In Germany, legacy of Stasi puts different perspective on NSA spying

The Washington Post reports: The secret police, or Stasi, roped in an estimated 190,000 part-time, secret informants and employed an additional 90,000 officers full time – in total, more than one in every 50 adult East Germans as of 1990. East Germans who dared to criticize their government — even to a spouse, a best friend or a pastor — could wind up disappearing into its penal system for years.

In east Berlin sits the former Hohenschoenhausen prison, which was reserved for East Germany’s most politically sensitive cases.

Hubertus Knabe — a West German who smuggled banned books into the East, and later discovered that he had been betrayed by a priest who had encouraged him to do so — now has a plate-glass view of the most perilous destination for victims of Stasi surveillance. He is the director of the prison museum, which is hidden away in a Berlin neighborhood whose rows of imposing apartment blocks still house many former Stasi officers.

Knabe said the consequences of the Stasi’s excesses were far more devastating than anything ever associated with the NSA. “They forget what it’s like to live in a dictatorship versus a democracy,” he said of people who say that the NSA has behaved like the Stasi.

Former inmates now lead tours of the dank, tiny cells in which they were incarcerated, and they say they sometimes run into their old tormenters on the street or at the grocery store.

Many Germans — from both sides of the German border, since East German spying reached deep into its sibling country — have thick Stasi files that they can now request to see. More painfully, they can also learn which of their friends or associates did the collecting of information in those files.

Thousands of people who were collaborators have been chased from public life. Even now, new accusations of Stasi associations can dog politicians and celebrities around Germany.

“We hear that the Stasi was some kind of dilettante agency compared to the NSA,” since the NSA is probably collecting more data overall than the East Germans did, Knabe said. “But East Germans know that the Stasi was a lot worse.”

Knabe said the East German system created a level of fear that few of his fellow citizens truly have about the American spy efforts. Nevertheless, he said, there were other similarities. He has filed a criminal complaint about the NSA spying in a German court.

“The western system punished someone when they had committed a crime. The eastern system punished people when they were only thinking about committing a crime,” he said. If the NSA’s material starts being used not just for counterterrorism efforts but for other kinds of preemptive crime-fighting, he said, “that would be a completely different type of state.”

According to an ARD-Infratest dimap poll released Friday, just 35 percent of Germans find the U.S. government trustworthy, second only to Russia as a target of mistrust. [Continue reading…]

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