Agent provocateur: Inside the secret archives of East Germany's secret police

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Simon Menner spent three years trawling through millions of surveillance images in the archives of the East German secret police. What he found was often laughable. But, he tells Holly Williams, beneath the Austin Powers exterior, there was evidence of a truly disturbing machine that still has the power to break its subjects

While the recent leaking of government-surveillance information hasn't exactly been welcomed by the secret services behind it, an exception comes in the form of the documents obtained by the spies of the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security run by the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).

After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the vast swathes of material the Stasi gathered about their compatriots was archived, and opened to the public. Now, a new book by the artist Simon Menner brings many of these bizarre but sinister records to light for the first time, from photographic guides on how to apply fake wigs, to coded hand signals and even images of Stasi award ceremonies and parties.

The archive also contains hundreds of thousands of surveillance images. When they became public, many people who'd lived in East Germany went to look at their files, and made the chilling discovery that neighbours, friends or colleagues had informed on them, their everyday activities had been photographed – even that Stasi agents had sneaked into their homes and taken Polaroid pictures.

These were snapped before the Stasi turned houses upside-down, searching for evidence of disloyalty to the state and Western imports. Functioning as quick-developing "before" shots, the Polaroids were used as references for agents to return rooms to their original look. The Stasi might rifle through your underwear drawer, but you'd never know…

Many of the images seem funny - being from the 1970s, it looks like state surveillance, Austin Powers style (Simon Menner) Many of the images seem funny - being from the 1970s, it looks like state surveillance, Austin Powers style (Simon Menner)
It was hearing about such Polaroids that first drew Menner to the Stasi archives in Berlin. "I'm interested in how images work and how they can be used to influence people," says the 35-year-old. "You can read a lot about surveillance, but it's usually very hard to actually see something."

He estimates that there are between two and three million images in the Stasi archive. The process of sorting through the images and getting permission to reprint them (many images had to be pixellated to preserve anonymity) has taken three years.

Even so, says Menner, "I only scratched the surface. It was the extent of surveillance that really shocked me – folder upon folder of pictures of every person who threw a letter into one postbox…"

At first, the people who work in the Stasi archive didn't understand Menner's seemingly haphazard approach: this wasn't about full historical documentation, but about uncovering the most powerful, or off-the-wall, images. But gradually, as he earnt their trust, they came to know his taste, pointing him in the direction of photos that they found particularly striking or eccentric.

"Close to the end, I became curious about Stasi internal affairs – parties and events. You could never ask for something like that – you have to stumble across it. And [the archive staff] would pass on things they'd stumbled on, too."

But Menner would never want these images to be viewed as mere quirks: 'At a glance these images look funny, then you realise it's serious - it was a terrible, terrible system' (Simon Menner) But Menner would never want these images to be viewed as mere quirks: 'At a glance these images look funny, then you realise it's serious - it was a terrible, terrible system' (Simon Menner)
Many of the images seem funny – being from the 1970s, it looks like state surveillance, Austin Powers style. And there is a value in being able to laugh at forces of evil: it's the ultimate denial of power and fear.

But Menner would never want these images to be viewed as mere quirks: "I hope the laughter sticks in the throat. At a glance these images look funny, then you realise it's serious – it was a terrible, terrible system."

Indeed, for all their seemingly absurd advice on how to dress like a holidaying Western tourist, the Stasi were not to be underestimated. Even at the GDR's last gasp, there were around 90,000 agents. "It was as sophisticated as the KGB or the CIA; it was cutting-edge," insists Menner.

He tried to access similar archives from the UK and West Germany from the same era for comparison – but they wouldn't play ball. "With the Stasi we're in the wonderful position [of being able to access the files] – but it would have been great to show both sides of the Iron Curtain."

Aged 11 when the Wall came down, and having been raised in southern Germany by a family who weren't political, Menner has no personal connection to East Germany. But he has seen the effect the archives can have on those who lived through those times.

Some friends laughed with recognition, saying, "That's just how the Stasi looked." But at one party where his book was passed around, "An elderly man had a breakdown from shock – the Stasi had given him a very hard time. Everything came back to him."

'Top Secret' is published by Hatje Cantz, priced £15.99

All pictures © Simon Menner, BStU 2013

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Assessor

£26000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: SAP Assessor Job T...

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: SEN Jobs Available Devon

Infrastructure Lead, (Trading, VCE, Converged, Hyper V)

£600 - £900 per day: Harrington Starr: Infrastructure Lead, (Trading infrastru...

Software Solution Technician - Peterborough - up to £21,000

£20000 - £21000 per annum + Training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Software Solutio...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering