You’ve Got Mail

I recall my father saying as a kid, “Walls have ears.” This was not in reference to secret police spying on everyone and each citizen; rather, it was in reference to your own neighbour spying on you.

Later, when I applied to military school (high school), my grandfather took me for a long stroll, and he was a scary guy for many; after all, he was the No. 2 boss of the Secret Police in ex-Yugoslavia, as I discovered when war broke out 5 years later.

He informed me that I should stop mailing mail, sending postcards, and doing anything else with mail right now.

I questioned him, “Why is that?” As you may recall, there was no email, Tinder, LinkedIn, or Facebook in 1986. We used mail.

He simply stated that “they see all” and “they read all,” and that anyone who believes they are foolish for writing codes or foreign phrases is mistaken.

In 1987, I was told the same thing in military school: cease writing; we’re checking all letters.

STASI, the East German secret police, took this to new heights, and this piece serves as a reminder of how it was done in East Germany, how much intelligence was collected, and how counterintelligence was distributed.

STASI at Postal Facilities

In post offices, the Ministry of the Interior had its own divisions where mail was opened methodically.

The Stasi mail inspection began in 1950, the year the ministry was created, and ended in the fall of 1989, due to the Peaceful Revolution.

Full-time In the GDR letter distribution offices known as “Stelle 12,” Stasi employees sorted the letters based on specific criteria.

Sorted goods were couriered to Stasi office buildings and opened with steam.

The data that was sent via letters has most likely been “removed,” and any questionable content has been copied or even maintained in the original.

Foreign currency was also earned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which garnered 32.8 million marks between January 1984 and November 1989. However, during this period, money was stolen and letters were destroyed.

Original letters from seized mail are still available today as part of national security files on the sender or receiver in question.

When mail was opened discreetly and used against the sender or recipient in court, a type of pseudo-legality emerged. In a forged letter, Deutsche Post told the affected parties that their letters had been held up due to an alleged violation of postal regulations.

Parcels were also searched and some items seized, including radio cassettes and recorded music, which were unlocked and occasionally used to record intercepted phone conversations, with the help of customs and Stasi agents stationed there.

In general, postal inspection delays were limited to twelve hours. Deutsche Post might then begin delivering letters on a regular basis. In the case that shipments were considerably delayed, the postmark date was hidden.

Department M

Department M employees replaced the envelopes, franking them as necessary, and carefully sealed the unsealed letters.

As a result, a worldwide stamp collection was specifically constructed.

The XIX’s main department, which oversees intelligence and communications, granted special search warrants. Large warrants with names, addresses, and writing examples, where needed, were included. Employees of Department M compared this data to the letters that were sent.

The so-called M-file was created concurrently with this operation.

Links uncovered during the check between the sender and the receiver are documented alphabetically and reinforced with the assistance of the police registration registry.

“Detect any hostile activity”

By the end, the Stasi had 10 departments managing this problem, up from three at the start.

The evolution indicates the increasing importance of postal control during the GDR’s 40-year existence. The political structure, as well as the Stasi’s aim to “know everything” and retain total control, had an impact on this.

Department M was tasked with regulating postal correspondence in this specific situation to “detect any hostile activity and prevent dangerous consequences.”

Their output was significantly limited during the popular uprising of 1953, the construction of the East Berlin Wall in 1961, and the détente policy in the late 1960s.

During the 1950s, Department M’s postal inspection activities were initially focused on three goals:

  • Seeking documents critical of the GDR in West Berlin and the Federal Republic.
  • Documenting the overall mood of the GDR population.
  • Detecting an attempted escape from the GDR.

In the 1960s, technical tool development, intelligence analysis, and operational activity all became more essential.

During the 1970s, Department M’s work was shaped by greater East-West exchanges.

Postal surveillance was geared toward discovering “negative” or “hostile” influences from the West, notably escape and emigration movements.

The management system’s effectiveness was improved further by utilizing new technology solutions. Due to improvements and the transfer of duty for postal and customs investigations in the 1980s, Department M was tasked with managing complex postal inspections.

The fact that the department has been overseen by the district since 1982 demonstrates its growing importance. Minister Erich Mielke was responsible for his own management.

From the beginning of 1989 to the end, four officers who began their careers in the MfS in 1950 and 1951 managed Department M. Major General Rudy Strobel founded Department M and oversaw it for nearly 25 years, from 1965 to 1989.

Postal Inspectors

From a few dozen in 1950, the number of Stasi workers performing postal inspections climbed to almost 2,200 in the GDR by 1989.

Department M and its ancillary services employed 639 people as of 1953. The workforce grew to over 900 individuals by the start of the 1970s, and to over 1,200 nearly 10 years later.

The most significant increase occurred between 1983 and 1984, when mail customs investigations were placed under Department M.

Department M has an extremely high percentage of women. In 1989, the percentage of women in the Stasi as a whole was around 16%, but in Department M, it was more than 20%.

Deutsche Post Operational School

Improving the control and search system required constant personnel training and specialization. Department M employees were also educated to operate a postal vehicle, provide telex services, and act as postal workers at the Deutsche Post operational school, which is located in the Berlin district headquarters.

Some employees became KV electronics technicians or completed the professional test to work with postal and newspaper traffic.

Staff members attended several technical schools to upgrade and maintain Department M’s technological facilities.

Air and refrigeration engineers were trained in Glauhau, while paper technology engineers were educated in Altenburg.

Deutsche Post ran a technical school in Leipzig where Stasi employees were trained as postal and newspaper engineers.

Additional courses were taken at other colleges and universities, such as the Engineering College for Device Technology in Dresden, the Humboldt University of Berlin for Criminology, the Karl Marx University of Leipzig for Physics, the Economic University of Berlin-Karlshorst, and the GDR Institute of Customs Administration “Heinrich Rau” in Berlin.

It was planned that mail from other countries would be available in Russian, English, French, and, starting in 1980, Polish. Intercepted correspondence contained information from GDR sympathizers to Poland and from Poland about the Solidarity trade union movement.

The effort aimed to uncover and disrupt postal connections with foreign secret services, with a particular emphasis on battling Western secret agencies.

The director’s March 1989 report, headlined “Current knowledge of the functioning of the imperialist secret services in the postal communication system,” laid the groundwork for the larger search for secret service letters, particularly from NATO members.

To avoid potential attacks on the Stasi by Western secret agencies, a thorough search for records relevant to the internal security of the Stasi and other armed institutions of the GDR was conducted.

In addition to the MFA, top-level state leaders should be “protected,” particularly against explosive and dangerous mail.

Staff of Department M were expected to maintain strict confidentiality, especially when working with Deutsche Post staff. As a result, they sat together in a private group in the cafeteria, attempting to minimize their encounter with “normal” postal personnel.

The Ostbahnhof in East Berlin, which the MfS designated as the “Caesar” plot facility, served as the site of formal relations with railway mail departments and shift managers. Officers on Special Assignments (OibE) were a further tool in the conspiratorial postal control system.

An Additional Dimension

Department M’s activities in 1989 were governed by special political framework conditions that were visible in 1988 but took on increased significance in 1989.

Department M’s 1989 work plan reflects this growth. Its primary objective was to repress and intercept “political-ideological diversion” (PID) propaganda.

This was justified, among other things, by the manner in which current “events in the Soviet Union and some other socialist countries” and the political underground (PUT) and their primary “exponents”—that is, the opposition scene and its spokespersons—as well as the emigration and escape movement—met.

Department M paid special consideration to the so-called “hostile legal grounds” in this case.

The press offices of Western correspondents accredited in the GDR, particularly those from NATO countries, as well as Western embassies and consulates, are so designated.

The postal inspection of these establishments aimed to uncover evidence of “hostile activities” directed at the GDR.

During this time, the Stasi’s primary responsibilities included gathering information about the GDR’s political and economic realities, encouraging people to leave and relocate, and putting an end to high-profile events that the Stasi deemed unfriendly to the GDR.

Goal: 90% of all domestic mail should be opened.

Finally, the job required further enhancement of the subsequent control’s technical examination techniques. The goal of automating the hot steam opening is to achieve a 90 percent opening rate for the “home” and “outgoing” mail programs, as well as 50 to 60 percent for all “incoming” mail.

This was a chronic violation of fundamental rights.

Departments from “fraternal bodies” were routinely switched with relevant departments for later takeovers, whether in the Soviet Union, Poland, or Czechoslovakia.

During these discussions, in addition to discussing new technological approaches for covertly reading and analyzing letters, addresses were shared and mail was collected.

This was the condition during the Cold War.

So, to what extent do you believe email is controlled and monitored these days?

Every type of mail? Or ?!

This post was written by Mario Bekes