How Did Germany Use Mass Surveillance?

hitler, communist east germany employed numerous spy techniques

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Since before World War II, Germany has used varying methods of surveillance. From citizen informants to the Stasi, Germany has a colorful history with spycraft. German spy intelligence still makes headlines today.

Reel tape recorder for wiretapping. Field telephone set USSR is lying nearby. KGB spying conversations.
The benchmark for the most extreme surveillance state in history was East Germany’s Stasi surveillance system. Photo by Only_NewPhoto / Shutterstuck

Hitler and Communist East Germany put the German people through unspeakably difficult times—even those German citizens who weren’t targeted by the Holocaust. For decades, they lived under regimes of extreme monitoring by the state, going about their days while seeing the dangers of pervasive government surveillance.

German spycraft recently made headlines with the news that a director of the German spy service was arrested for allegedly giving information to Russia. The German spy service, the Federal Intelligence Service, now faces renewed concerns about Russian infiltration into its intelligence networks. In his video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You, Professor Paul Rosenzweig, Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School, gives context to the subject of German surveillance.

How Did Modern German Surveillance Develop?

“Prior to the Cold War standoff between Eastern and Western Europe, there was, of course, significant state surveillance in Germany during the Nazi regime leading up to—and throughout—World War II,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “Nazi surveillance was undergirded by one of the most sophisticated data collection and analysis systems of the time.

“It was possibly the first systematic use of ‘dataveillance’ by a nation state.”

This system was developed by a company called Dehomag, which is a corporate acronym for Deutsche Hollerith-Maschinen Gesellschaft mBH. That translates in English to German Hollerith Machines, LLC. Dehomag, a subsidiary of IBM, used IBM punch cards to compile data on Jewish citizens in Germany as part of the census, which was just one part of IBM’s technology used in Nazi surveillance systems.

What Was the Stasi?

After World War II, Communist East Germany was founded, ushering in a new era of turmoil—and its accompanying intelligence systems.

“The internal security force for the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany, was known as the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS—commonly known as the Stasi,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “Many commentators describe it as the most repressive, and oppressive, surveillance system ever operated.”

Among other initiatives, Stasi monitored telephone conversations, opened up incoming mail from overseas, tracked the few foreigners who were allowed into East Germany, and even had a department to rummage through East Germans’ trash looking for illegal western foods. They took odor samples from persons of interest so police dogs could hunt them down later.

“The Stasi’s most insidious characteristic was not its army of civil servants,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “Rather, what distinguished Stasi from other surveillance systems was the massive number of its informants. Though estimates vary, we can say with confidence that in 1989, on the cusp of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German government employed more than 170,000 of these [informal collaborators].”

That’s more than 1% of the population. The Nazi Gestapo had one officer for every 2,000 citizens; the Stasi employed one formal officer for every 166 citizens. Adding in civilian informants, that number jumps to one Stasi agent per 66 people.

The Stasi system was abandoned after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it still serves today as a benchmark for political discourse about surveillance systems. Today, German intelligence is very reluctant to fall back into Stasi-like practices, having lived through it already.

The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily