Stasi - The Ministry of State Security
People often ask about the legacy of the GDR. Historians of language have a clear answer: The Stasi. This word might be the sole lasting contribution to human culture of the East German state. There were certainly worse dictatorships in both Germany and elsewhere. Nevertheless, it remains unparalleled in its specific mixture of omnipresence and bureaucracy. The Ministry of State Security - officially the "MfS" but more colloquially "the Stasi" - was founded in 1950. Originally part of the Soviet secret services, it soon gained its institutional independence. Working as both a domestic security service and an international intelligence agency, the Stasi also doubled as a police agency and penal authority. Despite many later claims to the contrary, the MfS never established any clear division between these disparate functions. This alone shows the difference between the Stasi and the agencies of a democratic state.
"THE LIVES OF OTHERS"
Study of the Stasi over its forty-year history reveal two opposing tendencies. On the one hand, it became more discreet in the methods which it employed. The Stasi began to assume that a significant proportion of its victims would at some time be moved to the West where they would be able to report about the prison conditions and the methods of interrogation which the Stasi employed. As a result, the MfS was instructed at least to maintain at least the semblance of legality in its operations. On the other hand, the steady increase of resources and funding made available to the MfS resulted in its continual expansion. Erich Honecker - viewed by many in the West as a "reformer" - authorized an increase in recruitment from 43,311 full-time operatives (1970) to over 91,000 by the time of its dissolution in 1990. Much of the public debate has focussed on the some 189,000 Stasi collaborators (Inoffiziellen Mitarbeiter or IMs). Although recent research has shown that there were a number of different categories of IM, not all of whom reported on their social networks, this does nothing to detract from the extent of blanket surveillance to which GDR citizens were subjected.
NOT A STATE WITHIN A STATE
The attempt to portray the MfS as a "state within a state" misunderstands the true character and role of the organization. Conceived as the "sword and shield of the Party," the Stasi reported directly to the SED at all levels and maintained absolute loyalty to its master. This striking degree of submission explains the sudden loss of power experienced by the Stasi in the autumn of 1989. The failure of the SED to respond to the situation rendered its previously omnipotent security arm helpless.
SAVING THE STASI FILES
The regional Stasi headquarters had all been occupied by various "Citizens' Committees" by 4 November 1989. This was followed on 15 January by the occupation of the MfS central headquarters in Berlin. Demonstrators pushed their way into the sprawling complex of buildings in Berlin Lichtenberg and formed an ad hoc committee. Acting with the backing of the Round Table and tolerated by the new government (which was itself trying to dismember the Stasi), the concerned citizens set about finding and preserving the documents, thus beginning the process of understanding and coming to terms with the history of the Ministry.