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UW historian's expertise includes East German Stasi

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September 16, 2005

Source: University of Waterloo:

UW historian's expertise includes East German Stasi

WATERLOO, Ont. -- University of Waterloo History Prof. Gary Bruce is keenly interested in the Stasi, the huge Communist secret service organization that existed in East Germany during the post-Second World War years.

"I received my PhD from McGill in '93," he explains. "Since the Berlin Wall had just fallen (in '89) and since I was strongly interested in the history of Germany, I decided to base my thesis on the newly-opened Stasi files." He was aware that there had been strong resistance to Communism in East Germany -- at the time controlled by the USSR -- and decided some part of this was worthy of study.

He soon discovered that there had in fact been an "anti-Communist underground" in East Germany and that the job of the Stasi was to exterminate it, or at least hold it in check. In doing so, the Stasi collected rafts of information on countless numbers of individuals suspected of underground anti-Communist activities. They also waged smear campaigns against many individuals they suspected of "disloyalty to the state" in an effort to isolate them, break them down and punish them.

One way for East German citizens to ingratiate themselves with the Stasi was to report any suspicions of disloyalty such as the spreading of anti-Communist pamphlets, taking part in secret basement meetings or even just exchanging gossip about events of the day. As a result, East Germany became a truly unpleasant place to live, particularly for anyone accused of being anti-Communist.

To learn more about what had gone on in the country Bruce looked into Stasi dossiers and files that disclosed what had been learned about those who resisted the Communists. "Getting into these files was becoming much easier, so I wanted to learn more about this particular secret police organization and the ways it conducted its business," he comments. His efforts were rewarded as he was able to get at huge masses of information documenting the activities of the Stasi.

"They had developed a massive secret information network," he notes, "containing an astonishing amount of facts, rumors and so on. In fact, the Stasi was East Germany's largest employer. It was a huge organization that had put together vast quantities of files on individuals. The organization was much, much larger per capita than Hitler's Gestapo. Most of the information was collected in a vast reinforced-concrete headquarters building. "Some historians have argued," he adds, "that the Stasi was the most extensive secret police in world history."

Currently, Bruce is writing a history of two local Stasi district offices, seeking to explain how they were organized, how they went about controlling the population, how they recruited staff and how the population of East Germany reacted to their presence. More recently he spent considerable time interviewing former officers of the Stasi and notes that today, despite the passage of many years, some surviving former Stasi have not changed their view of things in the slightest. They are still deeply loyal to the Communist cause.

"I have found that many former Stasi are still absolutely unyielding," he notes. He cites an interview with a former senior officer who brought out his old uniform for the occasion. "It wasn't an easy interview," he says. "He was reluctant to talk. But when he did so, it became apparent immediately that he remains absolutely unrepentant and he was disgusted with former members of the Communist Party who today no longer believe in it. Later on in our chat he grew angry and asked me: 'What happened to the idealists? Where are the true believers now?' I realized he will never question his former actions."

Essentially, Bruce describes the Stasi as an organization dedicated to controlling and ruining people's lives. One way of doing this involved spreading vicious rumors in the community about those they wished to ruin. This included, for example, writing anonymous letters to spouses or to family members.

It was also a regular practice of the Stasi, if they were suspicious of you for any reason, to ask you to drop in at their office for a "talk" on, say, parking regulations on the streets. When you did so, they collected a small sample of the scent from your body, which they were then able to preserve. If you subsequently "went underground" they would present this scent sample to a tracking dog, one that they had trained to track you down, by scent, wherever you were hiding.

Bruce says that in the fall of '89, when it had become clear that the East German regime was collapsing, the Stasi began to destroy documents they had been collecting for many years. Subsequently, people began to see smoke billowing out of the Stasi building and charred bits of paper began falling like snow in the streets. Following this, East German citizens began storming Stasi buildings. As for the Stasi: "They knew it was all over and they just withered away."

The final chapter was written on Jan. 15, 1990, when East German citizens occupied the Stasi headquarters and stopped the destruction of documents. He says that somehow, many Stasi documents eventually ended up in the United States, in the possession of government officials. He presumes this was through the efforts of U.S. intelligence operatives.

The UW historian says his studies have awakened in him a new concern about secret police operations.

"Citizens everywhere must always be vigilant about such activity," he says, "and about personal information a government may have which the individual has no access to. Of course, the situation here in Canada doesn't remotely compare with what the Stasi were doing in East Germany. But we always need to be careful about things that are being done in the name of 'national security' . . . which is the excuse the Stasi used. We need to be careful about the breaching of personal privacy. We need to support the civil liberties of our citizens, if we are to enjoy a healthy society."

(Written by Bob Whitton for UW Media Relations.)

Prof. Gary Bruce, (519) 888-4567, ext. 6780; gsbruce@watarts.uwa
Jim Fox, UW Media Relations, (519) 888-4444;
Release no. 201 -- September 16, 2005



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