Are Germany’s Intelligence Agencies and the Stasi Totally Different?

By Stephen Gowans

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel “has defended German cooperation with the National Security Agency program, called Prism, and rejected any comparison between it and the invasive methods used by the Stasi, the secret police of East Germany’s Communist government.”

“The work of intelligence agencies in democratic states was always vital to the safety of citizens and will remain so in the future,” Merkel said. “For me, there is absolutely no comparison between the Stasi in East Germany and the work of intelligence services in democratic states.” The programs are “two totally different things.” (New York Times, July 11, 2013)

Note that Merkel doesn’t deny that Germany’s intelligence apparatus, in collaboration with the NSA, spies on German citizens—only that its spying is vital for public safety. By implication, East Germany’s snooping was not. She invokes democracy’s halo to justify the police state methods of democratic states (if it’s done by a democracy, it must be good) while drawing a distinction with communist states (if it’s done by a communist state, it must be bad.)

At least Merkel has gone so far as to admit that Germany does what East Germany used to do—spy on its own citizens. Western politicians used to pretend that liberal democracies didn’t do that kind of thing (though there was plenty of public record evidence they did.)

Of course, Merkel can’t say that German secret policing is Stasi-like, at least, not in its intent, because the Stasi has long been held up by anti-communists as a sui generis—a totalitarian monstrosity that could only exist in a communist society. Germany’s surveillance activities, Merkel contends, are on an elevated (democratic) plane; they’re “vital to the safety of citizens.” The Stasi, presumably, concerned itself with baser things.

However, it’s clear that all states are concerned with preventing terrorist bombings, hijackings, assassinations, and so on—terrorist activities which endanger the public and disrupt the smooth functioning of the system. This was as true of the GDR as it is of any other state.

But the definition of public safety can be very wide, and states invariably place an equal sign between “public safety” and “the established order.”

The exodus of young, working-age and skilled East Germans to the West—encouraged by the West German government—threatened the viability of the GDR’s established order, and much of the GDR’s political policing involved measures to stanch the bleeding of human capital.

West Germans who identified with the GDR and were sympathetic to its political project represented a potential fifth column which the West German secret police operated to contain and disrupt.

And yes, there was a West German equivalent to the Stasi. It was built on the foundations of Hitler’s secret police, whose operatives were recruited from the ranks of former Gestapo personnel, and which used informants, buggings and mail openings to spy on, harass and disrupt the activities of people with left-wing political views, just as the Stasi did against people who threatened the viability of the anti-Fascist workers’ state.

In the view of those entrusted with preserving West Germany’s capitalist order within the orbit of US hegemony, communists and GDR-sympathizers were threats to public safety.

The scope of secret police activities is proportional to the technology available and the severity of the threat to be contained and disrupted. The threat posed to East Germany by the larger, richer West Germany and its powerful patron, the United States, was many times greater than the threat the smaller, poorer, East Germany posed to the West—a GDR whose backer, the Soviet Union, could offer fewer resources than the United States could offer West Germany. (Not only was the Soviet Union a less affluent backer, after WWII, it carted away from its occupation zone in Germany anything of value, and East Germany disproportionally bore Germany’s costs of indemnifying the USSR for the latter’s war losses.) Accordingly, the demands on a secret police function in the GDR were much greater.

To West Germans who had no strong leftist leanings, the secret police were invisible, but their existence was always clear and menacing to the country’s communists and militant socialists. The fact that the BfV, West Germany’s political police, was part of a “democratic” state made it no less intrusive and threatening than was the Gestapo to Germans who held the wrong political views.

So, are Germany’s secret police and the Stasi two totally different things, as Merkel contends? Not in kind, but they are in degree—though the difference in degree is not in the direction Merkel would care to acknowledge. The surveillance apparatus of Germany’s unified democratic state has a more intrusive access into the private lives of its citizens than the Stasi ever had or could have had.

9 thoughts on “Are Germany’s Intelligence Agencies and the Stasi Totally Different?

  1. Victor Grossman! I recognized your name immediately. I actually just started reading your book. It’s really fascinating so far. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. I’ve developed a fascination with the DDR for some reason; as you can see my icon thingy is a DDR coat of arms. Other books about East Germany I’d recommend to others are Markus Wolf’s book, “Man Without A Face” and “Missing Marx” by Peter Marcuse. I think people who try to compare the DDR with utopia are going to be very disappointed, but when you compare it against the U.S. it starts to look pretty good depending on what your values are – and realizing what the socialist countries were able to accomplish while under constant attack and attempts at subversion by the West.

  2. Although the author mentioned this, I think the topic of the origin of Germany’s security apparatus deserves some more detail:

    The German federal intelligence agency is called the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND).

    The service was founded during the Cold War, in 1956 by former Wehrmacht General Major Reinhard Gehlen, who directed it until 1968, when he retired.

    Before its formal constitution, Gehlen ran an informal outfit, with Allied consent, known as the Gehlen Organization, which eventually provided the cadres for the BND.

    During WW2 Gehlen headed the branch of German Army intelligence in charge of Eastern Europe, responsible for counter espionage, counter insurgency and suppression of partisans in the occupied territories and espionage in the URSS. Those areas are notorious for the propensity to abuse of human rights, as we have witnessed in our own times.

    They also recruited anti-Soviet volunteer armies to fight, mostly against the Soviet, but also in the Western front.

    Although Gehlen himself was never accused of war crimes, and for all I know he was clean, he notoriously recruited all sorts of former Nazi operatives with relevant experience, largely from the SD (Sicherheitsdienst) and SS.

    I reiterate: although Gehlen himself was probably clean, I doubt a man with his antecedents had a strong commitment to democracy. And I also doubt he didn’t leave any footsteps in the organization he created.

    If I had to search for links between the BND and totalitarian repressive organizations, I would not neglect that.

  3. Reblogged this on The Communist Scientist and commented:
    Another great article by Stephen Gowans; albeit most people who peruse are too young or too estranged from European politics to even know what he is talking about, the message is clear: capitalism is no less invasive of its subject’s privacy than any Communist “big brother”: it just has better-sounding excuses.

  4. Victor. I’ve read and enjoyed Crossing the River and have followed your writings in MRZine and Morning Star with appreciation. Thank you.

  5. Dear Stephen Gowans,
    I am a US-American living in East Berlin since the 1950’s (after deserting he US Army because of McCarthy-era pressures (or dangers). I became a journalist and writer, and have been irregularly sending articles on German developments to N America for some years – also on this subject (which I also wrote about it in my autobiography,”Crossing the River”, U of Mass Press). I must thank you for clearly and convincingly exposing the hypocritical BS which has been prevailing for so many years. Without my approaching a declaration of love for the Stasi, their motives were very clear (and the very fact that the man in charge of foreign intelligence, Marcus Wolf, was the son of an anti-fascist (Jewish) refugee and anti-fascist writer, while his opposite number, Gehlen, was a top Nazi general with a staff of SS men) makes the case even clearer). Congratulations and more power to you! Victor Grossman

  6. I can’t now recall where I read it, but the level of sabotage, activism, counterintelligence, and violence perpetrated on East Germany by the west was astonishing. Train derailments, factory slowdowns, electrical systems failures to disrupt power plants and dams, adding soap to powdered milk destined for children’s schools, killing livestock, burning crops, and the list goes on, apparently anything to demoralize the people and destabilize the economy. What was East Germany supposed to do? Sit back and let their country be destroyed? Allow their people to be physically harmed or killed? Compared to western imperialism, the Stasi was absolutely tame in its response.

    But then I don’t really understand the thinking of anti-communists. I always want to ask capitalists point blank “do you simply hate the poor and the working class, or the idea of equality, or are you just a greedy bastard and exploitation doesn’t bother you.” It’s infuriating.

Leave a Reply to Prole Center

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s