Dennis & Laporte, Stasi

Mike Dennis and Norman Laporte,
The Stasi: Myth and Reality

(London, Longman, 2003), 269 pages

Book essay by Noah Kircher-Allen
March 13, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany since 1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2006

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About Noah Kircher-Allen (back to top)

I am a senior majoring in Global Studies, with a focus on Socioeconomics and Europe. I have always been interested in Europe, have traveled it somewhat extensively, and have lived and worked in Paris for the better part of two years. Prof. Marcuseís course is the first I have taken in detailed German history. In the context of modern themes of domestic spying, I wanted to research the East German Secret Police (the Stasi) and its impacts on the East German history.

Abstract:Stasi logo

In The Stasi: Myth and Reality, Mike Dennis investigates, through historical records, the rise, maintenance, and fall of the East German Ministry of State Security (also known as the Stasi). Through his exhaustive research, Dennis questions the actual omnipotent power of the organization, and explores how deeply the Stasi penetrated society and everyday life.

The Stasi appears to be a legacy of Stalinist style totalitarian agencies mixed with a passionate dedication to denazification. Their army of informants was seduced and coerced into cooperating, but did not reflect the attitude of all East Germans. The Stasi, while succeeding in amassing large amounts of data on the population it observed, ultimately fostered a general feeling of dissatisfaction within the GDR. The following essay investigates these ideas in further detail.


Essay (back to top)

The Confused Octopus: The Stasi in East Germany

In The Stasi: Myth and Reality, Mike Dennis investigates, through historical records, the rise, maintenance, and fall of the East German Ministry of State Security (also known as the Stasi). Through his exhaustive research, Dennis questions the actual omnipotent power of the organization, and explores how deeply the Stasi penetrated society and everyday life. To look into the mechanics of the Stasi is to look into a complex system of co-existing organizations and ridiculous bureaucracy. The Stasi is often compared to an octopus with its tentacles wrapped around every level of government and society. This reader feels that this metaphor somewhat oversimplifies the complexity of the Stasi.

Through reading Dennisís book, I hoped to answer some questions concerning the Stasi and its workings. First, I hoped to figure out how such an organization came to exist and maintain itself. Secondly, I wished to gain further insight into the Stasiís legendary army of informants: What were their motivations, and how did this reflect societal feelings on the whole? Lastly, I wished to know what sort of effects the Stasiís operations had on public opinion and the eventual unification of the two Germanies. While I gained much insight to my first two questions, the third was not so directly addressed in the book, and allowed me to do some critical analysis of my own. The Stasi appears to be a legacy of Stalinist style totalitarian agencies mixed with a passionate dedication to denazification. Their army of informants was seduced and coerced into cooperating, but did not reflect the East German attitude as a whole. The Stasi, while succeeding in amassing large amounts of data on the population it observed, ultimately lent itself to a general feeling of dissatisfaction within the GDR. The following paragraphs will investigate these ideas in further detail.

The most notable aspect of the formation of the GDR and its agencies is the heavy involvement of the Soviets, and their selection of leaders to head the newly formed government. From the get go the GDR was enormously intertwined with the Soviets. By 1943, expelled KPD members in Moscow, under close supervision of Soviet officials, began to organize what they hoped would be a post-war German order. Stalin style KPD party purges, which had begun as early as the thirties, continued into the post-war period, and left a small group of Soviet-acceptable candidates for leadership. These leaders, such as Ulbricht and Pieck, were undyingly loyal to Stalin and the Soviet agenda. While the ultimate goal of these leaders was to create a Soviet-style government, the parties involved knew that a smooth transition would be necessary so as not to provoke too much dissatisfaction, and possible protest, among the people they wished to rule. Central to a campaign that the KDP, later the SED, wished to conduct, was a police agency, or ministry to ensure smooth transition and little dissent: the Stasi.

The Stasi, at least in principle, finds its roots within para-military organizations of Weimar Germany: secret organizations that believed in securing a communist state by any means necessary. Under the international communist movement of the interwar period, it was thought that a secret apparatus was needed to manage and observe communist movements in various countries in Europe. In Germany, the Nachrichtendienst, or N-Group, was the part of this German secret apparatus that was responsible for gathering information. N-Group not only spied for the Soviets, but also helped Stalin purge the KPD of dissenters. While the N-Group provided a legacy that the Stasi was to follow, the major and more logistical predecessor of the Stasi was the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD), which more or less assumed the duties of a secret police directly after the defeat of Hitler and oversaw the creation of various agencies to monitor and control the populace. By 1949, the SMAD and Moscow decided upon the creation of a Ministry, not responsible to the GDR parliament, but to the KGB, and ultimately Moscow. The recruits to this organization were often young, blue-collar idealists, and older party members who had suffered under the Nazis. Through this combination, the Stasi viewed themselves as the sword and shield of the SED, ready and willing to do whatever necessary to ensure the survival of the party and its rule. The Stasi was then able to hunt down ex-Nazi sympathizers, Social Democrats, and party-dissenters in an effort to cleanse society of those who might jeopardize the SEDís rule.

One of the main advantages of the Stasi in the beginning was the ambiguity surrounding its tasks and power. When one investigates who exactly it was answerable to, and what exactly its limits in power were, one immediately finds oneself caught in a web of bureaucracy that is almost impossible to untangle even today. This is personified by Erich Mielke, the J. Edgar Hoover of the Stasi. Mielke, who became the head of the Stasi in 1958, became its unrivaled leader until the fall of the Wall in 1989. Mielke, a hard-line communist and close friend (later enemy) of Ulbricht, at times seemed to be merely the sword and shield of the SED, but at other times bumped heads with major party leaders and did as he pleased. This is why the Stasi has also been called a "state within a state". The Stasi often appeared almost as a separate entity from the GDR, doing as it pleased, and sometimes checking in with the central government. This sheds some light on how the Stasi came to be, and operate, on a top-down perspective, but what was the fuel that ran its engine?

The Stasi is legendary for its ability to amass enormous amounts of minute personal data on an enormous number of East German citizens. This was made possible by the virtual army of informants that the Stasi controlled. But it was not the information from these informants that ran the Stasi engine, but their very existence. By the mid-1980s there was roughly one Ďunofficial collaboratorí per 120 East German citizens (Dennis 94). This is absolutely ridiculous, and almost represents a society continuously spying on itself. The constant purge and arrest of dissenters throughout the history of the GDR was widely based on information received from these informants. These arrests were a constant reminder that there were eyes and ears everywhere. The knowledge of this made the fear to dissent greater, and made it less attractive to speak out against or even protest the government.

But surely there were not 1 in 120 East Germans who strongly believed in the SED agenda, and did not enviously look to their brothers in the West. Then why was the Stasi so capable of recruiting such vast numbers of informants? Dennis breaks the motivations of these: "unofficial collaborators" into five areas (Dennis 97):

  • political and ideological conviction
  • coercion and fear
  • personal advantage
  • emotional needs
  • desire to influence official policy

The first, political convictions, refers to those East Germans who truly believed in a socialist state. The second refers to those informants who were coerced through trumped up charges and threats into spying. Personal advantage motivated those who were offered spots in universities or monetary awards. The fourth, emotional needs, has to do with a small minority who felt more important, or honored, at being asked to spy. Lastly, those, such as pastors or slight dissidents, who wished to push their own agenda through strategic informing, were also attracted to collaborating with the Stasi. Given such wide range in motivation, it is hard to imagine that the amount of spying going on reflected any one general sentiment within the society. It has often been suggested that it is this army of informants that gave the Stasi their omnipotent power.

Dennis argues that this is often overestimated. Citing many cases, he points out that many potential collaborators were able to duck out of responsibility and avoid working with the Stasi. He points out that many East Germans were able to exhibit their incompetence in secretive spying to get out of collaborating. For example, possible subjects would invite their family members to sit in on secret meetings with Stasi agents, or would brag to neighbors that they had been asked to collaborate. These examples, in conjunction with the mixed motivations behind these informants, show that the Stasi was not as far reaching in East German society and did not reflect popular views as is often believed.

So what effect did all these operations have on German public opinion? Dennis spends numerous chapters writing about the emergence of sub-cultures and other opponents to the SED and their co-operations with the Stasi. It is this readerís opinion that overall the Stasi actually fostered more sour feelings towards the existing government. Through spying and repression, the Stasi actually created many underground movements, such as the Skinheads and Punks (examples of sub-cultures), and further fomented dissenting feelings amongst religious groups and political opponents. While they were somewhat successful in squelching any public dissent of individuals, the Stasi, especially in the eighties, exasperated and aided in the growth of underground movements.

In the later years, the Stasi was attempting to spy on numerous entirely different types of potential dissenters under the outdated nomenclature of counter-revolutionaries. Dennis points out that while the Stasi was amazingly able to compile large amounts of information on thousands of East Germans, they were almost incapable of processing any of it. By the end, they were out of touch with East German society, so much so that they didnít even foresee the fall of the Wall. Their inability to properly understand what was happening, specifically in the eighties, most likely aided and fed the dissention that was rapidly growing. As the Stasi was ridiculously out of touch with dissention groups, especially youth groups like the Punks or Skin-heads, their attempts to infiltrate these groups became ridiculous and obvious, further fueling general feelings of angst. In addition, their vast spying, and public awareness of it, bred distrust in the government, which eventually erupted in November 1989. So, it could be stated that the Stasi indirectly aided the fall of the East German government in the later years. The Stasi allowed, through its tactics, political dissatisfaction within East Germany to grow almost exponentially.

In conclusion, the Stasi was an amazing organization whose legacy is still felt in modern Germany today. It was an integral part of the GDR; and through studying its formation, involvement of civilians, and effects, one can gain insight into the inner workings and failures of the GDR.


Bibliography and Links (back to top)

Reviews of Dennisís Book:

  • McLellan, Josi. "The Stasi: Myth and Reality" The English Historical Review 120.486 (April 2005): 565-566
  • "The Stasi: Myth and Reality." Contemporay Review 284.1660 (May 2004)

Additional books on the Stasi:


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Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.


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