Book Review: ‘God’s Spies: The Stasi’s Cold War Espionage Campaign Inside the Church’ by Elisabeth Braw

Book review by Laura M. Fabrycky. Fabrycky is an American writer and spouse to a U.S. Foreign Service officer. She lived in Berlin with her family from 2016-2019, and now resides in Brussels. Her book, Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Fortress Press), releases in March 2020.

Among the many plans for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the augmented reality MauAR app offers users a glimpse into both the sudden and gradual accretions of that sprawling built environment of political control over the 28 contentious years it stood (1961-1989). Through the application’s lens, the Wall rises again, along with guard towers, barbed wire, and the raked sand of the death strip. For a forgetful world, it provides a sobering virtual glimpse into what life was like.

Far harder to see are the moral forms of control built up by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the four decades during which the communist regime held power. In a timely way, Elisabeth Braw’s God’s Spies: The Stasi’s Cold War Espionage Campaign Inside the Church, searches this more hidden dimension. A former journalist and now director of the Modern Deterrence project at RUSI, a London-based defense and security think tank, Braw analyzes why so many East German pastors, bishops, and theologians worked as Stasi unofficial collaborators (Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter, or IMs).

From ground-breaking interviews and careful record-combing, Braw offers up new material for students of the GDR era. But she also treads soberly upon the old, familiar, yet easily forgotten paths of the mealy moral middle of human beings in systems that reward duplicity and corruption.

The Price of Betrayal

The Stasi, East Germany’s Ministry for State Security (or MfS), existed to protect the regime, securing and consolidating power through godlike knowledge, and ever-alert for signs of subversion. Of course, the only way to achieve that kind of atmospheric knowing—that pervasive and intimate level of surveillance—was through ordinary people everywhere snooping on almost everyone else. What drives people, even clergy, to such widespread human betrayal is the puzzle at the heart of Braw’s study.

In a landscape of repression, as Braw observes, the church was “East Germany’s only semi-free space,” the only area where one could get some distance from the regime’s omnipresence. Churches drew in the “opposition-minded” as well as the religious. It seemed to be a space beyond the government’s godlike gaze and grip.

But it was not. The potential threat that the churches posed to the regime necessitated their infiltration and monitoring. Enter Department XX/4, the Stasi’s ecclesiastical office, and its extensive web of unofficial agents (IMs). Braw’s book recounts shocking levels of cooperation within the church, just as there was outside of the church. One small example: Two-thirds of the professors in Humboldt University’s theology department worked as IMs. A not-insignificant number of students did too. No matter where they were, East Germans assumed that someone was always listening and reporting.

While there have been and still are more physically brutal regimes than the GDR, the Stasi’s skill at preying on human corruptibility in its brief yet powerful tenure continues to command attention. “Like any good espionage novel,” Braw writes, “the story of the Stasi’s pastor spies involves betrayal, career advancement, even sex.” Her book reveals an assortment of pathetic details, including how pastors were willing to spy and surrender information on others in exchange for things like lamps and cigars.

The East German method often relied on a softer approach, catching more flies with honey than with vinegar. Recruitment, Braw observes, was achieved with “some porcelain, some stollen [a German sweet bread], and a friendly Christmas visit.” Once in the net, IMs offered up reports which their handlers passed to the department. Handlers offered agents something too, sometimes merely a listening ear into which IMs could air their personal grievances and play out possible vendettas. IMs often sought and found beyond-the-bureaucracy solutions for the degradations and inconveniences of life under Communism. A few betrayed information out of ideological purity, but most had a price.

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Source: Christianity Today