Stasi / Facebook / Big Data DAAD Day 15 – Notes from a former Department M surveillance operator

In the essay, “Eavesdropping for the class struggle: Postal control of the Stasi,” from the book, “Secret readers in the GDR: Control and distribution of illicit literature” (ed. Siegfried Lokatis), Gerd Reinicke describes his work in the “evaluation and information” section of the Stasi’s Department M. He explains his job was to assess and classify the contents of mailings, personal letters and printed materials, and in extreme cases, make decisions about confiscation.

This work was not easy. The stream of mail was constant and so he had a limited time frame for his work. He operated in secret, but also had to consider the public perception of his decisions. While technically illegal, the government watched all mail moving within the country, as well as that leaving or arriving in the GDR. As far as the population was concerned it was an “open secret,” because they observed the effect of the government’s policy of opening mail to remove valuable items, as well any writing or media considered to be “Politisch-ideologische Diversion (PiD)” (English: “Political-ideological Diversion”)—a task which was not as clear as it might seem.

Upon his hire was told to collect information on people and facts that might be “operatively interesting” to intelligence services. But he also received instructions to remove “anything unnecessary.” This work reflects the dual role that Department M played for the SED as a surveillance and control mechanism. On one hand, they watched for communications between spies or dissidents, but they were often a censorship apparatus.

This flowchart shows the three basic categories by which mail was classified, and subclassified, specifically, as “messages suspicious of being intelligence communications,” “messages suspicious of being PiD,” and “messages determined to be ‘interesting content’.” The assignment into of any of these categories determined further routing into the Department M machinery.

Heimliche Leser in der DDR: Kontrolle und Verbreitung unerlaubter Literatur (ed. Siegfried Lokatis)

These broad definitions also underline the ambiguity in how their surveillance and censorship was officially applied. For example, in dealing with Western and dissident literature, these instructions were followed in different ways. Sometimes operators were generous in their interpretation of “class struggle appropriate” materials, while other times he characterizes their subjective interpretation as “petty.”

  • Hanna Labrenz-Weiß. Abteilung M (MfS Handbuch). Hg. BStU. Berlin 2005.
  • Reinicke, Gerd. “Mitlesen für den Klassenkampf: Postkontrolle der Stasi”. In: Heimliche Leser in der DDR: Kontrolle und Verbreitung unerlaubter Literatur (ed. Siegfried Lokatis). Berlin, 2008.