Under Surveillance

Persons who have read the German or English version of my memoir, Von Oberlin nach Ostberlin (From Oberlin to East Berlin), or heard me speak about my ca. 400-page secret police file, often ask questions like these: Were you aware that you were under surveillance during your stays in the GDR? How did the secret police go about keeping tabs on you? How did you manage to obtain your file? (The answer to the last question may be found in the snapshot entitled “In Search of My Stasi-File.”) And virtually everyone who has visited the GDR at some point, even for a short period of time, will inevitably volunteer something like this: “I attended a conference in Leipzig back in the summer of 1982, so I probably have a file too. I really have to look into that one of these days.” In his compelling memoir, The File (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), Timothy Garton Ash has coined a term for this particular impulsive reaction; he calls it “file envy” (22), something I also have encountered on numerous occasions.

When it came to surveillance, the East German police were experts and used all sorts of methods and tools to gather information and spy on persons of interest. In this effort they were assisted by an army of civilian informants who were called unofficial collaborators. Each collaborator had a code name and a Stasi handler who would give that person assignments and conduct debriefing sessions. A collaborator’s real name never appeared in reports, only the alias was used so the identity of that person would be known only to his/her handler. Stasi agents were assigned to work in hotels and restaurants that had guests from Western countries; they frequently used phone bugging devices and also bugged some hotel rooms and even the dwellings of GDR citizens whose activities they wanted to monitor. They conducted observations of suspicious individuals, some of which lasted for several days. The Stasi focused its attention chiefly—but not exclusively—on those individuals, groups of persons, and organizations known or thought to be hostile toward the GDR’s ruling SED Party. It also monitored and gathered information on real and potential enemies of the state as well as on oppositional elements engaging in subversive activities.

The evidence in my file indicates that I became a person of interest to the Stasi in the fall of 1975, a few months after I began work in East Berlin on a book project that involved having meetings with a large number of GDR authors. Using a questionnaire and a tape recorder, I was conducting interviews with each of these writers and also gathering texts from them for publication in my book. The Stasi’s initial interest in me probably resulted from an understandable uneasiness about my project, since it brought me into direct contact with writers of all political persuasions, including dissidents and regime critics, and it was difficult for anyone to monitor my activities closely. What were the writers telling me in the private interview sessions, what sort of literary texts were they giving me for publication in my book, and how was I going to package and present all of this material back in the US? Was I a friend or an enemy of the GDR? Their answer to the last question is, of course, to be found in my file.

My file contains reports from five types of secret informers; each has a code name preceded by one of the following acronyms: IM, IME, IMV, IMS, and IMB. IM stands for “Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter” (unofficial collaborator), the most common type of informant in the GDR. The file also reveals that there were nine unofficial collaborators of one sort or another who reported on my GDR-related activities and gathered information on me for the Stasi. For more information on the types of secret informers and the identities of those nine persons, see the snapshot entitled “My Stasi-File.”

When visiting the GDR for longer than one day, I would either stay in an apartment that had been assigned to me by the Humboldt University or in an Interhotel room that I had booked and paid for in advance. I always assumed that both the telephone and the room were bugged. I also assumed that my suitcase and other belongings would be searched when I was away from the apartment house or hotel. By using a clever trick I learned from a John le Carré spy novel, which involved the careful placement of a single hair in the lid of my suitcase, I was able to ascertain that such searches had indeed been conducted on several occasions. I also heard clicking sounds now and then while using the telephone in my hotel rooms or apartments; I used the phone frequently to set up meetings with writers in Berlin and elsewhere. Here and there in my Stasi-file, there are references in reports to phone calls I placed and things I said over the phone. The Stasi was most certainly listening in and keeping a sharp eye on me.

Surveillance operations involving several Stasi agents had to be justified in advance and authorized in writing by the Ministry for State Security. Observation reports in my file, which were prepared by Stasi personnel, reveal that I was the object of three such operations in East Berlin during the 1970s; one of these lasted for three days before it was terminated. From March 7 until March 17, 1985, I was again under “operative surveillance” while attending the Leipzig Book Fair and functioning as presider at the US Embassy fair booth. This observation yielded a comprehensive report on my “activities and operatively relevant behavioral patterns.” As one reads this seven-page document, which is labelled “top secret,” it becomes apparent that the Stasi and the GDR authorities were interested most of all in ascertaining the “real” purpose of my visit to Leipzig.

The most interesting surveillance report by far covers a farewell dinner party I had decided to have before returning to Oberlin in mid-December, 1977. The event was held in Berlin at the new Hotel Metropol, which had an excellent restaurant where I would be able to pay the bill with East German marks. This would be an opportunity to thank and say goodbye to my GDR writer friends and others who had helped me during my two-month visit as an IREX scholar. The writers in attendance were Christa and Gerhard Wolf, Ulrich Plenzdorf and his wife Helga, Klaus Schlesinger, and Martin Stade. Willy Moese, a well-known caricature artist was there, as was his wife Maria, a well-known GDR television personality. Also present were Dirk Strassenberger, a lawyer I had gotten to know while living in East Berlin; Helga Schrader, a friend from West Berlin; and Carlos, a Chilean doctoral candidate who was living across the hall from me in our apartment house.

As the file reveals, the Stasi had advance notice of my farewell party and decided to conduct a surveillance operation inside the hotel, beginning at 7:00 p.m. on December 13, and ending shortly after 3:00 a.m. on December 14. This report is supplemented by a long, detailed narrative one of my guests (IMV “Kurt”) provided a few days later. When one reads and compares the two reports, it is obvious that the Stasi surveillance team did not know one of my guests was an informant. He has a different alias in their report (“Milan,” not “Kurt”), and therefore his identity is protected. All but one of the other guests in the Stasi-report were given ornithological code names—“Blackbird,” “Starling,” “Titmouse,” “Finch,” “Raven,” “Magpie,” “Swallow,” and “Siskin,” probably so they would not seem out of place at “Eagle’s” farewell party. One guest has the code name “Hook,” which he had been given at an earlier point in time. The event itself (including conversations among groups of guests at the dinner table) is described in considerable detail—from start to finish—in the observation report, which is much too long to reproduce here.

The Stasi and the GDR authorities eventually concluded—largely on the basis of circumstantial evidence—that I was working for a branch of the US secret service, but that was simply not the case. Since they had come to view my activities within the GDR as “subversive” and begun to consider the possibility that I was an operative, the Stasi recommended measures to be taken in the future in an informational report dated January 7, 1978. Had I not been an IREX scholar, I clearly would not have been able to obtain a visa for my next stay in East Berlin (May 15 – June 15, 1978). When I read the final section of this report, I was frankly astonished.

It is recommended, for the further monitoring of Zipser as well
as the clarification of his contacts and intentions, especially in
light of possible espionage activity, that the following measures
be taken under the auspices of Main Department XX/7:

•    Zipser is to be put under investigation. When he
enters the GDR on short notice, ways should be
devised to allow Main Department VIII to keep
tabs on him.

•    His known contacts in the GDR up to now have to
be examined thoroughly and screened with regard
to their operative usefulness. With Main Department
XX/5 as well as with Main Department VIII, one needs
to consider possible ways to illuminate his contacts in

•    It needs to be established whether Zipser can be so
compromised by operative measures that he can be
denied entry into the GDR in the future.

•    One needs to ensure, through consultation with Main
Department XX/2 and Department XV of the regional
headquarters of the Ministry for State Security in
Magdeburg, that the unofficial resources of this
administrative unit will be utilized in a coordinated
supervision of Zipser.

•    By way of Main Department XX/3 one needs to ensure
that Zipser, whenever he re-enters the GDR under the
auspices of the UNESCO Organization IREX’s scholar
exchange through a predetermined program, will be so
burdened by attending lectures at the Humboldt
University, among other things, that it will no longer be
possible for him to expand and maintain the connection
to his GDR contacts, to a large extent unchecked until now.
One needs to make certain that he is assigned a reliable
minder, an unofficial collaborator with professional as
well as political-operative qualifications.

•    Through the assignment of appropriate living quarters it
will be guaranteed that operative-technical measures can
be carried out.

•    One has to make certain that Zipser does not, by virtue of
using his contacts, gain access to the Writers Congress that
will take place in May 1978.

•    It needs to be established whether Zipser’s reputation can
be so tarnished, by unofficial collaborators and within the
Writers’ Union through fitting well-directed remarks,
that the negative forces [i.e., voices of opposition] will also
avoid having further contact with him.

By way of conclusion, there is an interesting memory I want to share with my snapshot readers. On the afternoon of March 22, 1976, I visited prominent dissident GDR writer Reiner Kunze at his home in Greiz, a small city in Thuringia. My recollection of that visit is hazy after all these years, but I do remember Kunze’s passion, intensity, frustration, and anger as we discussed the Prague Spring and the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, human rights issues in the GDR and other Eastern Bloc countries, the ban on his publications and public readings in the GDR, also the suffering of his Czech wife and the mistreatment of his teen-age daughter at her school due to his persistent opposition to repressive state practices and policies. Kunze told me, as we conversed and while I tape recorded the interview, that he was certain the secret police had bugged his house. Every so often he would make a comment the GDR authorities and secret police would find offensive, if they heard it, then he would look at a place in the room where a bug might have been planted and say in a loud, defiant voice: “What do you think of that?!” Indeed.