Hubertus Knabe: The dark secrets of a surveillance state

Hubertus Knabe: The dark secrets of a surveillance state


This year, Germany is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the peaceful revolution in East Germany. In 1989, the Communist regime was moved away, the Berlin Wall came down, and one year later, the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, in the East was unified with the Federal Republic of Germany in the West to found today’s Germany. Among many other things, Germany inherited the archives of the East German secret police, known as the Stasi. Only two years after its dissolution, its documents were opened to the public, and historians such as me started to study these documents to learn more about how the GDR surveillance state functioned. Perhaps you have watched the movie “The Lives of Others.” This movie made the Stasi known worldwide, and as we live in an age where words such as “surveillance” or “wiretapping” are on the front pages of newspapers, I would like to speak about how the Stasi really worked. At the beginning, let’s have a short look at the history of the Stasi, because it’s really important for understanding its self-conception. Its origins are located in Russia. In 1917, the Russian Communists founded the Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, shortly Cheka. It was led by Felix Dzerzhinsky. The Cheka was an instrument of the Communists to establish their regime by terrorizing the population and executing their enemies. It evolved later into the well-known KGB. The Cheka was the idol of the Stasi officers. They called themselves Chekists, and even the emblem was very similar, as you can see here. In fact, the secret police of Russia was the creator and instructor of the Stasi. When the Red Army occupied East Germany in 1945, it immediately expanded there, and soon it started to train the German Communists to build up their own secret police. By the way, in this hall where we are now, the ruling party of the GDR was founded in 1946. Five years later, the Stasi was established, and step by step, the dirty job of oppression was handed over to it. For instance, the central jail for political prisoners, which was established by the Russians, was taken over by the Stasi and used until the end of Communism. You see it here. At the beginning, every important step took place under the attendance of the Russians. But the Germans are known to be very effective, so the Stasi grew very quickly, and already in 1953, it had more employees than the Gestapo had, the secret police of Nazi Germany. The number doubled in each decade. In 1989, more than 90,000 employees worked for the Stasi. This meant that one employee was responsible for 180 inhabitants, which was really unique in the world. At the top of this tremendous apparatus, there was one man, Erich Mielke. He ruled the Ministry of State Security for more than 30 years. He was a scrupulous functionary — in his past, he killed two policemen not far away from here — who in fact personalized the Stasi. But what was so exceptional about the Stasi? Foremost, it was its enormous power, because it united different functions in one organization. First of all, the Stasi was an intelligence service. It used all the imaginable instruments for getting information secretly, such as informers, or tapping phones, as you can see it on the picture here. And it was not only active in East Germany, but all over the world. Secondly, the Stasi was a secret police. It could stop people on the street and arrest them in its own prisons. Thirdly, the Stasi worked as a kind of public prosecutor. It had the right to open preliminary investigations and to interrogate people officially. Last but not least, the Stasi had its own armed forces. More than 11,000 soldiers were serving in its so-called Guards Regiment. It was founded to crash down protests and uprisings. Due to this concentration of power, the Stasi was called a state in the state. But let’s look in more and more detail at the tools of the Stasi. Please keep in mind that at that time the web and smartphones were not yet invented. Of course, the Stasi used all kinds of technical instruments to survey people. Telephones were wiretapped, including the phone of the
German chancellor in the West, and often also the apartments. Every day, 90,000 letters were being opened by these machines. The Stasi also shadowed
tens of thousands of people using specially trained agents and secret cameras to document every step one took. In this picture, you can see me as a young man just in front of this building where we are now, photographed by a Stasi agent. The Stasi even collected the smell of people. It stored samples of it in closed jars which were found after the peaceful revolution. For all these tasks, highly specialized departments were responsible. The one which was tapping phone calls was completely separated from the one which controlled the letters, for good reasons, because if one agent quit the Stasi, his knowledge was very small. Contrast that with Snowden, for example. But the vertical specialization was also important to prevent all kinds of empathy with the object of observation. The agent who shadowed me didn’t know who I was or why I was surveyed. In fact, I smuggled forbidden books from West to East Germany. But what was even more typical for the Stasi was the use of human intelligence, people who reported secretly to the Stasi. For the Minister of State Security, these so-called unofficial employees were the most important tools. From 1975 on, nearly 200,000 people collaborated constantly with the Stasi, more than one percent of the population. And in a way, the minister was right, because technical instruments can only register what people are doing, but agents and spies can also report what people are planning to do and what they are thinking. Therefore, the Stasi recruited so many informants. The system of how to get them and how to educate them, as it was called, was very sophisticated. The Stasi had its own university, not far away from here, where the methods were explored and taught to the officers. This guideline gave a detailed description of every step you have to take if you want to convince human beings to betray their fellow citizens. Sometimes it’s said that informants were pressured to becoming one, but that’s mostly not true, because a forced informant is a bad informant. Only someone who wants to give
you the information you need is an effective whistleblower. The main reasons why people
cooperated with the Stasi were political conviction and material benefits. The officers also tried to create a personal bond between themselves and the informant, and to be honest, the example of the Stasi shows that it’s not so difficult to win someone in order to betray others. Even some of the top dissidents in East Germany collaborated with the Stasi, as for instance Ibrahim Böhme. In 1989, he was the leader of the peaceful revolution and he nearly became the first freely
elected Prime Minister of the GDR until it came out that he was an informant. The net of spies was really broad. In nearly every institution, even in the churches or in West Germany, there were many of them. I remember telling a leading Stasi officer, “If you had sent an informant to me, I would surely have recognized him.” His answer was, “We didn’t send anyone. We took those who were around you.” And in fact, two of my best friends reported about me to the Stasi. Not only in my case, informers were very close. For example, Vera Lengsfeld,
another leading dissident, in her case it was her husband who spied on her. A famous writer was betrayed by his brother. This reminds me of the novel “1984” by George Orwell, where the only apparently trustable person was an informer. But why did the Stasi collect all this information in its archives? The main purpose was to control the society. In nearly every speech, the Stasi minister gave the order to find out who is who, which meant who thinks what. He didn’t want to wait until somebody tried to act against the regime. He wanted to know in advance what people were thinking and planning. The East Germans knew, of course, that they were surrounded by informers, in a totalitarian regime that created mistrust and a state of widespread fear, the most important tools to oppress people in any dictatorship. That’s why not many East Germans tried to fight against the Communist regime. If yes, the Stasi often used a method which was really diabolic. It was called Zersetzung, and it’s described in another guideline. The word is difficult to translate because it means originally “biodegradation.” But actually, it’s a quite accurate description. The goal was to destroy secretly the self-confidence of people, for example by damaging their reputation, by organizing failures in their work, and by destroying their personal relationships. Considering this, East Germany
was a very modern dictatorship. The Stasi didn’t try to arrest every dissident. It preferred to paralyze them, and it could do so because it had access to so much personal information and to so many institutions. Detaining someone was used only as a last resort. For this, the Stasi owned 17 remand prisons, one in every district. Here, the Stasi also developed quite modern methods of detention. Normally, the interrogation officer didn’t torture the prisoner. Instead, he used a sophisticated system of psychological pressure in which strict isolation was central. Nearly no prisoner resisted without giving a testimony. If you have the occasion, do visit the former Stasi prison in Berlin and attend a guided tour
with a former political prisoner who will explain to you how this worked. One more question needs to be answered: If the Stasi were so well organized, why did the Communist regime collapse? First, in 1989, the leadership in East Germany was uncertain what to do against the growing protest of people. It was especially confused because in the mother country of socialism, the Soviet Union, a more liberal policy took place. In addition, the regime was dependent on the loans from the West. Therefore, no order to crash down the uprising was given to the Stasi. Secondly, in the Communist ideology, there’s no place for criticism. Instead, the leadership stuck to the belief that socialism is a perfect system, and the Stasi had to confirm that, of course. The consequence was that despite all the information, the regime couldn’t analyze its real problems, and therefore it couldn’t solve them. In the end, the Stasi died because of the structures that it was charged with protecting. The ending of the Stasi was something tragic, because these officers were kept busy during the peaceful revolution with only one thing: to destroy the documents they had produced during decades. Fortunately, they had been stopped by human rights activists. That’s why today we can use the files to get a better understanding of how a surveillance state functions. Thank you. (Applause) Bruno Giussani: Thank you. Thank you very much. So Hubertus, I want to ask you a couple of questions because I have here Der Spiegel from last week. “Mein Nachbar NSA.” My neighbor, the NSA. And you just told us about my neighbor, the spies and the informant from East Germany. So there is a direct link between these two stories or there isn’t? What’s your reaction as a
historian when you see this? Hubertus Knabe: I think there are several aspects to mention. At first, I think there’s a difference of why you are collecting this data. Are you doing that for protecting your people against terrorist attacks, or are you doing that for oppressing your people? So that makes a fundamental difference. But on the other hand, also in a democracy, these
instruments can be abused, and that is something where we really have to be aware to stop that, and that also the intelligence services are respecting the rules we have. The third point, probably, we really can be happy that we live in a democracy, because you can be sure that Russia and China are doing the same, but nobody speaks about that because nobody could do that. (Applause) BG: When the story came out first, last July, last year, you filed a criminal complaint with a German tribunal. Why? HK: Yeah, I did so because of
the second point I mentioned, that I think especially in a democracy, the rules are for everybody. They are made for everybody, so it’s not allowed that any institution doesn’t respect the rules. In the criminal code of Germany, it’s written that it’s not allowed to tap somebody without the permission of the judge. Fortunately, it’s written in
the criminal code of Germany, so if it’s not respected, then I think an investigation is necessary, and it took a very long time that the public prosecutor of Germany started this, and he started it only in the case of Angela Merkel, and not in the case of all the
other people living in Germany. BG: That doesn’t surprise me because — (Applause) — because of the story you told. Seen from the outside, I live outside of Germany, and I expected the Germans to react much more strongly, immediately. And instead, the reaction really came only when Chancellor Merkel was revealed as being wiretapped. Why so? HK: I take it as a good sign, because people feel secure in this democracy. They aren’t afraid that they will be arrested, and if you leave this hall after the conference, nobody has to be afraid that the secret police is standing out and is arresting you. So that’s a good sign, I think. People are not really scared, as they could be. But of course, I think, the institutions are responsible to stop illegal actions in Germany or wherever they happen. BG: A personal question,
and this is the last one. There has been a debate in Germany about granting asylum to Edward Snowden. Would you be in favor or against? HK: Oh, that’s a difficult question, but if you ask me, and if I answer honestly, I would give him the asylum, because I think it was really brave what he did, and he destroyed his whole life and his family and everything. So I think, for these people,
we should do something, and especially if you see the German history, where so many people had to escape and they asked for asylum in other countries and they didn’t get it, so it would be a good sign to give him asylum. (Applause) BG: Hubertus, thank you very much.

100 thoughts on “Hubertus Knabe: The dark secrets of a surveillance state

  1. Isn't this what the cia does today in the modern world except it spies on foreign governments too. The scandal with Germany was recently and nobody talks about it, like it is normal and accepted.

  2. It's okay though. Now-a-days people openly provide their details to large companies such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, and the NSA just gets what it wants to know about you from them. Why spy on people when people will spy on themselves for you?

  3. He forgot to speak about USA and Israel. The 2 most brutal Surveillance states equipped with most sophisticated tech and extremely interrelate about protest. 

    Proof 1: Norman Finkelstein arrested for protesting against US aid to help Israel with it's ongoing genocide in Gaza.

    http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2014/7/30/video_norman_finkelstein_25_others_arrested

    Proof 2: Will Potter: The shocking move to criminalize nonviolent protest

    http://www.ted.com/talks/will_potter_the_shocking_move_to_criminalize_non_violent_protest

  4. This wonderful talk, which brings out the truth about East Germany's dirty past, contains several valid lessons to so many people, institutions and nations across the globe. I hope the FBI and CIA in America is watching and understand the importance of 'poking nose problem." Likewise, communists in India should understand why communism is not required in India or for China. Very insightful, informative and useful talk by Hubertus Knabe. Highly recommened.

  5. Here's a fun thing to do when listening to this video: Put on the album Attack & Release by The Black Keys. Start listening from the song 'Strange Times.' then put on this video. I don't know if it's because I'm baked, but the music seems to align perfectly with this video in a way.

  6. Unwatchable. Cottonmouth extraordinaire with a microphone stuck, rubbing at his cheek, whilst an audio compressor turns everything to crap. I got shivers down my spine by this. Brrrrr….

  7. Dear TED would you start putting at least english closed captions, especially for speakers with accents.
    You already have in your website, so I can imagine it won't be difficult or time consuming at all.
    I would watch it there but the player sucks.

  8.  Democracy We in Australia have no Democracy ,  we have been lied too , they have sold off our water , farmland , roads , electric , on and on . We are flooded with immigration against the publics wishes , spied on have cameras everwhere . Democracy is just a word , you shall know them by their deeds .

  9. This is called gang stalking today in America,  They are real and deadly it came to be real big after 911.  I'm being tortured everyday with noise and chemicals,  I'm under constant surveillance.  They are making it look like I'm terrorizing them.

  10. This emphasis of connection between KGB and STASI doesn't look like a coincidence. I don't think he was paid by the German gov. to do this "performance". Nowadays nobody needs better propaganda or anti-propaganda speeches than NSA, CIA and USA. Why not pay a guy to talk against their "opposite side".

  11. Sadly, this very knowledgable man has drawn the wrong conclusions. Important information, but the last five minutes can truly be ignored.

  12. Wait, wait. Is this Germany past or United States future? Our government has been moving toward Totalitarianism for a long time. We have secret courts for NSA? What happened to the constitution? I don't recall secret courts being in there.

  13. Pursuit of hapiness becomes complicated. Bio-degradation by a secular organisation 30 years ago, by who today ? The book exists, we don't burn books. Justice is slow and seems unaware of the threat on forensics it implies for ex. Lessons of the cold war are horrible.

  14. The KGB never disappeared. They are rebranded as FSB and RT is the main propaganda outlet. They hijacked the Truth Movement to pull at the Patriots heart strings as his country falls apart. <Classic Demoralization techniques. Enough with kicking the dog already! Bashing Obama will only hasten Americas demise to Communism. Know your Enemy. They are much more experienced and dangerous then your NSA fascist fanclub from DC.

  15. The outrage in Germany about the NSA spying was, contrary to what Mr Knabe says, quite strong. But the political Outrage as non existent because they presumed they were not being monitored. They only started complaining (and nothing really more then that, thanks to the toothless politicians) when it came out that the Chancellor's phone was directly tapped. I also think that the outrage is less 'people are happy about the security' then the effects of a creeping decline in caring about data security. Finally, I find it horrifying how someone who went through the entire Stasi ordeal can accept the same from the NSA. I fear he is the 'I hate A so if B is not A then B must be good'. No, sorry, the illusion the regime in Eastern Germany used was 'communism', and ours is 'Democracy'. Communism is more Orwell, Democracy is more Huxley.

  16. Gees, @TED you could have got Hubertus's mic and audio working better. Really off putting on such an interesting topic… 

  17. Germany Stasi secret police had 11,000 secret police and the unit was named "God's regiment."  Listen at 5:16.  And who wore inscribed on their belt buckles "gott mit uns" or "god on our side."  Well, there's nothing secular or atheist about that.

  18. usa has a modern version of this using remote neural monitoring and tracking on to cells and radios and spreading slander at will ruining lives globally.

  19. Now, having reintegrated and been recruited as helpers to the Banksters-NWO, they are back – more disguised. more resourceful – and with even better technology – to conquer Earth!

  20. This is the most recent historical reference point for what is now presently experienced and called, "gang stalking"…

  21. The woman at 10:38 said when she read her file, she found her husband had been asked to report what kind of beauty soap she used. She was very hurt to find her husband had been a willing informant. Sadly, this is happening now in the U.S. The Zersetzung directive has been adopted by many countries because the Stasi trademarked it & sold it on the black market to other nations.

  22. Unfortunately this is happening I the United States today… And nobody seems to notice or care. Organized stalking is a very real crime and it's subtle nature turns same, innocent individuals and makes them appear crazy. It happens to low profile individuals who speak out about government criminality. These people are not having a group hallucination. And it's funny how all of these "paranoid individuals" all shared the same political beliefs and didn't have any history of mental illness before they became targeted individuals. Please second guess your opinion on those who claim they are being followed . They are not crazy, but everyone saying they are drives them crazy. Help all the targeted.

  23. January 9, 2014 500 Years of History Shows that Mass Spying Is Always Aimed at Crushing Dissent

    It’s Never to Protect Us From Bad Guys No matter which government conducts mass surveillance, they also do it to crush dissent, and then give a false rationale for why they’re doing it.

    http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2014/01/government-spying-citizens-always-focuses-crushing-dissent-keeping-us-safe.html

  24. Sounds like what the DHS is turning into. I wonder why: http://investmentwatchblog.com/fact-dhs-was-created-by-markus-wolfe-a-former-east-german-stasi-leader/

  25. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/east-german-domestic-surveillance-went-far-beyond-the-stasi-a-1042883.html

  26. A typical petit-bourgeois mentality, whatever his real experiences and suffering.

    We can all understand the hate-on this guy has for the stalinists… but his slavish knee-jerk support for the NATO 'democratic' police-states OTOH is pathetic. Many of us have been undergoing the NATO version of 'Zersetzung' for a lot longer than this guy did.

    And he essentially sloughs it off. I won't respect that. He takes an easy out when confronted with Snowden's experiences and knowledge.

  27. Ich verstehe zwar kein Wort, weil ich Deutscher bin, aber dieser Knabe ist, glaube ich, kein geeigneter Zeitzeuge. Ich weiß nicht, woher er stammt.Aber mitnichten aus den Reihen der berühmten Staatssicherheit. Er ist und bleibt ein Fremdkörper und ein eine Witzfigur, ähnlich wie Wolf Biermann, dem großen Volksverrätet

  28. トップの人間が人のことを知るために「待つのが嫌だから盗聴しろ」と人を利用して

    自分らは情報のだけ知る盗人行為

    自分の身のまわりにも同じくいるんだよ

    話し相手になるけど「なってやる」っていう方が正解

    自分等で誘っておいてもっと話そうと言っておいて

    質問や頼みごとをひ弱で軟弱な奴みたいに人に依存しているように

    「突き放す」その突き放すという一見かっこいいようなことを言っているけど

    無知で我慢ができない 人の話をじっくり聞いたり考えるのが嫌なだけ

    自分たちが命令して注目をしてほしいだけ 偉いと思われたい

    そいつらの俺に対する頼み事は自分等でやるのが面倒だから

    俺にやらせて自分らの手は汚さない=我慢ができない 俺を実験台にして

    答えだけもらっていく怠慢さ

    それが「泳がせる」「痛い思いをしたほうがいい」とか他にもあると思う

  29. Ich bin mir auch nicht sicher, warum irgendein nicht autorisierter westdeutscher Hansel über unsere Vergangenheit referiert.

  30. The Stasi have in fact returned and is working under Merkel.

    Merkel was a former member of the GDR, she worked and breathed GDR all her life until the Wall fell and suddenly, she realized she was out of a job. After some months of deciding what to do, she then moved to get in involved in politics.

    The rest was history.

    Merkel has hired former high ranking Statsi members to replace the German high ranking intelligence staff members and then they began firing the old staffs and hired all of the former Stasi employees to work for them.

    Merkel then moved to immigration as her way of getting revenge of the West Berliners for the destruction of her former State, the GDR/DDR.

  31. sıkıyosa emperyalist ülkelerin gizli servislerinin faaliyetlerini de anlatsanıza.götünüz yiyosa

  32. This is total propaganda. Zerzetsen is alive and well in all countries. It's now called gangstalking. Nice how they added the still pic of a prison. One of the threats and intimidation tactics we targeted individuals get constantly.

  33. They believe that he that stoops the lowest shall climb the highest.Now they have control of Russia.Jackboots trampling Mother Russia !

  34. Mr. Knabe is not known to have shown any resistance to Stasi during the time of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He was then a member of the extremely leftist Greenie party and is now since he found his new career the biggest supporter of the Merkel regime.

  35. Socialism is a perfect system XD.. a german with a sense of humour, such a dry deliverrrrrr…….. never mind.

  36. Germany is now run by the same Zionist Communist Dictatorship as seen by the persecution and incarceration of anyone who speaks out against that malignant entity. The best examples are seen in the prosecution and incarceration of Ursula Haferbeck, Sylvia Stoltz, Monika Schaefer, Alfred Schaefer, Horst Mahler and the many more we don't know about, thanks to the "excellent reporting" of the "Mainstream Media Whores for Hire". People wake up. The New World Order Agenda is right on schedule Werner Bock

  37. If you were told that there was something similar or even worse that was happening today would you believe it? If you thought the Stasi or their Zersetzung program was now dead and buried then you are very mistaken. Although this is not just happening in one country but it is international. The name of this secret and illegal program goes by the name of organized stalking. It is being carried out by elite criminals within the police, intelligence agencies, military and defense contractors. They will secretly target anyone for revenge purposes.
    For a good example of this do a web search for "NSA whistleblower Karen Stewart" and see what happened to her.

  38. Le Zersetzung de la STASI n'est pas mort avec la RDA.
    Ce programme de répression psychologique ( mais pas que) s'est généralisé en Occident.
    On le nomme harcèlement criminel en réseau, gang stalking ou harcèlement global.

  39. I think the NSA freely tapping Germany and no subsequent public upscream nor political ramifications or practical consequences has shown, that we as Germans have been succesfully brainwashed by the Allied mandatory state education and the leftist complicit Mainstream Media into submission to the foreign powers that be, who are still occupying this Country, as even politicians like W. Schäuble admit.

  40. C: Still spiraling to extinction with no other path to slow it down other than depopulation. Their system isn't helping them one bit towards a glorious heavenly future.

  41. Why is the STASI seen as something of an especial evil, when, a state mechanism for combating whatever the state believes is wrong or immoral has been the norm in all doctrinal societies since whenever history began.

    The Christians, after reconquering all of Spain from the Muslims had similar systems of spying on common people accused of being crypto-Jews or crypto-Muslims, sniffing them out through innocuous practices such as offering churrascara, assorted pork, to gauge their reaction to it. In Muslim societies today, especially the conservative ones, it is easy to find the throw-in of a jibe at Israel, the US or a non-Abrahamic religion when in conversation with another Muslim to test their commitment to the predominance of Islam. In India, the Muslims many a time in feigned innocence offer a Hindu guest beef to test their ‘Hinduness’, making their mind up about further conversation based on the response. Is it too immature to suggest the setup of bodies such as Cheka and Stasi, and the show-trials of communist societies were a direct descendant of the inquisition courts of much of Christian dominated societies during the Middle Ages and early modern period or the blasphemy courts in Islamic countries which last to this day?

    It would be fascinating to know what people did to evade showing their tracks to the Stasi, for that would be required reading for everyone living under the tyranny of doctrinal societies in this day.

  42. Replace socialism with Islam and you have the modern-day Middle East. When not at war, every single society here resembles closely the society of the East Germans.

  43. The roots of Marxism are German, not Russian. This distinction is critical to an understanding of events over the past century. Zersetzung – still being deployed today. Wonder if Knabe would feel the same way about the Western surveillance state today

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