For more than three years, German photographer Simon Menner has immersed himself in the invasive culture of the Stasi, the security service that snooped on East Germans for 40 years. Officially known as The Ministry for State Security, the Stasi recruited from all walks of life, enlisting over 2.5 percent of East Germany’s adult population as unofficial informants just before the Berlin wall fell. So powerful was the agency that Simon Wiesenthal, famous for hunting Nazi criminals, said "the Stasi was much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people." For the Stasi, the key to effectively managing East Germany's population was blending in.
While researching his new book, Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives, Menner uncovered troves of documents and photographs detailing the inner-workings of the Stasi, including a dress code for undercover agents. "Once top secret, and now preposterous, these images are both comical and sinister," says the book's synopsis. We spoke with Menner, who gave us some insight into the disturbing reality of Stasi East Germany.
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Menner's collection includes many example disguises, which were formulated to help agents blend into everyday East German life. It's a stark contrast to the Nazi Gestapo's ominous black uniform, showcasing the insidious nature of the Stasi's integration into East German life. The photographs were shown at Stasi seminars, as a guide for undercover operatives. "The sad thing is they had to try hard to dress up like ordinary citizens. Something that normally should come easily."
"Friends of mine who are older than I am and who grew up in East Germany tell me that this is exactly what [Stasi operatives] looked like."
"As an artist I am very much interested in how images work and how they are used to manipulate people. I did a lot of research on the nature and structure of surveillance systems, because I thought that these are the people who deal with images a lot and use them against the will of those shown - or even those who have taken them in the first place."
Although the disguises are the most visually interesting aspect of Menner's book, he says they aren’t the most disturbing photographs by a long shot. Above are the first images Menner ever requested, and his reason for embarking on his search for more.
"The Stasi used to perform secret house searches. They broke into private apartments to search them... The victims of these actions, the people living there, were never to learn about the fact their private belongings had been searched. To achieve this, the Stasi agents used Polaroid cameras. These enabled them to put everything back into its original position after the search had been performed. So when you see a Polaroid of an unmade bed, it is actually an unmade bed before it has been searched. I find that revolting."
"I am not so much interested in East Germany or the Stasi than rather our own time and place.If I could I would choose the last two weeks of surveillance of the CIA, [the German intelligence agency] BND, and [the British intelligence agency] GCHQ for my project. But I can't. These archives remain closed."
“What does the collection tell us about the Stasi and East Germany? Maybe some things we already know… How terrible the Stasi was, and how extensive their operation has was. Maybe some things we did not expect. But a key element is missing. Was the Stasi agents' state of mind different to those of their Western counterparts? I doubt it, but this remains a mystery."
Menner ended our conversation with a story, relayed to him by an archivist that aided him in his research.
The story tells of the archivist's aunt, who was unaware that her husband was in cohorts with the Stasi. While she was at work, her husband rented the private apartment to the Stasi for secret meetings. "She was the only person in the family who drank coffee, and she was left-handed." Before she left the apartment each morning, she cleaned the family coffee maker and placed it back into the machine, handle on the left.
Occasionally, the lady returned from work and found the handle would be on the right. Her husband wasn't a coffee drinker, and when she asked him about it, "he accused her of being paranoid." Secretly, the husband relayed her concerns to the Stasi, who created an entire file specifically on how to correctly clean and arrange coffee makers. "She only learned of this after the wall came down while looking through her files," says Menner, "She also learned that he spied on their entire family — her included."
It's a small anecdote, but one that perfectly demonstrates the extent to which the Stasi infiltrated everyday life, dividing families and creating a surveillance state.
Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives will be released on November 30th. You can pre-order it here. A collection of images from the book, including more disguises, images of house searches, hand-to-hand combat techniques, hidden cameras, and even fake beards, is available free of charge at Simon Menner’s website.