Old West Berlin and the Stasi

Coming up on 9 November of this year is a significant anniversary, namely 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Coupled with that will be all sorts of related 20-year commemorations: of the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia, the fall of Ceausescu in Romania, etc., but also the end of West Berlin as a very unique enclosed outpost of the West in the middle of Communist-controlled territory. Writing in Die Zeit, Wolfgang Büscher wonders whether it wasn’t all just some bizarre dream:

Was there really a West Berlin – this walled-in, haunted city? Sunk into the past twenty years ago, she is to us today as distant and fantastic as the Moon.

Nice, but Büscher’s aim is ultimately not to wax lyrical about his forgotten West Berlin, as we can see from his piece’s simple title: “City of Spies.” Or, if you prefer, Operationsgebiet (“operations area”), West Berlin’s designation in the files of the East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or Stasi, the infamous East German secret police.

For it turns out that the Operationsgebiet was a veritable playground for the Stasi during the entire period back when there existed ideologically-hostile West and East Berlins. This shouldn’t be so surprising, though, if you think about it. One the one hand, West Berlin was a completely-enclosed area right at hand, in fact right next to what became the East German capital. And on the other, the Stasi was known to be very good at its job. Anyone who knows anything about what the DDR (“German Democratic Republic”) used to be like knows about the 100,000 or so inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (“unofficial co-workers,” or IM) the Stasi managed to plant among the East German population – basically police-spies tasked with reporting on anyone who expressed dissent, seemed planning to flee the country, and the like. This could be your child’s teacher or your neighbor (in fact, it probably was one of your neighbors) – it could even be your husband or wife.

It follows that the Stasi were just as effective in planting their IM inside of West Berlin, where their spying activities were of course of a somewhat different nature, having more to do with undermining the West Berlin government (and by extension that of West Germany, or the Federal Republic of Germany). Supposedly by the time the Wall fell there were from 800 to 1,000 of them in place, an impressive total both in itself and also when you consider they constituted about a quarter of IM/spies that the Stasi had working against West Germany all together. Now, twenty years and more later, and working together with other historians and experts to take advantage of data from the Stasi’s recovered files, Wolfgang Büscher can give us an initial summary of the extent and nature of the Stasi infiltration of West Berlin, in a somewhat-longish Die Zeit article and its accompanying “click-to-enlarge” map.

(Be advised, though, that the map is mostly useless. The print accompanying the variously-colored dots-with-circles is too small to read comfortably, even if you understand German, and anyway it’s supposed to denote places/institutions in the city that were infiltrated by Stasi IM. What’s the point of that, of putting a red circle on, for example, “U.S. Army Roosevelt Barracks”? We need more detail – was there someone there working for the Stasi who was really an “insider,” and if so, precisely in what capacity? Or was there just a bum with a camera constantly standing watch outside?)

Spies: From Bums to Highly-Placed Politicians

That “bum with a camera” is hardly an exaggeration; according to Büscher many of the IM in West Berlin were basically that, what he calls “barefoot IM,” generally pensioners deployed by the Stasi just as “observers of premises” (Objektbeobachter), armed with notebook and pencil and maybe a camera to record whatever they thought might be important. One report still in the files, for example, notified the East German spy-chiefs that male attendees at a leftist-militant meeting were wearing “jeans-pants”! Pathetic, yes, but unfortunately the IM also succeeded in pulling off rather nastier feats, and Büscher’s article lists a few:

  • First, the more minor but vicious accomplishments, like the IM who passed through the Wall to visit East Berlin on a one-day pass (remember, posing as a West Berlin citizen), and used that limited time well to befriend a doctor over there who was willing to reveal to this “West Berlin visitor” his plans to escape across the Wall with his family – which information the IM of course then passed on to the Stasi. Or those who did their duty as IM in West Berlin for a while but then were mysteriously able to get back through the Wall to the East, where they gave press conferences denouncing the “neo-Nazi activity” they claimed to have witnessed over in the West.

  • In 1981 one IM managed to divert to his East German masters the personnel files of 35,000 (!) employees of the West Berlin Senate and Verfassungsschutz (the latter basically functioned as an anti-crime and -subversion intelligence organization, like the FBI).

  • Then there was William Borm, working for the Stasi all the time, who nevertheless succeeded in becoming Chairman of the Berlin local government (Landesvorsitzende) during the 1960s. He also managed to become something like president pro tem (Alterspräsident) of the West German lower house of Parliament (the Bundestag); his more-important speeches there, Büscher tells us, were written for him by Stasi-Chief Markus Wolf. Borm was also on record in the seventies as being highly critical of the Ostpolitik which the successive West German governments of Willy Brandt and then Helmut Schmidt pursued to lower tensions with the Communist bloc and with East Germany in particular; he said that that policy’s ultimate end could only be reunification of the two German states, which would gravely threaten world peace (and, indeed, that was the East German party line).

  • Even more spectacular was the case of Karl-Heinz Kurras – not any highly-placed politician, but rather the West German police officer known to have fired the shot on June 2, 1967, which, during a student demonstration against the visit to West Berlin by the Shah of Iran, killed the 26-year-old Benno Ohnesorg (whose last name, ironically, means “without care” in German; yes, I guess that, after he expired, he was). It was Ohnesorg’s death that June evening that enraged and radicalized the entire West German student movement and led to much political ferment (and demonstrations, and riots, particularly in West Berlin) thereafter. In other words, this Kurras guy was like the National Guard soldiers who shot the students at the Kent State massacre of May 4, 1970. Yet his name was not really “Kurras”; in truth he was “Otto Bohl,” a Stasi IM somehow inside the ranks of the West Berlin police.

Finally, there is the matter of Tag X, or “X-Day,” that Büscher briefly discusses, namely that day in the future when West Berlin would be “liberated” from its decadent capitalist government by a Soviet/East German military invasion. You can be sure that the Stasi was well-prepared for that, frighteningly so in fact (but remember, we’re talking about Germans here, after all), although this did not really involve the IM cohort already there. Rather, for each West Berlin district the Stasi had prepared a roster of Stasi officers and their subordinates who would take over just as soon as the tanks had moved on and get started doing their Stasi thing: arrests, interrogations, etc. Major Z. with 44 men takes over in Charlottenberg, Major L. with 41 men in Kreuzberg, etc. (Does Kreuzberg get less personnel because it was already known to be a particularly left-leaning district? Why would that matter after an invasion?) These lists were constantly updated, and they existed and were ready for implementation all the way up to the demise of the East German regime. What better reminder to us all of the fundamental reason why American, British, and French troops as well as local militarized police units stood guard there in West Berlin from the end of the Second World War through the Fall of the Wall (and even beyond, actually, until the last foreign troops marched out in September, 1994)?

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Comments are closed.