THE BLOG
09/10/2014 09:55 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Dealing With the Stasi

Sean Gallup via Getty Images

The great riddle of German reunification involves the two dogs that didn't bark. The first dog was the Stasi, the East German secret service, which did so little to prevent the demonstrations of 1989 from bringing down Party chief Erich Honecker, the Berlin Wall, and then the entire Communist regime. The second dog was the East German people, who exacted so little revenge against the Stasi after the once-powerful institution was unmasked. Of course, there may well be a relationship between these two dogs. After all, dogs often bark in response to one another.

The first dog didn't bark, it seems, because the Stasi expected some kind of deal that would have prolonged the life of the East German state with West German cash. It was not an entirely unrealistic expectation. The West German government had paid for all sorts of things in the past, including the exit of East Germans and the dismantling of the automated tripwire at the Wall.

"I talked to a lot of the Stasi people, and they said that they were told during the period of upheaval, 'Stay in your barracks, don't do anything. The Wall's open, we're going to cut a deal, and everything will be okay,'" David Crawford told me. "If these people had been told, 'Stay in your barracks, we're going to have reunification, and when it's over you're going to get 800 DM a month as a pension, and you're going to be unemployed, and you're going to be a pariah to society, and you're not going to be able to work in the public service,' there might have been a lot of public resistance. People might have said, 'Hey, wait a second, I don't want to go into something where people are going to be investigating whether or not I've broken any laws over the last 20 or 30 years.'"

Today Crawford reports for The Wall Street Journal from Berlin. When I met him 23 years ago, he was one of the most knowledgeable researchers into the Stasi. Through careful investigation, he put together a series of lists that exposed the inner workings of the organization: their real estate assets, their pensions, their agents under deep cover. In March 1990, he expected the second dog to bark.

"You quote me in 1990 saying that there would be a lot of violence against these people," he recalled when we met again in 2013 in his house in the suburbs of Berlin. "In June 1990, I published the first of the Stasi lists. This was a list of all of the Stasi real estate. Virtually every East German newspaper ran editorials saying that this was hugely irresponsible and there would be a lot of violence. There wasn't any violence. There were a couple stories written about alleged cases of violence. I looked into them and discovered that they didn't actually happen. The New York Times ended up reporting that there were two such incidents, citing the former East German Interior Minister Peter Michael Diestel. I sent them statements from the state institution that was dismantling the Stasi saying that they had looked into it and hadn't found any incidents. The head of the interior committee of the East German parliament also said that they had looked into it, and there weren't any incidents."

During that period, Crawford thought that the fall of the Berlin Wall would mark the most important time in his life. But his interest in the Stasi faded. He still has his lists. "But I don't really have a big interest in going around trying to out people," he told me. "I don't think it's the most important thing. I like knowing whom I'm dealing with, and I will take a peak when I meet somebody who I think is strange. Or people call me up and say, 'Can you check out this person for me?' and I'm willing to have a look. But I don't think it's that important anymore. Society, as a whole, should move on."

He provided me with one last example of how the Stasi no longer figures prominently in his imagination. "Living out here on the outskirts of town, one of the ways I get into Berlin is by driving past the Stasi headquarters," he concluded. "In the 1990s, I could not go past that building without just gazing at it. I realized at some point or another, I don't look at it anymore. If you and I were driving into town, I would point it out to you because to you it's new, and I know that you'd probably be interested in gaping at it. Just like anybody would, just like I was doing when it was new. But at some point or another, I stopped gaping at it. It took me an awful long time to stop. But I don't notice it anymore. It was a very very interesting time period in my life, but it was just one time period, and now there are other things going on."

The Interview

Many of the folks who worked for the Stasi got jobs or created jobs for themselves in the private sector in security firms, real estate. From this vantage point, it seemed like the Stasi got off pretty easy. But maybe I'm wrong. What's your take on that?

There were a lot of rumors. You quote me in 1990 saying that there would be a lot of violence against these people. In June 1990, I published the first of the Stasi lists. This was a list of all of the Stasi real estate. Virtually every East German newspaper ran editorials saying that this was hugely irresponsible and there would be a lot of violence. There wasn't any violence. There were a couple stories written about alleged cases of violence. I looked into them and discovered that they didn't actually happen. The New York Times ended up reporting that there were two such incidents, citing the former East German Interior Minister Peter Michael Diestel. I sent them statements from the state institution that was dismantling the Stasi saying that they had looked into it and hadn't found any incidents. The head of the interior committee of the East German parliament also said that they had looked into it, and there weren't any incidents.

The idea that East German people were going to go around and beat people up based on information that they would get about the Stasi was kind of far-fetched. The way the Stasi was structured and the way the East German society was structured, everybody assumed that the head of personnel at any East German institution was cooperating with the Stasi, would report to them if asked, and was closely cooperating to the detriment of the staff. None of these people was beaten up. These 9,251 Stasi installations that were reported on, several thousand of them, I can't remember the exact number, were in apartment buildings. And the people who lived in the apartment building suspected what was going on in there. They didn't know for sure, but people knew that this apartment was lived in, and this grandmother was in that apartment. And they knew that there was this other apartment where people would come and meet for 10 or 15 minutes, but no one ever slept there. People in the building knew these things. None of those people were beaten up. And when we put together the pension list of the former Stasi, it wasn't as if people would go up to Rostock from the other end of the country and beat people up there simply because they were on this list.

A lot of people were suspected of being Stasi. I, myself, suspected a bunch of people. Bu it turned out that the people I suspected actually weren't. And some of the people I didn't suspect were. I guess it just shows that my intuition isn't really that good for this kind of thing. But I think the same thing happened to an awful lot of other people. Ultimately, anybody from East Germany who wanted to know who those people were was able to find out. And people weren't beaten up. East Germans weren't a bunch of thugs. It just shows that you can talk about these topics in a constructive manner. If you look at the repercussions for the people, the people whose names were put in the public domain, they very quickly were able to get on with their lives. The disruption wasn't fun. They were asked some questions for a few days. But then it was over. Certainly within a month it was over, and they were able to get on with their lives.

Some of the informal spies, whose names weren't on the central lists that were easily available, had to worry about this for a long time. They had to worry about being blackmailed by their former handlers. They weren't able to get on with their lives. They stayed in jobs where, if they had been outed early in the process, they could have found different jobs and they would have been able to get on with their lives. But some of these people had been in those jobs for five years. Everybody had already found new jobs, and it was kind of late to be going into the job market, and so it was disruptive for those people.

I went through different phases of my opinions on these things. Between January and the end of March 1990, when I was working on the first of these Stasi lists, I had to reassess my own opinion. I started meeting with different people and talking about it and trying to figure out what was the right thing to do. This was less so with the real-estate list because I just didn't take seriously the idea that it was shameful to publish such a list. I thought it was important to put it in the public domain to prevent former members of the Stasi from becoming billionaires by selling off this real estate, which they were not able to do. I also published the current owner of the property, and I put out that list. After German unification, the German finance ministry took the same list that we had actually published and wrote to the current owners of every single piece of property saying the property's name and content. That included, here in this town on the outskirts of Berlin, eight installations. A couple of them were places where they were typing up transcripts of phone conversations that were monitored in Western Germany. One of these places here was a rather large single family home, and it had been turned into a nursery school. The operators of the nursery school were told, "You have obtained this illicitly." Because the town council was operating it, it wasn't a big deal, but they got the same paperwork as everybody else. But publishing the list meant that the former Stasi couldn't do secret deals. Probably after unification they would have stopped all of this anyway.

You did a list of real estate and a list of pensions. What other lists?

Of the spies under deep cover.

Under deep cover in the West?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.