Funder gets lots of responses to her ad in the paper: most of the responders are curious how much money they’ll be paid for their insider account of the Stasi. One caller explains that it’s almost impossible for a Stasi officer to get a job in the new German government. The caller claims to have been an IM—an unofficial collaborator with the Stasi, who reported on family and friends. Nevertheless, Funder isn’t sure that she can offer any money.
Following the collapse of the state, the Stasi are desperate for money—nobody in Germany wants to hire a secret police officer. From Funder’s perspective, however, this is good news—it means that she gets plenty of callers.
Funder describes the offices of a man named Erich Mielke, the Minister for State Security, whose name is still synonymous with the Stasi. Mielke kept tabs on thousands of Germans, and after the collapse of the government, Germans raided his offices in search of “their unauthorized biographies.” Under Mielke, the Stasi became one of the most powerful surveillance forces in history. There were almost 100,000 Stasi employees, with an additional 173,000 full-time informers. Under Mielke, there was one Stasi agent or informant per sixty-three people. Counting part-time informers, it’s been estimated that there was one informer per 6.5 citizens.
In between interviewing individual people, Funder writes about the overall history of East Germany, giving a sense for the scope of the surveillance state. According to Funder, a respectable portion of the total East German population was affiliated with the Stasi in some way, whether as an officer, an employee, or an informer. The Stasi was a huge, bureaucratic organization, with inner and outer circles, and many of its members probably also spied on each other.
Mielke was born in 1907, and as a young man he quickly rose through the Communist Party. During the Nazi years, he fled to Moscow, where he attended an elite training school for Communist officials. After World War Two, he returned to Berlin and worked for the Soviet police. Then, in 1957, he masterminded a coup against the Soviet leadership, and appointed himself Minister for State Security. In the seventies, he organized another coup that resulted in the appointment of Erich Honecker to Secretary-General of East Germany.
Mielke, like most of the leaders of East Germany until 1989, was militarily trained, and used his training to rise to power in 1957. He ran East Germany from behind the scenes—he didn’t have very much ceremonial power, but he controlled the Stasi, the single biggest and most powerful part of the East German state apparatus.
“The two Erichs” ran East Germany for nearly two decades. Honecker was the “face” of East Berlin, and Mielke was in charge of surveillance. Honecker had also attended the Soviet training school, and worked against the Nazis throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Without the Stasi, Honecker could never have maintained his power over East Germany.
Honecker and Mielke were alike in a lot of ways: they were both trained militarily, they were both committed to Communist ideals, and they both believed in the value of a strong, authoritarian state that could control its people through force.
The Stasi headquarters is now full of tourists. Funder listens as a guide explains that demonstrators broke into the building—known as “the House of One Thousand Eyes”—in early 1990. By that time, Funder recalls from her own research, Honecker and Mielke were old men, yet still in excellent health. They spent most of their lives convinced that West Germany was the successor to the Nazi regime. But when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, he began liberalizing Russian society and cutting off ties with East Germany. Without Soviet aid, Honecker and Mielke had no way of fighting off demonstrators. By 1989, East Germany had become more Communist than the U.S.S.R. itself, as the government desperately tried and failed to stave off the liberalization of the Communist states.
It’s a sign of the collapse of the East German state that the Stasi headquarters, once a symbol of government secrecy and impenetrability, is now a public place where thousands of people walk every day. The collapse of the Soviet Union prefigured the collapse of the East German state—without funding and support from Russia, the state became extremely weak, and populist demonstrators were inspired to rise up against their authoritarian leaders. Finally, notice the way the museum guide’s narration of history blends with Funder’s own knowledge of history.
By 1989, the East German demonstrators had become emboldened by news of the disintegrated Soviet state. In Hungary, demonstrators tore down the barrier between their country and East Germany, inviting in tens of thousands of East German citizens, many of whom continued into West Germany. Honecker tried to maintain control by incarcerating demonstrators in Berlin and Leipzig. However, there were so many demonstrators that the Stasi had no way of imprisoning them all. Stasi officers tried to use guns and tear gas on their people, but the demonstrations continued as strong as ever. Toward the end of 1989—the fortieth anniversary of the East German state—Honecker was forced to step down.
In spite of the vast size of the Stasi, they weren’t powerful enough to defeat the massive number of demonstrators and revolutionaries. Over the decades, the East German state had become more and more authoritarian, to the point where many East Germans felt they had nothing further to lose, and chose to risk their lives by standing up to the Stasi. Put another way, the East German state may have failed because it used too many “sticks” and not enough “carrots.”
As a last resort, Honecker’s successor tried to relax travel restrictions between East and West Germany. Within hours of the announcement, East Germans had rushed to the Berlin Wall to cross into West Berlin. The next day, “people from east and west were climbing, crying, and dancing on the Wall.”
The collapse of the Berlin Wall was an important symbol of the end of the Cold War: from hereon out, it was said, there would be peace and brotherhood in the world. But as Funder will show, and has shown already, the legacy of a divided Germany state is still very much alive.