The Stasi’s Long Arm

It appears that the Stasi acted with impunity not only within the borders of the GDR, but also in West Berlin and West Germany where it time and again perpetrated various types of crimes in violation of international human rights law. Ralph Pickard, in his article on “The Awarding of the East German Patriotic Order of Merit in Bronze to a Ministry for State Security Officer for Kidnapping a West German Citizen During the Cold War,” reports on the kidnapping operations of the MfS in the West and the fate of those persons affected.

As I explained in my snapshot on The Stasi, the Ministry for State Security (MfS) was responsible for both domestic surveillance and foreign espionage in the Soviet-occupied German Democratic Republic (GDR). At its peak, it employed 90,000 secret police officers (commonly called “Stasi”) whom East Germans hated and feared. It has been described as one of the most effective, repressive, and despised intelligence and secret police agencies that ever existed, comparable to the Soviet Union’s ruthless KGB. With the help of almost 200,000 informants, the Stasi monitored and gathered intelligence on GDR citizens it considered to be possible enemies of the state. It also conducted covert operations in West Berlin, West Germany, and elsewhere in the West, including the United States. The Stasi was proud of its “long arm,” which it used on many occasions to incapacitate enemies of the GDR’s communist government living in the West, persons who presumed they were safe and beyond the Stasi’s reach. Unfortunately for them, they were very wrong.

It is estimated during the early period of the Cold War that between 400 and as many as 600 German citizens were abducted in West Germany and taken to East Germany (GDR) after the creation of the GDR in 1949, through the mid-1960s. Those involved in the abductions were members of the East German Border Police/Guards, DDR Ministry for State Security (MfS – STASI) and, to a lesser extent, the USSR Committee for State Security (KGB). Based on historical research of the STASI Archives, some of the persons who were abducted by the East German state were found guilty under East German law and, in some instances, were sentenced to death. However, in other instances, some abductees were given prison sentences that were as long as 15 years. Abductions in West Germany and West Berlin involved multiple MfS departments, which in itself provides some insight on the coordination that was necessary to bring the abductees back into East Germany.
(Regimes Museum Journal , Vol. 6, No. 1, Feb. 2019, p. 14)

Following this introduction to the topic of abductions orchestrated by the GDR’s MfS, Pickard focuses attention on two of the many individuals who were kidnapped from West Berlin, Gerd Sommerlatte and Karl Wilhelm Fricke. Gerd Sommerlatte was a GDR citizen who had managed to become an East German border guard. On September 10, 1961, he was assigned to the Brandenburg Gate dividing East and West Berlin and on that day, he decided to defect to the West. A short time after his defection to the West, West German criminals hired by the MfS leadership abducted Sommerlatte in West Berlin. They drove him to the East Berlin border, where they handed him over to the GDR authorities. He was charged with espionage and sentenced to ten years in prison in 1962. He was released in 1965 and handed over to West German authorities.

Pickard proceeds to tell his readers about Karl Wilhelm Fricke, a West German journalist who was abducted on April 1, 1955. Before his abduction, Fricke was a GDR citizen who had fled the East German People’s Police after they arrested him in 1949. He settled in West Germany, became a political journalist and wrote several articles that were critical of East Germany’s ruling SED Party. In the middle of 1954, the MfS leadership planned an operation designed to lure Fricke back to East Berlin. Two Secret Employees (Geheime Mitarbeiter – GM) of the MfS, Kurt Maurer and his wife were assigned to carry out the kidnapping of Fricke.

According to Pickard, the Maurers established a friendship with Fricke in West Berlin. On April 1, 1955, they invited Fricke to their apartment for drinks and drugged him so that he lost consciousness. They then quickly transported him to East Berlin, where they handed Fricke over to other MfS employees. On June 11, 1956, following several months of interrogation by the Stasi, Fricke was found guilty of crimes against the GDR State and sentenced to four years of solitary confinement. He was released on March 31, 1959, and handed over to West German authorities. He continued to work as a political journalist and author until the end of the Cold War and well into this century. He has produced several of the standard works on resistance and state repression in the GDR (1949-1990).

Pickard’s primary focus in his article is on Stasi officer and Secret Employee Kurt Maurer, whose real name was actually Kurt Rittwagen. He returned to East Germany as a hero and was awarded the East German Patriotic Order of Merit in Bronze medal with award document on May 8, 1955. The award document, presented to Rittwagen for his role in kidnapping West German journalist Karl Wilhelm Fricke, was hand signed by GDR President Wilhelm Pieck. This document is the earliest of three that were produced during the Cold War. Pickard reports that Rittwagen continued to work actively in the MfS in East Germany until his retirement in 1974. During his active duty career in the MfS, he earned several additional East German awards and advanced from the rank of second lieutenant to major.

A Case in Point: Karl-Heinz Jakobs

In the final section of this snapshot, I want to give my readers an example of how the Stasi sought to intimidate and influence the behavior of oppositional writers who were living in the West with its “long arm.” I have elected to put the spotlight on prominent East German prose writer Karl-Heinz Jakobs, who spent most of the spring 1986 semester at Oberlin College as Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence. I should mention that I had been a faculty member in Oberlin’s German Department since 1969. Our choice of Jakobs, who was living in West Germany when we issued the invitation, angered officials in both the GDR Writers’ Union and the Ministry of Culture. For Jakobs, much like the two GDR writers in exile who preceded him as our visiting authors—Bernd Jentzsch in 1982 and Jurek Becker in 1979—had evolved into an outspoken critic of the Honecker regime, the GDR state, and its communistic brand of socialism.

A down-to-earth writer who had never been viewed as a troublemaker, Jakobs surprised many of his East German colleagues and functionaries at the GDR Writers’ Union when he turned into one of the more vociferous of the intellectuals who protested the expatriation of the famous dissident chansonnier Wolf Biermann in November 1976. His harsh criticism of the ruling SED Party led to his dismissal from the Berlin Writers’ Union as well as from the executive committee of the GDR Writers’ Union, and finally to expulsion from the SED Party in 1977. Because of his deteriorating relations with the GDR authorities, he was given a three-year “visa” and asked to leave the country for that period of time. When it expired in April 1980, the visa was extended for four more years, but Jakobs decided not to return and stayed in West Germany.

After being forcibly exiled to West Germany in 1977, Jakobs increased his commitment as freelance author and journalist to confront the problems of the GDR’s government directly, focusing on the dictatorial SED regime. In the spring of 1986, when he was visiting writer at Oberlin College, we frequently discussed his experiences as a writer in the GDR. These leisurely conversations often took place at my house, where he would join my wife Ulrike and me for dinner two or three times each week. One evening, Karl-Heinz told us about his departure from the GDR. Shortly before he was “shoved” into the West (“abgeschoben” is the word he used), he had a meeting with a high-ranking official from the GDR’s Ministry for Culture. This individual told him to be careful in West Germany, to behave himself and refrain from attacking SED Party leaders or their policies and actions. He was warned to beware of “the long arm of the Stasi” which would be able to reach him anywhere.

Jakobs’ defiant response to the Deputy Minister’s threat came in the form of the first major work he wrote while living in West Germany, Wilhelmsburg (1979), a novel that examined the dynamics of a provincial city in a nameless, German-speaking socialist state. The hero brings to mind the typical GDR citizen: he is a man who keeps his opinions to himself for fear of the consequences, a man who says “yes” even when he thinks “no,” something Jakobs himself had done on many occasions. Shortly before the novel’s publication, Jakobs remarked that an East German writer conscious of history must tell what happened, and what happened unjustly. He declared that—for him—the moment of hesitating to do this was gone.

Jakobs would continue to be a vocal critic of the SED regime in the GDR, but his voice would grow weaker with each passing year. It became apparent in the late 1970s and 1980s, as the number of East German writers living in Western exile increased steadily, that it was nearly impossible to live in West Germany and effectively protest or criticize what was happening unjustly in East Germany. Only Wolf Biermann was able to do that successfully and over an extended period of time. The East German authorities became aware that the exiled GDR writers did not pose much of a threat to them, so deportation became their solution to a problem. As for Jakobs, he was very fortunate. The MfS leadership did not hire thugs to abduct him, nor did they go out of their way to make life difficult for him. He was able to continue working as a journalist and as a writer for radio and television broadcasts, all the while in opposition to the SED regime. Luckily, the Stasi’s long arm did not reach for him.