George W. Bush famously looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and “found him very straightforward and trustworthy.” That’s the “business pragmatism”—and naïveté—Russia’s ruler undoubtedly hopes for when he meets President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Hamburg this week. John McCain says when he looks into Putin’s eyes he sees “a K, a G, and a B.” Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor and a former East German, sees Stasi. Though he may not like to, President Trump ought to take note: Putin is no businessman. He is a manipulator, through and through.
The Staatssicherheitsdienst, the intelligence service of communist East Germany known as the Stasi, was notorious for its extensive spying on fellow citizens. The KGB’s star pupil maintained files on 6 million of the East Germany’s 17 million citizens—with the tiniest of details right down to samples of sweat and body odors. A spied-upon East German friend of mine liked to say back then that it was the GDR, the so-called German Democratic Republic, that really deserved the designation, “land of unlimited possibilities,” so unfathomable were the methods and the extent of communist repression.
But the Stasi was equally zealous and systematic in its attempts to penetrate and undermine West German democracy. We know this because, unlike the KGB, the Stasi files were opened after East Germany disappeared with German unification in 1990. It’s in the vast Stasi archives that we find clues today about the possible extent of Putin’s activities against the U.S. and our western partners. If history is any guide, Putin’s treachery almost certainly extends beyond mere interference in elections.
For example, in the early 1960s, East Germany mounted a vast anti-Semitic campaign in the West, financing and coordinating with various Nazi nostalgic parties and organizations to demoralize a young democracy and undermine the credibility of Bonn. “You Jewish pig, we forgot to gas you,” was one of the sample letters discovered in Stasi material after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many like it were sent, signed by a cut-out calling itself “Veterans of the Waffen-SS”, to prominent Jewish leaders and their families. Early on, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer believed the Stasi was behind these provocations, but worried about raising the issue with allies for fear of being seen as paranoid. Undeterred, communist agents ran these kinds of campaigns for over four decades, vandalizing synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, sending hate mail and death threats to Jewish leaders in West Germany.
It wasn’t just active measures, either. The Stasi practiced the classic art of espionage, with exceptional patience. Infamous spymaster Markus Wolf created his “Romeo network,” training Stasi agents to dupe sources into long-term relationships. Gabriele Kliem was one of dozens arrested for espionage after unification. She was a translator for the U.S. embassy in Bonn, and had supplied her fiancé, Frank Dietzel—a noble peace advocate, she had thought at the time—with a steady stream of classified documents during their seven-year relationship. Dietzel, it turned out, was a Stasi agent dispatched from the get-go to seduce Kliem. Another female “Romeo” worked her way into the office of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Before that, Stasi agent Guenter Guillaume, sans sex, became a top aide to West German leader Willy Brandt.
The tentacles reached everywhere. The Stasi maintained more than 12,000 informants across West Germany. Josef Frindt, a pastor in the west German town of Dorsten, 50 miles north of Cologne, turned out to have been an outstanding Stasi source. His parishioners were stunned to learn this, so trusted and beloved was Father Frindt. Among the dozens of dossiers Frindt prepared, one detailed the activities of fellow priest Joseph Ratzinger who would later become Pope Benedict XVI.
Did the Stasi decide West German history? In 2009, researchers in the Stasi archives discovered that West Berlin policeman Karl-Heinz Kurras, whose killing of a peaceful protester in Berlin in June 1967 helped touch off the West German peace movement, had been a Stasi agent. Two years later, another revelation: Horst Mahler, who represented the widow of that same murdered 26-year-old protestor in a civil suit brought over her husband’s death, had Stasi ties. Mahler became cofounder of the terrorist Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader Meinhof Gang.
We don’t know everything about this period, or how all the dots connect. The Stasi destroyed countless documents in the regime’s waning days. Thousands of bags of damaged files—including an estimated 33 million shredded pages—are still being reconstructed.
We do know this, however: Putin came of age marinaded in this culture of blackmail, bribery, pathological manipulation and duplicity. Putin’s German biographer, Boris Reitschuster, says his early years in Dresden—it was in East Germany that the young KGB man spent his formative years—would later inspire Putin to build “some kind of East Germany in Russia.”
How far is Putin’s reach today into the west and the U.S.? On Inauguration Day in January, when some 200 black clad protestors a few blocks from the White House began throwing rocks and bottles at D.C. police, I was sitting at a restaurant nearby, watching the melee on television with a young Ukrainian civil society activist and friend whose immediate reaction was “Russians!”
FSB provocateurs in our midst? We shouldn’t get too carried away. But the jumpy reaction from my colleague who has direct experience with these people tells you to what lengths they might go. If we want to take proper stock of Vladimir Putin, revisiting relevant history would seem hardly a low IQ, dumb-as-a-rock thing to do.