The Discreet Charm of Communist Spies

A little tour through the nerve center of the East German Secret Police

One of the most fascinating sights in Berlin is mentioned only in passing in most tourbooks. It’s the former headquarters of the Ministerium für Staatsicherheit (Ministry for State Security), the former East German secret police. Called "Stasi" in German, the ministry employed almost 100,000 people to care for the security of the State, which also meant monitoring the population, using techniques that Orwell could only have dreamed of.  Including body-odor samples…

Using an excruciatingly well-defined protocol (they’re Germans, after all), Stasi agents would break into the homes of vacationing or working dissidents, impregnate a piece of cloth with the dissident’s body odor, and preserve it in a sealed glass jar. When they became interested in whom the dissident was meeting with, they took a German shepherd, gave it the scented cloth, and let it hit the trail. The genius of this method was that they could follow the dissident’s trail hours after he had walked it, using plain-clothes agents who just appeared to be walking friendly little Bello. When they couldn’t get a body-odor sample, they would have someone walk past the dissident on the street and discreetly spray hormones from female dogs in heat onto the dissident’s clothing, using a discreet ankle-level apparatus. Even hours later, a randy male dog would be able to follow this most compelling of scent-trails.

The headquarters, located in the Normannenstrasse in former East Berlin, is an unremarkable example of Plattenbau, the ubiquitous prefabricated pebble-brick building style to be found all over the former East. As former East Germans realized that their government was collapsing, they gathered around the complex and demonstrated. Finally, they broke in and occupied the building. After a short period of ransacking and destruction, leaders took over formed a "Citizen’s Committee," secured the documents, and sealed important rooms for history. To this day, the building has been kept almost exactly as it stood in 1989 – complete with red carpets, busts of Marx and Felix Dzerzhinski, and propaganda posters. There’s even a Traditionsstätte, a two-room exhibition displaying evidence of the loyal service of the secret police to the Land of Farmers and Workers, as East Germany once called itself. One of the exhibits displays "fascist hate-mail" from Amnesty International to various East German prisons, politely requesting that political prisoners be treated humanely.

Unfortunately, all the exhibits are in German. Someone with more time than me should volunteer to translate them, because this complex is a fascinating insight into modern German history. Until then, I offer this excerpt from a book called Das Ministerium für Staatsicherheit: Anatomie des Mielke-Imperiums (The Ministry for State Security: Anatomy of the Mielke Empire) by David Gill and Ulrich Schröter, two former East German citizens who were instrumental in helping to dissolve the Stasi and maintain its archives. Mielke is a reference to Erich Mielke, who led the Stasi for more than 30 years. One of the most famous quotations in recent German history is his speech before the East German People’s Chamber on November 13, 1989. The State was collapsing, and Mielke was desperately trying to justify his more than 30 years’ service spying on his own countrymen. In response to jeering, he exclaimed "Ich liebe euch doch alle, jawohl alle Menschen" ("But I love all of you, I love all humans!"). They laughed bitterly. Mielke was sentenced to 6 years in prison in 1993, but was not required to serve the time because of his deteriorating health.

Of course, the Stasi controlled publishing in East Germany. Books which were to appear there had to get a license, which meant being subjected to censorship. Here’s a priceless example of it, found on page 159 of the book:

As an example of the censorship is Siegfried Herrmann’s book "History of Israel in Old Testament Times." In the East German edition, the achievements of the modern state of Israel were suppressed. . . . Absalom, who rebelled against his father King David, was renowned for his flowing mane – "an impressive contribution to the picture of the typical revolutionary personality" – a remark found in the West German edition, which was stricken from the East German one. Another portion of the book reported how Nehemiah, in 445 B.C., rebuilt a portion of Jerusalem’s destroyed City Wall. Approvals had to be obtained; bureaucratic know-how, and of course connections were necessary "to convince the relevant authorities and get the necessary papers, without which even in those times nothing could be done." Tellingly, the continuation of this phrase was removed from the East German edition: "A people who have experienced occupation and pro-consuls, of whatever type, knows all about this!"