The Deutsche Demokratische Republik was run as a police state, with as many as one-sixth of the population working as internal security, spies, or informants against their neighbors.
The lifeblood of the East German Police State was the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit; colloquially, the "Stasi."
You can tour the old Stasi Headquarters today. It's preserved as the Stasi Museum with a mix of preservation of the old office setup, cold war espionage and security artifacts and gadgets on display, propaganda, accounts of prisoners and rights activists, accounts of resistance action and how goods promoting freedom and democracy were promoted in East Germany, and accounts East German culture.
You can learn lessons from the museum about how the Stasi and related officials kept the government together and kept the population under control:
1. Idealistic moralistic underpinning, given as creed: One of the things that struck me most about the Stasi Museum was a poster with a "10 Commandments of German Socialism" of sorts. It had a mix of requiring you to be good to your fellow man, promote socialism, obey your parents... and be willing "to use all of your resources and energy to combat the enemies of socialism." All of it is painted as paradise coming on, and you must do your part. These were regularly repeated as mantras and creeds.
2. Lack of real ethical insight and discourse: In real ethical discussions, people are forced to think things through from different perspective and get honest debates going. Oftentimes, real ethics require difficult thinking. In false ethical discussions, you repeat slogans without thinking through the implications. East German Intelligence Officials, Security, and Propaganda tried to reduce every decision to an easy one -- support East Germany, support International Socialism, and fight against everyone everywhere else (the capitalists, imperialists, fascists, etc).
3. Threats to state security from mundane places: The places they monitored were "normal" places -- not conspiratorial at all. Many East Germans didn't want to be in East Germany, and didn't want to live under the rule of the oppressive East German government. Knowing that, the Stasi looked to get people who were upset when they were doing daily life -- at school, at the office, and so on. They tried to break up dissent before it could become organized or conspiratorial against them. Once people are being fully cautious and on-guard, they could do a lot of damage against the state. Getting people before they could build the starts of an organization meant they didn't have to fight organized and well-equipped opposition.
4. Sowing distrust among the population: With the high number of informants and security personnel, you couldn't trust anyone. Knowledge is incredibly useful and precious -- and it's very expensive to acquire on your own, and relatively inexpensive to acquire by sharing with like-minded people. The Stasi successfully discouraged a lot of open sharing of information by making people wonder who all the informants are. Honest and open dialogs with free information exchange aren't possible when you can't trust anyone.
5. Equivalency of the government and the nation/people: A German friend explained to me, "Americans are funny. They can love their country but hate their government. Germany is different, we associate the government much more with the country. It's been like that for a very long time, which is what made it easier for the Nazis to gain power, and later for East Germany to function. Americans seem to often distrust authority just because it's authority. It's the opposite here." The East German government certainly actively fostered the opinion that the government was the active embodied will of the nation; that the government was the nation.
6. Stick-based incentives: West Germany rapidly became more appealing than East Germany. More freedom, more wealth, better quality of life, less paranoia, less social control, and so on. East Germans left in droves for the West, which prompted the building of the Berlin Wall. Faced with such a strong incentive to go West, the East German government created incentives not to go: the punishments could be very high. From being shot or killed trying to scale the wall to being imprisoned, losing your job, being blacklisted, and even having your family and friends retaliated against if you left, they tried to create a strong sense that attempting to leave East Germany was a very bad idea.
7. Get people invested and conditioned early: East Germany had a wide variety of "youth organizations" which over 90% of the children wound up joining. They'd start receiving ranks, orders, honors, and awards for behaving appropriately in line with the State's expectations early, which helped condition them to stay as part of the system later. The Party recruited members early and had a high participation rate, which both conditioned people to accept it as normal (even if you disliked it, it seemed incredibly common and you knew many members). And doing it this way made it treasonous to oppose the Party later.
That was the crux of their plans -- create a religious-like set of slogans, discourage honest ethical discourse and instead have people spout creeds, police mundane areas for even minor dissent before it became organized, sow distrust of people among their neighbors, indoctrinate people that the government and officials are the people and nation itself, put a world of hurt on people who try to disagree or dissent, and start signing up young people as early as possible to feel like they're actively participating in the system and part of it.
My German friend's parents escaped from East Germany to the West about six years before he was born. His mother had been imprisoned for two years, and two him stories about prisoners being interrogated, beaten, tortured, and raped -- sometimes for simple dissent against the state, and sometimes even just by having a powerful person who disliked you and was able to set the wheels of East German "justice" grinding on you.
I asked why more people didn't rebel. He shrugged off the question a number of times, but I re-asked different scenarios of looking to overthrow that sort of totalitarianism. Finally he answered:
"People here are cowards. They like rules and want to follow the rules, even if they're stupid or evil. Americans don't understand it, Americans hate being told what to do and don't trust authority. Germans want to trust authority and follow the rules and be good people."
Maybe there's truth in that, or maybe not. But in 1989, the people of East Germany had had enough, and tore down the wall and threw out the Stasi bureaucrats that had ruled them.
Good post, but I disagree on the last part.
The Sovjets declared martial law and used the army to end riots on June 17th 1954.
The state was pretty weakend by 1989 and people already fled the country (via Hungary to Austria) en masse. The fall of the Berlin Wall was much more of a process than an event. The socialist party was pretty weak by 1989 and they changed leadership quite a few times in the preceeding year(s).
Also, about that event specifically: the socialist party issue a new law that allowed people to travel to the West. Günter Schabowski announed this at a press conference at November 9th 1989 towards night time. One of the attending journalists asked "when will this law come into effect?" and Schabowski said somewhat confused "ehhh, I think right now..." (short version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQiriTompdY) which led people to just go the wall and tell the guards that Schabowski said it on TV. The guards made some phone calls to their superiors and let people pass.
It looked so eventfull because it was so spontaneous and so many people went at the same time because they were afraid that it'd be a mistake and the party would just reverse it again.
The law would've come into effect the next day anyway.
Related: check out the movie 'The Lives of Others', it's about Stasi espinonage (in the movie, the Stasi agents bug the appartment of an East-German writer), it's pretty good.
###Chris: actually, Plato and Aristotle didn't favor democracy. Aristotle was more of an aristocrat and Plato conception of a good government would be called totalitarianism today.
Im a German. When I read the second last paragraph I noticed my feelings were really negative at first. I thought "Bullshit". Now I thought it through and it seems as if this might be true. Germans today are still really obedient to social norms and rules. Its reflected in a lot of ways. For example, we have a ridiculous amount of laws and bureaucracy for everything. We have insurances for everything. Seems this whole thing is based on a strong desire for security and predictability. Many people I know absolutely hate change and are not open to discuss topics that would go against what is considered "normal" (Such as eating vegan, never following the news, etc.). Quite interesting, I have never thought about it this way. Personally, Im not like that at all, but I guess its because of an unusual high amount of exposure to international culture, not because Im better or anything. Also the description above sounds very negative, but I think there are a lot of upsides to these characteristics too. Finally, there are huge regional differences to this too. While its generally true for most Germans, there is a huge difference between the conservative Germans from the south (Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria) and lets say, Germans from Berlin. Interestingly, the conservative Germans in the south are by far the most successful in terms of economy.
You have just described the modern American conservative approach to the use of police organizations.
I find it funny how Europe, despite being a hotbed of wars, clashing cultures, and instability has a high number of people who want to obey central authority. The United States on the other hand, being mostly young and stable as a country (besides a few flashpoints here and there), generates all sorts of radical thinkers and dislikes authority.
Of course we in Poland believe that all what happened in Central and Eastern Europe starting with 1989 was inspired
and made possible *only* by the unbreakable Polish will of resistance against the Soviet Union (being, in part, a result of the Polish anarchism), the success of Solidarity, and the rise of first non-communist government in the countries of the Warsaw Pact (with the prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki who had the backing of the then-leader of the nation Lech Wałęsa).
And, according to the belief which is very widespread in my country, that, in turn, could not happen without subtle but dedicated involvement of the pope John Paul II (who was Polish, as you might remember).
Seriously: there might be some truth in the above claims of the Polish ego and some obvious lessons about the "domino effect". Mikhail Gorbachov allowed for some freedom of speech already in 1986. Thus, the Main Oppressor was no longer that bad. He did no longer believe he could shut at people just like that when all the world was watching (though he, for a while, did not hesitate in Afghanistan). And that was enough for countries in which oppression was relatively mild, that is, in Poland (in spite of the martial law of 1981/83) and Hungary (which in 1989 was very different than in 1956). Then the people in more oppressed countries saw the possibility of change, and got hope not only for personal improvement by escape to the West, but also for better times for the whole nations. Thus, the landslide began
and almost everything seemed to be possible...
In addition, as a "classic of Marxism" said (I think it was Lenin), it is not enough for revolution to win that the oppressed classes desperately want a change. It is also necessary that the ruling classes are no longer able to rule as before. And precisely that happened in SU, Hungary, etc.
Liking the return to history posts!
I think to have liberty, you kind of have to have a strong orneryness, bordering on downright irrational truculence, embedded in the cultural DNA.
Here in Sweden, the cultural DNA is obedience and respect toward central authority. People may grumble at the gov't but they don't seriously entertain the notion that they should do anything about it. Because, after all, the gov't knows best.
Thought-provoking stuff. What the Stasi did was evil. But what is rarely discussed is how effective are these techniques of oppression.
The East German government fell because they hesitated to slaughter their people in cold blood at a decisive moment. The Chinese Communist Party endured in 1989 because they had no problem with that.
An oppressive and exploitative ruling class is the natural state of human affairs throughout history. Liberal democracies with individual rights enshrined in a constitution are an abberation, and a fragile one at that. I sometimes wonder how long they will endure before regressing to the mean. Plato and Aristotle both believed that democracies contained the seeds of their own destruction.
Sort of. After the Sino-Soviet split, China was its own center of gravity... the Chinese leadership didn't rely on Moscow, so when Moscow's control over the Warsaw Pact countries weakened, China was largely unaffected.
East Germany was firmly in Moscow's center of gravity... without Russian backing of the government, the country would have fallen over in a hurry. And did, once Moscow stopped intervening with tanks, etc. Trying to crack down in '89 probably would have sparked a violent revolution. I think. But who knows for sure, history is very complicated. But I think this one is more about center of gravity -- Mao, Enlai, etc set Beijing firmly as China's center of gravity whereas Moscow was East Germany's key center of gravity, which made them vulnerable to changes in Soviet Russian policy.
Everyone I know is terrified of air travel.
They have infinite power and zero accountability.
When you're in an airport, you're at the mercy of the people there. If they don't like what you're doing, they can do anything they want to you, and you have no recourse.
I understand the necessity of that coercive power - but such immense power requires immense accountability.
To write a non-fictional book that largely focuses on the actions of two people is very difficult. Often those people will have diaries the author can use but those sources are filled with skewed, glossed over, antidotal views of the world. However, when the two people are an American ambassador and his daughter – William E and Martha Dodd, the collaborating evidence from other diplomats, government cables, other journals, and newspapers allows for a much more supportive literary web. That’s the case with Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts.
In typical fashion for Larson this story focuses on one aspect of some major event and he magnifies how individuals played a role in significant events and does so in a very welcoming narrative tone. The story begins in 1933 when William E. Dodd, an academic, is appointed American ambassador to Germany. He accepts the post with some hope that away from his academic requirements he will be able to finish a book he is writing and to follow Roosevelt's instructions – be a model American. Dodd finds that the later and more difficult was all he had time for.
Dodd arrives with his own car, a limited budget and a mindset towards keeping the embassy and its pursuits pragmatic. This is an era when ambassadors were often independently wealthy and spent that wealth while they were in their appointments. Dodd, like an instructor in school cutting down on notes also criticizes embassy officials for sending diplomatic cables that are too long. He is also there to focus chiefly on one thing, German debt. Again and again his superiors express that he not anger anyone by focusing on other matters such as the “Jew Problem” until the German’s have repaid their financial debts.
If William E. Dodd is the conservative college professor then his daughter Martha is the hard partying sorority sister. Martha takes her passions, men and socializing, from Chicago to Berlin without hindrance from language or culture. She loves a KGB agent who tries to convert her to communism –successfully – and possibly as a spy for Russia – unsuccessfully. Other flings include high ranking members of the German government and even a date with Hitler, though neither reflected positively of the other all while being legally married in New York.
The book also did a wonderful job of recreating the environment in Berlin and Germany at the time. Events that become major moments of history don’t explode like a firecracker, rather they build up slowly like a pot of boiling water. Anyone who cooks can tell you that when a pot boils over you can quickly turn down the heat to reduce the boil but also slowly turn it back up without the boiling over problem. This is what Hitler did. In 1933, six years before Germany invaded Poland the signs were there to those who wanted to look closely that Hitler was dangerous, Germany unstable and Jews in fear for their lives. But each near boil was delayed by a promise, a respite of harassment, or an act of goodwill and observers, inside and out, thought Germany to be a safe place. Larson does an excellent job of explaining those boiling increments from the point of view of those in Germany.