The Banal Evils of the Police State

With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, many who lived under the communist regime of East Germany have taken the opportunity to go to the state archives and view the files which the Stasi secret police kept on them. Stasi files were not kept only on spies and political dissenters, but on ordinary people whose “offenses” were almost shockingly mundane, and whose betrayers were often friends or family:

A West German pudding. That was all it took. Once the Stasi found out about it, a family breadwinner was fired from his army job and an East German household was plunged into destitution.

Even worse, the family later found out that they had been turned in by a close friend. “She was watering the plants and went through the cupboards to find a Dr. Oetker dessert,” Vera Iburg, who has worked with files kept by the East German secret police for the last 20 years, told SPIEGEL ONLINE, referring to the snoop. “What was she doing? She had no business there!”

It’s an interesting example of the corrupting power of temptation that the availability of the means to easily hurt those around you by reporting others to the police motivated many to inform merely for the satisfaction of it:

The files — which occupy over 100 kilometers of shelf space (not including the 16,000 sacks of shredded documents the Birthler Authority is currently trying to reassemble with the aid of computers) — are testament to a darker side of humanity. And Ziehm says that films like “The Lives of Others,” which indicate that many were coerced into spying on friends and neighbors, don’t come close to plumbing the depths that some ultimately fall to. Friends informed voluntarily on friends and spouses even tattled on each other.

“More often than not, the Stasi did not need to apply pressure at all,” he says. “In fact, many often felt snubbed if their information was deemed to be of no interest.” The real motivation behind these acts of betrayal was much more humdrum than one might think. “People informed for personal gain, out of loyalty to the East German regime, or simply because they wanted to feel like they had some power,” Ziehm says.

Often we think of repressive regimes’ primary evil being what they do to the people of a country, yet it’s perhaps more important (and more disturbing) to think of how the tools of such a regime corrupt many of the people themselves.

7 Responses to The Banal Evils of the Police State

  1. j. christian says:

    What is interesting to ponder is, how much of a “soft” police state will Americans tolerate? It’s not likely that America will have the likes of the Stasi any time soon, except in the minds of those who hyperventilate about socialism at the drop of a hat. But signs of a soft informant culture are already here. As an example, there was a PSA ad campaign running on the bus stops here in L.A. about water conservation. It featured “mug shots” of various ordinary people, with something accusatory above their faces, like “Driveway-watering Dan.” Apparently, no one thought this was the least bit disturbing. Maybe they should run something similar about people who eat trans fats.

    I don’t even want to think what will happen when gay marriage becomes the law of the land (and you know it will).

  2. Phillip says:

    The structures of sin are the sins of individuals.

  3. American Knight says:

    We already live in a police state. 40% of the population is on the take and will keep voting for ‘freebies’ from the largesse of the political class.

    Everyday we fall farther and farther into sin and will be willing to do anything to keep our material comforts. Sell our mothers or ‘gently let them go’ for the good of the country. Kill our sexual punishments, er, ah, babies, no, I meant fetus or is that zygot. Turn in our boss becuase he doesn’t pay enough or has some of those gold coins.

    I think there is a movie out that offers you millions of dollars at the push of a button and the button kills someone somewhere in the world. Sadly, I think there are many Americans that wouldn’t hesitate to push the button.

    The only thing that can check a police state is a moral and vigilant people who distrust their government.

  4. Donna V. says:

    I think the movie “The Lives of Others” which is about the East German police state, should be shown in high schools and colleges. But that would entail revealing how Communism degrades the human soul – and unfortunately, too many of the products of our schools of education still think Communism is a good idea that just needs to be executed properly.

    As an American of Eastern European descent I was estatic when the Wall came down. Now I fear the lands of my ancestors might once again be swallowed by the Russian bear.

  5. American Knight says:


    You are assumign they won’t be swallowed by the American Eagle first. We are getting to the point where Russian Bears, American Eagles and Chinese Dragons are no different from each other. Ain’t globalism grand?

  6. American Knight,

    I can certainly sympathize with feeling that the US government has become too big and too intrusive, but a police state it most certainly is not, and I’m not clear that anything is gained by exaggerating our problems out of proportion in that direction.

  7. American Knight says:


    Tha apparatus for a police state has already been put in place. Those Germans not hunted by the Gestapo may not have been bothered but they were still living in a police state.

    The greater concern is not so much the apparatus but the mentality of the people. Many so-called Americans have no problem of conscience turning on those who propose to cut the ‘freebies’.

    The current abortion issue re: the assault on health care is giving rise to anti-Catholic sentiment and there are many who want us silenced becuause we make them uncomfortable. It wouldn’t be the first time a nation that showed so much promise, had material prosperity, realtive peace suddenly takes a left turn and starts attacking Catholics. Perhaps this time it will be happier and nicer and maybe even more effective becuase Catholics will bend and blend and may not even know they are being persecuted.

    I am not trying to paint a gloomy picture and I am hopeful that we will defeat these measures and that seperated Christians will return to Rome through this; howerver, we cannot ignore the reality that the apparatus for a police state is in place and that a large minority of Americans will welcome it.

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