Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-GERMANY: Child Spies – Little Known Victims of Cold War

Yojana Sharma

BERLIN, Nov 5 1999 (IPS) - Ten years after the fall of the Berlin wall, many young east Germans are nursing a terrible secret. They are the little-known child spies who betrayed their friends and acquaintances to the East German ministry for State Security, or Stasi.

Antje admits she was not attractive as a teenager, did not stand out in a crowd, and did not care one way or another about life, her future or her studies.

Her colourlessness, she now realises, made her the ideal candidate as an informer for the dreaded Stasi when she was just 17. That and her willingness to “fit in” and do as she was told.

“It was out of the blue,” she recalls, still slightly nervous, ten years on.

“I was asked to come to the principal’s office. There I met a man who was in his mid-20s. All I knew about him was he was from the Stasi. I was surprised. I did not guess then what he wanted. He asked me if I was prepared to help the Stasi, and because I was supposed to meet a friend and was impatient to get away, I agreed.”

Three months after this first meeting with her “controller”, Antje became one of the Stasi’s 10,000 informers who were under the age of 18 when the Berlin wall came down in late 1989. The story of the child spies is only now coming to light, ten years after the fall of the wall.

Youngsters formed some six per cent of the Stasi’s known 173,000 informers who are the subject of much emotional debate, anger and division in German society today.

But unlike their adult counterparts, child-informants are often seen as victims of their own youth and ignorance – and a system which demanded commitment, or at least conformity and obedience. As “victims” their names are still blacked out in Stasi files to protect them from retribution.

Antje is one of the very few willing to talk about her role. Her job was to infiltrate church and ecology youth groups and report on the individual members and their motives.

She met her controller regularly, sometimes even in her own home but received little feedback on her own work and never questioned what was required of her.

Many youngsters were recruited by gathering information from teachers, and particularly school principals who for the most part belonged to the ruling Germany’s United Socialist Party (SED).

To many in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), working for the Stasi was considered part of their commitment to the ideals of socialism and communism.

“The Stasi sought out the insecure, the vulnerable and manipulated them,” says Klaus Behnke an East German psychologist who counsels many child informers under a programme set up by the Berlin authorities to help former Stasi victims.

For example a plain girl with no friends or a boy friend would be introduced to a young Stasi officer and told she was beautiful. Psychologically disturbed youngsters were made dependent on their controller’s affection and attention.

And there were others in trouble, particularly petty juvenile criminals who were able to “buy” their way out of punishment by becoming informers. A small minority were recruited by their own parents, zealous Stasi members or informants themselves.

The first teenagers were recruited in the late seventies. By the 1980s the network of young infiltrators had been systematically built up. By 1989 it was not uncommon for 12 year-olds to be informers. They are carefully selected by monitoring school essays. Many resisted, but some could not.

“They were mostly misfits or weak,” says Behnke. “They were given a kind of sense of belonging. Young people were taught to mistrust everyone except their (Stasi) controller who they had to trust completely.”

Some youngsters received payment, although according to Edda Ahrberg, responsible for the former Stasi Archives in the state of Saxony Anhalt, these were not large sums. “More important for the informers was the recognition. The feeling that they were important and needed. Most of them were low on self-esteem.”

Yet it was not so easy to recruit youngsters as informers. Four out of five refused. One in ten even refused to sign the declaration that swore them to secrecy – these declarations are one of the main means of identifying underage informants from the Stasi files years later.

“It was clear to me I could not say no”, says Robert P. who was recruited by the Stasi in 1983, aged 17. “To say no was like saying of course I’m an enemy of the state.”

Others say that because the first approach by the Stasi often took place in the principal’s office, that writing reports for the Stasi was part of what was expected at school, though some of the recruits even informed on teachers.

What Antje did not foresee was that she would begin to identify with the very group she was expected to betray. She felt, for the first time, a sense of belonging, and developed an interest in the issues. The group had become more important than her controller.

“The more I got to know the group I was informing on, the more pressure I felt. I feared loosing the friends although I often felt I wanted to get out of it. I suppose I feared there would be some danger to myself and consequences for my family. Yet I felt controlled. I was in a bad state mentally. Very depressed.”

The depression became worse after 1989 when East Germans were allowed to consult their own Stasi files. Fear gripped her. Public anger against Stasi informants was high.

Many young informers have grown into deeply disturbed adults, unable to take responsibility for their own lives, always used to following orders, isolated from their peers, many of whom cross the street when they see them.

Paranoia and depression are common. Few have friends. Many have relationship difficulties and find they can’t trust anyone. Many of them find it difficult to make simple decisions about their own lives. “They are so used to being controlled, ” says Behnke. Guilt is strong and paranoia, particularly of being regarded as a traitor by everyone they meet, is a problem.

Behnke who has extended his research to the archives of the former East German government, believes the thousands of school children who betrayed their classmates were part of a highly-organised plan by the East German authorities to infiltrate schools and youth groups.

“Decadent” youngsters including hippies, punks and ecology groups had to be stamped out before they became adult dissidents and a threat to the monolithic state.

“The authorities could not cope with these new ways of thinking. They infiltrated them with young informers in order to understand the “threat” and to destroy it,” Behnke says.

According to Behnke, the Stasi set up a special wing devoted to young people. It took the sinister department title “psychological operations”. Its aim, according to official documents, was to “get under the skin and get a glimpse of the heart”, of the so-called “decadent” youth.

And those who were informed upon? Many of them are bitter and still fighting in the courts today.

Young people convinced they missed out on a university place for political reasons are only now trying to seek compensation, but they are unable to prove specifically who informed on them because of the policy under which the names of child informers are blacked out in the Stasi files.

They could be fighting their legal battle for years, and even then, “any compensation would only be symbolic,” says Behnke. “A court cannot give back opportunities missed in youth.”

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