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Creating a Culture of Denunciation

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On June 10, the Guardian featured an article entitled “Edward Snowden: Saving Us from the United Stasi of America” by Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. He stated,

The NSA, FBI, and CIA have, with the new digital technology, surveillance powers over our own citizens that the Stasi — the secret police in the former “democratic republic” of East Germany — could scarcely have dreamed of.

Established in 1950, the secret police agency in Communist East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or GDR) was commonly called the Stasi. The Stasi became known as one of the most efficient and brutal intelligence-gathering agencies that has ever existed. Its power lay in surveillance. The Stasi had eyes and ears everywhere, so that people did not speak in the streets; they whispered in their own homes and were wary of speaking freely to family or friends. To contradict the state was treason, for which a person could be imprisoned and tortured in order to produce more names. Sometimes people were executed.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and the GDR ended shortly thereafter. Official records were then opened to scrutiny. Based on these, it is estimated that in 1989 the Stasi had approximately 97,000 ordinary employees and 173,000 invisible informers. In his blog post “Living with the Enemy: Informing the Stasi in the GDR,” historian David Cook explains,

Roughly this translated as a ratio of one agent per 63 of the population.… During the lifespan of the communist regime in East Germany [1949–1990] it is estimated from existing archival material that there were up to 500,000 informers active at various times. Or more starkly one in 30 of the population had worked for the Stasi by the fall of the GDR.

As the Stasi’s past was laid bare, former East Germans were particularly outraged to discover that the army of invisible informers often included family, friends, neighbors, and other trusted associates. Why did people turn their fellows in to the state? Police informers had many motives: to gain money or a business advantage, to promote ideological purity, to avenge themselves on a spouse, to resolve a dispute with neighbors, or simply to curry favor with the police. To take full advantage of these motives, the GDR created what has been called “a culture of denunciation,” through which a large portion of the populace acted as agents of the state.

Establishing a culture of denunciation

Denunciation is the act of accusing someone of wrongdoing. In a political context, it means reporting a person to the state for investigation and possible punishment. In the GDR, such “wrongdoing” ran the gamut from small matters such as making malicious comments to weightier ones such as plotting to leave. Nothing was too petty to report, however, even if it was mere suspicion.

Robert Gellately is an historian who focuses on modern Europe. In his essay, “Denunciations in Twentieth-Century Germany: Aspects of Self-Policing in the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic,” he used the term “culture of denunciation” to explain why the reporting of supposed wrongdoing became epidemic within the GDR (PDF).

He traced the phenomenon back to the Nazi intelligence-gathering police, the Gestapo. The Gestapo was an essential part of the dynamic that changed Germany from one of the most civilized nations in Europe to one of the most brutal. And it did so rapidly, over the course of a decade.

The Gestapo created a culture of denunciation, which destroyed the goodwill that comes from people living in peace and privacy together. It replaced goodwill and tolerance with suspicion, resentment, paranoia, and the breakdown of civil society; Nazi Germany was a psychological version of Hobbes’s “war of all against all.” Because denunciation was thus institutionalized in Germany as a norm, the Stasi was able to walk directly into the void left by the Gestapo.

How is a culture of denunciation established? The first step is to create an institutional framework that facilitates it. A special police force must be formed. It does not handle the traditional police functions of processing crimes against people and property, such as assault or theft. Its mission is to protect the state against threats, including dissent, and to enforce state laws that impose social control.

In connection with this, a deluge of laws must regulate the conduct of everyday life, including the words that may be spoken, so that it is impossible for the average person to walk through a day without committing an offense. The special police thus can proceed on the assumption that people are guilty until proven innocent — and they are correct if “guilt” means having broken such a “law.”

They form an umbrella organization that collects information from “lower” law-enforcement and other state agencies, which function as junior partners. This shifts the focus of lower agencies away from protecting people or property and toward enforcing social control. The special police and their extended forces become embedded in everyday life. Whether it is a policeman randomly stopping people to demand their papers or a TSA agent processing travelers like cattle, the populace comes to accept such social control as normal. Anyone who objects is abnormal and raises suspicion.

A massive amount of information flows upward to the special police, which is held by them in secrecy. But the official data is not enough; it does not tell them what people think or say in their own homes. To uncover this data, the special police create a denunciatory atmosphere through which ordinary people also become junior partners who report “wrongdoing” or anything at all suspicious.

Immunity is an essential aspect of the denunciation atmosphere. It applies to the special police, who operate in secrecy and with legal impunity, wielding almost arbitrary power. It also applies to informants who remain anonymous and free of social consequences. Those who are intimidated by the presence of police are offered means of reporting that do not require direct interaction, such as tip lines and unsigned messages.

To overcome people’s lingering reluctance to report on friends who might be tortured or killed, the special police use psychological manipulation. They praise the act of informing as patriotic duty to society. Any person being betrayed, they demonize as a threat to society. As extra incentive, laws are passed to make it a crime for anyone to have information without reporting it.

Those who remain unwilling to inform can be threatened — or have their families threatened — with the prospect of an investigation. Or blackmail could be used.

Whether the special police force is called the Gestapo, the Stasi, or Homeland Security, it will operate in much the same manner.

Gellately’s research into the Gestapo

At the end of World War II, the Gestapo destroyed most of its files, but Gellately was able to examine those from three districts. He used the files to reconstruct the dynamics of denunciation. For example, he examined whether informers were more likely to report on Jews.

To compare the rate of denunciation for Jews versus non-Jews, he examined 226 cases of “radio crime” — that is, the crime of listening to foreign broadcasts. This crime was commonly committed by average Germans because radio ownership was widespread. He found no significant difference between the two rates of denunciation. Nor did the rates vary significantly from district to district even though the areas varied in their social, religious, and economic makeup. A certain percentage of the populace seemed willing to denounce their neighbors whatever the circumstances.

Indeed, Gellately found that “some people denounced each other so often that only direct threats to send both parties to a concentration camp put a stop to it.” All that was needed was an institutional framework to facilitate the act.

One finding was surprising: the Gestapo did not need to do up-front police work. Of the 226 files on radio crime, 73% originated from denunciations. During the entire war, only 6 cases in the 3 districts Gellately reviewed originated from the Gestapo. Different “crimes” rendered similar results. Gellately wrote, “My analysis of 175 case files involving efforts to enforce the social and sexual isolation of the Jews concluded that 57 percent began with an identifiable denunciation from the population at large. The Gestapo discovered only one case on its own.” The other most “productive” sources of information were interrogations and local police forces.

The Gestapo acted more as a clearing-house than an active intelligence-gathering agency. Its main activity was following up on denunciations.

Gellately considered the motives of those who informed. In this endeavor, he was hindered by the files’ general absence of notations as to motivation; the Gestapo did not seem to care why people were betraying others. Nevertheless, he broke the indications of motivation he found into two categories: affective (from political ideology or duty) and instrumental (for personal gain). The majority of denunciations sprang from a desire for personal gain.

The effect on the German populace was predictable. Gellately writes,

Germans became conscious of and self-conscious about language. In conversations about the war, they not only had to guard against incautious remarks as to its cause, course, and likely outcome; they also had to watch what they said lest it betray that their source of information might be foreign radio. Again and again in the files denouncers refer to the “way people spoke,” from which their listeners deduced — often incorrectly — that the speakers must have listened to forbidden broadcasts.

Conclusion

As part of his reaction to Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing on the NSA’s collection of data on American citizens, President Obama has sped up the implementation of the “Insider Threat Program.” This 2011 program came into existence as a response to another whistle-blower: Bradley Manning. The program makes it a crime for a government employee or contractor to not report a suspected whistle-blower. Reporting to the authorities is mandated by law.

The United States government has always solicited anonymous tips in order to ferret out “wrongdoers”; the IRS is particularly notorious for this practice. But since 9/11, America has been building a culture of denunciation. This became apparent on December 6, 2010, when DHS chief Janet Napolitano announced that a video message would be broadcast in Wal-Mart stores. Napolitano’s “public-service announcement” asked Wal-Mart customers to report suspicious activity to police or even to store managers, who would presumably pass the information upward. National security begins at home, she assured her audience.

Daniel Ellsberg’s quip about the “United Stasi of America” should not be dismissed as a clever turn of phrase. It is in fact an accurate and chilling description of reality.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).