- The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi
Gary Bruce’s The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi offers a rare glimpse into life under the watchful eye of East Germany’s 90,000 secret police officers and 170,000+ informants. Bruce’s study focuses on Gransee and Perleberg, a pair of politically obscure districts located north of Berlin known for their lakes and hiking trails. Archival considerations greatly influenced Bruce’s selection of the districts. For example, Perleberg’s secret police archives remain largely intact and, albeit much smaller and less complete, many unique records survived the partial purge of Gransee’s district office in the winter of 1989. In addition to the quality of the archival holdings, the author was intrigued by the amount of surveillance material the local Stasi generated in these two districts, which were never viewed as hotbeds of discontent or home to any essential industry (although eighteen Soviet military bases were located within Gransee’s boundaries). The districts provided an opportunity to examine the coexistence of the Stasi with the citizens it monitored under normal circumstances. To balance his reliance on documentation created by the Stasi, Bruce conducted extensive oral history interviews with former officers, informants, and targets. The Firm contributes a unique insight into the mechanics of political oppression in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) through the eyes of the agents who created the surveillance documents and the civilian informants who helped gather information.
Bruce’s work explores the intersection of ordinary life with a repressive regime at the local level. He does an admirable job placing his study within the often-polarized historiography of the GDR. While noting the influence of the “good [End Page 418] life in a bad place” portrayal of East Germany in film, television, and popular memory, Bruce discusses the scholarly shift away from totalitarian explanatory models as a means of contextualizing the relationship between the government and its citizens. He contends that historians have struggled to develop a balanced picture accommodating the state’s efforts to control the lives of its citizens with the more popular themes of plurality, individual experience, and the cultivation of normalcy amid the difficulties. According to Bruce, the sharpest divisions in the historiography center on the extent to which the average citizen experienced repression, with historians focused on daily life contributing the most to the flawed view of the benign state through their over reliance on personal accounts and memories (9). Bruce views his own work as a means to reconcile this division by adding the perspective of the Stasi. Even though the Stasi was not the dominant factor in the lives of citizens, Bruce contends that life in the GDR cannot be understood without considering the impact of Eastern Europe’s most extensive secret police force and informant network on its citizens.
Using previously unavailable secret police files coupled with oral history interviews of former Stasi officers, recruited informants, and average citizens, Bruce’s study aptly illustrates the complex web of interactions between the individual and the state during the last three decades of the GDR. The secret police files shed light on the extent of the Stasi’s surveillance efforts to expose enemies of the state along with the process used to identify individuals believed best suited to join their ranks. Additionally, Bruce examined the reports submitted by the Stasi’s civilian informants. The amateur observations of suspicious activities ranged from the mundane to the bizarre; however, as Bruce demonstrates, their real historical value stems from the kinds of information that informants believed the Stasi wanted. The author’s interviews conducted with former Stasi officers delved into questions of motive, personal experience, and expectations. Through the interviews, he explores the officers’ perceptions of the Stasi’s mission and the extent of its power beyond matters of intelligence, such as influencing school admissions and procuring housing to reward helpful informants. The civilian oral histories further enrich Bruce’s discussion of the informant system. Some informants joined because they feared being suspected of...