The Stasi didn’t need penal camps to stifle Christianity

The Stasi archives in Berlin today: anything and everything was recorded and filed (Getty)

God’s Spies
By Elisabeth Braw,
Eerdmans, 288pp, £20/$25

The Stasi, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security), existed for barely four decades – from 1950 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989– but it gained a reputation for surveillance second to none, principally of its fellow citizens of East Germany (the GDR).

As Elisabeth Braw, the author of this engrossing study (subtitled The Stasi’s Cold War Espionage Campaign Inside the Church) says, although the Stasi were distinctly less brutal than many of their sister Warsaw Pact police agencies, they “perfected the art of snooping”. (There was a joke that after German reunification many ex-Stasi officers became taxi drivers – you didn’t need to give them an address, just a person’s name).

The GDR, officially atheist, was probably the most successful of the Warsaw Pact countries at turning its citizens away from religion, says Braw.

Might this be because the number of Catholics was relatively small, and the Lutherans, associated more with the Word than sacramental devotion, were a less complex target – as Braw puts it, “Karl Marx versus Jesus Christ”? Also, as a former Stasi officer tells her, “In general the Catholic Church in the GDR was apolitical. They did religion, which was fine.”

Nevertheless, says Braw, Christianity was communism’s greatest foe because it represented a competing worldview and also constituted East Germany’s only semi-free space. So to penetrate, disrupt and counter the churches, and international organisations such as the World Council of Churches, the Stasi set up an ecclesiastical division: Department XX/4. This “Church Bureau” recruited agents, Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (IMs), to spy on their fellow Christians.

On average, at any one time, the bureau had around 180,000 IMs on its books, including casual informers. Some were lay people, others rank and file pastors; some were ordained professors of theology, others even bishops. Though the Stasi did not operate penal camps, it made its presence felt “enough to ensure a surprisingly compliant Church”.

One of the “pastor-spies”, Aleksander Radler, had been a constant presence in Braw’s childhood. Her father Christian, a theologian at Lund University in Sweden, was one of many Swedes whom Radler, a doctoral student at Lund, befriended. Radler would introduced visiting East German pastors to Braw, and then report back to the Stasi on the pastors’ opinions and loyalty.

Decades later, when Radler was revealed to be a spy, Elisabeth Braw made contact with Colonel Joachim Wiegand, who had been head of Department XX4 in 1989 and was now in his mid-80s. Braw found him surprisingly willing – keen, even – to talk; though he wouldn’t reveal names, only confirm them if Braw was able to produce evidence of their role.

Evidence there certainly was. When the Berlin Wall fell, the Stasi began frantically to destroy the files. However, there were so many that the destruction was only partial. In some cases “shredding” meant tearing paper in two by hand, which made documents easy to recover. Slowly but surely the extent of the penetration of the Lutheran Church was revealed. Braw is not impressed by this half-hearted response, which might be characterised not so much as truth and reconciliation but an overhasty act of oblivion.

The first of the Church Bureau’s sub-departments to begin shredding (and apparently the most effective) was that dealing with Catholics. Who knows what dirt was left buried, and what agents and informers the files would have revealed. However, intelligence officers need to prove their worth: files are a measurement of their value. Anything and everything would have been recorded and filed.

There appears to have been at least one Catholic “IM” of note. In 1975, the East German Catholic bishops’ conference appointed Mgr Paul Dissemond as its new permanent secretary. Like his predecessor, he was expected to maintain contacts with the Stasi. Braw says he was already a Stasi agent at the time of his appointment. Nevertheless, the information he passed to Department XX/4 seems little more than the usual clerical gossip, particularly regarding the troublesome Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła.

In the final chapter, entitled “What was the point?”, Braw relates an intriguing exchange with the elderly Wiegand. His wife, Gerda, despite having a devout upbringing, no longer believes in God because He does not prevent evil: “How can I be a Christian when priests abuse children?” But her husband demurs: “These priests who abuse children are just tumours. You can’t dismiss the whole Church on account of them.”

Wiegand had met “more than his fair share of debased and opportunist clerics”, writes Braw, “yet somehow he’s not cynical about the Christian faith”. Wiegand, she says, displays – at least in retrospect – something of the Christian spirit so conspicuously lacking among God’s spies.