One day in September 1987, the phone rang at the headquarters of the Volkspolizei, East Germany’s police force, in the town of Döbeln, not far from Dresden.
On the other end of the line was the voice of an unknown man.
“Good evening. I have some information for you. Grab a pen!”
“Ms. Marianne Schneider is traveling on Wednesday, Sept. 14, to West Berlin for a visit. She doesn’t intend to return.”
“And who are you?”
“You would like to remain anonymous?”
“What is the basis for your information?”
“She said so, to her closest friends.”
Then, the mysterious caller hung up. And Marianne Schneider* had a problem. Officials immediately revoked her travel permit and began monitoring her phone and mail in addition to questioning her neighbors and friends.
This story is one of spies and informers of the kind that were largely ignored by historians of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) until recently — because they were spies and informers that were not connected to the Stasi, as East Germany’s feared Ministry for State Security was popularly known. Instead, they were totally normal citizens of East Germany who betrayed others: neighbors reporting on neighbors, schoolchildren informing on classmates, university students passing along information on other students, managers spying on employees and Communist bosses denouncing party members.
Up to now, the broad network of so-called “unofficial informants” (IMs) maintained by the Stasi has dominated the popular view of East Germany’s surveillance state. Files full of IM reports became indispensable sources for Stasi victims, politicians, historians and journalists who sought to learn more about either their own personal pasts or about DDR spying practices.
By contrast, audio tapes belonging to the Volkspolizei were largely ignored, as were written testimonials from almost every area of East German society. Government agencies, political parties, associations, companies, universities, cultural institutions: Everywhere, people reported incriminating information about those around them.
Hedwig Richter, a professor at the University of Greifswald, speaks of a “stunning reporting machinery.” Wide swaths of society were a part of it, she says. “There were institutionalized structures outside of the Stasi that produced daily and weekly reports.” Whether in city hall, at the steel factory or inside the local farming collective: “Everyone who had a position with some measure of responsibility filed reports” for the state, Richter says.
Since the 1989 collapse of the communist regime, thousands of these documents have been gathering dust in the archives of Eastern German states, in the former headquarters of former East German political parties and in the basements of universities and agencies. Now, though, they are being systematically analyzed by historians and have thus far revealed the degree to which permanent surveillance was a significant part of everyday life in East Germany. Eavesdropping and informing on neighbors and colleagues was completely normal for many — even without pressure from the Stasi and its notorious leader Erich Mielke
Viewed with Suspicion
A significant portion of the denunciations had to do with plans to flee East Germany, particularly people who had permits to travel to the West and who had no intention of returning. But the smuggling of hard currency and excessive consumption of alcohol also caught the eye of observant DDR citizens. Receiving packages from the West was likewise viewed with suspicion — and those who were assigned an apartment or car more rapidly than others were often targeted for revenge by envious neighbors. Even extra-marital affairs were reported.
“Guten Tag. I would like to make a report,” says a voice in one telephone recording. “It’s about Mr. …. He is constantly receiving visitors in his apartment, often different women, likely also some from the West.”
In the 25 years since German reunification, such daily denunciations have been almost completely ignored. Indeed, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, those who made them were able to simply disappear. Whereas unofficial Stasi informants (IMs) were carefully documented, such that they often lost their jobs following post reunification checks performed by government agencies, schools and universities in Eastern Germany, informal moles were almost never confronted with their past actions and the file folders they helped fill.
Furthermore, squealing on others was not strictly an East German specialty either. West German residents also called up DDR officials to inform on East German citizens — when they were planning an escape, for example.
One caller from West Berlin, for example, reported that he had a good friend in East Berlin and that he “didn’t want to tattle on her, for God’s sake.” But then he went on to say that she has “connections to escape organizations” and wants to flee to the West to join him. He said that he “really likes her.” But apparently he liked her better behind the Wall. He concluded by saying he would welcome assistance in the matter.
A further West German informant, who called the East four times, likewise had a problem relating to cross-border love. Her ex-husband, she reported, wanted his East German lover to join him in the West — a plan that the calls likely nipped in the bud.
Plenty of Options to Choose From
Jealousy, though, was not the only motive for West German informants. It was a principle that made one woman from Dortmund, for example, reveal the names and addresses of DDR citizens who were planning to flee to the West. She said she had no understanding for the fact that “foreigners, but also East Germans, want to take away our jobs.”
A West German businessman, for his part, offered his services as an informant during a convention in Leipzig. “I would like to give you a tip pertaining to the smuggling of pornography into the DDR. Write down the following: … was a former DDR resident who has since emigrated to West Germany. The smuggler is currently in Leipzig.”
“With whom am I speaking?”
“I would rather not say, of course. This is a small payback because he badly harassed me and talked very poorly of your country. This is a bit of revenge!”
Informants from the West and the East had plenty of options to choose from when it came to passing along sensitive information. The Stasi, which had several phone numbers listed in the East German phone book, was just one of them. The secretary of the local party organization was also a good contact person, as was a labor union secretary.
The list of potential informants was long. Almost every apartment building in the DDR maintained a kind of superintendent (known as a “Hausbuchbeauftragter”) who kept notes on who visited whom and when. In total, this group included around 2.1 million people, and many of them were willing to share their information. The Volkspolizei also had around 173,000 “voluntary helpers.” In addition, school directors, heads of youth organizations belonging to the “Free German Youth” (FDJ), election helpers and factory heads were also part of the army of potential informants.
Richter, the historian from the University of Greifswald, focused on the municipality of Löbau, in Saxony, in an effort to determine just how well East German officials were informed. She found that weekly reports compiled by the municipal council included information about which pastor had made loyal or critical comments, what books they had in their apartments and tensions within their congregations. One report even included a note from a member of the local party leadership that “multiple schoolgirls have received packages from West Germany in the mail in recent days.”
But it wasn’t just members of the governing SED party that provided information. Functionaries from the Christian Democratic Union — the existence of which was tolerated by East German officials — also took part in the rampant denunciations. And it wasn’t necessary to turn to the Stasi, which many found threatening and sought to avoid. A simple conversation with a local political leader or factory manager was easy enough to arrange — and the less formal atmosphere made it more comfortable to share sensitive information about colleagues or neighbors.
From Kindergarten to Old Age
No matter where one shared information, the state would put it to use. The East German reporting system kept track of the country’s citizens from kindergarten, throughout their working lives and even into retirement, via the Volkssolidarität (“People’s Solidarity”) organization, which focused on caring for the elderly. It was part of developing a “socialist personality.” Some began practicing denunciations in childhood, as part of the Young Pioneers, and then as teenagers as part of the FDJ. Files were even kept on schoolchildren: “Wears Western clothes,” “exhibits affinity for punk music,” “demonstrates pacifist attitudes.”
Mutual evaluation, judgment, criticism and self-critique were omnipresent. Across the country, people were on the lookout for divergent viewpoints, which were then branded as dangerous to the state. Often to one’s own advantage.
The losers of this system often didn’t know why their lives suddenly became derailed. After the fall of the Wall, many of them looked for clues in their Stasi files. They wanted to understand why, for example, they were not given a spot in university, why their professional careers suddenly hit a roadblock or why their travel permit was revoked at the last minute. And many were surprised when they found no information at the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic (BStU), the agency that continues to administer East Germany’s Stasi files today.
Explanations, however, can be found in documents kept in the archives of political parties, factories and universities. There, one learns that skipping a Russian-language class, making an ill-considered comment at the student union or exhibiting a persistent lack of the “proletarian point of view” can all lead to ex-matriculation — which had profound consequences for a lifetime.
FDJ collectives compiled reports on secondary school students, which were then used when it came time to assign jobs and spots at university. Such reports were a part of the structural oppression imposed from above on the entire population. The system was also present in so-called “Volkseigene Betriebe,” as East Germany’s state-owned enterprises were called.
Historians point to this finely woven web of surveillance as an explanation for East Germany’s surprising stability — a stability that hardly could have been achieved by the Stasi alone. “The omnipresent opportunities for denunciation,” says Hedwig Richter, “fueled the most important disciplinary mechanism: self-censorship.” An important element thereof, she adds, was the fact that East Germans also informed on one another, even without being asked and without any legal obligation to do so. “By sharing such information, East Germans hoped to avoid potential problems and misunderstandings in the future,” Richter says. Plus, it was a way of demonstrating loyalty: “By exhibiting such individual initiative, people legitimized the government’s surveillance needs. Via their proactive obedience, these people contributed to their comprehensive observation and participated in the surveillance state.”
Many More Informants
The system made it simple for the state to determine who needed to be punished and who deserved a reward. Such as after each election, when non-voters were mentioned by name in the reports filed by polling station helpers.
Historians haven’t yet been able to say for certain how many East German citizens offered their services as informants. The majority declined to do so. But it is a certainty that there were many more informants than the 180,000 IMs maintained by the Stasi in the final years of East Germany’s existence.