Arbitrary arrest, solitary confinement in special prisons that were censored from maps and officially did not exist, systematic brutality, sleep deprivation and torture — these were the everyday weapons of the nearly 100,000 policemen in the Ministry of State Security as they kept their sinister tabs on a third of the entire nation, logging their every move and building up bulging paper files of information on them. …
The trouble was that all this sinister behaviour was denting East Germany’s international credentials. … So in the 1970s, the masterminds at Stasi School — formally known as the College of Legal Studies — decided on a new, more subtle tactic of repression, a way of stamping out rebellion without the overt use of force.
Instead of pounding their suspects into submission, they would send them mad. And so began the policy of Zersetzung.
The word meant disintegration or corrosion or decomposition. Today we would call it ‘gaslighting’ — playing with someone’s mind and self-worth until any resistance crumbles and he or she becomes either compliant or apathetic.
Another phrase for it was ‘no-touch torture’. …
How they did it:
There were scores of ways to play mind games with suspects, in a bid to create panic, confusion and fear. Some were obvious. The phone would ring but when it was picked up there was no one there. Then it would ring again, and again.
But Stasi agents were also known to break into suspects’ homes when they were out and change the time on the alarm clock in the bedroom so it went off unexpectedly — and frighteningly — in the middle of the night.
Pictures on walls were moved, an electric razor in the bathroom left running, socks moved to a different drawer, furniture shifted to a different position, even the coffee mysteriously disappearing from the kitchen and the variety of tea in a cupboard replaced by a different one.
It was the little things like this that freaked people out, leaving them, in the words of the Stasi handbook, ‘paralysed, disorganised and isolated’.
A married target would be sent falsified photographs of himself in a compromising situation or postcards from another woman demanding child support payments; his wife would get a sex toy in the post; a vibrator — which was classified as decadent Western frivolity — would be planted in his home to embarrass and incriminate him.
All these were tactics to undermine family relations and help destroy him.
‘Decomposition was designed to unglue a dissident’s psyche, to chip away at his sanity,’ according to U.S. academic Professor Dominic Tierney of the think-tank the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
‘A regime opponent would find himself trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare. Everywhere he turned, an evil force seemed to be hounding him, even though he could not prove that he had been singled out.
‘Who would believe that the government was secretly stealing his tea towels?‘
The effects were powerful. Some victims killed themselves, others suffered insomnia, panic attacks and nervous breakdowns. One target called what happened to him ‘an assault on the human soul’.
Insidious step was piled on insidious step to systematically undermine individuals and prevent them from living a normal life. Their homes were bugged, telephones tapped, cars mysteriously sabotaged, bicycle tyres slashed. A promotion at work would be denied for no good reason. Medical notes were interfered with and they were diagnosed for treatment they did not need.
On whispered Stasi instructions, staff in bars and shops would refuse to serve them, leaving them feeling isolated, unwanted, outsiders. …
The aim, writes Max Hertzberg, veteran investigator in the Stasi archive, was to ‘switch off’ a person’s supposed dissident activities. The secret policemen didn’t care whether this happened through disillusionment, fear, burn-out or mental illness. ‘All outcomes were acceptable, and people’s mental health and social standing during or after an operation were of no interest to them.’
Sullying someone’s reputation was always an effective tactic, as a 14-year-old girl named Regina found out when she was targeted as a way of getting at her father, who ran his own business as a hairdresser and was therefore ‘an enemy of socialism’.
The word was put around that she was a Flittchen — promiscuous — and strangers would stalk her, making lewd remarks and touching her up. She was followed and twice men tried to rape her. In the end she gave up the struggle and became a Stasi informant herself, grassing up her own parents. …
Infiltrating dissident groups:
Dissent and distrust would be stirred up among members with rumours of collaboration with the authorities, of informants in their midst, until they were so busy suspecting each other that they had no time to be active opponents of the state any more.
An agent would infiltrate a group and then surreptitiously disrupt what they were doing by, for example, agreeing to tasks but not getting round to them, losing equipment and sabotaging the production of dissident material.
Paralyzing their opponents worked:
All these soul-destroying activities of the Stasi were frankly hideous and there is every indication that they worked. Many opponents of the regime simply caved in and shut down their activities, worn down and worn out by the relentless pressure on them.
‘The Stasi didn’t try to arrest every dissident,’ writes German historian Hubertus Knabe. ‘It preferred to paralyse them and it could do so because it had access to so much personal information and to so many institutions.’ …
Lessons for today:
Billions of people round the world willingly give away their personal details, and intelligence and police agencies, as well as employers, media and criminals, routinely draw on them.
Where the Stasi had to wheedle out the minutiae of people’s lives and then store the information in millions of physical brown files, today it’s all there tucked away in unseen digital files. …
In China … the WeChat messaging service — used by a billion people across the globe — is routinely scanned. Did you say something critical on WeChat, attend church or visit a foreign embassy? Good luck getting a good job, or a visa to travel. Another Stasi dream come true. …
Bullies today use Stasi tactics:
In this modern world of ours, individuals can easily employ Stasi-like digital tools against anyone.
And now you don’t have to break into someone’s home and change the alarm clock or send an unwanted sex toy in the post to unravel and unnerve them any more.
Social media makes gaslighting instant, easy and remote. [Former FBI agent Ralph Hope] cites the growing frequency of ‘doxing’, the publishing on the internet of real or false private information about someone, as a way of intimidating, discrediting or silencing them.
‘It’s done by small groups, individuals or foreign government actors pretending to be someone else.
‘The goal is to destroy the person, in true Stasi fashion.’
So much easier just to mind your own business. Which is what they want.