The Banal Evils of the Police State
With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, many who lived under the communist regime of East Germany have taken the opportunity to go to the state archives and view the files which the Stasi secret police kept on them. Stasi files were not kept only on spies and political dissenters, but on ordinary people whose “offenses” were almost shockingly mundane, and whose betrayers were often friends or family:
A West German pudding. That was all it took. Once the Stasi found out about it, a family breadwinner was fired from his army job and an East German household was plunged into destitution.
Even worse, the family later found out that they had been turned in by a close friend. “She was watering the plants and went through the cupboards to find a Dr. Oetker dessert,” Vera Iburg, who has worked with files kept by the East German secret police for the last 20 years, told SPIEGEL ONLINE, referring to the snoop. “What was she doing? She had no business there!”
It’s an interesting example of the corrupting power of temptation that the availability of the means to easily hurt those around you by reporting others to the police motivated many to inform merely for the satisfaction of it:
The files — which occupy over 100 kilometers of shelf space (not including the 16,000 sacks of shredded documents the Birthler Authority is currently trying to reassemble with the aid of computers) — are testament to a darker side of humanity. And Ziehm says that films like “The Lives of Others,” which indicate that many were coerced into spying on friends and neighbors, don’t come close to plumbing the depths that some ultimately fall to. Friends informed voluntarily on friends and spouses even tattled on each other.
“More often than not, the Stasi did not need to apply pressure at all,” he says. “In fact, many often felt snubbed if their information was deemed to be of no interest.” The real motivation behind these acts of betrayal was much more humdrum than one might think. “People informed for personal gain, out of loyalty to the East German regime, or simply because they wanted to feel like they had some power,” Ziehm says.
Often we think of repressive regimes’ primary evil being what they do to the people of a country, yet it’s perhaps more important (and more disturbing) to think of how the tools of such a regime corrupt many of the people themselves.