Seen by the State
Walking through the Stasi Museum while watched by the NSA
On January 15th, 1990, East Germans forced their way into the Ministry of State Security, better known as the Stasi. The government of East Germany, known as the DDR, was coming to its end. The people were not harmed in overrunning the offices of the Stasi, and they didn’t kill anyone, but nearly 40 years of oppression was over that day. The weight of the state’s gaze was thrown off by an angry populace. Everyone was simply done. The Stasi headquarters, once home to the most terrible secret police force of the Cold War, is now a museum in Berlin. I went there with an American friend who works in internet security.
We’d both spent the last few months trying to cope with what Snowden revealed, trying to figure out how to keep people safe in an ever shifting landscape we hadn’t known we lived in.
We’d finished meetings in Berlin. It was the only sight we got out to see.
It took us a while to find the Stasi. The ministry is a set of normal buildings in a normal neighborhood. There was a confused family arguing in a doorway around the corner from the old ministry, and a café across the street. Life goes on around it, just as it always did.
Despite the horse race elections, manifestos, and movements, the truth is most of the time for most people, political systems don’t mean much. For all activists and politicians see excitement and power in their bloodsports, most people, and probably the healthier sorts, prefer to get on with their lives regardless of who’s in charge. They spend their time with family and meeting friends for coffee and trying to understand what makes a good life. And it is these people, not the power players, who keep us fed and warm in winter and give us the soft curve of a ceramic cup in hand, who make the memory and fabric of a place. It is details and human labor that give the name of home to the cities and towns that earn that name inside of people. Society is mostly built away from power, by the politically distant and ideologically vague.
What politics and ruling systems do to the lives of normal people they do slowly, like eroding stone or rusting iron. And they can go on that way, seeming like forever, until one day they crumble or snap.
The Stasi offices were not opulent. Each room contained simple furniture and little more. A single painting, usually something pastoral, adorned each room. Even Minister of State Security Erich Mielke’s office, Room 101, was plain, matching blue chairs for Mielke and his guests. According to author Anna Funder, Mielke renumbered the offices so that his could be 101, as a reference to Orwell’s 1984. The book was banned for the average citizen, but Mielke would have had access to it. Mielke, with the organization for so long, seems to have understood what it was.
The only physical hint left that bad things happened in these plain wood panel rooms was the occasional door with heavy padding on it. Everything was modest and functional in keeping with the class identity they were created and promised to protect, the working class as expressed by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, known as the SED. The Stasi’s motto was: The sword and shield of the SED.
The museum allows anyone the Stasi had a file on to come in and see it. A middle-aged Finnish activist my friend and I had had drinks and shisha with a week earlier told us she’d gone after the wall fell and got out her file and read through it. I didn’t ask what was in it. It seemed an odd question. What business was it of mine? Fewer and fewer Germans have anything to read about here.
The younger and immigrant people have no connection to this place. They are logged elsewhere now, places as yet unopened.
Beyond the records, there is a rotating exhibits area on the first floor. Memorabilia, pictures and equipment sit in cases on the floors above, and the clean and preserved offices of the Stasi higher-ups and generals.
There is clear joy in the equipment of the Stasi. It’s gorgeous and creative. If you were in 1960s East Germany and you loved engineering and puzzles and mystery, the Stasi was probably your best bet. The Stasi surveillance gadgets were ingenious and lovely little devices: cameras that looked like buttons, recorders built into watches and tie clips.
Junction boxes and wall plugs that were really radios, listening as attentively as a new lover, broadcasting the sounds and words of your ephemeral life back to the immortality of the Stasi record keeping. The Stasi, above all, and in too many ways, preserved everything they could about their beloved DDR.
I’m not sure the Stasi broke the law very often. Like the NSA today, the law was mostly with them. They had a job — protect the SED — and they did it the best they could. They built all manner of clever recorders. They drilled holes in everything so they could put recorders in the objects of normal life.
As I wandered around the museum I imagined East Berlin as any city in the 1970s and 1980s, except pocked with tiny swiss cheese holes everywhere, like the little distinctive flaws you come to love in anywhere that takes you in for long enough.
The Stasi worked with their own citizenry to do their job, too. Many records were destroyed, but estimates put the number of collaborators between 174,000 and 500,000.
We don’t yet know of many individual collaborators in the American surveillance state. Mostly we know of vast, impersonal corporations that collaborate with the NSA. We know of one person who is not a collaborator: Ladar Levison, founder of Lavabit. He received a court order to collaborate, but shut down his business instead. He is in court still fighting the consequences of defying that court order.
We are told by museum placards that very few of the East German collaborators had to be coerced. Probably even fewer of them were ever useful one way or the other. The Stasi had a lot of data coming in, most of it meaningless. As decades passed, it all became normal, part of life in the DDR.
Even as the Stasi grew to 91,015 employees in the late 1980s and tapped and collaborated and arrested and managed the DDR as best it could, none of this could stop the coming collapse of Communism. With hindsight it’s obvious all the spying in the world, inside or out of the country, couldn’t have stopped what was coming, not that way. But they didn’t know that then, and neither did we.
I remember the DDR and the USSR in the media when I was a kid. There was some disagreement about how politics worked and we were going to blow up the world over it. I remember being told if the other side won our way of life would be destroyed. I wasn’t entirely sure what our way of life was, to be honest. I was trying to survive my own life, which was hard enough. I didn’t want to die in a nuclear fire. I liked my cats and the local birds and my bits of ocean, and its dolphins and the forests north of my home, and I really didn’t want them all to die in a nuclear fire. To think about that made me much more wretchedly sad than the thought of dying myself.
It was very important to my father that I be anticommunist, so sure, I was. He’d been shot at in Vietnam to stop communists, and that was important. But I also quickly realized that my dad had no more idea what Communism was than I did. As an adult, I came to realize we didn’t know what Capitalism or Democracy were either. Just that it seems sometimes two big things in the world end up facing off, with all the smaller things they are made of mostly trying to get along with their lives.
Back in Berlin, and now, long after the fall of the Iron Curtain, I thought about my phone as we wandered around the corridors. It was telling my minders that I was visiting the museum. It is my indispensable little spy. The Stasi would recruit an informer in every apartment building, have an agent working at every factory. People knew it and lived with it.
I don’t carry a purse, so I keep my little informer in my pocket. I briefly wondered if it could tell the NSA (or BND in this case, but I imagine they share) what room I was in at any given moment, or only that I was at Stasi headquarters.
I don’t know that the Stasi did anything wrong, given what they were asked to do. I don’t know that they were very corrupt. They were strict — no tolerance of LOVEINTs here. They were careful and thorough. I do know that they were evil: actual, post-modern-theories-will-not-get-you-out-of-it evil. They crushed and corroded their people for 40 years, until those people unequivocally destroyed them, exposed them, laid their asses as bare as the people could manage. Made the Secret Police Headquarters into a goddamned public museum.
But the Stasi didn’t know that was coming for them when they made their society into a nightmare. I don’t know how they could have known when they started. I know that these East Germans were asking themselves if they were doing their jobs well when they should have been asking whether they should be doing their jobs at all.
It worries me that no one in power has asked whether what the NSA does is good or evil, only whether it is legal. It worries me because the law works as well when it is evil as when it is good. It is the job of the people who make society to guide that law, or overrun it when it turns evil.
After three floors I’d had as much Stasi as I could take for a day.
“Do you think we’ll live to see the NSA turned into a museum?” I asked my friend. She looked thoughtful. “I don’t know,” she replied, and we went to get coffee.
All pictures from the Stasi museum, taken by Quinn Norton, unless otherwise noted.