East Germany's feared secret police had a bit of a sartorial flair, photos found by artist Simon Menner in the Stasi archive reveal. The images, which offer a glimpse into the clandestine world of phony facial hair and the all-important hat, are set to be published in a book this fall.
A series of old photos documents an unlikely confrontation. On one side of the room stand members of the East German secret police outfitted in official atire. On the other side is a motley mix of subversive characters and nonconformists: environmental and peace activists, their lapels bearing an array of political buttons, as well as athletes, whose participation in competitions abroad led them to thoughts of defecting. And decked out in full church regalia are clergymen, commonly known to lend sympathy to dissidents and assist people trying to leave the country.
In a flash, the spies and their targets all turn cheerful, exchange gifts and have a champagne toast.
If the scene sounds too odd to be authentic, that's because it isn't. But the story behind it is nearly as strange. The series of photos were taken at the birthday party of a high-ranking official in communist East Germany's Ministry for State Security, or Stasi. The party guests were asked to come dressed as top surveillance targets. The images are absurd, and the crooked smiles of several guests reveal that the cynicism of the event was not lost on them.
Dress Like a Mama's Boy
Berlin-based artist Simon Menner discovered the photos during two years of research through the Stasi archives. He sorted them into three categories -- teachings, observations and internal affairs -- and compiled them in the soon-to-be-published book "Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives."
Some of the most interesting photos are from seminars meant to teach incoming Stasi employees how best to disguise themselves. Photos show trainees wearing fur hats pushed deep onto their heads, with gold-rimmed sunglasses and fake mustaches. They come so close to the cliche of the Eastern Bloc spy that one wonders if they took their tips from a classic James Bond movie.
The Stasi's depiction of a "mama's boy with an innocent air" comprises a button-down shirt with an oversized 1970s-style collar worn under a conservative cardigan, topped off with an androgenous hairstyle reminiscent of a socially awkward schoolboy.
The "Western tourists" are only slightly more believable, holding cameras and shopping bags and wearing pants hiked up above the waist. Some of the models pose so stiffly that they appear to be secretly scoffing at their stereotypical portrayals. Others seem to joyfully lose themselves in the groovy class-enemy individualism of their capitalist neighbors.
Stasi Terror as Installation Art
Photographs were a key tool for the Stasi whenever they conducted on-site operations. When breaking into the private apartments of suspected undesirables, they took Poloroid pictures of the arrangements in all the rooms. After they were done, the pictures would help them to rearrange everything to look untouched -- when in reality they had searched through everything, right down to dirty underwear.
These kinds of devious missions gave rise to a handful of photos that could easily be mistaken for art. One photo of an unmade bed would fit in with an exhibition by Wolfgang Tillmans or Nan Goldin. But unlike those two photographers, the work is not about the astheticization of one's own surroundings, but rather the brutal invasion of privacy.
And still, the state repression documented in Menner's book led to more than just privacy being trampled on. It also resulted in countless cases of interrogation, imprisonment and social ruin. It is here where "Top Secret" falls short of conveying to the viewer the real systematic terror East German authorities wreaked on their citizens. The short introduction by Menner and brief captions to the photos could easily be enhanced with an essay by a Stasi expert like Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk.
That would perhaps shed more light on one particularly noteworthy document found in "Top Secret": a report, typed on a typewriter, describing the case of a man who was in charge of a state-owned farm cooperative. He was so angry about all the extra costs of buying a Trabant -- the ubiquitous East German car model -- that he decided to tack on a host of his own types of fees when selling a cow: the black-and-white color job, the genuine leather upholstery and four milk-producing spigots valued at 35 marks each. All in all: "Full cow in requested design: 5920 marks."