A story on why Germans are so upset about NSA eavesdropping gives some chilling details about what life was like under East German communism, with the secret police (STASI) paying one out of 50 citizens to inform on their friends and relatives, sending them to years of prison for remarks criticizing the government or expressing other forbidden thoughts. To this day, ex-political prisoners sometimes run into their torturers in the grocery store. It’s also possible to request your STASI file, which lets you see which friend or relative was reporting on you.
Notice how totalitarianism interferes with and corrupts the most basic human relationships.
Officials say Germans are sensitive about the issue because their society is still grappling with East Germany’s Orwellian spying apparatus, which was dismantled upon German reunification in 1990 but whose corrosive effects continue to eat at people’s lives.
The secret police, or Stasi, roped in an estimated 190,000 part-time secret informants and employed an additional 90,000 officers full time — in total, more than one in every 50 adult East Germans as of 1990. East Germans who dared to criticize their government — even to a spouse, a best friend or a pastor — could wind up disappearing into the penal system for years.
In east Berlin sits the former Hohenschoenhausen prison, which was reserved for East Germany’s most politically sensitive cases.
Hubertus Knabe — a West German who smuggled banned books into the East and later discovered that he had been betrayed by a priest who had encouraged him to do so — now has a plate-glass view of the most perilous destination for victims of Stasi surveillance. He is the director of the Hohenschoenhausen prison museum, which is hidden away in a Berlin neighborhood whose rows of imposing apartment blocks still house many former Stasi officers.
Knabe said the consequences of the Stasi’s excesses were far more devastating than anything associated with the NSA. “They forget what it’s like to live in a dictatorship versus a democracy,” he said of people who say that the NSA has behaved like the Stasi.
Former inmates lead tours of the dank, tiny cells in which they were incarcerated, and they say they sometimes run into their old tormenters on the street or at the grocery store.
Many Germans — from both sides of the border, because East German spying reached deep into its sibling country — can request to see the thick files that the Stasi kept on them. More painfully, they can also learn which of their friends or associates collected the information found in those files.