During the Coronavirus crisis there have been a number of allegations that people in Britain are ‘behaving like the Stasi’ or that we have a ‘Covid Stasi’, but how do these claims stack up against the reality of Germany’s past, and how does it relate to Britain today?
The Stasi was the official state security organisation for the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. The full name was Staatssicherheitsdienst, and is acknowledged to have been both pervasive and effective. Its main task was to perform surveillance on the citizens of the country in order to quell dissent, although it operated in foreign countries through espionage and covert operations.
A mainstay of Stasi operation was the use of informers who would inform on their neighbours, workmates, and even parents or children – many were regular informers, some occasional, some were coerced into providing information, others did so willingly. Telephones were tapped, letters were opened, rooms were bugged and people were followed. The Stasi was an accepted part of everyday life in East Germany.
But the writer of this piece is a great believer in the Pareto Principle and believes that it is probable that for 80% of the population the Stasi were no more than ‘background noise’ in society, and that for 20% of the citizenship it was a major concern, and a threat to freedom, and life itself. This is not to diminish the human rights abuses of the state, or to excuse them in any way – it is a statement of belief, and is based on a certain amount of reading, but no major research.
So, how close is Britain (or any other western European country) to having a Stasi in its midst?
We hear examples of neighbours reporting neighbours for having parties, for exercising more than once a day, for hoarding food, and for other misdemeanours of the current (April 2020) regulations and advice. We hear tales of people being shamed online for having picnics in parks with their family, or even sitting on park benches. Is this a Stasi state?
The point of East Germany’s Stasi was to ensure that the state held firm against its enemies, perceived or real, internal and external, and to stop any activities that undermined the state. The Stasi was a state institution separate from the police. The enemy of Britain is a virus – unseen, and there is a danger, unrealised, of civil disobedience against the rules. The police are enforcing the state’s rules – as always in Britain policing is said to be by consent.
Individuals in Britain are taking upon themselves to inform on their neighbours, workmates and the public to the police, or shaming them on social media. It is unclear how much notice the police take of individual reports, and social media reports seem to be frequently ridiculed or discussed in a negative way. East Germany’s Stasi informers were treated very seriously with their reports carefully filed away, indexed and collated. Social media was unheard of in the time of the GDR. The Stasi was very hierarchical and worked to the state’s orders; British police are devolved organisations working to loose guidelines and law established through the courts. In Britain there is a clearly defined separation of state and the judiciary.
There is currently a fashion for having a regular ‘Clap for the NHS’ at 8pm on Thursdays on doorsteps, this has extended to ‘Clap for Boris’ and ‘Clap for carers’ at other times. I have seen reports of neighbours being shamed for not coming out to clap at the appropriate time. This is heading towards a North Korean type of social enforcement – but not unknown in the GDR where it was ‘noted’ if someone did not attend a parade or a workplace meeting. This I find a chilling development and very un-British.
The writer instinctively feels that, if he had been living in East Germany, he would have been a Party Member and may well have cooperated with the Stasi, although whether this would have been willingly or through some coercion is open to debate. But, despite fully supporting the current British government stance on the Coronavirus emergency, he feels extremely uncomfortable about the idea of ‘snitching’ on his neighbours. This is a real dilemma for someone who felt as though he understood and – to some small degree sympathised with – the general philosophy of the East German state apparatus. Why is this? It’s all very well to live in an imaginary past, and to look at ostalgia as an abstract concept, but to be presented with it as a daily reality is very different, and a genuine eye-opener.
So, do we have a Stasi in the UK today – I say the answer is ‘no’ and long may that continue. Is the language appropriate? I say the answer, given the historical context, is ‘yes’ but it needs to be watched carefully.
On the whole, and on a positive note, the Savage Chickens have it about right.