Thirty years ago, this month, the Berlin Wall fell. The aftershocks of this event continue to play out on the world stage, including in the Middle East where the East German regime had long worked to destabilize and menace the State of Israel.
The Berlin Wall, a 107-mile concrete-and-barbed wire barrier, built in 1961 and framed by 300 manned-watchtowers, had trapped seventeen million people under the communist regime of East Germany for nearly three decades. Hundreds of people had been shot to death trying to scale the wall to freedom in West Berlin.
On November 9, 1989, the wall was sledge-hammered to pieces by tens of thousands of protesters, as police stood by. This stunning event triggered a political earthquake across Europe, accelerating a slow process of liberalization that had begun in the Soviet Union a decade earlier.
Powerful Communist Party bosses Erich Honeker and Erich Mielke who ruled East Germany had fought the reforms, plotting ever more draconian measures to suppress dissent within the country’s borders.
But the Hand guiding history had other plans for these megalomaniacs. Despite the sweeping espionage network they ran that had penetrated the lives of millions of German citizens, these men could not prevent—or even predict—the disintegration of their power base that would oust them from office.
In a ripple of “velvet (peaceful) revolutions” that began with fall of the Berlin Wall, Honeker and Mielke were two of the first Communist leaders to be toppled from their political thrones in disgrace. One by one, the other Communist regimes across the Eastern European bloc collapsed as well.
The fallout of these events climaxed in 1991 with the dismantling of the Soviet Union with its infamous KGB, whose reign of terror had lasted for more than half a century.
Kristallnacht and the Fall of The Berlin Wall
In one of the many strange ironies of history, the fall of the Berlin Wall—which was followed by the reunification of East and West Germany—fell out on the ninth of November.
This is the same anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi-orchestrated mass violence against the Jews of Germany that had marked the turn toward full-scale genocide on the ninth of November fifty years earlier.
On the surface, these explosive events appear unconnected. But the synchronicity is eerie. Few would dispute that the Germans of Kristallnacht and the citizens of the East German State were part of the same national soul that had swept Hitler to power, embraced Nazism and cheered on their depraved leader in his quest for world dominion.
Falling under Stalinist control after the defeat of the Third Reich, East Germany was converted into one of the most tyrannical “secret surveillance” states in history.
The power wielded by the “Stasi,” (German acronym for Ministry of State Security) was ruthless and absolute, giving East Germans a small taste of the suffering their dead, now-despised fuehrer had inflicted on millions of innocent people.
“The Stasi did not develop their despicable methods in a vacuum; the Nazis wrote the Stasi playbook,” asserts historian Prof. Laura Williams. “Psychological policing of Germany’s population—to root out dissenting voices and prevent people from challenging the government—had been the norm under the Gestapo. Nazis paved the way for the Stasi by using citizens as informers or denouncers.”
The seventeen million residents of East Germany now harvested the toxic fruit of the culture of perfidy, spawned by the Nazis most of them had supported a decade earlier. East Germans lived in constant dread of betrayal by neighbors, colleagues, employees and even their own children. Fear of arrest, imprisonment, torture and exile overshadowed every waking moment.
‘Zersetzung’—The Stasi’s Devastating Weapon
Eager to win international acceptance, the East German regime avoided major street violence and open assassinations in favor of psychologically destroying their subjects. The Stasi found they didn’t have to murder all “enemies of the state;” they could demolish them through the policy of zersetzung, a word denoting disintegration or corrosion.
The aim of zersetzung was to neutralize individuals and groups who posed any kind of threat—real or perceived—to the Party. Police collected medical, school and police records, interviews with neighbors and relatives, and any other evidence they could obtain. Using blackmail, social shame, threats, and torture, they would assault that person’s social standing, job qualifications and identity.
Agents spread salacious rumors about their targets, often wrecking their marriages and forcing them out of their jobs. They labeled suspects “subversives” and banned them from admittance to higher education. They or their relatives were often forcibly committed to asylums, where psychotic drugs kept the “patient” incapacitated. Their children were forcibly removed from their home and placed into government-run orphanages or foster homes.
“More than one in three East Germans (5.6 million) was under suspicion or surveillance, with an open Stasi file,” writes Williams. “Another half million were feeding the Stasi information about these people. This level of surveillance and infiltration caused East Germans to live in terror, though most had no idea of the full scope of these activities until after the Berlin Wall fell.”
“Besides its full-time officers, recruited from the best and brightest in East German society, the Stasi had 150,000 active informers and 500,000 to two million part-time informers in East Germany,” wrote historian Stephen Emerson in a 1990 New York Times article. “At the peak of the Stasi’s power, one in every thirty residents was a Stasi agent or informant.”
“The Stasi espionage machine compiled extensive files on more than 5 million East Germans, a third of the population,” the article asserts. “Millions of telephone calls were recorded; apartments were systematically bugged and searched (the Stasi would arrange to have suspects kept late at their jobs). Cameras and micro-listening devices were sewn into ties and coat collars or wedged into cigarette packs and hiding places in walls.”
Citizens were vulnerable to the Stasi’s Orwellian intrusion anytime and anywhere, in their apartments, factories, restaurants, libraries, doctors’ offices, bedrooms and hotels. In some East German cities, every piece of mail was opened in special steam rooms attached to the post offices.
All along the thousands of miles of East German highways, Stasi agents posed as gas-station attendants, waiters and tourists, carefully noting whether East Germans parked their cars next to Western cars, and whom they traveled or met up with.
The Stasi systematically crushed moral spirit by forcing citizens to collaborate. Each field agent had to deliver at least twenty-five new informants or initiate a similar number of investigations every year. Citizens who declined to help were marked as subversives and retaliated against.
Whatever sparks of moral spirit still lingered in German society after the Holocaust were further eroded through zersetzung, and the pacts made with the devil to save one’s own skin, notes historian Jack Koehler in his encyclopedic, Stasi; The East German Secret Police.
Storming the Stasi’s Headquarters
In East Berlin, in the heart of an ordinary middle-class neighborhood, stands a massive office complex: the former Stasi headquarters consisting of 41 concrete buildings and 10,000 rooms. It once included a dreaded prison, called Hohenschonhausen. The entire complex now houses the Stasi Museum.
Over 900 former inmates have given testimony about the horror that happened in the Stasi private prison, but while it operated, the facility was top secret. The area did not officially exist and was marked with a blank space on city maps.
From these buildings, 34,000 officers once ran the Stasi’s 39 departments. The personnel included 2,100 agents assigned round the clock to reading mail passed on from post offices; 5,000 agents responsible for tailing suspects; and 6,000 operatives whose only job was listening to private telephone conversations.
One department, called “Observation,” kept a close watch on citizens through a widespread network of informants in neighborhoods, schools, libraries and even gas stations.
Another department, “Counterintelligence,” carried out electronic surveillance of foreign diplomats, businessmen and journalists and placed spies in their offices, homes and hotels. The Stasi even had a department to spy on other Stasi members and informants.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disbanding of the Stasi, protesters and activists stormed the secret police’s colossal Berlin headquarters. Inside they found massive amount of surveillance equipment and documents showing how the Ministry for State Security ruled over the nation of some seventeen million for forty years.
For many, the most emotion-laden moment of the experience was discovering their own file among the tons of secret records, and the names of acquaintances and friends who had informed on them.
Wreaking Havoc Across Continents
While the Stasi tormented the East German population, its surveillance activities were not limited to those within its borders. The Stasi was also a feared international spy and operations agency, wreaking havoc in foreign countries, training terrorists, and the secret police of other repressive regimes.
Records from the massive Stasi archives show that East Germany practiced an official anti-Israel policy, refusing to recognize Israel and providing extensive material and propaganda support to Arab countries in the 1967 Six-Day War.
A June 7, 1967, secret “Politburo” decision, unearthed from Stasi files, documents East Germany’s offer of unspecified “military replacement parts” to Egypt and Syria.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, letters signed by East German Communist Party leader Erich Honecker show that East Germany supplied Syria with 75,000 grenades, 30,000 mines, 62 tanks and 12 fighter jets.
Israel’s Sworn Enemy
Until East Germany’s disbandment in 1989, Stasi officers actively sought to harm Israel, recruiting and training at least 1,000 military officers from Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
The Stasi taught these foreigner agents how to hijack planes, plant bombs, stage kidnappings and take hostages,” says Tobias Wunschik, a historian at Berlin’s Humboldt University.”
Relying on seized files and informants, investigators have discovered the Stasi’s extensive ties to other international terrorist groups as well, including France’s Action Directe, and E.T.A., the Basque separatist group based in Spain.
Documents show that the East German Government provided sanctuary and safe transit for such notorious terrorists as Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (known as Carlos), Abu Daoud (the Palestinian terrorist who organized the massacre at the 1972 Olympics in Munich) and Abu Nidal, the founder of the Fatah terrorist group.
Other documents show that at the Friedrich Engels Military Academy in East Berlin, Palestinian fighters were trained to use antiaircraft missiles and grenade launchers, and to carry out naval attacks.
Fueling Anti-Semitism As Propaganda Tool
Throughout its four decades of existence as a separate country, Communist East Germany cast itself as a solid anti-fascist government, morally superior to West Germany that it claimed had failed to separate from its Nazi past, notes a 1993 Washington Post article.
Drawing on unsealed Stasi documents in Berlin, researchers discovered that in order to discredit West Germany among its Western allies, Stasi agents staged anti-Semitic attacks in West Germany in the 1960s, making them appear to be the work of unrepentant Nazis there.
These attacks took the form of defacing synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish sites with swastikas and other Nazi symbols, leading Western leaders to question publicly whether West Germany had truly rehabilitated itself from the crimes of the Nazi period.
The strategy of using fabricated displays of anti-Semitism to discredit West Germany ramped up at the start of the 1961 Eichmann trial. The Stasi mounted “Action J,” in which they secretly promoted a public campaign, purportedly led by former Nazi SS men in West Germany, to protest the trial.
Former Nazi SS officers were found who were only too glad to take on the pro-Eichmann public relations drive. The aim was to make it look as if West Germany’s former Nazis were outraged by the sight of one of their former leaders facing the death penalty in Jerusalem.
The campaign was designed to persuade Washington, London and other Western power centers that West Germany remained a hotbed of racism and Jew-hatred.
Anonymous Hate Mail
The corruption went even further, notes the Washington Post article. Documents show that East German agents organized anonymous chain letters in which “Veterans of the German Waffen-SS” (who were really East German Stasi operatives) called on West Germany’s World War II veterans to join in a public “struggle against Jewish Bolshevism.”
At the same time, the Stasi sent threatening anti-Semitic letters purportedly signed by West German Jew-haters to West German Jews, who numbered about 30,000 at the time.
One document includes an official sample of an anti-Semitic letter to be copied and circulated to West German Jews. “Apparently you Jews have not yet understood that you are to disappear from Germany,” the suggested “threat letter” said. “You Jew pig. We forgot to gas you.”
As expected, the Jews who received this hate mail panicked and immediately publicized the threats.
A classic illustration of “fake news” in an era preceding social media, this gambit ramped up the public impression of surging anti-Jewish sentiment in West Germany and is thought to have contributed significantly to it.
The Stasi capped their propaganda with a creative touch worthy of Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. In the event that West German Jews did not react publicly to the mail threats, the Stasi forged and distributed letters in which West German Jews supposedly “announced” they had decided to leave West Germany, fearing a rebirth of Nazi terror.
“The East German Communists used anything they could against West Germany, including the legitimate fears by Western countries and Jews that a new Nazism could be growing in West Germany,” Munich historian Michael Wolffsohn said, quoted in the Post article.
“There is no doubt that in the 1960s as now, there were Nazis who were unrepentant, unchangeable and evil,” the historian added. “But without the help of East Germany, these Nazis were incapable of a national, coordinated campaign.”
Under Siege In A German Synagogue
Today, that statement no longer holds true. Neo-Nazi and far-right anti-Semitic parties in Germany are not only well-coordinated nationally, but have scored important electoral victories, are represented in Parliament and are growing in influence.
In the wake of an alarming surge in anti-Semitic attacks in Germany, the most recent one in Halle, by a far-right extremist who tried to shoot his way into a synagogue on Yom Kippur, authorities admit that the mounting anti-Semitism in Germany is a serious problem.
“Unfortunately, we have to face the truth, and the truth is, and has been for a while now, that the threat level posed by anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism in Germany is very high, German Interior Minister Seehofer admitted, when asked about the attack on the synagogue.
The would-be perpetrator of the massacre lacked sufficient firepower to shoot down the synagogue door so as worshippers cowered in terror, he gunned down a passerby in the street and then went on to shoot a nearby storeowner.
The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany said it was “scandalous” that police were not protecting the synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur. The police union responded that the police force was too thinly spread for a 24-hour period of protection at all places of worship.
What better evokes the precariousness of life for Jews in Germany than this frightening incident? And what better captures the naiveté of some Jews living there that the government will protect them and their synagogues from neo-Nazis and Jew-hating madmen?
No Laughing Matter
People use humor to lift the spirits of others, reduce stress, and to communicate truths in a disarming way. Political humor is often used to mock absurdity and bigotry. Some jokes are in poor taste; others are not funny. Nevertheless, the freedom to poke fun at political leaders is an important feature of a free society.
In East Germany, if someone looked like he might challenge the Communist Party’s legitimacy or control even in jest, the Stasi went after him. The secret police were capable of destroying someone’s life and livelihood over a stray remark or innocent joke.
“The Stasi would show up at the joke-teller’s home, interrogate friends and neighbors” and often end the visit by hauling the person off to headquarters, notes German author Bodo Muller, who researched Stasi files at its former headquarters. The suspect would invariably be charged with subversion or hate speech and be forced to stand trial.
Of the one hundred people identified in Muller’s research as having faced prosecution for telling jokes, sixty-four were convicted. Convicted joke-tellers served between one and four years. The accused were found guilty of “state-endangering propaganda and hate speech”; the jokes themselves were recorded in the suspect’s file, although never read publicly.
The following examples of jokes told by individuals in a lighthearted moment that were regarded by East German authorities as subversive “hate speech,” are drawn from police files.
–Why do Stasi officers make such good taxi drivers? –You get in the car and they already know your name and where you live.
–What’s the best feature of a Trabant (inferior car manufactured in Eastern Germany)? — There’s a heater at the back to keep your hands warm when you’re pushing it.
–Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Under socialism, it’s exactly the other way around.
–Why do the Stasi work together in groups of three? — You need one who can read, one who can write, and a third to keep an eye on the two intellectuals.
–A man-on-the-street poll was taken in three countries: “What is your opinion of the recently announced shortage of meat?” In the United States, they asked, “What’s a shortage?” In Poland, they asked, “What is meat?” And in East Germany, they asked, “What is an opinion?”
These and other harmless jokes often sealed the fate of the joke-teller.