KNOWING THE SECRET POLICE: Secrecy and knowledge in East German Society

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Sch of Geog, Politics and Sociology


The Secret Police (Stasi) is ever-present in the ways in which the former German Democratic Republic is remembered. From academic accounts which describe the Stasi as all-powerful to cultural representations which show the invasive network of Stasi surveillance (e.g. The Lives of Others, 2006; Stasiland, 2003), the GDR has in many ways become synonymous with the Stasi in public imagination. But how did the citizens of the GDR navigate this presence and the secrecy surrounding it in their daily lives? How were they able to gain insight into its tactics and terror; how did they share knowledge about its strengths and weaknesses? This project investigates how different kinds of knowledge were circulated through social, religious, political and literary networks. It puts these explorations into conversation with a the study of how such knowledge was represented in the literature at the time of the GDR and how it was reflected on in literature written after the Stasi-archives opened. In doing so it pays heed to the role families may have played in underpinning or undermining networks and how information and understandings passed across the border between East and West Germany. The project is based on the hypothesis that navigating the 'public secret' of the Stasi relied on varied forms of political agency and gave rise to many kinds of political identity. As a result, it aims to challenge narratives about former citizens of the GDR as 'moulded' by the 'SED-dictatorship' and lacking the civic virtues necessary to participate in contemporary democratic life. The project combines oral history, archival research, textual analysis and ethnography to explore how citizens of the GDR could know the Stasi and how they shared this knowledge. It aims to use the resulting findings to engage in debates with practitioners in the field of public memory-work and the wider German public through two workshops and a touring exhibition. And it will bring these insights to history teachers and pupils in the UK at two school days. Moreover, findings will be explored in no less than nine academic publications by the research team. In the third year of the grant the scope of the project will be widened to the question of surveillance in contemporary societies at an interdisciplinary one day conference.

Planned Impact

The impact plan has been designed in dialogue with key partners including: the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (BpB); the Commission for Stasi Files (BStU); and the Roncalli-Haus in Magdeburg. The project will benefit three key groups of people:

1. A bilingual pop-up touring exhibition created with advice from the BpB and BStU will allow members of the German public to explore stories rarely discussed in public. It will be shown in the Roncalli-Haus, Magdeburg. The exhibition and attendant events will be advertised through the extensive networks of the BpB, BStU and the venue itself. The exhibition will provide a platform for recognising past and present experiences of state-society relations, for exploring the circulation of secrets and social sharing of knowledge, and for discussions about the scope and limitations for political agency in different historical periods. Such recognition and discussion is an important aspect of civic education and for prompting active participation of citizens of all ages in contemporary Germany.

2. Practitioners working on the history of the GDR, specifically secondary school teachers, heritage practitioners and regional and national policy makers from Germany, and A-level German school teachers from the UK will be invited to a workshop run in collaboration with the BpB as part of their annual, national conference for those researching on Germany ('Deutschlandforschertagung'). They will benefit by having time to: engage with original research data that expands current understandings of state-society relations in the GDR; network and share best practice internationally with others in the field; discuss implications of the research for policy, practice and pedagogy; influence the development of future outreach materials from the project through these conversations. Local policy-makers in the federal eastern German state Sachsen-Anhalt will enjoy the same opportunities at a half-day workshop at the Roncalli-Haus in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition.

3. Pedagogical materials produced as a result of the exhibition and workshops will be shared via the extensive networks of the project partners and through an existing well-established website ( thus ensuring sustainability and access. The teaching resources and exhibition will also form the basis of two school outreach days in the UK, organised in collaboration with the Midlands German Network and North East German Network, and targeted at students in years 12 and 13. The school children will benefit not only from visits to the exhibition hosted at the Great North Museum, Newcastle and 301 Broad Street, Birmingham, but also from exposure to new historical knowledge and from the opportunity to engage in debates about civil courage, citizenship and surveillance.


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