to have reunification, and when it’s over you’re going to get 800 DM a month as a pension, and you’re going to be unemployed, and you’re going to be a pariah to society, and you’re not going to be able to work in the public service,’ there might have been a lot of public resistance. People might have said, ‘Hey, wait a second, I don’t want to go into something where people are going to be investigating whether or not I’ve broken any laws over the last 20 or 30 years.’”

Today Crawford reports for The Wall Street Journal from Berlin. When I met him 23 years ago, he was one of the most knowledgeable researchers into the Stasi. Through careful investigation, he put together a series of lists that exposed the inner workings of the organization: their real estate assets, their pensions, their agents under deep cover. In March 1990, he expected the second dog to bark.

“You quote me in 1990 saying that there would be a lot of violence against these people,” he recalled when we met again in 2013 in his house in the suburbs of Berlin. “In June 1990, I published the first of the Stasi lists. This was a list of all of the Stasi real estate. Virtually every East German newspaper ran editorials saying that this was hugely irresponsible and there would be a lot of violence. There wasn’t any violence. There were a couple stories written about alleged cases of violence. I looked into them and discovered that they didn’t actually happen. The New York Times ended up reporting that there were two such incidents, citing the former East German Interior Minister Peter Michael Diestel. I sent them statements from the state institution that was dismantling the Stasi saying that they had looked into it and hadn’t found any incidents. The head of the interior committee of the East German parliament also said that they had looked into it, and there weren’t any incidents.”

During that period, Crawford thought that the fall of the Berlin Wall would mark the most important time in his life. But his interest in the Stasi faded. He still has his lists. “But I don’t really have a big interest in going around trying to out people,” he told me. “I don’t think it’s the most important thing. I like knowing whom I’m dealing with, and I will take a peak when I meet somebody who I think is strange. Or people call me up and say, ‘Can you check out this person for me?’ and I’m willing to have a look. But I don’t think it’s that important anymore. Society, as a whole, should move on.”

He provided me with one last example of how the Stasi no longer figures prominently in his imagination. “Living out here on the outskirts of town, one of the ways I get into Berlin is by driving past the Stasi headquarters,” he concluded. “In the 1990s, I could not go past that building without just gazing at it. I realized at some point or another, I don’t look at it anymore. If you and I were driving into town, I would point it out to you because to you it’s new, and I know that you’d probably be interested in gaping at it. Just like anybody would, just like I was doing when it was new. But at some point or another, I stopped gaping at it. It took me an awful long time to stop. But I don’t notice it anymore. It was a very very interesting time period in my life, but it was just one time period, and now there are other things going on.”

The Interview

You were saying that basically it didn’t matter what the state of the East German economy was at the time of unification, and instead what was most important was the education level.

Yes, education was the capital that the East Germans brought into unification.

There was a lot of discussion in early 1990, prior to the elections on March 18, about giving everybody in East Germany shares in their country and figuring out how much this was worth. There was a report that came up with some pretty fantastic number, which to a certain extent was based largely on the investment made during the East German period. But, as I remember, there wasn’t a lot of consideration given to writing down values. Rather, they were just thinking about what was invested, which reflected how the economy worked. In West Germany, businesses instantly wanted to write down the value of their things, for tax reasons and other reasons. This then reflected the value that they could sell their companies for — the assets. East Germany, on the other hand, built something and tried to use it as long as they could. In that sense, a typical person would save for more than a decade to get a car. They wouldn’t be able to pay delivery of it for over a decade. They’d be saving most of the time trying to get it, and once they got it, they expected to drive it for the next 20 years. The idea of a write-down was alien to the society.

But anyway, they came up with a very fantastic number. And then over the next five to 10 years, the amount that the Treuhandanstalt, which was charged with trying to transfer ownership of all of these assets, was able to get out of it was an awful lot less than this fantastic number. In a lot of the areas, where they said that “we have something that’s really valuable,” it turned out that the factories were basically scrapped. West German companies would come in, buy them, and then install completely new infrastructures that they were accustomed to using and that they thought were much more economical to operate. But the advantage for a German company was you could go in there, and you could set something up and you could talk to the people that spoke the same language as you, that could read the manuals, that were well trained in the kind of skills needed to operate a factory. So it was a very interesting place for German companies to do business. They had the disadvantage that they came in and established this exchange rate in July 1990, which to a certain extent made it less competitive than some of the neighboring companies, where they still had weak currencies. But it was a lot easier for West German companies to come in and deal with the people.

So to a certain extent, since we were talking about the comparison to Korea, I can imagine based on what I saw happening here, that once people get in their mind that a transition is possible, an awful lot of people are going to want that transition simply because they’re going to be thinking about how things can be better for themselves. And whether it actually turns out that way or not is another matter. Unification here was a huge shock. An unbelievable percentage of the women in East Germany lost their jobs. A very very large percentage of the men in East Germany lost their jobs. For the society as a whole to all of a sudden have a huge percentage of the population going through the process of being unemployed and looking for a job and starting over: it’s a shocking experience that was terrifying for a lot of people. To a certain extent, the people who were part of the bureaucracy in East Germany managed to stay in the bureaucracy in the united Germany. Whether that was proper or not, certainly we’d need more than 45 minutes to talk about that, but it was less of a shock for them.

You also mentioned that whatever forms of civil society existed in East Germany in churches or the small dissident movement may well have played an important role in the uprising in East Germany but did not play a major role in the reunification.

The churches basically were part of the spy system, the Catholic Church a little bit less than the Protestant church. But the Protestant church was definitely brought into the system. An important number of ministers weren’t part of the system and were contesting it. But the system as a whole, a large portion of people in the top positions, were either secretly working for the Stasi or had decided that they should try to integrate the Church within the East German system. So they weren’t really the opposition. Some churches obviously were housing the peace movement and stuff like that, and this was important for those people.

Look at what happened during reunification. There were roundtables in which the opposition sat together with three or four different incarnations of the Communist Party — because each of the different parties that were part of the national front were, in essence, part of the Communist Party system. And then the youth movement of the Communist Party was also represented. So the opposition, at least in the central roundtables and the roundtables of the different regions, didn’t really have a huge impact. To a certain extent they made the same mistake as the national parliament that was elected on March 18. They wanted to wait and let the united Germany decide what to do instead of actually taking the important decisions themselves. My wife was a member of that parliament, and she doesn’t agree with me on this; she thinks that they did what they could under the circumstances. But from my viewpoint, they were too bashful. It was an opportunity to change things, and they didn’t really change a lot of the things that needed to be changed.

But the opposition also wanted to make East Germany better rather than create a united Germany, which most of the people wanted. They were a small group that wasn’t getting a lot of publicity, that wasn’t really connected with the people anymore because people were busy trying to do other things like trying to buy a car or looking for a job. There was just so much going on that creating a constitution for East Germany was not high on people’s priority list.

But they did create a constitution.

It was never ratified. Konrad Weiss wrote one, but it had no importance. It was presented certainly. But 23 years later when I think about it, I think about the misuse of resources. Not in the sense of costing money, but in the sense that this was an opportunity for change. They were working on a project that basically took them out of the discussion for a long period of time, and then they ended up making a proposal that nobody was interested in.

Hans Modrow, who was the Party chief towards the end of January, went to Bonn to meet with Helmut Kohl. Modrow thought that he was going to get 10-15 billion DM because East Germany had opened the Wall. Modrow thought, “People are thankful and West Germany will give us something for doing that.” It never occurred to him that he wouldn’t be treated in a great way. Then he showed up, and they said, “Sorry, we’re not going to give you anything. We’re certainly not going to give you enough money so you can keep operating the way you’ve been for another 10 or 15 years!” So he went back, and he had no choice but to call the elections.

I talked to a lot of the Stasi people, and they said that they were told during the period of upheaval, “Stay in your barracks, don’t do anything. The Wall’s open, we’re going to cut a deal, and everything will be okay.” If these people had been told, “Stay in your barracks, we’re going to have reunification, and when it’s over you’re going to get 800 DM a month as a pension, and you’re going to be unemployed, and you’re going to be a pariah to society, and you’re not going to be able to work in the public service,” there might have been a lot of public resistance. People might have said, “Hey, wait a second, I don’t want to go into something where people are going to be investigating whether or not I’ve broken any laws over the last 20 or 30 years.”

But especially in January 1990, there was this misconception that a deal could be done, and the model, of course, was the loan Franz Josef Strauss had arranged before, which allowed East Germany to carry on when it was almost broke in 1980. Part of the deal at that time was, in exchange for this loan, East Germany had to dismantle anti-personnel devices, the automated ones along the wall. There was an electronic tripwire. If you broke this light beam, this thing went off and the blast and the shrapnel maimed and killed anybody in its line of fire. They were set at knee-level, waist-level, and shoulder-level, and they were really really deadly devices. Anyway, the deal was done, and these devices were dismantled. And the wall regime became less automated. But there was a precedent for these concessions — this whole system of arresting people, charging them, putting them in jail, and getting a bunch of money when the West bought them out. In East Germany there were people in power who thought they could get money from West Germany for making concessions in these humanitarian areas. And they thought that opening the Wall was the big thing. It was probably naïve, but they thought that a couple months after opening the Wall there would still be all this good will and people would say, “Yeah, well, let’s just put down a huge amount of money.”

Gorbachev, of course, saw these negotiations and said, “Hey wait a second, I can do that deal, too.” And so Gorbachev actually ended up doing the deal that Modrow wanted to do. Gorbachev said, “I can ensure that you’ll get past the 4+2 negotiations. We’ll allow the united Germany to be sovereign, and we’ll withdraw the Soviet Army.” 80 billion Marks is a lot of money. A superpower could probably keep going for another three days. But this money did not rescue the Soviet Union. The East German security apparatus, though, because they were told that this deal was in the offing, it was one of things that motivated them to stand down during the critical time period. And then it was just too late. The people were beyond that. The Stasi offices were occupied. They were already in the process of being sent home. And the Russians weren’t on their side.

Let me ask you about the situation with the Stasi. For the people who worked for the Stasi, not talking about the informal collaborators, none went to jail, as far as I know.

Some did.

I thought there were just a couple of guards put in jail for shooting.

Yes, that’s what we’re talking about. And they did go after the West German citizens who were traitors, or considered to be traitors anyway, by the court.

Many of the folks who worked for the Stasi got jobs or created jobs for themselves in the private sector in security firms, real estate. From this vantage point, it seemed like the Stasi got off pretty easy. But maybe I’m wrong. What’s your take on that?

There were a lot of rumors. You quote me in 1990 saying that there would be a lot of violence against these people. In June 1990, I published the first of the Stasi lists. This was a list of all of the Stasi real estate. Virtually every East German newspaper ran editorials saying that this was hugely irresponsible and there would be a lot of violence. There wasn’t any violence. There were a couple stories written about alleged cases of violence. I looked into them and discovered that they didn’t actually happen. The New York Times ended up reporting that there were two such incidents, citing the former East German Interior Minister Peter Michael Diestel. I sent them statements from the state institution that was dismantling the Stasi saying that they had looked into it and hadn’t found any incidents. The head of the interior committee of the East German parliament also said that they had looked into it, and there weren’t any incidents.

The idea that East German people were going to go around and beat people up based on information that they would get about the Stasi was kind of far-fetched. The way the Stasi was structured and the way the East German society was structured, everybody assumed that the head of personnel at any East German institution was cooperating with the Stasi, would report to them if asked, and was closely cooperating to the detriment of the staff. None of these people was beaten up. These 9,251 Stasi installations that were reported on, several thousand of them, I can’t remember the exact number, were in apartment buildings. And the people who lived in the apartment building suspected what was going on in there. They didn’t know for sure, but people knew that this apartment was lived in, and this grandmother was in that apartment. And they knew that there was this other apartment where people would come and meet for 10 or 15 minutes, but no one ever slept there. People in the building knew these things. None of those people were beaten up. And when we put together the pension list of the former Stasi, it wasn’t as if people would go up to Rostock from the other end of the country and beat people up there simply because they were on this list.

A lot of people were suspected of being Stasi. I, myself, suspected a bunch of people. Bu it turned out that the people I suspected actually weren’t. And some of the people I didn’t suspect were. I guess it just shows that my intuition isn’t really that good for this kind of thing. But I think the same thing happened to an awful lot of other people. Ultimately, anybody from East Germany who wanted to know who those people were was able to find out. And people weren’t beaten up. East Germans weren’t a bunch of thugs. It just shows that you can talk about these topics in a constructive manner. If you look at the repercussions for the people, the people whose names were put in the public domain, they very quickly were able to get on with their lives. The disruption wasn’t fun. They were asked some questions for a few days. But then it was over. Certainly within a month it was over, and they were able to get on with their lives.

Some of the informal spies, whose names weren’t on the central lists that were easily available, had to worry about this for a long time. They had to worry about being blackmailed by their former handlers. They weren’t able to get on with their lives. They stayed in jobs where, if they had been outed early in the process, they could have found different jobs and they would have been able to get on with their lives. But some of these people had been in those jobs for five years. Everybody had already found new jobs, and it was kind of late to be going into the job market, and so it was disruptive for those people.

I went through different phases of my opinions on these things. Between January and the end of March 1990, when I was working on the first of these Stasi lists, I had to reassess my own opinion. I started meeting with different people and talking about it and trying to figure out what was the right thing to do. This was less so with the real-estate list because I just didn’t take seriously the idea that it was shameful to publish such a list. I thought it was important to put it in the public domain to prevent former members of the Stasi from becoming billionaires by selling off this real estate, which they were not able to do. I also published the current owner of the property, and I put out that list. After German unification, the German finance ministry took the same list that we had actually published and wrote to the current owners of every single piece of property saying the property’s name and content. That included, here in this town on the outskirts of Berlin, eight installations. A couple of them were places where they were typing up transcripts of phone conversations that were monitored in Western Germany. One of these places here was a rather large single family home, and it had been turned into a nursery school. The operators of the nursery school were told, “You have obtained this illicitly.” Because the town council was operating it, it wasn’t a big deal, but they got the same paperwork as everybody else. But publishing the list meant that the former Stasi couldn’t do secret deals. Probably after unification they would have stopped all of this anyway.

You did a list of real estate and a list of pensions. What other lists?

Of the spies under deep cover.

Under deep cover in the West?

Primarily in the West, but also under deep cover here. These were regular officers who were under deep cover, as opposed to the informal agents who weren’t actual staff officers. The problem with the informal agents is that there were only three sets of film that had all of these names on them. Two were destroyed, supposedly destroyed, and one was given to the KGB. There’s some question about whether one of the two that was supposedly destroyed was actually sold to the CIA. But that’s too complicated to get into right now.

And where did you get your real estate list?

That’s also too complicated! I went around and collected it. I found out, first of all, that they were putting together something like this in Berlin. Then I realized in each of the 15 districts of East Germany a separate list was being done. So I went around trying to collect the 15 different lists. Then I realized at some point that all of this was being digitized and was available on discs in Berlin, which turned out to be encrypted. I went to a hackers club in West Germany, and I said, “I have these encrypted discs, can you help me?” It took them about ten minutes to crack it. They said that the Stasi had been using a security system that the hackers knew about from some computer game — I can’t remember the name — but they said that this game used the same system that prevented people from copying it. And it was their hobby to crack this stuff. I realized later that this anti-copy mechanism wasn’t really designed to make the things safe. They tried to ensure security by keeping this information in a secure installation. Instead, the anti-copy mechanism was to prevent the staff officers from making copies for themselves. But these hackers had no problem cracking it.

The pension list was a completely different system. That list was kept when the Stasi was in the process of being shut down and people began to worry about their pensions. This is Germany: pensions are a big deal. Around August 1990, the pension data from the Stasi was taken out of Stasi headquarters in East Berlin, which you probably went to in 1990. It was taken to a military base on the outskirts of Berlin where they had the same type of Robotron computer. It turned out to be the outdated system that West Germany had probably been using in the early 1970s. There it was processed so that people could get their pensions. Members of the Citizens Committee showed up, realized what was going on, seized the tapes, and took them to the East German parliament building. They turned the tapes over to one of the senior parliamentarians, and it was put in the safe in her office. A couple days later they sent it to West Germany, and there it was turned over in the North Rhine-Westphalia state office for data processing, where they made copies of it and exported the data into DBase.

These DBase files were huge in size for people like me. At the time I was extremely proud to have a computer with a 20 megabyte hard drive. The Stasi also had hundreds, or dozens anyway, of 20 megabyte hard drives. They were about half the size of that sofa. I remember when I went into the data processing room for the first time I saw these big egg-shaped things that were about 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide and somewhat old. I asked what they were. They told me that they were hard drives, they were very expensive, and they would be sold. Anyway, I was proud to have a 20 megabyte hard drive, which the data was able to fit on at the time. I spent close to a year working with that data. This house is the result of that work. I bought this house with the money that I made working with that data.

The third list you mentioned was the people under deep cover. When you published that list, did it lead to a mass resignation by the people who were mentioned?

A couple, but not very many. Those people basically were part of the main Stasi. Their names came out a little bit earlier. Some of them, for example, the ones who were working for the national press office and stuff like that ended up being told not to come to work. But these were all public servants who had jobs, and they were, like everybody who was working for the Stasi at that time, losing their jobs. If you went to the Stasi headquarters at that time, you saw these people coming out of the building. You could tell who the Stasi employees were because they carried flowerpots with them. Everybody had flowerpots in their room. And a lot of the flowers had started to die. With friends of mine in the Citizens Committee, we took as many pots of water as we could carry, and we wandered around the Stasi spy headquarters from room to room pouring water into all these flowerpots. The process of sending everybody home was six to eight weeks, and the flowers would have all died. I’m sure most of the flowers died anyway because there were just too many rooms to go through, and a lot of them were locked. But at least in the first few weeks, when the flowers were still alive, everybody was leaving with a plastic bag filled with stuff that they were allowed to take with them – and with their flowerpots.

How long did you work on these files?

For most of 1991. In January 1992 the files office opened. And I lost interest in the topic because I always thought I should be doing investigative journalism. For me, the idea of going to the press office and applying for files just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. It probably should have been what I was doing, in hindsight. I probably should have kept doing it. But I just decided I was going to do other stuff. I got a job working for German television. They were trying to broadcast in English. I’d also been working for a magazine in Paris that was writing less about spies and more about security issues in general.

When the Wall fell it was pretty natural for me to want to work on this topic. I had contacts. I was used to the topic. I understood the mistakes that you had to watch out for. I sounded intelligent when I was talking about it, which of course I wasn’t because as a journalist you’re always sort of jumping in sideways. But I had spent a year writing about security issues, so I had an advantage over people who were completely cold. But once the offices opened, maybe I was just too much of an elitist or whatever, and just decided to do something else. I was just tired of it. Now I think it was probably a mistake.

Where did you publish the lists?

The real-estate list I have on my wall upstairs. The other lists were just too big and we made discs and distributed them. You can still download them from the Internet today. But I didn’t put them on the Internet. The real-estate lists, strangely enough, I’m the only one who has it electronically. But that’s okay.

When did you start working for the Wall Street Journal?

I was hired to cover 9/11, so in September of 2001.

And did you end up writing a book about your experience tracking down the Stasi information?

I’ve done a lot of stories on it, and I’m one of those people who just collects, and collects, and collects. So there are always rumors that I’m writing a book, but I never did one. And my wife keeps telling me I should do one.

It’s coming up on the 25th anniversary, so…

We’ll see.

When you look back to what your perspective was in 1990 about German reunification, about the Stasi, and so on, how much has changed in your views?

In 1990 I felt that the majority of the population was pretty disadvantaged and wasn’t able to develop in a logical manner, certainly not in accordance with the amount of work that they put into trying to develop a career. The decision of who would get which job was political. It certainly wasn’t based on skill or the amount of work or who deserved it. At some point I came up with this far-fetched idea that all of the jobs in East Germany should be terminated, and everybody should apply and may the best person win. Later I realized that probably the same people would’ve gotten the jobs because they had been doing them for a while and knew how to do them. And they just had an inherent advantage of having been in charge of the street sweepers or whatever. At least in the public service jobs, the person who was in charge of the social administration, had a contract that it was impossible to get out of it and actually knew how to operate the office, which is also important. You had the same type of situation also in Hungary and all the other East bloc countries.

East Germany was a bit different in that there were people from the West who were willing to come here and also who knew how to run administration. But they were mostly interested in the really important jobs that were well paid. So the administration, as a whole, to a large extent remained the same. And the administration in eastern Germany is still much larger than in western Germany because these people had contracts and it was impossible to get rid of them.

As far as the Stasi is concerned, I always thought the fall of the Wall would be the most important time in my life. Later I realized it wasn’t, that 9/11 and the four years covering terrorism was a lot more important to me as far as my journalistic career is concerned.

But at some point, I realized that certainly when 20 years came around, or even 15 years, why should people be fired? Why should doors be closed to them because of something they had been doing 15 or 20 years ago? The people who held important positions were probably in their forties or close to their forties when the Wall came down, and those people biologically just aren’t in senior positions anymore. And the pensions, and whether they’re getting great pensions or not, is another topic we could spend a long time discussing. But I don’t really have a big interest in going around trying to out people. I don’t think it’s the most important thing. I like knowing whom I’m dealing with, and I will take a peak when I meet somebody who I think is strange. Or people call me up and say, “Can you check out this person for me?” and I’m willing to have a look. But I don’t think it’s that important anymore. Society, as a whole, should move on. Certainly if you are looking for somebody to take an important position and you want somebody with sound ethical standards, which are important in some jobs, you might want to say, “Hey, wait a second, I’m not sure we’re looking for someone who was willing to work for an organization like the Stasi, which trained people to lie, because that’s the way secret organizations work, and to do things to the detriment of other people.” But there’s a lot fewer of those decisions that need to be made now. I personally have more or less moved on, and there’s other things that I’m more interested in.

Living out here on the outskirts of town, one of the ways I get into Berlin is by driving past the Stasi headquarters. In the 1990s, I could not go past that building without just gazing at it. I realized at some point or another, I don’t look at it anymore. If you and I were driving into town, I would point it out to you because to you it’s new, and I know that you’d probably be interested in gaping at it. Just like anybody would, just like I was doing when it was new. But at some point or another, I stopped gaping at it. It took me an awful long time to stop. But I don’t notice it anymore. It was a very very interesting time period in my life, but it was just one time period, and now there are other things going on.

Berlin, June 1, 2013

Interview (1990)

In discussions with David Crawford, I got the sense that the de-Stasification of East Germany is the most important task of the new government. Each city has at least one citizens’ committee responsible for dissolving the Stasi: transferring weapons to the military, selling equipment, selling buildings (the Stasi owned 5-6000 residences in Berlin alone, including huge complexes that stretched for entire blocks). The files alone extend for 120 km; were much of this information to be made public.

David predicts civil strife when citizens discovered the Stasi officials directly responsible for their past difficulties (not getting into university, not getting a particular job, denied visas abroad and so on). The informers were spread through every niche of society, and it would seem are now members of the parties that now occupy the East German parliament (David thinks that ironically, the PDS probably had the lowest percentage of former Stasi informers, simply because the Stasi had traditionally not drawn from party ranks). David also worries that intelligence work will be made available to foreign powers, material which can then be used to recruit through blackmail East German politicians and citizens.

On Church issues, a declaration produced at Loccum argued strenuously for the speedy union of Lander Churches. Radical Church leaders in the East want to maintain autonomy. The JPIC (Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation) process has been pushed into the background. The Church has come in for a lot of heat recently for calling for forgiveness for Honeker and providing assistance to members of the secret police. Once again, David Crawford gave me the background on this. Apparently, the Church has offered to preserve the foreign intelligence aspects of the Stasi–this, according to some in the Church, constitutes “good” intelligence (versus the “bad” intelligence work of domestic repression).

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