SECTION XX/4 of East Germany’s Ministry for State Security (Stasi, established 1964) kept tabs on the country’s church structures and sought to neutralise them through infiltration.
Unlike the Soviet Union, East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), never attempted to obliterate Christianity. Instead, it aimed at reducing it to a harmless cultural artefact: one to display to Western visitors as proof that there really was “freedom of religion” in the GDR.
Although there was some harsh treatment of dissident clergy in the 1950s, from, at latest, 1964 onwards, the regime’s approach was much more about “taming” than “terror”. Eventually, 120 Stasi officers, assisted by a larger informant network of “Pastor Agents”, acted as this policy’s transmission belt.
Christians were variously bribed and blackmailed into, or indeed volunteered for, Stasi duties. Informers passed on compromising gossip, committee-meeting minutes, and impressions of church “public opinion” on topical subjects. Such activities extended outside the GDR: Section XX/4 ran agents inside Lutheran sister Churches abroad, as in West Germany and Sweden, and within wider church bodies, including the Lutheran World Federation, the Council of European Churches, and the World Council of Churches.
Where possible, the agents, following Stasi direction, influenced episcopal elections, church appointments and public statements. Thereby, the Stasi inserted sympathisers into key leadership positions — but never as many as it desired. XX/4’s part-failure in this regard helped Churches to incubate public dissent during the 1980s.
Braw brings to light interesting material, tells the story like a thriller, and has accomplished a coup in getting Colonel Joachim Wiegrand, XX/4’s last chief, to speak on the record. These are serious plus points.
Overall, however, God’s Spies is an uncomfortable read. Some prose is overblown: is Wittenberg really a “Christian Mecca”? To speak simplistically of “perpetrators” and “victims” ignores what Braw herself unearths about pressures used on informants. Blackmail concerning their sex lives could be especially unpleasant.
A Manichean approach ill fits morally complex cases like those where pastors traded titbits of church trivia in exchange for construction materials to build churches, arrange foreign-travel permits for seminary students, and even obtain theological publications. Some Left-leaning volunteers arguably deceived themselves about their “work for peace”.
Omission and addition alike undermine this book’s value. God’s Spies lacks both a conclusion and a bibliography. Footnoting is patchy. Braw admits that some “truncated” conversations recorded in archives have been “gently reconstructed”. This is problematic: no square brackets indicate where original material ends and imaginative reconstruction begins.
Perhaps what one misses here most are some pictures of the dramatis personae. Photographic portraits might communicate the complex humanity of people whom Braw is swift to judge.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is a priest pursuing studies in law.
God’s Spies: The Stasi’s Cold War espionage campaign inside the Church
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