In January 1992, three years after the Berlin wall had fallen, and two years after East and West Germany reunified to form a single state, the archives of the of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or Ministry for State Security, better known as the Stasi, were officially opened to the public. On the first day, such was the demand from those wishing to read the records the secret police had gathered on him or her, that the 20,000 application forms made available disappeared in a matter of hours. Even today, requests for access continue to flood in.
The Stasi was founded in 1950 to flush out enemies of the state. Anyone who fell under even vague suspicion could expect to have their phones tapped and their apartments bugged. Fear-tactics were the order of the day: imprisoning, intimidating, intervening in citizens’ chances at a contented life, preventing their promotion at work, or entry to university.
Just before reunification, there were about six million people – that’s near a third of the country’s total population – under surveillance. The organisation counted some 274,000 employees on its books, aided and abetted by an estimated 500,000 unpaid informants. Even in today’s terms, the sheer volume of documentation they produced is astounding. Their files are housed over 50 miles of shelving, and because officials began destroying files as the regime collapsed, there were a further 15,000 bags of shredded papers. The task of sorting and reconstructing those pieces continues, and so every day, the archive grows even larger.
Berlin-based photographer Simon Menner, who has made his name creating and researching images which explore the idea of surveillance – the watcher who watches the watchmen, if you like – spent two years in that voluminous Stasi archive, researching photographs pertaining to the activities of the organisation over its 40 year history. ‘While I was aware beforehand that I would find picture material among the documents’ says Menner. ‘the quality and breadth of the images I was able to unearth…was surprising, even to me.’
Altogether, the files contained about 1.4 million photographs, slides and negatives, and Menner has selected about two hundred of these for his book. They range from the familiar, blurred kinds of photographs we are familiar with from today’s surveillance cameras – citizens posting letters for example (how brilliant that they are all wearing similar, Inspector Clouseau style Mackintosh coats, as though this most humdrum of daily tasks were the most underhand of covert missions) – to the results of secret house searches, which for me have a more queasy edge.
Stasi agents used Polaroid cameras in order to carry out their searches without leaving any trace, the film bought in the West through covert channels. Before they began to rifle among their suspect’s belongings, they would photograph everything as they found it in order to return it to the correct position afterwards. In this context, photographs of an unmade bed stick particularly in one’s throat. The most private of spaces where we are at our most vulnerable, treated as fair game for the ruthless implementation of state business.
There are other, less prickly images, some of which we may even find amusing – a kind of manual for wearing fake facial hair and other forms of disguise, or dressing like a Western tourist and one I’m particularly partial to: how to transmit secret signs in an inconspicuous manner. I’ve included a close-up shot of the car, so you can see how the spy is using his newspaper as a prop.
But, says Menner, ‘it is important not to lose sight of the original intentions behind these pictures. They concern photographic records of the repression exerted by the state to subdue its own citizens…[and] undue intrusion into the private lives of the observed subjects.’
Nevertheless, the images remain immensely captivating, I suppose because they enable our own indulgent nosiness, but also because they are soaked in an Eastern Bloc-chic (if that’s not too flippant a term), that has become familiar to us in transposed form via films like The Lives of Others. Menner’s book has the same mustard, ochre, brown, grey, beige, olive and orange palette. There’s the food packaging and the fashion. The cars, that are so of their place and time. It all adds to a spine-tingling kind of narrative that we are lucky enough to know only through its subsequent, re-imagined retelling, rather than living through its everyday terrors and bleakness. But I think this is often how we come to negotiate the past, particularly its less digestible strains. To paraphrase Menner, foraging about in a past like this is a task better suited to artists than historians.
Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives, 128pp, is published by Hatje Cantz at 16.80 euros, £15.99. Text in English and German.