Psychology for the Stasi
The expatriation of songwriter Wolf Biermann in 1976 was a critical turning point in the GDR, triggering mass protests amongst artists and intellectuals. One of the protesters was Jürgen Fuchs, a psychologist and writer who was arrested and deported nine months later. But even after arriving in West Germany, Jürgen Fuchs wasn’t afforded any respite from the Stasi. He was allegedly unsettled by phone calls during the night, newspapers were delivered that he hadn’t ordered, and unsolicited taxis and locksmiths appeared at his door. The Stasi used targeted psychological methods to discredit dissidents and destabilise its victims.
However, the role played by universities in the process is yet to be fully explained. It may generally be argued that academic psychology led a precarious existence in the GDR, as it is ultimately the science of individual behaviour and the human experience, while the individual is not the focus of socialist society. The polity concentrated on the collective in the form of groups and society. If you wanted to become one of the few students of psychology in Berlin, Leipzig, Jena and Dresden, you not only needed good grades; you also had to be loyal to the state, a requirement that permeated through the GDR. The East German Communist Party (SED) also expected these institutions to play a role in actively contributing psychological knowledge to the development of a socialist society.
Psychology can be used or abused like any other science. It can be used as an analytical tool to demonstrate state manipulation; its emancipatory significance makes it dangerous for dictatorships, as psychology enables us to critically question methods of governance and propaganda. But the opposite is also possible: The idea of using psychological methods for the security of the state first emerged in the 1970s at the University of State Security in Potsdam-Golm, leading to the introduction of the term “operative psychology”. The objective was to use psychological methods to gain insights into the thoughts and emotions of dissidents, in order to exert some influence over them, as well as to monitor or expose them and wear them down. They also wanted to take operational agents and develop them into “Cheka” personalities and combat forces. Psychological findings were also used when recruiting unofficial employees, such as to assess their personality.
For this purpose, students from the university in Potsdam-Golm were sent to study psychology at other institutions, such as the University of Jena. After completing their studies, they were expected to share their newly acquired psychological knowledge with the other members of the Stasi. Their fellow students were not aware that they were sharing a classroom with state security officials, but one may assume the university directors were in on the act. However, I believe only a few lecturers knew how psychology was being exploited for the purposes of state security.
A secret service operates conspiratorially by definition. Even today, the Federal Intelligence Service, Federal Police and other institutions have their own psychological disciplines. However, we now live in a free country with a constitution and personal rights that we can exercise at our own discretion. That was not possible in the GDR – our modern state is highly dissimilar – but it would certainly be very one-sided to claim psychology was only used negatively in the GDR.
Furthermore, we should not overstate the use of “operative psychology”. When compared with the overall figures of operations executed by the Stasi, these “degradation measures” were relatively rare. However, such cases have gained notoriety through the film “The Lives of Others”, as the methods used were highly perfidious. Especially in the final years of the GDR, these tactics were used to discredit opposition groups. For example, wine bottles were left in front of a pastor’s house to suggest he was an alcoholic. Or, even more perfidiously, a person was suddenly rumoured to be a member of the Stasi, making others turn their backs on them. Objects were changed in apartments, and false love letters were sent to spouses.
It is almost impossible for the victims to prove such acts were ever committed, especially when files have been destroyed or cannot be found. However, many are traumatised and suffering greatly from the consequences. As dissidents were oppressed and denied opportunities during the GDR, they also found it harder to make a start in post-reunification Germany; many even sought psychological help to process their experiences. Due to the lack of cases, this group has long been overlooked. If you spend a certain amount of time in prison, you are at least entitled to a victim’s pension; this is not usually the case with the victims of these degradation tactics. Since 2019, however, they have been able to claim a one-off payment as a form of compensation.
“Operative psychology” was (fortunately) unable to prevent the demise of the GDR in 1989. But who knows what would have happened if the state security service had been able to exploit the modern possibilities of social media or the facial recognition and message filters used in modern-day China.
Professor Uwe Wolfradt has been an associate professor at the MLU’s Institute of Psychology since 2009. He is a member of the Historic Commission for the misuse of Psychology in the GDR, which is run by the German Psychological Society (DGPs) and the MLU’s Rectorate Commission for the Investigation of University History in the Dictatorships of the 20th Century.
Professor Uwe Wolfradt
Telephone +49 345 55 24356