The popular 2006 film The Lives of Others portrays communist East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) as a grim Orwellian regime of totalitarian surveillance, where secret police in headphones sit hour after hour listening in on people’s most private lives. It is often claimed that in East Germany one in sixty people (or 1 in 20, or 1 in 9) were informants. The very word Stasi—referring to the state security agency—has entered discourse as the synonym for omnipresent surveillance.
But the East German state archives are now available to researchers and it is possible to have relatively precise information about the extent of surveillance in East Germany. This information simply does not support the image of a state in which everyone is watching everyone and the state is watching all.
The claims of Stasi surveillance are based on the beliefs that 1) Stasi agents were pervasively bugging and listening to people’s private lives, and 2) a fantastic proportion of the general population were spying on their friends and neighbors, even their own spouses.
East Germany had a population (in the late 80s) of about 16.5 million. Of these, 174,000 were listed in the Stasi archives as “informants”. This amounts to about 1 person in 94, but the number is misleading.
- Many of these informants had merely answered questions for security clearance and background checks. It should be kept in mind that background and security clearance checks are very common in the US and other western countries, and many Americans have answered questions in such interviews.
- 80% of informants were listed as providing general information, such as about events, public opinion, etc.
- Only 2% (or 1 in 4125) were involved in observing people.
- It is noteworthy that about a third of those contacted for information refused to do so, and generally no penalty was applied to them. This would seem to imply that people were not that afraid.
- Also note that in the entire forty-one year history of East Germany only about 600,000 people are listed as ever knowingly providing information of any sort to the Stasi.
A better idea of the intensity of surveillance can be had by looking at the numbers of Stasi agents actually involved in such surveillance. Surveillance in those days was labor intensive, and the numbers of agents assigned to surveillance tasks would indicate actual surveillance capabilities.
- The Stasi had in the late 80s about 91,000 employees. However, many of these were support personnel such as janitors, cooks, and clerical staff. Internal surveillance was not actually the major part of Stasi activities, which had a wide range of responsibilities including border control, protecting high officials, guarding sensitive sites, providing security clearances, and gathering foreign intelligence.
- About 1418 agents worked undercover domestically in the late 80s. Many of these were detailed to watch foreign diplomats and visitors.
- Only about 430 agents were directly involved in telephone taps and room bugging. A good deal of this was directed at foreign embassies and missions and people suspected of being foreign agents. There were tens of millions of phone calls and 10 million visitors from West Germany each year in the late 80s.
- Only about 530 agents had tasks related to opening mail. Much of this involved controlling international mail for smuggling and proscribed items. Only about 1% of 30 million packages sent into East Germany each year were opened by the Stasi.
All of this simply does not add up to the picture of the omnipresent spy state painted by anti-communist propaganda.
Reference: A. Murphy, The Triumph of Evil, 2000.