The Stasi: Secrets, Lies and British Spies

Julie Etchingham

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Week 05 2023 : Sat 28 Jan - Fri 03 Feb

Fri 20 Jan 2023

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The Stasi: Secrets, Lies and British Spies

"Allowing people to get away with it so it does not cause embarrassment is a very British way of doing things and is very toxic." - Annie Machon, former British intelligence officer for MI5

For nearly 40 years, East Germany’s Stasi was one of the most formidable secret police forces in the world. Its vast network of spies and informers reached across the globe until the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the Cold War ended, scores of Stasi spies were still operating in the UK. 

In this new documentary for ITV1, with access to recently opened court files, Julie Etchingham reveals some of the Stasi’s UK operations and asks why – 30 years after Germany made its file public – the identities of many alleged British informers are still a guarded secret.

It also asks, with Russia’s President Putin himself once a card-carrying member, what the dawn of a new Cold War tells us about the legacy of the Stasi today.

Julie visits Berlin to meet people who suffered at the hands of this very secret police force including Wolfgang Welsch, who was first arrested trying to flee to the West. 

Later he would become one of the most successful operators helping hundreds of East Germans escape the communist state. He was locked up in one of the most notorious prisons, Hohenschönhausen in Berlin. He says he was beaten, kept in solitary confinement, and mentally tortured, including one night when he says he was dragged out of his cell and put in front of a firing squad: "I heard someone say, 'The supreme court of East Germany sentences you to death. The sentence will be carried out now.' Inside me, the dread crept up my body, I was paralysed with fear. I thought, 'No it can’t be. What have I done?' And then the safety catches clicked. And then came the command to fire. But I wasn’t dead. They’d used blanks. It was a mock execution."

Historian Katja Hoyer explains the scale of the Stasi operation as a front for Russia's secret police, the KGB, during the Cold War: "With the Stasi, if you add the informal informers -  ordinary people who gave the Stasi information - you’re down to one to 70 people. Like one block of flats effectively being surveyed by one person who gave information to the Stasi."

Led by the infamous 'Man Without A Face' Markus Wolf, the Stasi at one point brought in British double agent Kim Philby to talk to its prospective recruits. Journalist Anne McElvoy, who the Stasi tried to recruit while she was a student in East Germany, says: "I think there's a reason why Markus Wolf wanted Kim Philby to talk to recruits, rising through the ranks in foreign intelligence, to inspire them, to strengthen their spine. To give them a sense that they’re part of something bigger."

East Germany was a small country of around 16 million - tiny when compared to the might of the Soviet Union. Despite this, the Stasi’s influence was felt across the world.  Anne says: "They reached from Cuba, where they did a lot of training of the intelligence services - to Africa… It's hard to find the part of the world where they didn't target, particularly if it was useful to the Soviet Union and a place where the Soviets were maybe having difficulty operating. They’d fill that gap. They were a bit like a sort of intelligence travel agency. You could go anywhere." 

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the Stasi’s tried to destroy its records, and some files, known as Rosenholz, found their way into the hands of the CIA. The Rosenholz files held records of Stasi spies in other countries - code names and real identities. But while the US and Germany have prosecuted former Stasi spies, Britain hasn’t. In 1999, the government announced that it was investigating more than 100 individuals, indicating the scale of Stasi activity in Britain. But more than 20 years on, not a single person has been prosecuted.

Former MI5 intelligence officer Annie Machon says: "In the UK, no. Their policy is always no comment, but allowing people to sneak away or get away with it, or brushing it under the carpet so it doesn’t cause embarrassment, particularly if they’re establishment figures, is a very British way of doing things."

In 1992, Germany made the files public so anyone could ask to see their file. Katja Hoyer says: "The impact of the opening of the files was quite traumatic. It held a mirror up to the East Germans to show them just how extensive this entire thing was. A lot of people had, I think, been a bit in denial about it and thought it was only affecting dissidents or troublemakers or kind of punks, as people called them, when actually it affected the whole of East German society."

Reflecting on the Stasi's impact today, security minister Tom Tugendhat MP speaks about the lines drawn with the ongoing war in Ukraine, with Ukrainians migrating to Britain to escape the conflict: "The reality is that Putin has actually invaded in the first state-on-state war since the Second World War. And this is an extraordinary act. And so I'm afraid it doesn't feel very much like a Cold War right now. It feels pretty hot."

Katja Hoyer explains the future potential implications: "There's always this kind of desire of states and systems to control their people. It's often the thin end of a wedge. The next thing is you control what they do and the fact that this happens in a fairly advanced society after the Second World War, looking back on the Gestapo and the crimes committed under the Nazis, and yet you end up with a system even more efficient than the previous one. Under the East German state is a slippery slope that bears lessons, I think, for today."



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