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TEDSalon Berlin 2014

Hubertus Knabe: The dark secrets of a surveillance state

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Tour the deep dark world of the East German state security agency known as Stasi. Uniquely powerful at spying on its citizens, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the Stasi masterminded a system of surveillance and psychological pressure that kept the country under control for decades. Hubertus Knabe studies the Stasi — and was spied on by them. He shares stunning details from the fall of a surveillance state, and shows how easy it was for neighbor to turn on neighbor.

- Historian
Hubertus Knabe studies the history of torture, oppression and surveillance in former East Germany. Full bio

This year, Germany is celebrating
00:12
the 25th anniversary of the peaceful revolution
00:14
in East Germany.
00:17
In 1989, the Communist regime was moved away,
00:19
the Berlin Wall came down, and one year later,
00:23
the German Democratic Republic, the GDR,
00:27
in the East was unified
00:31
with the Federal Republic of Germany in the West
00:33
to found today's Germany.
00:35
Among many other things, Germany inherited
00:39
the archives of the East German secret police,
00:42
known as the Stasi.
00:47
Only two years after its dissolution,
00:50
its documents were opened to the public,
00:52
and historians such as me started
00:56
to study these documents
00:59
to learn more about how the GDR surveillance state
01:01
functioned.
01:05
Perhaps you have watched the movie
01:07
"The Lives of Others."
01:10
This movie made the Stasi known worldwide,
01:12
and as we live in an age where words
01:17
such as "surveillance" or "wiretapping"
01:19
are on the front pages of newspapers,
01:23
I would like to speak about how the Stasi
01:25
really worked.
01:28
At the beginning, let's have a short look
01:31
at the history of the Stasi,
01:33
because it's really important for understanding
01:35
its self-conception.
01:38
Its origins are located in Russia.
01:41
In 1917, the Russian Communists founded
01:44
the Emergency Commission for Combating
01:46
Counter-Revolution and Sabotage,
01:48
shortly Cheka.
01:51
It was led by Felix Dzerzhinsky.
01:53
The Cheka was an instrument of the Communists
01:56
to establish their regime by terrorizing the population
02:00
and executing their enemies.
02:03
It evolved later into the well-known KGB.
02:06
The Cheka was the idol of the Stasi officers.
02:12
They called themselves Chekists,
02:15
and even the emblem was very similar,
02:18
as you can see here.
02:21
In fact, the secret police of Russia
02:24
was the creator and instructor of the Stasi.
02:28
When the Red Army occupied East Germany in 1945,
02:31
it immediately expanded there,
02:35
and soon it started to train the German Communists
02:37
to build up their own secret police.
02:41
By the way, in this hall where we are now,
02:44
the ruling party of the GDR was founded in 1946.
02:47
Five years later, the Stasi was established,
02:53
and step by step, the dirty job of oppression
02:56
was handed over to it.
02:59
For instance, the central jail
03:02
for political prisoners,
03:04
which was established by the Russians,
03:05
was taken over by the Stasi
03:08
and used until the end of Communism.
03:10
You see it here.
03:14
At the beginning, every important step
03:15
took place under the attendance of the Russians.
03:19
But the Germans are known to be very effective,
03:23
so the Stasi grew very quickly,
03:26
and already in 1953, it had more employees
03:29
than the Gestapo had,
03:33
the secret police of Nazi Germany.
03:34
The number doubled in each decade.
03:37
In 1989, more than 90,000 employees
03:40
worked for the Stasi.
03:43
This meant that one employee
03:45
was responsible for 180 inhabitants,
03:47
which was really unique in the world.
03:50
At the top of this tremendous apparatus,
03:54
there was one man, Erich Mielke.
03:57
He ruled the Ministry of State Security
04:01
for more than 30 years.
04:03
He was a scrupulous functionary —
04:05
in his past, he killed two policemen
04:08
not far away from here —
04:11
who in fact personalized the Stasi.
04:13
But what was so exceptional about the Stasi?
04:17
Foremost, it was its enormous power,
04:21
because it united different functions
04:24
in one organization.
04:28
First of all, the Stasi
04:30
was an intelligence service.
04:32
It used all the imaginable instruments
04:35
for getting information secretly,
04:38
such as informers, or tapping phones,
04:40
as you can see it on the picture here.
04:43
And it was not only active in East Germany,
04:46
but all over the world.
04:49
Secondly, the Stasi was a secret police.
04:52
It could stop people on the street
04:56
and arrest them in its own prisons.
04:58
Thirdly, the Stasi worked
05:03
as a kind of public prosecutor.
05:04
It had the right to open preliminary investigations
05:07
and to interrogate people officially.
05:10
Last but not least,
05:14
the Stasi had its own armed forces.
05:16
More than 11,000 soldiers were serving
05:20
in its so-called Guards Regiment.
05:22
It was founded to crash down protests and uprisings.
05:25
Due to this concentration of power,
05:30
the Stasi was called a state in the state.
05:32
But let's look in more and more detail
05:37
at the tools of the Stasi.
05:40
Please keep in mind that at that time
05:42
the web and smartphones were not yet invented.
05:44
Of course, the Stasi used all kinds
05:48
of technical instruments to survey people.
05:51
Telephones were wiretapped,
05:54
including the phone of the
German chancellor in the West,
05:56
and often also the apartments.
06:00
Every day, 90,000 letters were being opened
06:03
by these machines.
06:07
The Stasi also shadowed
tens of thousands of people
06:10
using specially trained agents and secret cameras
06:14
to document every step one took.
06:17
In this picture, you can see me
06:21
as a young man just in front of this building
06:23
where we are now, photographed by a Stasi agent.
06:27
The Stasi even collected the smell of people.
06:30
It stored samples of it in closed jars
06:35
which were found after the peaceful revolution.
06:38
For all these tasks, highly specialized departments
06:43
were responsible.
06:47
The one which was tapping phone calls
06:49
was completely separated
06:51
from the one which controlled the letters,
06:53
for good reasons,
06:56
because if one agent quit the Stasi,
06:57
his knowledge was very small.
07:02
Contrast that with Snowden, for example.
07:04
But the vertical specialization was also important
07:08
to prevent all kinds of empathy
07:11
with the object of observation.
07:13
The agent who shadowed me
07:16
didn't know who I was
07:18
or why I was surveyed.
07:20
In fact, I smuggled forbidden books
07:22
from West to East Germany.
07:24
But what was even more typical for the Stasi
07:27
was the use of human intelligence,
07:30
people who reported secretly to the Stasi.
07:33
For the Minister of State Security,
07:37
these so-called unofficial employees
07:39
were the most important tools.
07:42
From 1975 on, nearly 200,000 people
07:45
collaborated constantly with the Stasi,
07:50
more than one percent of the population.
07:53
And in a way, the minister was right,
07:58
because technical instruments
08:00
can only register what people are doing,
08:02
but agents and spies can also report
08:06
what people are planning to do
08:09
and what they are thinking.
08:11
Therefore, the Stasi recruited so many informants.
08:13
The system of how to get them
08:18
and how to educate them, as it was called,
08:21
was very sophisticated.
08:24
The Stasi had its own university,
08:27
not far away from here,
08:30
where the methods were explored
08:31
and taught to the officers.
08:33
This guideline gave a detailed description
08:36
of every step you have to take
08:39
if you want to convince human beings
08:42
to betray their fellow citizens.
08:44
Sometimes it's said that informants were pressured
08:48
to becoming one,
08:52
but that's mostly not true,
08:53
because a forced informant is a bad informant.
08:56
Only someone who wants to give
you the information you need
09:00
is an effective whistleblower.
09:03
The main reasons why people
cooperated with the Stasi
09:05
were political conviction and material benefits.
09:10
The officers also tried to create a personal bond
09:16
between themselves and the informant,
09:19
and to be honest, the example of the Stasi shows
09:22
that it's not so difficult to win someone
09:28
in order to betray others.
09:31
Even some of the top dissidents in East Germany
09:34
collaborated with the Stasi,
09:38
as for instance Ibrahim Böhme.
09:40
In 1989, he was the leader of the peaceful revolution
09:44
and he nearly became the first freely
elected Prime Minister of the GDR
09:46
until it came out that he was an informant.
09:51
The net of spies was really broad.
09:56
In nearly every institution,
10:00
even in the churches or in West Germany,
10:02
there were many of them.
10:05
I remember telling a leading Stasi officer,
10:07
"If you had sent an informant to me,
10:11
I would surely have recognized him."
10:14
His answer was,
10:17
"We didn't send anyone.
10:18
We took those who were around you."
10:20
And in fact, two of my best friends
10:23
reported about me to the Stasi.
10:26
Not only in my case, informers were very close.
10:30
For example, Vera Lengsfeld,
another leading dissident,
10:32
in her case it was her husband who spied on her.
10:36
A famous writer was betrayed by his brother.
10:40
This reminds me of the novel "1984" by George Orwell,
10:44
where the only apparently trustable person
10:48
was an informer.
10:51
But why did the Stasi collect all this information
10:54
in its archives?
10:57
The main purpose was to control the society.
10:59
In nearly every speech, the Stasi minister
11:03
gave the order to find out who is who,
11:06
which meant who thinks what.
11:09
He didn't want to wait until somebody
11:12
tried to act against the regime.
11:13
He wanted to know in advance
11:16
what people were thinking and planning.
11:18
The East Germans knew, of course,
11:21
that they were surrounded by informers,
11:23
in a totalitarian regime that created mistrust
11:27
and a state of widespread fear,
11:31
the most important tools to oppress people
11:34
in any dictatorship.
11:37
That's why not many East Germans tried
11:39
to fight against the Communist regime.
11:42
If yes, the Stasi often used a method
11:46
which was really diabolic.
11:51
It was called Zersetzung,
11:54
and it's described in another guideline.
11:56
The word is difficult to translate because it means
11:59
originally "biodegradation."
12:02
But actually, it's a quite accurate description.
12:06
The goal was to destroy secretly
12:09
the self-confidence of people,
12:13
for example by damaging their reputation,
12:16
by organizing failures in their work,
12:19
and by destroying their personal relationships.
12:22
Considering this, East Germany
was a very modern dictatorship.
12:27
The Stasi didn't try to arrest every dissident.
12:32
It preferred to paralyze them,
12:37
and it could do so because
12:40
it had access to so much personal information
12:42
and to so many institutions.
12:46
Detaining someone was used only
12:50
as a last resort.
12:52
For this, the Stasi owned 17 remand prisons,
12:55
one in every district.
12:58
Here, the Stasi also developed
13:00
quite modern methods of detention.
13:03
Normally, the interrogation officer
13:07
didn't torture the prisoner.
13:09
Instead, he used a sophisticated system
13:13
of psychological pressure
13:15
in which strict isolation was central.
13:17
Nearly no prisoner resisted
13:22
without giving a testimony.
13:24
If you have the occasion,
13:27
do visit the former Stasi prison in Berlin
13:29
and attend a guided tour
with a former political prisoner
13:33
who will explain to you how this worked.
13:36
One more question needs to be answered:
13:39
If the Stasi were so well organized,
13:42
why did the Communist regime collapse?
13:45
First, in 1989, the leadership in East Germany
13:49
was uncertain what to do against
13:53
the growing protest of people.
13:55
It was especially confused
13:58
because in the mother country of socialism,
14:01
the Soviet Union,
14:03
a more liberal policy took place.
14:05
In addition, the regime was dependent
14:08
on the loans from the West.
14:11
Therefore, no order to crash down the uprising
14:14
was given to the Stasi.
14:17
Secondly, in the Communist ideology,
14:20
there's no place for criticism.
14:23
Instead, the leadership stuck to the belief
14:26
that socialism is a perfect system,
14:28
and the Stasi had to confirm that, of course.
14:31
The consequence was
14:35
that despite all the information,
14:38
the regime couldn't analyze its real problems,
14:40
and therefore it couldn't solve them.
14:44
In the end, the Stasi died
14:47
because of the structures
14:50
that it was charged with protecting.
14:52
The ending of the Stasi
14:55
was something tragic,
14:57
because these officers
14:59
were kept busy during the peaceful revolution
15:01
with only one thing:
15:05
to destroy the documents
15:07
they had produced during decades.
15:09
Fortunately,
15:13
they had been stopped by human rights activists.
15:15
That's why today we can use the files
15:18
to get a better understanding
15:21
of how a surveillance state functions.
15:23
Thank you.
15:26
(Applause)
15:28
Bruno Giussani: Thank you. Thank you very much.
15:36
So Hubertus, I want to ask you a couple of questions
15:42
because I have here Der Spiegel from last week.
15:45
"Mein Nachbar NSA." My neighbor, the NSA.
15:48
And you just told us about my neighbor,
15:52
the spies and the informant from East Germany.
15:55
So there is a direct link between these two stories
15:58
or there isn't?
16:01
What's your reaction as a
historian when you see this?
16:03
Hubertus Knabe: I think there are
16:05
several aspects to mention.
16:06
At first, I think there's a difference
16:08
of why you are collecting this data.
16:11
Are you doing that for protecting your people
16:15
against terrorist attacks,
16:18
or are you doing that for oppressing your people?
16:19
So that makes a fundamental difference.
16:22
But on the other hand,
16:24
also in a democracy, these
instruments can be abused,
16:26
and that is something where we really have
16:31
to be aware to stop that,
16:33
and that also the intelligence services
16:34
are respecting the rules we have.
16:37
The third point, probably,
16:40
we really can be happy that we live in a democracy,
16:42
because you can be sure that Russia and China
16:45
are doing the same,
16:49
but nobody speaks about that
16:50
because nobody could do that.
16:52
(Applause)
16:54
BG: When the story came out first,
17:01
last July, last year,
17:03
you filed a criminal complaint
17:05
with a German tribunal. Why?
17:08
HK: Yeah, I did so because of
the second point I mentioned,
17:11
that I think especially in a democracy,
17:14
the rules are for everybody.
17:17
They are made for everybody, so it's not allowed
17:21
that any institution doesn't respect the rules.
17:23
In the criminal code of Germany, it's written
17:27
that it's not allowed to tap somebody
17:29
without the permission of the judge.
17:31
Fortunately, it's written in
the criminal code of Germany,
17:33
so if it's not respected, then I think
17:37
an investigation is necessary,
17:41
and it took a very long time that
17:43
the public prosecutor of Germany started this,
17:45
and he started it only in the case of Angela Merkel,
17:47
and not in the case of all the
other people living in Germany.
17:50
BG: That doesn't surprise me because —
17:53
(Applause) —
17:56
because of the story you told.
17:58
Seen from the outside, I live outside of Germany,
18:01
and I expected the Germans to react
18:04
much more strongly, immediately.
18:05
And instead, the reaction really came only
18:09
when Chancellor Merkel was revealed
18:11
as being wiretapped. Why so?
18:13
HK: I take it as a good sign,
18:17
because people feel secure in this democracy.
18:19
They aren't afraid that they will be arrested,
18:23
and if you leave this hall after the conference,
18:25
nobody has to be afraid that the secret police
18:28
is standing out and is arresting you.
18:31
So that's a good sign, I think.
18:33
People are not really scared, as they could be.
18:35
But of course, I think, the institutions
18:38
are responsible to stop illegal actions
18:42
in Germany or wherever they happen.
18:45
BG: A personal question,
and this is the last one.
18:48
There has been a debate in Germany about
18:51
granting asylum to Edward Snowden.
18:53
Would you be in favor or against?
18:55
HK: Oh, that's a difficult question,
18:58
but if you ask me,
18:59
and if I answer honestly,
19:01
I would give him the asylum,
19:03
because I think it was really brave what he did,
19:04
and he destroyed his whole life
19:06
and his family and everything.
19:09
So I think, for these people,
we should do something,
19:11
and especially if you see the German history,
19:14
where so many people had to escape
19:18
and they asked for asylum in other countries
19:21
and they didn't get it,
19:23
so it would be a good sign to give him asylum.
19:24
(Applause)
19:27
BG: Hubertus, thank you very much.
19:29

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About the speaker:

Hubertus Knabe - Historian
Hubertus Knabe studies the history of torture, oppression and surveillance in former East Germany.

Why you should listen
Hubertus Knabe is a historian and the scientific director of Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, where he studies the inner workings of the East German Ministry of State Security (MfS) -- or Stasi -- between 1945 and 1989. The memorial, once the main remand prison used by the Stasi, is devoted to raising awareness of the brutal oppression that once stemmed from the agency. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall Knabe was under surveillance himself, for smuggling banned books from the West into East Germany. He is the author of over a dozen books on German history, including 17. Juni 1953 - Ein deutscher Aufstand.
More profile about the speaker
Hubertus Knabe | Speaker | TED.com