Civics: From Surveillance Communism To Surveillance Capitalism And Beyond

John Torpey

Having acquired the freedom to protest openly, one of the first things the East Germans did was to descend upon the headquarters of the Ministry for State Security, universally known by its German acronym, the Stasi.  The Stasi was the “sword and shield of the party,” as its motto had it, and was widely hated for its frightening control over people’s lives. Everyone knew, or at least thought, that the Stasi was spying on ordinary East Germans all the time, and that they had to constantly be on their guard about what they could say and where.  To many people, the secret police were the essence of Communist rule.

When they stormed the Stasi’s headquarters in the Normannenstrasse (another nickname for the Stasi), they discovered miles of files on individuals who were the subjects of the Stasi’s attention.  At first there was much destruction of files, but it then dawned on the outraged citizens that they would want to understand what the Stasi had done during the forty years of the GDR’s existence and that they would need the files in order to do so.  This led to the creation of an agency charged with helping people sort through the files and hence to “come to terms with the past.” The Stasi agency was first headed by the charismatic pastor and dissident Joachim Gauck, who would later become President of the re-united Federal Republic of Germany.