The Stasi’s secret cameras: photos of the Berlin Wall police

The Stasi Observational School provided training for the Stasi’s operatives in disguise, photography, and trailing suspects.

Images from this period of mass surveillance by the state give us a unique look at the lives of those who fled from the East into the West and the Stasi’s activities.

The shadows with dark edges appear as an effect of the film. It is the edge of the buttonhole fabric. Observations were made with a secret camera in 1975. BStU MfS HA XVIII fo 46 Bl. 36 and 23. The BStU Stasi Records Agency Berlin.

The shadows around the edges of photographs taken with buttonhole cameras look like ghostly effects from a low-fi, groovy plastic camera. The pictures taken by buttonhole cameras are usually out of focus. This is because the photographer was rushing to capture the suspects.

In 1975, a couple was observed handing a bag to a stranger in the street.

These covert photos captured a couple trading a bag. Around 1975, suspicious suspects were observed exchanging a bag in the street. BStU MfS HA I Fo 865 Bl. 09. The BStU Stasi Records Agency Berlin.

Stasi agent took photos of the couple walking towards a car. These photos cast a suspicion over what were otherwise innocent acts. The Stasi archives do not contain any further information about this couple or the event. Many records were damaged or deleted later by the regime in order to conceal their illegal mass surveillance.

Photographing the actions makes them appear suspicious. Around 1975, suspicious suspects were observed exchanging a bag in the street. BStU MfS HA I Fo 865 Bl. 13

Escape routes

The Berlin Wall was built primarily to stop the flow of four million East Germans who fled for the West, which was more prosperous and democratic. Between 1961 and 1989, more than 5,000 people fled East Germany. Some of the methods used included jumping from windows on the border, hot air balloons, tunnels, car boots, and even an attempt to escape in the hollow belly of a model cattle.

Read more: World politics explainer: The fall of the Berlin Wall

One famous escape took place on July 29, 1965, when Heinz Holzapfel traveled with his wife and son from Leipzig to East Berlin.

The family took refuge in a building near the wall before climbing to the roof to signal to West Berlin helpers with a torch. They were then given a nylon cord tied to a heavy hammer.

The night was windy, cold, and dangerous. A pulley made of a bicycle wheel and a sling was used to fly across the wall.

Heinz, his son, and a news photographer are shown in West Berlin, demonstrating how to use the sling. The two are smiling and happy, having successfully escaped their ordeal after a year-long planning process.

The escape harness was used by the Holzapfels to cross the wall. Photographed for a newspaper story on the escape. Anonymous: Refugees in the GDR. Flight of the Family Holzapfel into the West, 1965

Surveillance of the wall

Stasi agents followed suspected defectors with the goal of arresting them and preventing their escape. Officers set up an observation post in Kreuzberg between July and August 1962. Indicators had reported that a tunnel was being dug from within the restaurant to under the wall.

Officers created detailed reports on each person who entered and exited the building. They included hair color, gender, height, and clothing. Also, they noted when they arrived and went, as well as if they were walking or driving.

Photographs are included in the notes. Some look like movie stills. Some are badly shot as if they were in a rush to capture the moment.

Photographs of suspected defectors meeting with friends in a vehicle. Observation near a Berlin checkpoint of an escape attempt, August 26, 1962. BStU MfS HA I 13255, Bild 0123 8. Courtesy of the BStU Stasi Records Agency Berlin.

Stasi agents were busy taking photos in August. They suspected that an escape attempt was imminent. Several characters, deemed suspicious because they were near a checkpoint, were meeting up with friends in a vehicle (many escape attempts were made by cars ramming each other or driving underneath checkpoint barriers) while others watched from a nearby rooftop.

This may have been an act of diversion. For unknown reasons, the tunnel and attempted escape were abandoned, and the Stasi failed to make any arrests.

History records painful memories.

After a series of revolutions in Eastern Europe, citizens stormed East German Ministry for State Security offices in late 1989. On November 9, 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of post-war Germany and the division.

Now, individuals who are under surveillance or imprisonment can access their Stasi files. These files can contain photographs and evidence from informers who were family members or spouses.

The public can now access files like this one, which shows the successful escape of the Thomas Family from a tunnel on May 7, 1962. This includes individuals who are under surveillance. Stasi Records Agency, Berlin, BStU MfS HA I 3278 S. 0181

Vera Iburg is a member of the archives and told Der Spiegel, “It makes you despair about the evil lies people would tell. And at the weakness in human nature.”

These photographs are now viewed as aesthetic artifacts and as evidence of mass surveillance, but they still have a painful resonance with the victims.

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