The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) governed the GDR for 40 years without ever being legitimized in a democratic election. The SED maintained its position of power by means of a huge security apparatus. One cornerstone of this system was the Ministry of State Security (MfS), or "Stasi", which was founded in 1950.
The MfS was set up under the direct guidance of the Soviet secret police. As well as being a domestic secret police organization, it was also an investigative authority and foreign intelligence agency. It had its own detention centres and own armed forces. The MfS was answerable only to the SED leadership. It saw itself as the "shield and sword of the Party". Any ideas or attitudes that deviated from SED norms were considered to be subversive. In the eyes of the MfS they were a result of the influence of "enemy headquarters" in the West.
In order to track down and eliminate "hostile negative elements", the MfS sought to penetrate all areas of life of the GDR population.
The Ministry of State Security (MfS) was organized on military lines, and its structure was strictly centralized. From 1957 to 1989 it was headed by Erich Mielke, who had a decisive influence on its development.
The MfS covered the GDR with a dense network of offices, and kept a close watch on certain important companies and universities, where it opened its own "on-site" offices. Furthermore, it used thousands of secret apartments where MfS officers could meet unofficial collaborators for conspiratorial talks. The State Security steadily expanded its fields of activity over the years, and its staff grew in parallel. By 1989 the State Security had about 91,000 full-time employees.
The largest surge in growth was in the 1970s. In view of the policy of détente and increasing contacts between West and East, the MfS, fearing what it saw as an enormous threat from "hostile influences", developed an abundance of new justifications for surveillance.
The Ministry of State Security (MfS) acted with aggressive harshness and brutality during the early years of the GDR. Its methods ranged from physical violence to arbitrary arrests, from kidnappings in the West to conducting show trials and having the courts impose draconian sentences.
In the 1970s the MfS changed its secret police activities and began increasingly to use "softer" methods. The GDR leadership did not want to compromise its attempts to gain international recognition: persecution and repression were to be concealed. The MfS now focused more on preventive surveillance and so-called "psychic demolition". It used manipulation and targeted rumours in its attempts to systematically intimidate individuals or groups, to ruin their reputations, isolate or criminalize them. Friendships were destroyed, and professional careers ruined without the victims even realizing why.
However, the change in methods did not lead to any let-up in the repressive pressure exerted by the MfS. And the aim also remained the same: to prevent the development of non-conformist or dissident ideas and behaviour.
Numerous methods used by the Ministry of State Security (MfS) can be traced back to classic secret police and intelligence-gathering methods. The decisive factor, however, was that the MfS was answerable only to the leadership of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). Otherwise its activities were not monitored or restricted in any way.
The State Security had access to all areas of life in the GDR − even though this was not always noticeable to the individuals themselves. The MfS penetrated into the citizens' private lives; observing them, bugging their phones, spying on them, arresting and interrogating them.
The MfS worked in close cooperation with the police force, the customs authorities, employment offices and other GDR institutions to implement its policy of blanket control. It had access to almost any information or documents it wanted.
However, despite mass surveillance and spying, the State Security did not succeed in suppressing dissatisfaction and opposition among the GDR population.
"Work in the West"
One of the main tasks of the MfS was foreign espionage, which was primarily the responsibility of the HV A – the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance. This was headed by Markus Wolf from 1952 until 1986, thereafter by Werner Grossmann.
The HV A's operations were largely directed at West Germany and West Berlin. HV A spies infiltrated public institutions, political parties and government offices there. The HV A systematically carried out industrial and technical espionage in West German companies.
By 1989 the HV A had a full-time staff of 4,600, plus 13,400 unofficial collaborators in the GDR and another 1,500 in West Germany. The HV A had been acting as part of the overall MfS apparatus, both in its policies of persecution within the GDR and in its operations abroad.
After the peaceful revolution the HV A was allowed to dissolve itself. It took the opportunity to destroy a large quantity of its documents.
The "brother organizations"
The Ministry of State Security (MfS) and its secret police forerunners were set up under the strict control of the Soviet Secret Service. Soviet "advisors" gave direct instructions to the East German State Security Service. In the late 1950s they were replaced by so-called liaison officers, and the MfS gained a certain amount of independence. Regular "working meetings" were still held to exchange information and plan joint operations. In addition, the Soviet Secret Service itself was active in the GDR.
The MfS cooperated with the "brother organizations" of the other Warsaw Pact states. Priority was given to the surveillance of GDR citizens in 'socialist countries abroad' and to the prevention of attempts to escape.
In 1977 the State Security Services of the Warsaw Pact and other communist secret services agreed to set up a joint database. In 1987, the SOUD – the abbreviation of the Russian name − contained information on over 188,000 people who were regarded as a "danger". Only the Soviet Secret Service had direct access to the data.
The number of people fleeing or leaving the GDR rose steadily in the course of 1989. Inside the country itself the democratic movement gained momentum. Demonstrations in Leipzig, East Berlin and other towns and cities in the GDR became symbols of the peaceful revolution in autumn 1989.
The Ministry of State Security (MfS) waited in vain for orders from the Social Unity Party of Germany (SED) to intervene. Although the SED regime brutally dispersed demonstrating citizens in October 1989, no general order to suppress the civil protests was given.
The evident and sudden disintegration of the SED's power left MfS staff confused and uncertain. In the late autumn of 1989 the State Security began to destroy its files. Thereupon, outraged citizens occupied State Security offices and secured the remaining documents.
On 13 January 1990 the GDR interim government voted to completely disband the State Security, thereby meeting one of the key demands of GDR's citizens.