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German Media Cleans Stasi Out of Its Closet

The long tentacles of East Germany's former State Secret Police, the Stasi, not only reached the Communist media, but infiltrated West German public broadcasters as well, a new study has found.


Stasi spies were everywhere -- even at public TV stations

Three years ago, German public broadcaster ARD launched a project that would be uncomfortable for many media organizations. It assigned a team of researchers to uncover the ways the East German secret service sought to manipulate the West German organization's news coverage during the Cold War and whether it sought to recruit its journalists as spies. It's long been known that some West German media workers did spy for the Stasi, but a report released on Monday shines a veritable floodlight on the issue.

Aktenberge im Gauckarchiv

Rows and rows of files in the state-run agency for housing Stasi archives.

The study, commissioned by ARD and produced in tandem with the state-run agency responsible for the Stasi archives and historians at Berlin's Free University, comprises over 1,000 pages of proof that the Stasi skipped no opportunity to control the mass media in its own country and also manipulate and infiltrate radio and TV stations in West Germany during the Communist era.

A propaganda machine

However, the report found that despite massive efforts to influence the programming of West German public broadcasters, it never succeeded in doing so. Additionally, it found, none of the informants working with the Stasi served in senior positions or on boards responsible for high-level programming decisions. Nevertheless, the study did conclude that the Communist Party had been successful in promulgating disinformation on domestic policy issues that did often find its way into news reports.

Marianne Birthler vor Stasi Akten

Marianne Birthler of the Stasi archive

Marianne Birthler, director of the federal authority that serves as guardian of the Stasi archive, praised the study as a good example of Germans working through their past. "The study is a unique project," she said. "There is no other institution that has tried to work through its own past like this."

The authors of the survey were able to tap into new archived material that was only made available to Germany by the United States in 2003. After years of negotiations, the US administration returned the Stasi’s so-called "Rosewood" files, which contain the names of over 50,000 potential undercover agents, among them an estimated 12,000 from the West.

Revelations damage journalists

The study adds more names to the list of those East German journalists whom the Stasi used as informers, bringing the total to 42. Many other eastern German journalists have already taken leave after revelations about their involvement with the Stasi surfaced. The report also cited 61 West German spies, a high number, but lower than some ARD officials had expected.

Mixed motives

Stasi Akten Kartei

While East German journalists may have acted under enormous Stasi pressure, West German journalists working for the Stasi often had other motives, offering their services for money or out of anti-capitalist or communist convictions. According to the study, the list of those West German journalists who collaborated with the Stasi is astonishingly long. It is also feeding considerable public interest.

Many are interested in the subject, "because a spy network is involved and of course there are a lot of interesting and fascinating stories about the attempt of the Stasi to undermine broadcasting enterprises," the director of an ARD-affiliated TV network in the west, Fritz Pleitgen, said.

"We found that the strategy in the activity of the Stasi was so gigantic -- and we didn't expect that."

Terrorist plots?

In some instances, the data exchange went far beyond journalism. Jochen Staadt of Berlin’s Free University and co-author of the study reported on cases where West German Stasi spies delivered information on how to blow up broadcasting houses in the west and kill or deport journalists in the event of a political crisis.

"What they collected was material to use to intervene in a situation of crisis in West Germany and West Berlin," he explained. "They would have done this. We know that they supported terrorist organizations in West Germany and they had no problem using violence against institutions and people."

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