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The Spies of Others

How the West uses the Stasi to tell a flattering story about itself

The Stasi might have been disbanded in 1990, but their presence fills East Berlin. Tourists are invited to visit the former Stasi prison at the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, explore the old Stasi HQ in Lichtenberg, or step into a recreated prison cell at the privately owned GDR Museum. There is a Spy Museum, a BlackBox Cold War Museum, and any number of sites dedicated to the Berlin Wall; iron-willed backpackers might even choose, between pub crawls and graffiti tours, to try their hand at a Stasi-themed escape room. Anna Funder’s 2003 best-seller Stasiland has pride of place on the “Berlin interest” shelf of nearly every English-language bookstore, while the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others, a melodrama about Stasi persecution, is a cultural touchstone for most visitors.

The ghosts of the past are around every corner. But what if they’re more than just ghosts? What if modern-day Germany is in the grip of a major left-wing conspiracy to restore the communist GDR and its much-feared secret service—a conspiracy enabled not only by former agents with huge reservoirs of overseas cash but also some combination of foolish progressives, European technocrats, Putin, China, and even, perhaps, certain young American socialists? This is the version of reality one learns in The Grey Men: Pursuing the Stasi into the Present, a recent book by the former FBI agent Ralph Hope. While it promises explosive revelations about modern-day conspiracies between unrepentant former Stasi agents, the work ultimately fizzles out into a creative-non-fictional sludge of re-reported German news stories from the 1990s, along with rants against antifa, socialists of all stripes, and local privacy laws.

The Western anti-Stasi canon offers us a sugar high of historical reckoning.

Hope’s moral outrage is directed not only at the Stasi—and the post-Communist Left party Die Linke—but also at the various forces that stop his subjects from publicly naming those who they believe to have been agents, drawing a crude line from the GDR’s MfS (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit) to the German left of the present. Hope rejects any kind of comparison between the Stasi and either American law enforcement or private-sector data collection; he insists repeatedly that the lesson of the Stasi is not about policing or surveillance but the dangers of left-wing government. In doing so, his book becomes part of a longstanding Western fascination with the Stasi and a new entry in the canon of Western Stasi-texts, including Stasiland and The Lives of Others, that diligently avoids the topic of what the West did during the twentieth century, or is doing today.

Naturally, to question the West’s fascination with the Stasi, or more precisely the way that Stasi narratives are told, is not a defense of that institution or its employers. In fact, it may well be the obviousness of this point—the Stasi was completely appalling—that has allowed historically unsound, emotionally manipulative, and politically dangerous representations of it to flourish in the public sphere for so long. Imagine coming out against the tales of victims! Imagine opposing “coming to terms with the past”—especially on German soil!

But are we really being brave when we condemn the Stasi, those long-conquered bastards, most of whom are either grey-haired or dead, their archive opened up to the public? Are we boldly facing up to a difficult truth—or are we consoling ourselves with the guilt trips of others, searching hungrily for reassurance that anything we, the Cold War’s winners, might do could never be quite so bad as what the other lot got up to? The Western anti-Stasi canon offers us a sugar high of historical reckoning, chased with any number of middlebrow platitudes about courage and freedom, but this comes at a serious cost. In their eagerness to flatter us and our political system, these texts localize and disavow the dangers of over-policing and mass surveillance, ultimately casting these as German things, communist things, innately historical “totalitarian” things. So long as we identify spying with foreign countries peopled by cartoonish figures of evil, then we can happily wave away whatever we might hear about Jean Seberg, Cambridge Analytica, Ernest Hemingway, or “Black Identity Extremists.” Show me a Stasiman, show me a jackboot: then I’ll admit we have a problem.

Whatever they’re teaching them at FBI Academy these days, it certainly doesn’t seem to be creative writing. The Grey Men is littered with clumsy, emotive lines like: “The Stasi files, filled with shocking deceptions and human weaknesses, even years later remain pools of tears.” Instead of deep investigations, Hope treats his readers to a series of interviews with public figures and re-narrations of Stasi scandals that have largely been in the public sphere for years. His guide throughout is a secret spreadsheet of Stasi employees that has been circulating unofficially for three decades; it can’t, alas, be posted online due to blasted privacy laws. Though Hope doesn’t say so explicitly, it seems his reporting was also steered by Hubertus Knabe, the controversial former Stasi memorial head who wrote a German-language book on the same topic as The Grey Men and who blogs frequently about many of the left-wing figures that Hope discusses. Knabe’s apparent sympathy for far-right politics—and that of the text’s other protagonists—is never mentioned by Hope, who may or may not share these convictions. There is little research presented to support the conspiratorial insinuations made by Hope and his subjects, which tend to feel dramatically overblown. One former politician associated with Die Linke is noted to have been teaching at university about the government’s role in keeping rents low in gentrifying neighborhoods. “Others refer to that platform in a different way,” Hope editorializes. “They say it’s part of a GDR 2.0.”

Perhaps the best illustration of the book’s lack of perspective comes from one of Hope’s “heroes,” an Atlanta-based émigré whose political poetry, he speculates, has been shut out from Germany’s influential magazines, presumably on account of some neo-Marxist conspiracy seeking to reinstitute Stalinism beginning with Metamorphosen and Sinn und Form. Now, I’m no FBI agent, but I am a millennial, so I entered the émigré’s name and those of Hope’s other subjects into Facebook. Many were sympathizers of the far-right Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) and/or promulgators of various “New Right” media organizations. The émigré wrote in one post that there was “some truth” to the idea that Angela Merkel was the “Queen of Antifa”; he also directed his friends to the website of an AfD spokesman whose posts argued, among other things, that “the problem isn’t Hungary—it’s the leftwing agenda of this EU!” One of his verboten political poems begins like this (translation my own): “In Germany, Absurdistan / rules Angela Megalomania.” While talking with Hope, the émigré even suggests that antifa is the return of fascism to the world and argues that that the Stasi are “all over Berlin, even now with their money and influence. Ask anyone!”

Since policing and surveillance are only bad if bad people do it on behalf of a bad state, then we don’t really need to concern ourselves.

Throughout his book, Hope keeps at least one eye on his real political priority: making left-wing politics taboo in America again. In one memorable scene, he asks members of the Victims of Stalinism—an association with clear far-right links—what they would say to a young person in Europe or the United States who thinks socialism isn’t so bad. “The response to that question was silence followed by hoarse laughter, and a sad shaking of heads,” he reports. Hope also presents a variation on Hannah Arendt’s famous “totalitarian hypothesis,” which dubiously equated fascism with communism, slyly suggesting the latter might even have been worse. “In reality,” he says of 1945, “one totalitarian state was quite easily replaced by another.” He cites approvingly an old line about communists being red-painted Nazis and ventures even further, suggesting that “when you looked at how each organization treated its citizens, the things they had done to the German public for forty years were in many ways worse than in the first German dictatorship of the century.” Not only are the Nazis connected to the Stasi, in his account, but so, too, is Putin and even terrorism: a convenient lineage of America’s manifold enemies.

The Grey Men climaxes in noir style when Knabe, the book’s brave protagonist, gets fired from his memorial post for seriously mismanaging sexual harassment claims, although Hope doesn’t buy this explanation for a second:

Is the problem still the Stasi organizations? “Yes, but it’s much more than that now.” He tensed on the bench. “It’s the rise of the left. They don’t want criticism of communism and its millions of victims, only of fascism. So it’s just safer for everyone to talk about only that.” The hundreds of thousands of victims of GDR communism are being victimized once again.

To be clear: there is no way the far left is ascendant in modern Germany, which has been ruled for the last sixteen years by Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU—a party that, until rather recently, was caucusing with Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in the European Parliament. The shifting arithmetic of this year’s election, where a left-wing alliance including Die Linke could see the CDU ousted, has brought about a return of Cold War-era “red scare” tactics, including gestures toward the GDR’s former ruling party.

And the Stasi is by no means a “hushed family secret.” Practically every one of Hope’s exposés about politicians, archivists, or activists with a Stasi past is a story that gathered serious media attention (often with career-ending consequences) in the 1990s or 2000s. So intense was the MfS furor in reunified Germany that historians have referred to the post-Wall period as one of Stasi-Hysterie. Andrew I. Port describes the “feverish and often sensational search” for Stasi stories that propped up a “top-down, politically inflected, often morally accusatory and triumphalist approach” to East German historiography, while Mary Fulbrook notes the Stasi archives were “at first rapidly plundered” in the name of a “political and moral demolition job” of all things left-wing or Eastern.

So why lie about the Stasi’s supposedly buried past, beyond the fact that Hope has a book to sell? For one thing, if the Stasi remains a hush-hush conspiracy, then the most morally urgent thing to do is continue telling the truth about them, rather than questioning U.S. power, or the past of the FBI itself. “Few in Europe or the United States would support the Stasi and the communist state they protected if they knew much about what had been done,” Hope argues. “Without that, more and more appear to support their familiar technique of seeing fascism everywhere, and call once more for a new strong socialist state. Others falsely or naively claim that what the MfS did in crafting a fearsome police state that was above the law is somehow comparable to intelligence collection by the NSA or other U.S. organizations.” Later, in a chapter tantalizingly titled “The Face of a Twenty-First-Century Stasi,” he reasons that the data collection abilities of Google and Facebook would indeed have left the MfS salivating—but we should not be afraid of them or call them evil. “As commercial entities,” he argues, “they only become easy tools for governments or other organizations that are [evil].” Worry about China, maybe. But: “In a free capitalist society, the government doesn’t have this sort of control over people.”

Which is fabulous news for anyone anxious about Amazon’s growing surveillance network and its hyper-monitored workers, or about the adaptation of prison tech to renters and students in their homes. Or indeed anyone worried about what the CIA did in Nicaragua, or what the FBI did to the Black Panthers, or what police forces are doing now to Black Lives Matter movements. For Hope, heeding the legacy of the Stasi doesn’t mean thinking deeply about policing and surveillance as such—it just means chasing down and publicly re-shaming the specific old men who were originally involved. And, since policing and surveillance are only bad if bad people do it on behalf of a bad state, then we don’t really need to concern ourselves: the Stasi were simply another example of German totalitarian madness, the product of a system categorically different from our own.

Ralph Hope’s book has been positively reviewed by the Jewish Chronicle, the Times, and the Daily Mail in the UK, as well as major outlets in Australia and New Zealand. Almost all of these reviewers compared it in some way to Stasiland or The Lives of Others. Here, at least, the reviewers are on to something. The Grey Men repeats, if clumsily, a familiar set of tricks in depictions of the Stasi: it makes their misdeeds a question of personal morality rather than one of systems; localizes the damaging nature of mass surveillance to totalitarian Germany; and reassures its readers of the safety of the Western, liberal, capitalist present. A more subtle version of this same logic drives both Stasiland and The Lives of Others. These works are seen by East Germans (and most historians) as unhistorical kitsch, but both remain extremely popular among anglophones, in large part, I suspect, because of the innocence they offer to their consumers.

Innocence is particularly vital to Anna Funder’s Stasiland, a travelogue originally drafted as a novel that features the Australian Funder as she journeys around East Berlin, complaining about drunks, punks, and linoleum in between meetings with a few Stasi victims and a couple of former MfS agents and GDR officials. The title is a play on Alice in Wonderland, and Funder has admitted to hamming up the ignorance of her narrative persona, pretending to know less in order to stage dramatic scenes of disillusionment. She refers to her “adventures in Stasiland . . . a place where what was said was not real, and what was real was not allowed.”

The price of Funder’s moral clarity is historical understanding.

Much of this perceived unreality lies in Funder’s extreme image of the GDR as a dark, totalitarian landscape peopled exclusively by courageous if broken victims and unrepentant, gloating villains. Like Hope, she also explicitly connects the GDR with the Nazi regime, claiming falsely—among other things—that the GDR youth organization “mirrored exactly” the Hitler Youth. Stasiland is full of factual mistakes, ranging from basic historical errors to a more consistent set of overplayed details that serve to exaggerate East Germany’s Nazi-like grimness. It’s also apparent that Funder has been taken for a ride by at least one of her sources. She repeatedly makes the mistake of recording as novel and shocking facts stories that are clearly dark jokes among East Germans. One looks forward to her exposé about Nigerian princes getting locked out of their bank accounts.

These errors are not remarkable in their own right, but it is revealing that they all lean toward the hyperbolic, creating an image of the GDR as the “most perfected surveillance society of all time”—a phrase from the post-Wall Western media that Funder cites approvingly—and as a state that, in her own disdainful phrasing, “refuse[d] to admit a single thing, either accidentally or arranged, of beauty or joy.” The price of Funder’s moral clarity is historical understanding. At one point, she suggests that people could have simply said no to the Stasi and not suffered any consequences. It is eminently clear throughout the book what side Funder is on—and us too, by extension. She, and we, would have been heroes. When she refers to her Antipodean homeland, it appears as an “untainted corner of the world” infinitely dissimilar to Germany’s dark, twisted world of compromise (just wait till she finds out about settler colonialism!). Like Ralph Hope, Anna Funder has insisted there is a vast German conspiracy against the outsider’s righteous truth-telling. These claims are utterly bogus—yet her cherished pose of innocence depends on them.

The desire for a categorical distinction between “us” and “them” means Funder literally cannot imagine East Germany and her home country of Australia in the same universe: epistemologically, the history of Cold War surveillance cannot offer lessons for the West. All we can do is try to make amends for particular victims—and remember to value the universal power of individual heroism.

The same consolation game is at work in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others. The plot is simple enough, if wildly unhistorical. The film opens in East Berlin, in 1984 (get it?). Sexy bohemian playwright Georg and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria suddenly find themselves the target of Stasi surveillance in a campaign led by a corrupt culture minister who wants to make the girlfriend sleep with him. The snoop assigned to the case is a wide-eyed, naive company man named Wiesler. As Wiesler monitors the couple—listening to them fight, have sex, and play the piano very nicely—his icy Stasi heart gradually melts. Eventually, after Christa-Maria (get it?) is melodramatically killed off, Wiesler saves the day by concealing Georg’s illegal activities from his bosses, a fact Georg discovers after reunification in the Stasi archives. The film’s final scene sees Wiesler, now a postman, stumble onto a bookstore window promoting Georg’s bestselling book, Sonata of A Good Man, which is dedicated to Agent HGW XX/7: Wiesler. A good man, despite it all.

Donnersmarck’s film is more redemption fairytale than nightmare of historical injustice, yet it displays the same obsession with personal morality, and the same dubious blurring of Stasi and Nazi, that characterize the work of both Funder and Hope. As Timothy Garton Ash has pointed out, The Lives of Others profited from a growing tendency among anglophone viewers to equate the GDR with German fascism: “Nazi, Stasi: Germany’s festering half-rhyme.” The film renders East Germany as a miserable land defined by state surveillance and totalitarian aesthetics. Donnersmarck dresses Stasi agents up in Nazi-style militaristic grey dress uniforms with polished, black knee-length leather boots that they would never have worn daily.

Above all, The Lives of Others is marked by a deep confusion about the status of surveillance. The heart of the film is Wiesler’s moral conversion: as he surveils the couple, we surveil him. We see the widening of his eyes, the stiffening of his lips. We watch his miserable visit from a sex worker in gory detail. We watch Christa-Maria making love, taking a shower, dying pantingly in the middle of the street. And we watch Georg as he plays the Sonata, the piece of music so beautiful that it turns Stasi agents nice and reduces experienced moviegoers (and major newspaper film critics) to gullible middlebrow saps. Wiesler is not only turned to goodness through his spying; he also uses the information he gets from surveilling Georg to save him from the other agents. Good thing Wiesler was watching! And good thing we have been watching, as well: maybe the movie has made us good people, too. The only bad spying we have seen, after all, is the kind done by people who were bad to begin with.

Donnersmarck believes in the power of art to combat repressive regimes: The Lives of Others was inspired by an anecdote about Lenin saying he could have never finished the revolution if he kept listening to the Appassionata. In a New Yorker profile that has to be read to be believed, Donnersmarck boasts that his noble family had been too cultured to become Nazis. He also says his intention is “to write like I’m wiretapping a confession booth,” an eyebrow-raising claim from the director of the world’s most celebrated work of art about surveillance. Art, Donnersmarck says, “gives us that wonderful feeling that our suffering can be of use.” The question, though, as ever, is whose suffering—and whose use?

Hope, Funder, and Donnersmarck all insist on the centrality of personal morality in matters of mass surveillance. But one needn’t be a Frankfurt School diehard to see that these systems of surveillance are dehumanizing as such. The fantasy of puzzling out the moral character of the people who order or carry out surveillance is thus a dangerous distraction. This is particularly the case nowadays, in an era of ever-shifting surveillance algorithms that can affect human behavior without a human being strictly monitoring them. Just try and Sonata that into goodness! The “FBI man in the webcam” meme is funny because we know the fantasy of a human touch is too good to be true. But such is the baffled logic of Western Stasi-lit: Donnersmarck wants to wiretap confession booths; Funder the truth-teller falls for everyone’s bullshit; and Hope, in between railing against European privacy laws, winds up singing a Song of Democracy about some AfD-supporting conspiracy theorists. Our Stasi narratives may reassure us we aren’t as compromised as the past, but when it’s time to face the present, they leave us thoroughly confused.

The fantasy of puzzling out the moral character of the people who order or carry out surveillance is a dangerous distraction.

If this were just a question of misunderstanding history, then it might not be so urgent. But there is also a clear political charge to the Stasi obsession, one that acts in more and less subtle ways. By equating the Stasi with the GDR—and the GDR with Nazis—these popular narratives bolster the long-outdated totalitarian hypothesis, which is now regularly mobilized to reinforce forms of conservative and radical-centrist thought that creep daily ever closer to the right. As the historian Samuel Clowes Huneke has argued, the “totalitarian” vision of history leaves commentators particularly unable to think through contemporary challenges, from modern surveillance technology to “managed democracies” like Orbán’s Hungary, to the legacy of authoritarian acts performed in our own Western countries, such as in the Jim Crow South. Funder’s black-to-red-to-black version of recent German politics is particularly bizarre in an era when the antidemocratic, populist call—from Trump to Boris Johnson to Peter Dutton—has been coming from inside the respectable conservative party house, which is all too eager to invoke the specter of extremists “on both sides.” And by presenting eastern Germans as unable or unwilling to address their own past, Western Stasi texts imply the historical truth is being hidden still by reds under the beds: a major touchstone for those currently claiming the left is the real threat to Western democracy.

It is easy to make fun of Hope when he says we shouldn’t compare the Stasi to the CIA, or that Facebook and Google pose a threat only if their massive storehouses of personal data fall into the hands of “a dictatorship or unfriendly intelligence agency,” the implied political persuasion of which is clear. But his underlying logic is no different from most American talk about the Stasi. There are many thoughtful ways of coming to terms with this past—ones that probe the moral gray area between heroes and villains and admit that daily life in the GDR, for all its dreadful downsides, was nevertheless a daily life for millions of people. We might also recognize that historical truth-telling is only worth celebrating when done right. After all, the GDR (and thus the Stasi) won a lot of credit with its public via vigorously propagandized antifascist credentials: what paved their path towards dictatorship was not historical amnesia but an obsession with the sins of the regime that came before, coupled with a triumphalist insistence that their own political system could never allow such horrors to happen.

We can learn from the Stasi. Their history can help us understand the workings of fear, the breakdown of public trust, and the distortions and violence inherent to mass surveillance. Or else we can use them to flatter us—the good guys of history, winning the old wars all over again, while the present slips away.