Panopticon Fatigue – Life, Sex and Death under the East German Stasi

[This article originally appears in issue #14 of White Fungus magazine, reprinted with publisher’s permission. Subscribe to White Fungus here

For five decades, the Stasi managed to painstakingly craft what was at the time the world’s most sophisticated surveillance state. The secret police of the German Democratic Republic’s Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (shorthand: Stasi) induced an era of fear among the East German population.

Not because they were killers, although some definitely were, but because of their manipulation capabilities. They could remove any chance for your future employment, ban your child from entering college, ruin one’s art career and even drive one to suicide. What made the Stasi particularly unique was that they had their surveillance and tracking methods down to a science. The Stasi were able to monitor and judge a situation from a far covertly and then ‘guide’ it towards an outcome they desired.

Most of the Stasi’s ‘successful’ operations were on specific targets, rarely ever were ‘legitimate threats’ detected or thwarted through massive sweeps. One senior Stasi official said their main weakness was that they could “listen in on everything”. In practice, spying on everyone simultaneously had a fundamental flaw – excesses of records made it tedious and time consuming to find the needle in the haystack. Almost all East Germans felt the presence of the Stasi in some way, but a surprising amount of former GDR citizens explain that they ‘never did anything wrong’ and therefore presumably never attracted Stasi attention. It’s this disparaging view that gives us insight into what soft totalitarianism in the form of mass surveillance does to the psychology of a society.

What happens to a collective group who are conscious of their privacy being removed? An obvious answer is that people behave differently, adapt or change their behavior in accordance to being watched, even erasing a free thought that threatens the state before it’s even fully formed. When rumors ran rampant in the GDR of Stasi cameras in private bedrooms and bathrooms and the exploitation of one’s private sexual practices or orientation had become regular fodder for blackmail, Stasi presence was probably even felt in the bedroom. The GDR hid damning suicide statistics to present a preferable image to the outside world, and finding any surviving psychological surveys of the population as a whole is virtually impossible. Only by piecing together personal stories, media and documented history of daily life under the Stasi does it become clear the unsettling side effects blanket surveillance can create in the lives of an entire population.

Instead of outright killing (for attempting to cross into West Berlin) or harshly imprisoning (for dissent), the Stasi’s preferred methods reveal an institutional and operational belief that their target’s actions could be vulnerable to influence or even prediction via total observation and control. For a man whose son was killed by GDR guards for trying to steal scrap metal off a base, it meant being monitored for over a year to make sure he didn’t raise too much of a stink about the murder. The expensive operation’s justification: his sister-in-law had spoken to a West German media outlet about the killings, which had subsequently cascaded into a worldwide story. Fearing further negative media attention, the Stasi staked out his apartment from across the road, made themselves a copy of his key, tapped his phone, and then settled in to await anything that piqued their interest. After a year of this sphere of surveillance which had now expanded to include his relatives, save for a few angry remarks about the murders, it was clear his interest had waned. The Stasi were finally satisfied that he wasn’t angling to attract media attention or escalate his cause. This is just one example of the ridiculous amount of resources dedicated to predicting the behavior of a single person suspected of merely being capable of causing embarrassment for the GDR.

the-stasi-museum-berlin[Stasi Museum : Germany. Reprinted with permission from White Fungus

Typically if someone was found to have anti-GDR sentiments, the Stasi would try to recruit a co-worker or loved one (possibly themselves already a part-time informant). In the absence of a loyal informant, the Stasi would resort to exploiting fracture points between family members. In some instances, Stasi agents would emotionally manipulate people wanting to flee to the West by convincing their parents to beg them to stay. If a dissenter continued unabated under Stasi prying eyes, then things in his or her personal life could and often did start to go awry such as losing employment, and in rarer instances mysterious failing health.

In the time of the GDR, if you were concerned about the penetrating effect of the Stasi into everyday life, suspicious of your communication being monitored, or concerned that your wife was an agent, you wouldn’t be crazy, you’d be savvy. But, the very nature of a society like this makes bringing up these concerns in public or even among friends and colleagues an untenable risk. A citizen with a tendency to go after young women behind his wife’s back would be ripe pickings the Stasi, and blackmail was often used to coerce such people into becoming a spy for the state. In one specific case, a suspected pedophile was allowed to remain free as long as he became a full-time informant for the Stasi. Generally speaking, the worse your secrets were, the more the Stasi could milk you for all you were worth.

Exploiting hidden sexual appetites was just one tactic used to swell the ranks of non-voluntary informants. The Stasi collected many genres of compromising material beyond the sexual. Blackmail was a surefire way to inevitably push any individual into indentured servitude. Records show that 1 in 60 citizens were officially on the Stasi payroll, but unofficial reports estimate that as many as 1 in 6 citizens either were passing information to the Stasi or informing in some capacity on the people in their lives.

This machine belonged to the postal inspection department of the Stasi. It automatically resealed envelopes

[This machine belonged to the postal inspection department of the Stasi. It automatically re-sealed envelopes. Reprinted with permission from White Fungus]

On January 15th, 1990, during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Stasi Headquarters was overtaken and shut down by activists. It reopened shortly thereafter as Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Normannenstraße, a Stasi museum open to the public. Visitors could now walk through the same spaces in which protesters had angrily breached the “‘shield and sword of the party’s” threshold and found Stasi officials still attempting to destroy incriminating files, even as they had run out of working shredders. The museum plays up the gadget aspect of Stasi spycraft reminiscent of crap films like James Bond. Necktie and pen cameras or wrist watch microphones may seem generic or crude by today’s standards, but it’s the oddities — cameras mounted in bird houses or car headlights, or hidden cameras inside tape recorders, and microphones inside watering cans and other garden accessories that leave the strongest impression. Keeping in mind that the GDR was economically isolated from the West, the miniature camera and microphone technology is in and of itself impressive.

The Stasi did indeed think outside the box, so considering the very unorthodox spy gadget concealment locations and how often and well hidden in public view they were, it’s not surprising the paranoia they instilled. The GDR in the 1980s was even able to reverse engineer an early IBM computer by procuring smuggled and cloned parts. Of course the main motivation was not to integrate programming or computer education into the GDR, it was to have cutting edge technology to database and catalog as much of the population as they possibly could. One of the strangest types of data they hoarded on the populace was olfactory, presumably to be used for police dogs. Scents were collected from clothing and personal effects and stored in labeled sealed jars. A storage room filled with these glass jars must have resembled a psychosexual experimental art installation.


[Stasi Museum: Germany. Reprinted with permission from White Fungus]

Even more outrageous methods of tracking targets included a special kind of radioactive dust sprinkled into vehicles or clothing to give agents the ability to ‘spy’ with radiation detectors on top of microphones and cameras. Much more sinister, however, is the rumored Stasi method of assassination via highly targeted radiation poisoning. One involved a prolonged exposure emanating from an innocuous-looking  black box sitting on a table. It’s long been widely speculated that well known East German writers Jurgen Fuchs and Rudolf Bahro were assassinated by the Stasi in this way – given a carefully calibrated dose of radiation so that their deaths seemed natural and not immediate. The concept of a portable cancer box is not only bizarre, but justifiably terrifying. Even if this technique were rare, the whispers about such a punishment would undoubtedly inspire intense fear and panic in those that heard about it.

I stumbled upon this comment by a former citizen of the GDR, one Sabine Bohm on, of all places, Youtube (ironically in some ways Google, the company who owns Youtube makes the Stasi’s surveillance technologically seem quaint):

“I am glad I got out of this disaster in 1985. We were young creative, artistic people that was not wanted in the former GDR. Even without having done anything i had to sit 24 hours [in] jail and my diaries had been studied by the Stasi, who had broken into my flat and kept them with them. I was of course not so stupid to write my inner thought into it. The time was not easy”

Surveillance photo of a bedroom of a teen with alleged pro-Western sympathies simonmenner-stasi-125[Surveillance photo of a bedroom of a teen with alleged pro-Western sympathies. Reprinted with permission from White Fungus]

Sabine was aware the Stasi regularly read diaries. Although she kept one, Sabine simply made a conscious choice not to write certain thoughts down.  If you extrapolate this concept, the decision to change one’s behavior out of a fear of surveillance in other forms, it could create devastating psychological ripple effects. From the book Stasiland, another former GDR citizen, Julia, said,

“You’d go mad, if you thought about it all the time.”

She describes her experiences telephoning her overseas boyfriend,

“When I hung up I’d say goodnight to him, then I’d say, ‘Night all,’ to the others listening in, I meant it as a joke. I didn’t let myself really think about whether there was another person on the line.”

Julia felt that somehow she was actually able to tune out the worry. Calling it ‘paranoia’ would be inaccurate since, statistically speaking, the chances of the Stasi monitoring a telephone call between a foreigner and a GDR citizen was extremely high. I failed to find diagnosed cases of PTSD from people who lived under the Stasi and wondered about the philosophical underpinnings that might explain if it was a reaction to cognitive dissonance that lead to this, or if it was something else entirely.

“The Stasi Persecution Syndrome”, a 1991 research paper, makes the case that people under the Stasi experienced a unique type of PTSD that was more nuanced and harder to diagnose than typical PTSD.  The paper concludes that over 50,000 people who lived in the GDR could suffer from “persisting and paranoid anxieties, re-arousable by specific situations…persecution dreams, mood disturbances, [and] lack of confidence”

I decided to speak to a mental health professional who was well versed in the differences between genuine delusional paranoid schizophrenic thoughts and anxiety issues brought on by the prolonged fear of being watched. I spoke with Matt Likens, a licensed psychotherapist in California. Matt regularly deals with patients who have varying degrees of schizophrenia and upon my request familiarized himself with the Stasi.

Our correspondence is as follows:


Robbie Martin: “If you aren’t doing anything wrong you don’t have anything to hide” ← what does this statement tell you about the psychological state of the person saying it?

Matt Likens: This statement presumes wrongdoing in and of itself.  It’s leading, and it’s meant in a way to intimidate, and if perpetuated, “wrongdoing” is manifested in some way, shape, or form, thus fulfilling the projected belief.  The paranoid individual trusts nobody, certainly not himself.  He is so terrified of literally not existing, annihilated.  Having oneself consumed by fear and dissolution, he must project that upon his environment.  This character structure exists not only in the individual, but is internalized by the state, and enacted in its systemic sense of omnipotent control over the masses.

RM: Some people under the Stasi who kept diaries would self-censor their thoughts in case the Stasi ever confiscated it. If that’s not ‘paranoia’, how would you describe that?

ML: Denial of one’s sense of self expression and spontaneous gestures both physically and cognitively causes pathology by definition. The formation of all repressive regimes are a result of the pathological incapacity and intolerance for the individual. Sexuality in particular is denied in these societies.  Wilhelm Reich wrote that, “..the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation.”

RM: There is something inherently narcissistic about imagining that you have been targeted for surveillance and reacting as if its actually happening in the absence of any evidence.  These are characteristics of delusional schizophrenics, but in the GDR where the likelihood of being surveilled was very high, what coping mechanisms could someone use to to stop worrying? 

ML: One of the most common and well utilized psychic defense mechanisms of an unconsciously paranoid individual is a thing called “reaction formation.”  In this mechanism, the individual is capable of defining real and actual feelings towards a threat into its polar opposite, rendering it less threatening to the ego.  Individuals under the rule of repressive organizations such as the Stasi understandably utilized reaction formation to minimize paranoia.

RM: Reaction formation sounds like the opposite of willful blindness, what segments of the population do you think fell into these opposing camps?

ML: Poor, sick, and psychologically fragile individuals have a vested interest in willful ignorance, as they live with day to day stress that more privileged individuals need not worry about as much.  I think that parents in particular naturally became far more likely to act in accordance to Stasi rule and law to protect the emotional health of their children.

RM: What about people labeling themselves as ‘not important enough’ to be surveilled, what kind of psychological side effects could a thought like that have? 

ML: Labeling oneself as “not important enough” to be watched is a powerful way of eliminating real and legitimate concern for one’s safety. This individual feels intense insecurity within himself for various reasons. I also like to think that individuals who minimize their sense of self importance as “the poor me Narcissist.”


The Stasi kept such detailed records that citizens today can go to a special facility and request any records that were compiled on them, and then sit and read their dossier. Undeniably this access provides some catharsis because it attempts to answer the ever burning question in the back of many a GDR citizen’s mind, “was I being watched?”. Many former GDR citizens were surprised to find that the answer was yes, they were indeed being watched, and some of them far more than others.

What about the people who didn’t care to inquire even after being given the privilege? Perhaps many of them had already decided long ago that they were “not important enough.” The lingering after effects of mass surveillance continue to reverberate long after the Stasi’s demise.

written by Robbie Martin with contributions from Laurie Kirchner

follow Robbie on twitter @FluorescentGrey

Moby: Make Information Free & Stop Punishing Piracy

MobyFlickrJustinWiseIt’s not often you find a Grammy Award-nominated musician on the front lines of political activism. One of those exceptions simply goes by the name Moby.

The L.A. based electronic musician spends every iota of his free time making it count. When he’s not making music, he’s promoting music therapy as a board member of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function.

He’s also taken Washington to bat, by testifying on the Hill about Net Neutrality and standing up to the ever powerful Recording Industry Association of America or the RIAA.

Recently Moby sat down with Abby Martin on Breaking the Set to discuss the problems with making piracy illegal, and why the freedom of information is so important in today’s digital age.



Moby Breaks the Set on the Freedom of Information


AM: What is the corporate music industry’s biggest failure?

MOBY: I think one of the biggest failings is that music business and record companies have treated listeners terribly for a long time. Overcharging for CDs in an era of CDs, and punishing people for downloading music, and basically trying to make people feel guilty for listening to music. I just think it’s created a very sort of strange and very unhealthy climate around the release of music.

AM: You’ve also stood up to the Recording Industry Association of America and called for the group to be disbanded in 2009 for its two million dollar lawsuit against a mother who illegally downloaded music. What prompted you to go after the RIAA?

MOBY: The whole reason I make music—and maybe I’m stating the obvious—is because I love making music and I love the idea of people listening to the music that I’ve made. The idea of punishing the audience, even if they’re downloading music illegally, I don’t think and audience should be punished, nor should the RIAA take litigious action against soccer moms who are just downloading music because they want to listen to it. It seems very self-evident to me that if you’re trying to generate goodwill, suing the people who are ultimately patronizing your business is not the best way to go about that.

AM: Let’s talk about your new album “Innocents”. Why did you choose that name and how is it different from your previous work?

Moby: I’m going to try and not give a long-winded self-involved grad student answer, ‘cause I’m really good at long-winded, self-involved grad student answers…but when I was in college, I was a philosophy major and I’d just been obsessed with the simple question of: What does it mean to be human in the Universe that’s 15 billion years old? What significance do our lives have? And when I look at our collective response to the human condition, I see a lot of confusion, a lot of fear, a lot of sadness, and–in a strange way–a lot of innocence, ‘cause the truth is none of us really know what we’re doing. You know, we might put on a brave face when we go out in public, but at the end of the day we all get old, we all die, we’re all confused, and I feel like, collectively, even though at times we’re not necessarily doing the best things, we still have a quality of innocence to us and that’s what the title of the album comes from.

AM: And you’re also—this is really fascinating–you’re a board member for the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, which studies the effects of music on the brain. Talk about this. What have you learned as part of that organization, and how can music be used in therapeutic ways?

MOBY: Well, it’s funny ‘cause I’ve dedicated my life to making music, and I always thought music was something I loved and was really fun, but I never thought it actually had anything beyond a very sort of frivolous utility. Dr. Oliver Sacks and Dr. Connie Tomaino are two amazing brain neuroscientists and they started this institute for Music and Neurologic Function. What they’ve seen is that music is a remarkably powerful healing modality. When I talk about the sort of healing effects of music it almost sounds like I’m indulging in hyperbole, but it’s truly miraculous. People who are aphasiac, who’ve had strokes, when they listen to their favorite music from childhood, even if they’ve lost the ability to walk or speak, they can still dance and sing. I know that sounds like the most absurd claim, but Dr. Sacks and Dr. Tomaino have documented this and they’re going before Congress to try and get more money for music therapy because really it is phenomenal healing. The only problem is it’s hard to make money from it, so clearly the pharmaceutical companies aren’t too thrilled about a non-profit powerful healing modality.

AM: I know that you testified in front of Congress in 2006 about Net neutrality. When are you going to get out there and testify about the music therapy?

MOBY: Hopefully soon. The funny thing about talking about music therapy is you don’t have to convince anyone of its power. All you have to do is say ask anyone how they respond to their favorite song. If you even right now think of your favorite song you could almost feel like a physiological and neurochemical change, and the truth is, it’s a real change. It promotes healing and it decreases stress hormones like norepinephrine, and adrenaline and cortisol, so in the future I think people will look at music not just as something fun, but as a really, really powerful healing modality.

AM: It’s also a revolutionary tool, which is why it’s such a travesty that it’s the first thing cut from public education; music and arts. I mentioned that you did testify in front of Congress about net neutrality. Let’s talk about that. What did you tell them back then, and are you worried about the current circuit court lawsuit that could entirely abolish the concept?

MOBY: Yeah. I was a little bit confused, because in 2006, and now, the Internet seems to be working fine the way it is. I don’t understand the idea of—to an extent and very broad terms—privatizing the Internet, when it’s this fantastic, egalitarian, granted chaotic, but democratic institution that serves everybody equally. So when you have these big corporations who want to get involved and try to monetize it and privatize it; I just don’t understand why they would mess around with something that works so flawlessly the way it is.

AM: How much do you think the music industry is a part of that push? I mean, we know that SOPA was obviously trying to implement a lot of seizure on net neutrality as well.

MOBY: In some ways I’m the wrong person to ask, because I love what I referred to as, the democratic chaos of the Internet. I love the fact that it is strangely self-regulating; it kind of polices itself, and I’ve also been a life-long member of the ACLU, so, I’m just a huge proponent of the free and uninhibited dissemination of information.

AM: I love that about the militant egalitarian method that the Internet started out as, and unfortunately we are seeing that going by the wayside. It’s really important that we cement that notion quick. Let’s talk about another thing that the ACLU is really big on, Chelsea Manning. You are also part of the I Am Chelsea Manning Video a few months back. Why is this case so important to you?

MOBY: It’s a tricky thing to talk about, because I’m a musician,  I live in L.A., so, if I worked for the NSA or had worked for the NSA, I might have a different perspective—but it seems like sometimes governments, including our own, are interested in restricting information, because it is actually sensitive and to disseminate it would be compromising. But other times governments almost restrict information either because it’s embarrassing or it’s just a knee jerk reaction. You know, this feeling like it’s their job to restrict access to information, and that’s why I thought the Chelsea Manning case was so important, because she was drawing attention to the seemingly arbitrary way in which the government was trying to restrict access to ostensibly classified information.

AM: It’s also a crime to over-classify. We see things just being classified just for the sake of classifying them. Of course, we know that no one was actually hurt by the release of those documents. What are your thoughts on other whistleblowers in the public spotlight right now, like, Edward Snowden?

MOBY: Again, it’s tricky because everything I say has to be qualified with the caveat that I am a college dropout, and I make music and I live in L.A., so, my opinions are vaguely informed at best. But I’m just a fan of openness and I can’t think of too many instances where airing on the side of openness has done harm. In fact, quite the opposite. We live in a culture where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to restrict access to information which, personally, I think is great. I’d much rather have a few instances where potentially sensitive information is released, but as a result you have so much information that the public benefit is released as well.

AM: You keep saying that your opinions are vaguely informed at best. You’d be shocked at how uninformed Americans are. I think it’s very important to voice your opinion because you wield a lot of influence in this industry, and it’s unfortunate that others don’t. Why do you think that not other musicians and entertainment people speak out about these issues?

MOBY: I think probably because they’re getting much better advice than I am, because what I’ve found is by being an opinionated loudmouth as I am, I do often times run the risk of alienating a lot of people. So, I think that a lot of musicians, actors, whomever, are getting good management-career advice, and their managers are saying, “Keep your opinions to yourself ‘cause you’ll sell more records.” I unfortunately never got that advice, and I was raised by progressive hippies who told me that if you have the ability to reach people and communicate, you might was well try and say something that has some value or some merit to it. Or at least try to do so.

AM: I agree with your parents, Moby. Let’s talk about veganism. You’re a vegan. You even released a book critiquing the modern meat industry. What lead you to the decision to practice veganism, and what are your biggest frustrations right now with factory farms?

MOBY: I’ve been a vegan now for 26 years, and an animal rights activist for about 30 years, and what informs my veganism and animal rights activism is pretty simple. I love animals and I don’t want to be involved in any process that contributes to their suffering. I guess looked at objectively death is inevitable, but suffering isn’t. I think that we have the ability to treat other creatures with respect and dignity and ameliorate their suffering, and I just wonder why we don’t make more of an effort to do so. Why collectively we’re comfortable to contributing to the suffering of—literally—tens of billions of creatures who are all incredibly sensitive. I think it was I think it was either Albert Schweitzer or Einstein said the questions isn’t ‘Do animals have an intellectual life?’, the question is ‘Do they have an emotional life?’, and anyone who’s ever been around animals knows full well animals have incredibly profound emotional lives, are incredibly sensitive, and I just feel like it’s incumbent upon me and hopefully the rest of us to sort of like decrease the amount of suffering we cause while we are alive.

AM: Right, and we’re so detached from the food that we eat and I think that if people really saw the suffering they would be absolutely horrified. The food industry has so much autonomy, so much political influence. I mean, just look at Monsanto alone. How could we ensure that the food we are eating is safe and not destructive to the environment and doesn’t contribute to the suffering of creatures?

MOBY: When we put out the movie “Gristle”, which is about factory farming, I was asked that question. What one thing could we do that would make factory farming either go away or become a lot better, and one thing would be end subsidies to meat production, ‘cause meat production—and I’m not even saying people shouldn’t eat meat–but I’m just saying the production of meat decimates the animals, it decimates the workers, it decimates the communities, and the end result is a product that causes diabetes, arteriosclerosis, heart disease, obesity, etcetera. So, just end all subsidies to it and let meat actually cost what it should cost. Truth is, without government subsidies, a pound of hamburger would cost around thirty dollars. And I have a feeling if you just let meat cost what it should cost, all of the sudden you see people eating a lot less meat.

AM: Very well put. Totally agree. Thank you so much for your input on that, and so much more. Moby, artist, activist; really appreciate you coming to the studio.


Transcript by Juan Martinez, Photo by Flickr User Justin Wise