Zersetzung, which translates to "decomposition" or "disintegration," is a covert and methodical form of psychological warfare used by the East German Ministry for State Security, also known as the Stasi, during the Cold War.
This nefarious practise included a variety of measures aimed at destroying the lives, reputations, and mental well-being of individuals perceived to be enemies of the state or prospective dangers to East Germany's socialist rule.
Surveillance, harassing, gaslighting, propagating false rumours, and different sorts of psychological manipulation were all used in Zersetzung.
This dark period in history serves as a vivid reminder of the effectiveness of psychological methods in suppressing opposition and keeping control inside authoritarian governments.
Following World War II, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS—commonly known as the Stasi—was the internal security agency for the German Democratic Republic, often known as East Germany. The Stasi surveillance system was the most restrictive and repressive apparatus ever used.
Germany was divided into two halves between 1945 and 1990: West Germany, which was integrated into NATO and Western markets, and East Germany (German Democratic Republic: GDR), which was administered by the Soviet Union.
East Germany's secret police, the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit), had the highest proportion of informants and secret police in history, with one out of every sixty people participating.
The Stasi had a system in place to listen in on phone conversations. It also had a postal cover system that opened international mails and packages as well as mail addressed to specific individuals.
The Stasi kept track of all foreigners who were allowed to enter East Germany. In fact, there was a department tasked with determining whether or not somebody had illegal western food in their garbage.
The Stasi used a scent approach, collecting odour samples from suspects to strengthen their files.
The Stasi collected and compared the smells of suspected dissidents in a systematic and covert manner. Dogs, for example, may be able to match the scent of a protest rally flyer to that of a suspect organiser.
In the Stasi museum now, you can see rows of jars with yellow fabric inside.
Statsi's informal Informant Army
The Stasi's deployment of a vast number of informants distinguished it from prior monitoring systems.
In Germany, they were known as informal collaborators, or "Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter"—IMs.
As an illustration of how such monitoring could work. The German news magazine Der Spiegel once featured an inquisitive hausfrau who was requested to water her neighbours' plants while they were abroad and uncovered the ingredients for a wonderful and expensive West German pudding by East German standards.
It was enough for him to lose his job when his neighbour informed state security.
The Stasi Agenda: Capture Them Young
Worse, almost 10,000 of those informants were under the age of 18. They were children, many of whom were possibly spying on their parents.
How did the Stasi convince individuals to act as informants?
- Invocations of patriotism
- Money or tangible benefit
- Threats of prosecution or offers of immunity are examples of blackmail.
- Presenting the assignment as a thrilling adventure
A Stasi tactic in action: Zersetzung
Following the Soviet soldiers' crushing of the East German public uprising in June 1953, the government charged the Stasi with thorough population surveillance and disruption prevention. This began with harsh physical repression: police and secret police imprisonment and physical abuse (including torture).
However, this began to alter in the 1970s, when the GDR became increasingly concerned with maintaining a positive international image, and repression of activists became more subtle.
To characterise its harassment operations, the Stasi adopted the military term Zersetzung (attrition or corrosion). The goal was to severely limit the ability of individuals and groups to carry out their activities, ideally to the point where they ceased entirely.
Zersetzung - The word's original meaning of decomposition makes translation difficult.
However, it is a rather accurate description. The goal was to subtly weaken people's confidence, for example, by destroying their reputations, engineering professional failures, and cutting personal ties.
In view of this, East Germany was a relatively modern dictatorship. The Stasi did not target every dissident for arrest. It prefered to paralyse institutions because it had access to so much private information and so many of them.
The major goal of the Zersetzung was to render the group ineffective in order to preclude any favourable media or public exposure.
Typically, groups were turned off by:
- Cause friction between members Money, personal (sexual) connections, and philosophical or political subjects were very effective at causing friction; the goal was to render the group ineffective in order to avoid any favourable media or public exposure.
- Hinder and sabotage activities by the use of one or more infiltrators who agree to accomplish tasks but never complete them, misplace materials and equipment, continuously seek revisions and further edits of materials to slow down production, attempt to distract the group into more innocuous activities, and so on;
- Separate the organisations from other activists, for example, by spreading rumours about bad behaviour and political convictions, etc.
Of course, the approaches used in any given case were chosen based on extensive psychological profiling and information about the group members, such as who performs what roles, who completes what types of activities, what relationships exist within the group, and who hangs out with whom.
Zersetzung for individuals
Similar to the Zersetzung of organisations, the Zersetzung of individuals designed to "switch off" that person's effectiveness by diminishing their self-assurance and their faith in the importance of their task. The Stasi didn't care if a person shut down due to disappointment, fear, burnout, or mental illness because all results were acceptable, and the officers involved didn't care about the mental health or social status of the people either during or after an operation.
Individual Zersetzung was often performed by gradually diminishing the target's quality of life (both socially and at work) in order to simply demolish the target's confidence.
The techniques took several forms, including causing problems at work, disseminating misleading information, and so forth. Even when rumours and information were transmitted around coworkers, superiors, and social circles, they were frequently plausible lies that were difficult to establish or deny (for example, concerning incorrect political views, inappropriate behaviour, the potential that they were informants, and so on)
- First stage
The initial stage of Zersetzung was a thorough examination of publicly available data and information, including as medical records, school reports, police reports, intelligence reports, and searches of the target's residence. They were looking for any social, emotional, or physical flaws that could be used to put pressure on the target, such as extramarital affairs, criminal histories, alcoholism, drug use, and differences between the target and their group (such as age, class, or clothing styles) that could be used to socially isolate them.
Following that, a comprehensive Zersetzung plan was developed:
What was the specific goal?
What techniques should be used to exploit the target's circumstances and personality?
How much time did it take?
- Second stage
The second phase typically involved supplementing covert surveillance with overt observation to inform the victim that the Stasi was interested in them and to instill a sense of anxiety and fear.
Some of the tactics utilised included questioning, repeated stop-and-searches, strange noises on phone lines, ostentatious trips to the workplace to alert management and coworkers that the police were interested, and so on.
- The third stage
The final stages involved verbal and physical abuse, such as moving furniture around the house (and the socks are in the wrong drawer, the alarm goes off at 5 a.m. instead of 7 a.m., there's no coffee left...), damaging bikes and cars (e.g., slashing tyres), spreading rumours, making purchases and booking appointments in the target's name, and so on.
Families were frequently used as a form of blackmail against activists at this time, with oppressed family members, for example, exerting indirect pressure on the activist, or as a tool for persuasion (Your daughter will get into serious trouble if she stays involved in that group, can't you make her see sense? Her marriage or career are at stake.).
Being arrested repeatedly, being physically attacked on the street, for example, by plain clothes police officers, or being subjected to abuse and assault as a result of rumours, such as bullying at work or avoidance by neighbours, are all examples of physical harassment.
It is well knowledge that modern Germans are reluctant to reveal information to parties other than the German government.
They also disagree on various areas of surveillance. Given their legacy, we can see why.
They are concerned about the consequences because they have witnessed the dangers of widespread government surveillance.