Between the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, scores of East Germans were tortured and intimidated by the Stasi, arguably one of the most repressive secret police agencies in the world. So last week, when it was discovered that roughly 17,000 former Stasi agents are still working as bureaucrats, many Germans were horrified.
The revelation was made by the respected Financial Times Deutschland newspaper, which noted that thousands of Stasi were hired or kept on in Germany’s civil service despite routine background checks. Organizations representing those harmed by the secret police, such as the Victims of Stalinism, are calling for the removal of any former agents from high-ranking positions in the government. Some politicians and civil rights activists also want new background checks and a full investigation of the civil service.
“Germany hasn’t seen this kind of moral panic since the ’60s, when people started looking around and seeing all these Nazis in the civil service,” says Dr. Jennifer Evans, an associate professor at Carleton University who specializes in German history. But she says people shouldn’t be surprised the Stasi are showing up in government ranks: the secret police was a massive organization employing over 90,000 agents directly and using approximately 200,000 “unofficial collaborators.” That’s about one agent for every 50 East Germans.
The backlash against the discovery is particularly intense because it was recently revealed that a police officer who murdered a student in 1967—sparking massive protests that mobilized leftist dissent in West Germany—was, in fact, a Stasi agent. But Evans thinks the calls to start firing government workers go too far.
“Postwar West Germany wasn’t able to function without Nazi-era teachers and Nazi-era engineers,” she says. “A society can’t function without its professional elite. It’s inconceivable to think that the civil service could have been purged of everybody who bore the taint of the Stasi connection.”