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.