10 Nefarious Secret Police Forces Throughout History

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7. The Stasi (1950-1990)

The Stasi, or Staatssicherheit (state security) service, of East Germany had around 280,000 citizens on the payroll—which happens to be more employees than Starbucks pays worldwide. Officially, the agency employed just 90,000 people full-time, but a network of 189,000 inoffizielle Mitarbeiter(unofficial collaborators, or IMs), comprised the true “shield and sword” of the state. Actually, this army of civilian spies may have numbered as many as 500,000—or even 2 million if occasional informers are included.

To put this in perspective, the Gestapo during WWII had just 40,000 officials and the whole of Germany (80 million people) to keep an eye on, while the Stasi had at the very least four times that many agents and barely 17 million citizens to monitor. So, while under the Nazis there was a Gestapo officer for every 2,000 people, under the Stasi there may have been one informant for every 8.5 citizens—a spy at every dinner party, in other words, and certainly one for every building. Worse, the Stasi’s reign of terror lasted decades longer than the Gestapo’s.

The Stasi’s IMs (pejoratively nicknamed Spitzel) came from all walks of life and pervaded every facet of East German society. Colleagues informed on colleagues, teenagers spied on their classmates, and even children kept reports on their parents. In fact, it’s thought that up to 10,000 IMs—a sizeable chunk of the total—were under the age of 18.

Nobody was out of bounds; doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, and even clergymen and celebrities were signed up to spy for the state—often through bribery or blackmail. Confessionals were bugged, bathrooms were filmed, targets were stalked, and private records were ransacked.

The idea was to gather as much dirt as possible on pretty much every citizen—just on the off chance they might one day question the state. And if they did, the state was ready to hit back, implementing their infamous strategy of Zersetzung to “shut down” individuals and groups via tailor-made campaigns of sadistic psychological warfare. These might involve practically anything, from sowing discord among friends, to blackmail and bribery, to sneaking into apartments and rearranging the furniture. The Stasi were also known for tampering with alarm clocks, putting socks in the wrong drawers, slashing tyres, and ordering goods in the victim’s name—all calculated to wear their subjects down.

Such was the extent of the Stasi’s data collection that the agency left behind 111 kilometers of paperwork (measured spine to spine), more than 1.4 million photos and recordings, and 39 million index cards. According to the DDR Museum in Berlin, this is more documentation than was collected in the whole of Germany (not just the Eastern half) from the Middle Ages to Hitler’s defeat.  

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