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Informal practice commonly found in German Democratic Republic
GDR map.png
Map of German Democratic Republic, where Zersetzung commonly takes place.
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Flag of German Democratic Republic.
Entry written by Udo Grashoff.
Udo Grashoff is affiliated to School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.

Original Text: Udo Grashoff, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Zersetzung was a technique used in the GDR by the secret police (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, Ministry for State Security, commonly known as the Stasi). Its goal was to deter individuals from political activity and to disrupt opposition movements by creating existential uncertainty.

Originally a scientific term, Zersetzung may be translated as ‘decomposition.’ Its political use has a long history. Already in the 19th century, it carried negative connotations, warning of the dangers of social disintegration. Right-wing nationalists and anti-Semites used the term to denounce workers’ movements, women’s movements, and Jews. After the First World War, the term came to be used to denote a ‘stab-in-the back.’ The Nazis continued this practice, warning of alleged enemies who would weaken society and its sense of community. In the run-up to the Second World War, Wehrkraftzersetzung (undermining military force) was declared a criminal offence. Under Germany’s Wartime Special Penal Code (Kriegssonderstrafrechtsverordnung) of 1938, as many as 30,000 soldiers and civilians were tried and convicted, and many of them were sentenced to death.

Besides that, however, Zersetzung could have a more positive meaning. Under the Weimar Republic (1919-33), various political actors saw it as a way to weaken political rivals and infiltrate state institutions. For example, the secret service of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) disseminated subversive propaganda within the military, the Social Democratic Party, and the Stormtroopers.

The GDR (1949-90) set up the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) in 1950. The Stasi presented itself as the successor of the KPD’s secret service. But, unlike the former communist practice of Zersetzung, the task of East Germany’s secret police was not to undermine authority but to protect the Communist dictatorship. Its main goal was accordingly to deter individuals and groups from activities considered dangerous to the state. The methods the Stasi used were also different. Rather than distributing propaganda in an effort to persuade people to change sides or to collaborate, the Stasi used Zersetzung to create psychological unease and undermine trust among friends and like-minded persons. Zersetzung was deployed against dissidents and artists who criticised the state, church-based opposition groups, peace campaigners, applicants for emigration, and wayward youth. In contrast to other repressive methods below the level of the criminal law, Zersetzung was generally successful as long as its sources were not detected.

Zersetzung was increasingly practised in the GDR after 1976 in reaction to increasing numbers of applications for emigration. In the 1980s, as the authorities switched their focus from repressive to preventive measures, Zersetzung began to be used systematically. Implementation of preventive measures required more staff, which is one reason why the number of official members of the secret police doubled between 1971 and 1989, along with an increase in the number of unofficial collaborators. Stasi staff received special training at the Juristische Hochschule (Legal Academy) in Potsdam where ‘operative psychology’ was among the subjects taught.

However, Zersetzung was anything but a uniform practice. Each action was tailored to fit the individual character of the target(s). Human weaknesses were identified in order to exploit them. Be it family problems, mental health issues, homosexuality, alcohol addiction, professional ambition, fear of losing one’s children – the Stasi targeted each individual’s most vulnerable point. Rumours and manipulated photographs were spread in order to create mistrust and confusion. Dissidents were confronted with threatening situations such as arbitrary interrogations or damage to their personal belongings. Career advancement was blocked, family and other relationships were destroyed, travel bans were imposed. The Stasi might also try to criminalise or defame its victims as informants. In a number of cases, after many years of Zersetzung, individuals were forced to emigrate.

Wrecking people’s careers was a common method of Zersetzung. Among hundreds of victims were prominent dissidents such as Rudolf Bahro, Jürgen Fuchs and Robert Havemann. The treatment meted out to Wolfgang Templin, a philosopher and leading member of several peace and human rights groups, typified the Stasi’s techniques. Templin was sacked from his job, prevented from receiving his doctorate, and forced to earn a living with odd jobs such as librarian, fireman and forestry worker. Behind the scenes, the Stasi blocked all his job applications.

In Templin’s case, however, the Stasi failed to force him to abandon political activity. In December 1985 he became co-founder of one of GDR’s most important opposition groups, the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights (Initiative für Frieden und Menschenrechte). Thereupon the Stasi published a string of fake advertisements in newspapers and sent bogus letters signed with Templin’s name. The result was a year of psychological terror for his entire family, with strangers banging on their door on an almost daily basis. The Stasi also circulated malicious gossip in the neighbourhood. Most threatening of all were the Stasi’s instructions to the youth welfare service to take Templin’s children into custody.

Meanwhile, the family was provided with a large flat. The aim of this apparent privilege was to create suspicions that Templin was a Stasi informant. (In fact he had, when a student and as a member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany [SED], collaborated with the Stasi, but he had openly and deliberately unmasked himself in 1975, and he left the SED in 1983.) To discredit him further, the Stasi arranged for the publication of fake interviews in the Western media complaining that Templin was trying to dominate the opposition movement. After Templin took part in a political protest demonstration in January 1988, he and his wife were forced temporarily to leave the GDR for West Germany. While he was there, the Stasi continued its Zersetzung, with the apparent aim of forcing Templin into permanent exile.

The Stasi deployed a number of different methods against peace, human rights and environmental groups that met in the protected space of churches. Informants were planted in such groups in order to obstruct and delay decisions by circulating rumours and creating splits between the leaders and the rest of the group. The secret police organised thefts, and fostered mistrust by arbitrary arrests of group members with the aim of discrediting all the members of the group. In the case of the independent Pankow Peace Circle (Friedenskreis Pankow, founded in 1981), dozens of SED members and functionaries of mass organisations were sent to the group’s meetings to disrupt discussions. As a result, the Peace Circle sank into insignificance.

All in all, several thousand members of various environmental, human rights and peace groups were subjected to Zersetzung. Even so, many groups remained in existence for years, and many dissidents continued their activities regardless of the clandestine attacks.

Zersetzung can be researched by combining critical analysis of Stasi files and oral history. For a number of reasons, however, this is not an easy task. The Stasi files are not complete. In some cases, the application of Zersetzung is only vaguely indicated. But there is also a danger of overestimating the Stasi’s criminal energy. Often, detailed plans were drafted but only partially realised. This also applies to scattered hints of murderous intentions. Generally, the goal of Zersetzung was to ensure that dissidents were preoccupied with their personal problems, and that groups were eroded from within. The goal was not, as a rule, to kill people. For example, in 2000 a research group (Projektgruppe Strahlen) refuted allegations that dissidents had been deliberately targeted with X-rays.

The Stasi used vast and detailed knowledge to construct legends. Mistrust and disinformation can often have long-lasting effects. In many cases, victims did not recognise the perfidious activities of the secret police. Many who voiced concerns were not believed. After the Stasi files were made accessible, dissidents such as Fuchs and Templin could document how insidiously they had been attacked, and prove that they were not paranoid. However, there are still dubious cases that leave a sense of unease. Some 5,000 people are estimated to have suffered psychological damage. Since 1993, victims of Zersetzung can apply for rehabilitation when they provide evidence. But, since laws may not be retrospectively enforced, and since the activities of the Stasi were not illegal during the years of the GDR’s existence, the Stasi perpetrators were not prosecuted.

Bibliography and Recommended Reading

Behnke, K. 1998. ‘Zersetzungsmaßnahmen – Die Praxis der “Operative Psychologie” des Staatssicherheitsdienstes und ihre traumatischen Folgen’, in Baumann, U. and Kury, K. (eds), Politisch motivierte Verfolgung – Opfer von SED-Unrecht. Freiburg i. Br.: Max Planck Institut für ausländisches und internationales Strafrecht: 379–99

Fuchs, J. and Behnke, K. (eds). 1995. Zersetzung der Seele – Psychologie und Psychiatrie im Dienste der Stasi. Hamburg: Rotbuch

Gieseke, J. 2003. ‘“Zersetzung” – Interpretationen und Kontroversen der Stasi-Historiographie am Beispiel einer geheimpolizeilichen Methode’, in Dakowska, D., Bensussan, A. and Beaupré, N. (eds), Die Überlieferung der Diktaturen. Essen: Klartext: 149–72

Kaufmann, B. et al. 1994. Der Nachrichtendienst der KPD 1919–1937. Berlin: Dietz

Messerschmidt, M. 2005. Die Wehrmachtjustiz 1933–1945. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schoeningh

Knabe, H. 1998. ‘Die feinen Waffen der SED: Nicht strafrechtliche Formen politischer Viktimisierung in der DDR', in: Baumann, U. and Kury, K. (eds), Politisch motivierte Verfolgung – Opfer von SED-Unrecht. Freiburg i. Br.: Max Planck Institut für ausländisches und internationales Strafrecht: 303-29

Pingel-Schliemann, S. 2003a. Zersetzen: Strategie einer Diktatur. Berlin: Robert-Havemann-Gesellschaft

2003b. ‘Lautlose Formen der Zerstörung – Zersetzungsmaßnahmen des MfS,’ Deutschland Archiv, 35: 233–42

Projektgruppe Strahlen (Eisenfeld, B., Auerbach, T., Weber, G., Pflugbeil, S.) 2000. Einsatz von Röntgenstrahlen und radioaktiven Stoffen durch das MfS gegen Oppositionelle – Fiktion oder Realität? Berlin: BstU

Süß, S. 1999. ‘Repressive Strukturen in der SBZ/DDR – Analyse von Strategien der Zersetzung durch Staatsorgane der DDR gegenüber Bürgern der DDR', in Deutscher Bundestag (ed.), Materialien der Enquete-Kommission ‘Überwindung der Folgen der SED-Diktatur im Prozess der deutschen Einheit,’ Vol. 2. Baden-Baden: Nomos: 193–250