Koehler, Stasi, cover

John O. Koehler,
Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Police

(Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999), 460 pages.

book essay by Tracy Kavanaugh
March 15, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany since 1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2006

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About Tracy Kavenaugh (back to top)

I am a junior History major with an emphasis in the Classical and Archaic history. I have always been fascinated by the complex history of Germany. I was able to visit Hitler's "Eagles Nest" in Berchtesgaden in June of 2004. I like to learn about German history and have always taken an interest in the classes that I have taken. I am grateful that I have been able to extend my knowledge through this course. I choose this book because I was unsure who the Stasi was, and when I heard it was about an intelligence service it sparked my interest. As a profession I have always thought about joining the CIA and I thought seeing the dark side of that profession will help me strive to not do those acts.

AbstractStasi logo

John Koehler’s book Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police offers a one-sided look at the way the Stasi performed their tasks during the time of the construction of the Berlin Wall. The book persuasively describes the brutality that was used by the Stasi. The book is based on interviews done by the writer with people he knows, but he cannot document his sources. The book also compares the Stasi to the German Gestapo through brutality and subjection, which is an exaggeration. The writer talks briefly about the life of the leader of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, and about the organization of the Stasi and the KGB. Throughout the book Koehler describes how the Stasi was incredibly invasive into the lives of the East Germans. He also mentions the espionage excursions done by willing informants of the Stasi. The book is poorly constructed in that the author provides exaggerated information in an attempt to make the Stasi seem more terrible then they were.

Book Essay (back to top)

In his book, Stasi: The East German Secret Police John Koehler describes the Stasi as one of the most vicious intelligence agencies in history. He usually compares them to the widely known German Gestapo. Koehler makes comparison when he wants to emphasize the extent of harm that the Stasi did to its prisoners. This book is biasedin that it makes the Stasi seem like the most horrific secret police the world has ever seen. The people they held and tortured were nothing compared to the tragedies of the Gestapo. The book exploits only the worst things the Stasi did and makes it seem worse than it actually was. Through examples I will show how the Stasi compares to the Gestapo to show that the book takes their reign out of context.

The Stasi and their leader

The Stasi was the East German police during the Cold War and the rise and eventual fall of the Berlin Wall. The Stasi helped build the wall to separate East and West Berlin in 1961. Prior to 1945 its future leader Erich Mielke was a young boy, brought up in Hitler Youth, who later became a solid supporter of East Germany. As a young man Mielke was involved in a scheme to assassinate a Berlin Police officer. He was hated because he broke up riots that the Communist Party held. At this time he was working for two henchmen who worked in collaboration with Stalin. After working for the Soviet Secret Police, "Obedinennoe gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie (OGPU)" (Koehler pg.43-44), the Soviet force worked with the German State Security and Mielke became part of the newly formed East German Secret Police force, the Stasi. In 1957 Mielke was made the leader of the Stasi and restructured the force from the inside out. He started to make it an espionage center. Soon thereafter the Berlin Wall was erected and massive surveillance spread over East Germany. Mielke wanted to make sure no one was leaving. Even though Mielke may have been the leader of the Stasi, he was not an evil person. It was his responsibility to keep East Germans unified and many people helped the Stasi in every way they could, even if it meant they had to serve time in prison for the rest of their life. As it will show in comparison to the Gestapo, instead of being made to comply, people wanted to help.

The Statistics of Brutality Done By the Gestapo and Stasi

The Gestapo was the German secret police during World War Two and was one of the most feared organizations to ever enforce "law" in a country. Koehler uses individual cases to compare the Stasi to the German Gestapo. He would like his readers to believe that they were as vicious and controlling as the Gestapo. Then Gestapo was a Nazi organization that worked for Adolf Hitler. Their main job was to "round up all the Jews and the other ‘undesirables’ living within Germany’s newly conquered territories, and to either send them to concentration camps or put them to death," (Gutman pg.1). They were a force to be reckoned with. They were not out to bring peace to Germany, they were out to kill whomever Hitler deemed unfit to live in society.

The Stasi on the other hand wanted to keep East Germans happy and give them a sense of security and show loyalty to the communist party. Simon Wiesenthal of Vienna says, "‘The Stasi was much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people,’" (Koehler pg.8). He is talking about the number of spies they set up against their own people. The Stasi had an astonishing number of around four hundred thousand while the Gestapo only had one hundred sixty thousand.

Readers must take into consideration the differences in the jobs the two organizations had: killing, or spying. Torture was also a large part of both regimes’ work. The full number of murders at the hands of the Gestapo will never be known. As one author writes, "The Gestapo carried out mass murders of hundreds of thousands of civilians of occupied countries as a part of the Nazi program to exterminate political and radical undesirables," (Pike, pg.2). This huge number of murders does not include the extermination of at least six million Jewish people. The Stasi's statistics are not as ‘impressive’: Koehler writes that one of "Kitlaus’s major tasks in 1998 was the investigation of wrongful deaths, including 73 murders, 30 attempted murders, 583 cases of manslaughter, 2,983 instances attempted manslaughter, and 425 suspicious deaths" (Koehler, pg.9). The statistics tell readers that the total number of deaths inflicted by the Stasi is one thousand eighty-one people. This is a tangible number compared to the number of deaths produced by the Gestapo.

Most of the Stasi’s prisoners were purely political because they were spying for one of the Western powers, usually the United States. There are accounts of people who had to endure torture at the hands of Stasi officials. A man named Anton Ivankovic was taken into custody by the East German secret police on April 27, 1988. He was taken to a secret location where he was tied to a bed, given a sedative, and beaten for several days. He was supplying manpower to the West, and the East wanted his company to go under, which they succeeded in doing. They charged him with economic sabotage and political subversion. After the torture "The doctors diagnosed physical exhaustion, sleeping disorder, traumatic fear and an irregular heart rhythm," (Koehler pg.97). This was the extent of damage that happened to Anton. It is horrible, but far short of what the Gestapo did to its victims.

Koehler is hard to believe most of the time because his only evidence is the reports and interviews he gets by other people. After the above diagnosis was made a person who held a high position in the Stasi, Wiegand, "officially opened the investigation into the Ivankovic affair," (Koehler pg.98). Wiegand was the counterespionage director who reported directly to Mielke. It seems that Stasi employees were doing what they wanted and did not take directions from their superiors, which shows little or no loyalty. The Stasi leader seemed to be disgusted that officers would use torture to get what they wanted out of a prisoner.

The Gestapo, on the other hand, had an official policy of torture. "The army units within the Gestapo were taught many torture techniques," (Gutman, pg.1). It seemed that whatever the Gestapo wanted to do, they were allowed to. If they wanted to get information they first interrogated the prisoner for hours. If they did not say anything, by an account of one man, "I was thrown on a bed and whipped with a leather dog whip," (Simkin, pg.5). Then after that they interrogate them again. Many people died during interrogations done by the Gestapo, but not by the Stasi. This is not to say that the Stasi was not cruel, it is just shows that Koehler should not compare the Stasi to the Gestapo.

What Jobs Were Held by these organizations

The Gestapo was a dedicated group that would stop at nothing to be rid of the undesirable people, no matter what it took. Most of the people who worked for the Gestapo were recruited because they worked for the German army and were made to work for the horrible government that held office. During the end of the regime the Royal Air Force bombed Gestapo headquarters and destroyed most of the evidence that could have been used to convict top Gestapo operatives. The Stasi was made up of people who joined forces to help East Germany from losing minds and workers to the West.

Many people infiltrated Western countries during the time of the Cold War to protect their homeland. One of the Stasi informants was able to bring down the Chancellor Willy Brandt. Willy Brandt was trying to unify Germany with "cooperation not confrontation." A man named Günter Guillaume who got the job as a personal assistant to Chancellor Brandt. He was able to share with the Stasi and the Soviets foreign and emergency contingency plans for the Western and NATO allies. The Eastern bloc had a huge advantage if any kind of confrontation would have occurred. The spy, who was finally caught, had enough time to seriously damage the Western allies and discredit Willy Brandt in every way. There were also smaller jobs that were done, and they were always successful, or that’s how Koehler describes it. There is not one instance in which Koehler tells a story of a spy that fails.

The Intelligence Branch

The Stasi was not only a foreign spy organization, since they had a big branch that worked as an intelligence agency like the United States FBI. The Stasi used a system of smell to scope out spies or people who might damage the East Germans’ grand scheme to become a super power. It was a said that "Stasi reports revealed that the pieces of cloth were impregnated with the body odors of suspected dissidents who could thus be tracked by bloodhounds," (Koehler, pg.144). It almost seems like a joke. Koehler does highlight this technique as something that might have been an extreme help in tracking down people. "Stasi agents collected scent samples from people by wiping bits of cloth on objects they had touched," (CNN, pg.1). One might think that the best agency for keeping track of espionage spies might have been more advanced. By the 1980’s it would seem that they might have discovered something more sophisticated then using dogs to find offenders.

In the book Koehler seems to exaggerate events that happened under the Stasi. Whenever a hostage was taken he always describes it as "grotesque," (Koehler, pg.143). He is a journalistic writer and is very good at describing things so that readers get wrapped up in whatever he is talking about and believe that what he says is true. Readers should realize that Koehler looks at the Stasi in a biased way. Everything he says and the things he explains should be looked at with a cautious eye. Readers should also realize that most of the information he collected was taken from interviews he had with people. People can lie and exaggerate when they try to remember what happened.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)

Reviews of Koehler's Book

  • Fullbrook, Mary."Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police."English Historical Review.Vol.115 (2000): pg.1038-1039.
  • Mary Elise Sarotte German Studies Review, Vol. 23, No. 1. (Feb., 2000), pp. 216-217.

Related Articles

  • Gutman, Israel. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. "Gestapo." Volume 1: A-K. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1990.
  • Koehler, John O. Demokratizasiya."East Germany: The Stasi and De-Stasification" Summer 2004

Related Links

  • John Koehler, Demokratizatsiya: East Germany: The Stasi and De-Stasification
    Annotation: This article is very well written and has a detailed description of who the Stasi was and how it affected East Germany. This article must be looked at cautiously because it is written by the same person who wrote the above book. Koehler commented and added more in-depth information than he did in his book.
  • John Pike, "Gestapo," German Intelligence Agencies http://www.fas.org/irp/world/germany/intro/gestapo.htm
    Annotation: This article is very short but gave me a little more insight into what the Gestapo was. If you want a more in-depth description this is not the website you should visit.


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Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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