The Stasi and its Foreign Intelligence Service

Apr 30, 2010

Workshop at the Wilson Center | Workshop at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

The German Historical Institute in Washington DC commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of East Germany (German Democratic Republic or GDR) with a variety of events. In 2009, a lecture series "GDR - what remains? East German Legacies in German History" and three conferences were organized: one on the East German economy during the twentieth century, a second - in cooperation with the Wende Museum in Los Angeles - on material culture and daily life in the GDR, and a third conference on the strategic and political implications of the collapse of the communist regime. Gerry Livingston, senior research fellow at the GHI Washington, suggested an additional event on the history of the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA), the foreign intelligence service of the GDR, arguing that East Germany's history could not be understood without an analysis of its repression and surveillance institutions, including the Ministry of State Security (commonly known as the Stasi) and its foreign intelligence service. Concerned that focusing exclusively on the Stasi and its legacy might lead to a one-dimensional idea of GDR history, we decided to integrate Stasi history into the context of broader GDR history. In organizing this workshop, the GHI found a strong and experienced partner in the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center. The four conveners in cooperation with Benjamin Fischer planned a program of four panels and a keynote lecture. Each session combined American and European scholars who were asked to give short presentations, which generated intensive discussions of different approaches and perspectives. Additionally, the event was open to an expert audience, including some active members of the Western intelligence services.

The workshop began with a public event held at the Goethe-Institut Washington. More than one hundred people came to watch The Lives of Others, German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Academy Award-winning movie from 2006. In his introduction, GHI Deputy Director Uwe Spiekermann lauded the actors' performances and the film's efforts to create an authentic atmosphere. From the perspective of historical research, however, he noted, the movie presented several questionable narratives, above all, the ahistorical figure of Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler and the social life of the Stasi representatives. In contrast, the distinguished film historian David Bathrick focused on the film's authentic aura and its appeal to a broad audience, which has prompted many to learn more about GDR history and memory. Historical "errors," he argued, must be evaluated in reference to the complex narrative structure of a movie - which is fundamentally different from historical analysis. Bathrick's comment was followed by a long and intense discussion about GDR and Stasi heritage. Nearly seventy people spent more than four hours at this event discussing such crucial topics of contemporary German history.

All the other workshop panels took place at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The first panel, "The Stasi and East German Society," followed words of welcome by Uwe Spiekermann and Christian Ostermann. Jens Gieseke, tracing the arguments of his path-breaking volume Staatssicherheit und Gesellschaft: Studien zum Herrschaftsalltag in der DDR (2007), presented a subtle analysis of the interactions of Stasi, SED state, and society. Criticizing the myth of an omnipresent Stasi, he provided detailed insights into East German everyday life and ordinary people's images and perceptions of the organization. Ordinary citizens, he argued, knew both the limits of the dictatorship and their own powerlessness. Awareness of the Stasi shaped a specific form of social life that was tied to a long tradition of submission and should not be glorified as relative freedom in a "niche society." Gary Bruce supported this line of argument with results from his case studies on the two Brandenburg districts of Gransee and Perleberg. There, the Stasi worked effectively only with the support of broader parts of the local population. Denunciation was a form of participation in a dictatorship, especially during the early, formative phase of the GDR. Like Gieseke, Bruce emphasized the historical tradition of close interaction between society and intelligence services. In spite of extreme differences, both the Stasi and the Gestapo worked in an active and reactive way to gather information and win limited trust from society. In his comment, David Bathrick, who personally experienced Stasi observation, endorsed both presentations as part of a necessary historization of the Stasi. A comparative long-term perspective, he argued, would not only sharpen our understanding of the Nazi and the GDR dictatorships but also identify structural changes in the relationship between state institutions and society. As the number of people who were under surveillance grew in the 1970s, more subtle forms of repression were employed. The lively discussion focused on questions of periodization, the limits of comparisons, the unity of GDR's society, and the changing nature of interactions between the Stasi and society.

The second panel, "The Stasi, the SED, and the GDR State," was introduced by Walter Süß, who gave a precise overview of the history of the Stasi. The intelligence service was defined as the sword and shield of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), the GDR's communist party. It was to be a ruling force for the country, loyal to its political leadership. Trained in the tradition of the Soviet intelligence service, its double loyalty to the GDR and the Soviet Union caused many problems during the formative period. In addition to problems of professional standards, such conflicts led to the dismissal of early Stasi ministers Wilhelm Zaisser (1953) and Ernst Wollweber (1957). Under the leadership of Ernst Mielke, the Stasi was dominated by the SED, even though the scope for development was widened during the Honecker era. While Süß concentrated on long-term changes in Stasi-SED relations, Jefferson Adams analyzed the self-definition and self-perception of the East German intelligence service. Ninety percent of Stasi personnel were members of the SED and defined themselves as a cadre of the communist state. They established advanced forms of Traditionspflege, or the cultivation of traditions, honoring both the achievements of the Soviet Cheka-tradition and the successes in establishing a socialist German state. The collapse of the GDR was a deep disappointment for most Stasi officers, who were outraged, first of all, by the SED.

The plenary sessions of the morning were enriched by Konrad Jarausch's keynote lecture "The Stasi Legacy in Germany's History." He criticized the notion that GDR society was completely dominated by the Stasi and called for demythologizing the Stasi. According to Jarausch, the Stasi mystique was a crucial element of power in the GDR, allowing for rule by fear rooted in both knowledge and the lack thereof. By generating insecurity and uncertainty, the Stasi stabilized SED rule and ensured that the majority of the population would be obedient. After the end of the SED regime, "de-stasification" was a crucial issue in the East German citizens' movement, and the preservation of most Stasi files was one of its greatest successes. Although the files allow a nuanced analysis of the organization's role in establishing and protecting a communist regime, it is clear that it had not infiltrated every realm of everyday life as has often been maintained since 1989. In his lecture, Konrad Jarausch advanced a different view. The poisoned legacy of the Stasi had enormous private costs: broken friendships, the knowledge of betrayal, and general distrust. The GDR was not a gigantic prison, but a place where the relationship between state and society was negotiated day by day, with serious social and cultural consequences. Such interaction and its consequences should be the key question on the research agenda, which should also include the historicization of the Stasi, the transformation of the Stasi Records Authority into a "normal" archive open to all scholars, and comparative studies of East and West, as well as Germany's democratic, communist, and National Socialist regimes.

The second half of the workshop was dedicated to the role of the Stasi in international relations. Paul Maddrell opened the third panel, "The HVA, the KGB, and the East," with a paper analyzing the changing relations between the East German and the Soviet intelligence services. Both services were deployed as weapons in the Cold War, and they used infiltration and subversion, and exploited the large amount of migration to Western countries. At least until the erection of the Berlin Wall, the relation between the two organizations was a hierarchical or even colonial one, causing a crisis of identity on the German side. Later, the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA, the Stasi's foreign intelligence branch), became ever more emancipated from the Soviets, and became quite successful at collecting information on political, economic, and military issues. Mainly interested in military information, the KGB used the HVA as a tactical tool in the Cold War. It utilized HVA information to instigate several political scandals in Western countries, but could not bring about major political change in West Germany. However, structural problems in the planning system limited the use of economic information because some things could not be voiced. Both the KGB and HVA grew rapidly, which changed their identity from the 1970s. Intensified activities resulted in big successes in developing countries, but these successes did not contribute to structural changes necessary for the survival of the communist regimes.

Douglas Selvage offered a detailed empirical analysis of the cooperation between the HVA and the other Eastern-bloc intelligence services during the Helsinki Process from 1972 to 1989. Based on the Stasi's Sira database, he was able to show which GDR institutions received what kind of information, how the HVA's information exchange with other Eastern-bloc intelligence services worked, and what the results of the HVA's special relations with the KGB were. Ben Fischer characterized the HVA as a first-class intelligence service characterized by "Slavic ruthlessness and Teutonic efficiency." He gave precise information on the size, targets, methods, and techniques of East Germany's foreign intelligence services, which amounted to no less than 80 percent of all the intelligence forces of the Warsaw Pact. He also analyzed Western countermeasures. In his comment, former KGB general Oleg Kalugin stressed the immense size of the KGB (nearly 500,000 employees) and the Stasi (more than 100,000). He described top Stasi officials Erich Mielke and Markus Wolf as "pragmatic idealists" who wanted to create a new West German society and lived in a "world of dreams."

Such assessments were subject to considerable debate in the last panel on "The HVA and the West." Dirk Dörrenberg, former director of counterespionage and protective security at the West German Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, claimed that West German intelligence was well informed about the structures and targets of Eastern espionage and was, therefore, with few exceptions, quite successful in protecting crucial information, especially military and economic secrets; there was "no effect at all," no destabilization of the FRG, and no harm to West German industry. Dörrenberg also stressed the differences between the HVA and the West German intelligence services, mainly the lack of legal control. Georg Herbstritt, by contrast, characterized the HVA as one of the most successful intelligence services of the twentieth century. He called for a detailed analysis of the different time periods. Although the HVA's work was not affected by the erection of the Berlin Wall, the deep social and cultural changes in both German societies that accompanied this event made it more and more complicated to place spies in the West. In the late 1970s, HVA chief Markus Wolf himself judged the HVA's activities as too slow and not flexible enough. Although 1982 was celebrated internally as the most effective year of the HVA's work, stagnation and even decline marked the 1980s. Therefore, Stasi frustration and disillusion were part of the peaceful revolution of 1989. In the panel's final paper, Kristie Macrakis presented the results of her research on scientific and economic espionage. She advocated a nuanced view of the HVA's work: numerous small successes could be listed, but in the long run this did not help the East. The power of scientific secrets was overestimated because scientific progress was increasingly the product of large-scale research and development focused on small improvements rather than big scientific breakthroughs. Commonly used definitions of "success," she argued, must therefore be called into question.

In sum, the workshop discussed a highly political topic in a serious and analytical manner. Nearly all participants agreed on the need to historicize and demystify the Stasi. To this end, historians must integrate the role of the intelligence service into a broader perspective. One thing that is needed is a social history of the Stasi that focuses on the interaction of the Stasi, state, and society in a "participatory dictatorship." More generally, it is necessary to transform the history of intelligence from a niche topic of a handful of specialists into an integral part of the history of international and transnational relations.

Uwe Spiekermann (GHI)