On July 11th, 2021, the FBI reached out to Americans to monitor family members and peers for signs of “extremism," and report “suspicious behaviors," in an effort to prevent domestic terrorism.
The request included the description: “possession of, access to, or familiarity with weapons or explosives” should be flagged, the FBI wrote, which in essence, describes tens of millions of Americans, particularly veterans, hunters, and firearms sportsmen. Senator Cruz immediately responded: "In both Cuba & China, they also ask children to spy on their parents."
This sparked my memory of living in a totally surveilled society. A society where you couldn't trust anyone. Not your neighbor, nor your teacher, the local butcher, the utility worker, not even family members, in fact, every third person you walked by on the street was an informant reporting to the local "Committee," or the intelligence collective. I still remember the name of its comrade leader, Gloria.
Only now as an adult, I question why my own mother frequently visited her? But enough of my childhood memories. I want to touch upon the STASI.
Thirty two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West still doesn’t realize the breadth and depth of the STASI's capabilities—the KGB still reigns in the popular imagination as the ultimate secret-police force. Formed after the Second World War in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, the STASI grew to become the most potently effective intelligence organization in the world.
They possessed a more impressive informant network than even the KGB. When East Germany crumbled, the Stasi employed upwards of 190,000 unofficial Informants!
By the fall of the Wall, approximately one out of every 90 East German citizens was a STASI snitch. Referred to as "inoffizielle Mitarbeiter" or unofficial collaborators. Most were simply ordinary East German citizens, tasked with reporting everything they could about possible anti-regime sentiments or activities (real or imagined), as well as details about family and friends.
A jealous former lover, or an annoying neighbor, is all it took to become a target of the state. Even children were involved in spying on their parents. I still remember being asked by those nice government agents in school what my parents talked about at home.
On November 9, 2006, as the free world celebrated the seventeenth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demise, an 83-year-old man died in peaceful slumber at his home in the German capital city of Berlin. The man was Markus Wolf, who during the Cold War, led the foreign-intelligence section of East Germany’s secret-police apparatus: the Ministry for State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit), known colloquially as “the STASI.”
As the most renowned spymaster, he controlled thousands of agents, whose purpose was to infiltrate important Western institutions and government positions. Wolf, for years remained a mystery to Western intelligence services, who didn’t even have a picture of him until the late 1970s—several decades into his career. Historians have marveled at his success in leading the Stasi’s foreign intelligence wing, known as the HVA, or "Hauptverwaltung Aufklaerung."
The Stasi’s methods of controlling the East German population were often wickedly creative. Even among those fairly knowledgeable of the German language, the word “Zersetzung,” used in a political context, is likely unfamiliar. Translated variously as “degradation,” “decomposition,” “disruptiveness,” or “disintegration,” the word is most often used in a biological sense.
When it comes to espionage, "Zersetzung" refers to the Stasi’s practice of destroying a target’s peace of mind and personal life. The methods, however, were much more subtle than the word implies. The Stasi perfected their ability to torture people indirectly—a kind of psychological death by a thousand cuts. Zersetzung, for instance, often involved breaking into the homes of those considered confirmed or suspected enemies of the East German government.