Stasi Style!

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A portly man wearing a cranberry-colored cardigan stands uncomfortably still, his hands clasped together over the paunch of his belly. Behind tinted sunglasses his downcast gaze is awkward, avoidant. But wait, there he is again ... or is he? This man in the next frame -- possibly, obviously the same man -- in a long shaggy brown coat and Ushanka style faux-fur cap, is wearing the same sunglasses but now there's a dark swipe of a mustache under his nose that wasn't there before. 

There are others just like him posing in self-conscious stance with impassive expressions -- a tourist impossibly conspicuous in bright red pants, outfitted with not one but two cameras; a somber-faced woman in casual jeans and a forgettable black leather jacket is later "transformed" donning a lush winter coat, her hair tucked under a fur cap, gold earrings dangling. These men and women were trained to blend in; they were trained to infiltrate, observe, and inform. They were Stasi agents, part of the East German secret police.

During its heyday, the Stasi had more agents in its employ than either the KGB or the CIA, relative to overall population size. Nazi hunter Simon Weisenthal ominously declared that the Stasi were worse than the Gestapo. When East Germany collapsed in 1989, the Stasi had 102,000 employees.

German artist Simon Menner spent two years poring over materials from the archive of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives of the German Democratic Republic from which he pulled and curated a trove of photos (likely taken in the early 1980s) for his forthcoming book Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives. His objective, in part, was to show "the act of surveillance from the perspective of the surveillant."

Menner warns his readers that they should not dismiss these photographs and all they capture as farce or comedy, even with the terrible wigs and painfully obvious attire. "Many of the images reproduced here might appear absurd or even funny to us," he writes in the book's introduction. "But it is important not to lose sight of the original intentions behind these pictures. They concern photographic records of the repression exerted by the state to subdue it own citizens." For Menner it is the very "banality" of these images that "makes them even more repulsive."


As Menner discovered, photographs like this one were taken during lectures given by members of the Stasi for members of the Stasi. It was not always easy to determine whether or not the subjects here were full-time agents or unofficial agents, as Menner explained to FP, but they should all be considered agents far beyond mere information providers.


Between 1950 and 1989, 274,000 people served in it, according to John O. Koehler's Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police.


The Nazi Gestapo had one officer per 2,000 people, while the Stasi had one for every 166 East Germans. A network of informers known as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter or IMs -- which is estimated to have been as high as 500,000 -- spread their reach even further.


As Menner writes, the photographs of these men and women modeling disguises were included in "catalogue of masks" or handbooks given to agents offering advice and instruction with titles like, "Disguising as Western Tourists."


The Stasi had files on approximately six million East Germans, more than a third of the total population.




In addition to agents in disguise, Menner's book features photographs of training exercises during which agents were instructed in the art of communicating via hand signals. There are also photos of apartments that had been under the Stasi's watchful eye, taken to conceal any evidence of a break-in so items could be returned to their original location. And, perhaps most absurd, are the photos of spies taking pictures of other spies.


The director of the famous Thomas Church choir in Leipzig was forced to resign when news broke that he was a Stasi informant. In 1974, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt resigned after the revelation that a top aid, Günter Guillaume was an East German spy. The Stasi was even able to recruit the West German agent in charge of "turning" its members to work for West Germany, according to a review by Jeffrey Kopstein of the University of Colorado at Boulder. The man recruiting double agents was, in fact, a double agent.


In 1991, the Parliament of the now unified Germany passed a law allowing people to view their Stasi file. Nearly two million people had done so by the early 21st century. While access to Stasi files was open, Menner writes that, "many of the archived pictures have not been inspected since the fall of the Berlin Wall."


Some of the Stasi disguises like the ones shown here, "were often employed to help agents appear inconspicuous in places frequented by tourists, thus facilitating contact with visitors from the West," Menner writes. Of special note he says are "typical Western props as plastic shopping bags and cameras."


In the end, Menner tells his readers the goal of these manuals, as they were outlined for their users, was to "simplify the selection of a disguise for a specific task when out in the field."



In prison, the longtime Stasi chief Erich Mielke was given a disconnected telephone to bark orders into as way to cheer him up. According to his 2000 obituary in The Economist, after the fall of East Germany and Mielke's removal from power, an angry crowd confronted him. Mielke shouted back at them, "But I love you all."

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