Past as prelude

Americans and Brits living in their respective surveillance societies would do well to learn from the East Germans, whose Stasi were a precursor to today’s social media thought police:

1) They Were Gaslighting before It Was a Thing

The Stasi were prolific gaslighters. In the 1950s, repression was brutal, physical torture. Early in the 1970s, eager to be accepted on the international stage, the East German Secret Police had to get more subtle. The aim of Zersetzung (a repurposed military term meaning disintegration or corrosion) was to “switch off” any activist individuals and groups who might threaten the Party. Police collected medical, school, and police records, interviews with neighbors and relatives, and any other evidence they could get and would then customize a direct hit on an individual’s mental health.

If someone looked like he might challenge the Communist Party’s legitimacy or control, the Stasi systematically destroyed his life. They used blackmail, social shame, threats, and torture. Careers, reputations, relationships, and lives were exploded to destabilize and delegitimize a critic. Some forms of harassment were almost comical: agents spread rumors about their targets, flooded their mailboxes with pornography, moved things around in their apartments, or deflated their bicycle tires day after day. Others were life-altering: Individuals labeled as subversives were banned from higher education, forced into unemployment, and forcibly committed to asylums. Many suffered long-term psychological trauma, loss of earnings, and intense social shame as a result of Stasi lies.

2) They Were (Almost) Everywhere

The Stasi had 91,000 employees at its peak—roughly one in every 30 residents was a Stasi agent. More than one in three East Germans (5.6 million) was under suspicion or surveillance, with an open Stasi file. Another half million were feeding the Stasi information. This level of surveillance and infiltration caused East Germans to live in terror—you really never knew if you could trust anyone—though most had no idea of the scope of these activities until after the Berlin Wall fell.

3) They Kept a Crazy Amount of (Meticulous) Records

Stasi files laid out together would cover about 69 sq. miles. Recording detailed personal information on a third of the populace required a tremendous amount of paper. More pages of printed text were generated by the Stasi than by all German authors from the Middle Ages to WWII. Thousands of citizens were targeted as anti-government “trouble makers,” their homes were searched, phones and cars—if they were lucky enough to have either—were bugged, their letters opened and copied, and their movements secretly filmed or photographed. Every document went into a personal Stasi file. So far, hundreds of millions of files, 39 million index cards, 1.75 million photographs, 2,800 reels of film and 28,400 audio recordings have been recovered from Stasi archives. Millions more were shredded before they could be made public.

The deplatformings and ritual denouncings of today are the modern equivalent of the Zersetzung. Remember, everything you do is now recorded and will be used against you, so don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise.