Alison Lewis is a professor of German in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne. She is the author or editor of numerous books, including Secret Police Files from the Eastern Bloc: Between Surveillance and Life Writing and Cold War Spy Stories from Eastern Europe (Potomac Books, 2019). Her newest book, A State of Secrecy (Potomac Books, 2021), is now available.
The Ministry for State Security
During the Cold War much of the warfare was invisible, waged along frontlines that no one could see or hear. Its most powerful weapon was secrets, and to harvest them, foreign and domestic security agencies on both sides relied heavily on humans. Some security agencies, like the East German Ministry for State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, more commonly known as the MfS or the Stasi) relied to a colossal degree on what is called “human intelligence collection.” The Stasi not only gathered enormous quantities of secrets about its own citizens, it also required an inordinate amount of human labor to do so. Cultural life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was teeming with secrets that the communist regime was desperate to know, and the regime gave its security forces carte blanche to uncover them.
The Stasi is often described as a “state within a state,” although a more accurate description is probably “society within a society,” or “secret surveillance society.” With a large degree of latitude, and with tentacles reaching into all corners of social life, the Stasi, or “octopus,” as it has fittingly been called, grew monster-like under the unchecked influence of its third minister, Erich Mielke. After a less than illustrious start in 1950, the MfS began its spectacular ascent under Mielke once he took over the reins in 1957. In keeping with East Germany’s position as a “client regime” of the Soviet Union, the MfS was modeled along the lines of the first Soviet secret police, called the Cheka. It was soon to become a mammoth that far exceeded Adolf Hitler’s Gestapo in size and scale.
At the heart of the ministry’s empire was a “dizzying labyrinth of human controls.” Its number of officers, or “official employees” (Hauptamtliche Mitarbeiter) was estimated in 1989 to be around 90,000. In addition, the Stasi dedicated an entire stratum of its workforce to “informants” or “informers,” officially called “unofficial collaborators” (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or IM). It was a workforce unmatched in history. When the regime collapsed, there were an estimated 189,000 informants registered in the Stasi’s archives, which amounted to one informer for every 120 citizens. Informants were a central piece in the Stasi armory. Ernst Wollweber, the second Minister for State Security, famously called his organization’s informants its “respiratory organs.” If the Socialist Unity Party (sed) provided the political compass of the body politic, the Stasi, as its faithful servant, was the party’s “shield and sword.” Informers in turn allowed the regime to breathe more easily. Above all, informers enabled control to permeate society, transporting power to its remotest corners and deepest recesses. Like lungs, which provide fuel for metabolism, informers fueled the machinery of the ministry. Informers effectively helped East Germany become a self-policing surveillance society.
Informants were a low-tech and low-cost form of what David Lyon calls “surveillance power,” and a flexible, mobile, and cheap form of modern intelligence labor. They were the intelligence equivalent of today’s casualized, outsourced workforce. In Jeremy Bentham’s model of the panopticon, which Michel Foucault adopts to describe the diffusion of power in modern societies, surveillance of the many is enacted by the few. The central source of power (in Bentham’s model, the prison watchtower with its guards) does not need to be visible, because the subject in the panopticon self-regulates. He assumes that he is being watched, even though he might not be. As Foucault writes of the panoptical subject: “He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject of communication.” As Mike Dennis argues, the MfS “created a system of panopticism par excellence.” The communist panopticon was in this sense true to type and possessed all the hallmarks of the classical panopticon and modern disciplinary methods including the creation of ways of “normalizing judgment” and deviant behaviors. Like Foucault’s model, the communist panopticon did not just reveal truth, it also created the truth about the object of surveillance. To do so, it deployed what I call “para-panoptical” means. That is, it relied on other mechanisms to support its systems of surveillance of citizens. The GDR counted heavily on people’s fear of being watched to instill compliance, but to make absolutely sure, it mobilized informers as extra human resources.
Informants had several advantages over high-tech paraphernalia such as hidden cameras, telephone wiretaps, and mail intercepts. Not only could they evaluate information in ways that machines at the time could not, they were also able to get close to sources. The Stasi was by no means the only Cold War intelligence agency to realize that humans possess infinite means of camouflage. Yet it was possibly the agency that invested most resources into honing the art of human intelligence collection in the predigital era. Humans, as the Stasi discovered, could be deployed in settings where suspects might do most damage, such as informal networks of artists and writers that were seeding grounds for fomenting dissent. Informants were moveable and itinerant, and did not necessarily need to conceal their point of observation. They could see and hear things openly, as long as no one suspected they were spying. They needed little equipment apart from their perception, memory, a pen and paper, and, at most, a small dictation machine to record reports. Above all, an informant needed good acting skills and a plausible cover story (Legende).