German artist Simon Menner has a bundle of photos taken by East Germany’s secret police during Cold War. Offering a glimpse into the small absurdities of life as a Communist spy, included are snap shots of suspicious household objects, agents modeling their “normal civilian” disguises, and West German spies who knew they were themselves being spied on, et cetera:
East Germany, until it ceased to exist in 1989/90, had one of the most advanced surveillance system ever in operation, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Department of State Security) or STASI. In terms of number of agents per capita it even outranked the Russian KGB by far.
Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was decided that most of its archive should be made accessible to the public and for historic research. Even though the access is restricted, this was very much in contrast to what most of the other nations of the former Eastern Block did. One has to keep in mind that this is a full scale secret service such as the CIA whose archives are now open for research.
I approached the public agency that is now responsible for the care of these incredibly vast archives with a proposal for a project and I was granted the opportunity to have some images reproduced for my use as an artist.
Many of these images might appear absurd or even funny. But it is very important to understand the intention behind them. It was a extremely repressive system that caused terror through its secret service. There is also something in these images that really frightens me. Some of them are very open for interpretation. Take the coffee maker for instance. It is a West German product and therefore it could be seen as a sign for contacts to western agents or it could be seen as a gift by relatives in the west. The difference was merely a decade spent in jail or not. I believe it shows somewhat the general limitations of surveillance.
The images of men in costumes were taken during a seminar for STASI agents on how to dress up. It might look ridiculous indeed but it shows how they thought someone appears inconspicuously.
Maybe the weirdest thing I came across so far – and I had no idea that something like this might exist – are the images of spies taking pictures of spies. Some small units within the Allied Forces were theoretically free to move within all of Germany. This was seen by both sides (east and west) as a wonderful opportunity for espionage. Whenever a small group of soldiers drove in their car through East Germany STASI agents tried to follow them. Both sides were fully aware that the other side was fully aware of their presence and this is exactly what these images show. An endless circle or awareness. I believe this is a wonderful allegory for the Cold War. Currently I am researching whether some of their counterparts still exist in western archives.