A Journey to Stasiland: Reports from Berlin Archives

I recently had to write up a report on what I was up to in Berlin this summer for a Corpus Christi College newsletter. I found it useful to organize my thoughts on the project I’m working on, but it might also be of interest for anyone lunatic enough to find the stuff I’m working on compelling. Enjoy …!

A Journey to Stasiland: Reports from Berlin Archives

I step out of the door of my apartment on to the streets of Berlin, on the hunt for secret agents. I walk past the bustling Turkish market on the shores of the Landwehrkanal, the tree-lined canal where Rosa Luxemburg met her end, and get on the U-Bahn. I arrive at Alexanderplatz, the former center of East Germany – massive train stations between alienating concrete plazas and space-age television towers – and get on the train headed to the East. Elegant 19th century warehouses since requisitioned as dance clubs pass by as we make our way through the gentrifying areas of the former East Berlin into neighborhoods like Karlshorst and, finally, my stop, Marzahn. Getting off on the platform and looking around, I feel like I’m in Moscow again: sterile microplazas and tram lines whizzing between crumbling socialist prefabricated buildings put up to house East Berliners in the 1960s and 1970s, all punctuated by the occasional Turkish kebab stand. Sometimes taking a ride on Berlin’s public transit gives you hints of the layers of history that, together, make up Germany in the 21st century.

I was in Berlin this August with the support of the Palmer European Travel Scholarship, an award endowed by Mr MJB Palmer (CCC 1953-1956) in memory of Cecil and Phyllis Palmer. I’m a historian of 20th century Europe and Russia, and I was working on a project mostly concerned with the Soviet Union’s development aid in Afghanistan in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. We are mostly familiar with the USSR as a country that invaded Afghanistan in 1979, leading to a conflict that annihilated the country and its people, but throughout much of the Cold War, the 1980s included, Afghanistan was one of the prime recipients of Soviet development aid to Third World countries like Angola, Yemen, Vietnam, and Nicaragua. Many of these countries were, like Afghanistan, subjected to foreign interventions, civil war, and state collapse after 1991, but I was interested in how the socialist world – so different and yet so similar to Western countries today – extended its models of ‘economic development’ and ‘modernization’ to willing Third World recipients. My research prior to this previous summer had taken me to Moscow, Dushanbe, and Omaha, Nebraska (home to an excellent archive of Afghan materials).

Marzahn, a residential area of East Berlin

Why Berlin? While East Germany was certainly a junior partner to the Soviet Union, it had the most robust economy and most ambitious foreign role of any country in the Eastern Bloc, and the war in Afghanistan was no exception to this rule. East Germany played host to hundreds of Afghans visiting the socialist world on educational scholarships or military exchanges. It provided the regime in Kabul with funds, medical supplies, and printing presses. Most tantalizingly, the Stasi (the East German secret police, whose elaborate spying apparatus has been described by Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash and Anna Funder in Stasiland) consulted with the KHaD (Khadamat-e Etela’at-e Dawlati, the State Information Agency), the Afghan equivalent of the Soviet KGB. Throughout the conflict in the 1980s, the KHaD carried out mass killings of thousands of Afghans, and tens of thousands of individuals were tortured in its jails. Since the archives of the KGB in Moscow were closed, I was intrigued by the possibility of reading through the Stasi’s archives on its international links to see what I might find on this aspect of nation-building in Afghanistan. What precisely was the Stasi’s role vis-a-vis the KGB and the KHaD in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and how to square the grim work of the Stasi’s intelligence professionals with the idealism of Soviet and East German ‘internationalists’ who participated in activities more reminiscent of the VSO than Communist secret polices?

My research yielded a complicated picture of the role that East Germany played in the socialist world of which Afghanistan found itself a new, and often unwilling, member. The Stasi found itself managing a delicate balance between the values of ‘socialist internationalism’ (East German educational and professional exchanges to Kabul, Afghan army officers, translators, and economists coming to Berlin and many other smaller East German cities) and totalitarianism. On the one hand, East Germany along with the Soviet Union represented ‘socialist internationalism,’ a strange cosmopolitanism whereby the socialist world (minus a billion Chinese) stood in solidarity with decolonised Asia and Africa against the evil forces of imperialism (the USA and UK), fascism (West Germany) Zionism, apartheid, and Chinese ‘adventurism.’ It was an incoherent ideology, but one held enough attraction for many young, idealistic East German and Soviet citizens who thought that volunteering to build roads with Angolan Communists or train Afghan electrical engineers had something to do with preventing Eastern Europe from being destroyed by the NATO nuclear arsenal. Likewise, plenty of Nicaraguans, Afghans, and Vietnamese meritocrats leapt at the chance to leave the provinces for ‘Europe’. The Stasi, like the KGB in the Soviet Union, had to reconcile this ‘internationalism’ with the need to monitor all everyday life for dissent and to protect the monopoly of ‘uncivil society’ on politics, the economy, and culture.

It didn’t always work. For example, the DDR trained cadres of Afghanists – young, smart East Germans who had spent years studying Pashto and Dari – who studied abroad in war-torn Kabul every spring as part of an overall push to develop stronger ties between the two countries. Because of the closed nature of East German society, however, most would-be ‘internationalists’ were incredibly naïve about what awaited them in Afghanistan. Even had most of them been able to get around the security guards and tight regime imposed on them by DDR officials in Kabul (no walking in the streets, no talking with regular Afghans, no going to the bazaars), many students simply retreated into themselves. Others were more intrepid: Katrin Beck, a disillusioned child of East German diplomats who had grown up as an embassy brat in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad, professed love for the socialist state, but arranged to be schlepped across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by mujahideen into what for her was the ‘freedom’ of Zia’s Pakistan (and from there into West Germany). The Stasi, which monitored the students in any event, went berserk upon learning of Beck’s ‘veiled escape’ (the title of a memoir she later wrote about the events) and managed to capture and execute several of her abetters while putting her family and friends in East Berlin on lock down.

Internationalism and sacrifice ... but for what?

‘Internationalism’ often meant a chance to escape to a ‘West’ for those going in the other direction, too. Hundreds of Afghan citizens came to East Germany to study, whether as army officers, translators, or specialists on women’s rights. They wrote dissertations on topics from rural electrification to the relevance of Marxism-Leninism to the ‘woman question’ in Afghanistan, allowing us to get inside the heads of this abortive generation of Afghan Communists. However, while the generation of Afghan Communists that had seized power in 1978 – Babrak Karmal, Hafizullah Amin, Mohamad Najibullah, Sultan Ali Kishtmand, and others – had come of age as a mix of thugs and disaffected intellectuals from Kabul University, the new generation of Afghan Communists was far less impressive. For many of the students (who came disproportionately from Kabul, a persistent theme in Afghan modernisation projects), a trip to East Germany meant … an opportunity to escape to West Germany. Students repeatedly devised plots – hiking through the Harz Mountains or comandeering a boat across the Baltic Sea – to escape to the West, while those less peripatetically-minded often merely exported their inter-ethnic and intraparty (the Afghan Communist Party had two wings) feuds to dismal East German academies and boarding institutes. Fights, attempted murders, and suicides were common among the future leadership cadres.

The archives were disappointing for specific information on the relationship between the Stasi, the KGB, and the KhAD in Kabul, but a few documents provided clues. The Stasi provided consultants to the KhAD in Kabul to help run its prisons, supply its guards with interrogation tools, and monitor Kabul University for signs of unrest among the intelligentsia. Along with the KGB, it developed extensive knowledge of the mujahideen groups based in northwestern Pakistan and kept close tabs on Arab terrorists (including Osama bin Laden) en route to conduct jihad in Afghanistan. Working with the KGB in Moscow, it developed extensive information about Afghans living in West Germany, and foiled several terrorist attacks by Afghans on the Moscow Metro and East Berlin. The War in Afghanistan, in other words, forced an agency that had historically been concerned above all with West Germany and its own citizens into a more globally-minded institution, increasingly cognizant of the international nature of terrorism that has become, unfortunately, second-hand to Westerners today.

All of which takes me back to my train ride out to Marzahn. Sifting through the archival files, I had managed to obtain the name of the primary Stasi officer in charge in Kabul throughout the 1980s, a Mr Hartmut Kretschel (due to German privacy laws, most of the names of persons in the Stasi archives are blacked out). I had managed to find the entry of an ‘innovation consulting’ company he owned out in Marzahn, and after repeated unsuccessful phone calls to speak with him, I decided it would not be unwarranted to doorstep a man who had, in the course of his life, interfered with the private lives of so many. The consulting business turned out to be non-existent: tracking down the address led me to one of hundreds of identical concrete block buildings. I was about to ring Kretschel’s doorbell when an old man stepped out of the elevator. I asked him whether he was familiar with Mr Kretschel.

Bring it on, Stasi!

‘Ah, yes, of course!’ he responded. Hartmut, he told me, and him went back for years. Of course he would be delighted to have a conversation on his ‘service in Afghanistan.’ He was, the neighbor said, even working on a book on it. I told him that I was American, and as our sardine can elevator took us up to the thirteenth floor of the Plattenbau, he told me how civil rights activists like John Lewis had inspired him as a young socialist activist in the 1960s. We approached the door and rang.

Kretschel opened up. I introduced myself as the neighbor vouched for my reliability and honesty – just a student doing pure scholarly research. A wrinkled and tobacco-stained woman in her fifties, in tights and a sport bra, stood behind Kretschel, squinting at me. But when the neighbor mentioned that I was interested in Afghanistan, Kretschel closed the door halfway.

‘I don’t like it, I don’t want to talk about my time there’, he said. ‘He might be CIA, anyway, you know, probably a spy. Where’s your student ID, anyway?’ I had my passport and Bod Card ready, and presented them to the skeptical ex-agent. ‘No, he said, not good enough. He must be a spy. Everything with Afghanistan and Pakistan these days, I don’t want to talk.’

‘Wait!’ said the neighbor. ‘But you had said’ – and with that Kretschel slammed the door in our face. The neighbor was shaken. He knew Kretschel well and had always known him to be more calm, more mellow. This was the first time he had seen him react so vituperatively to questions about what he had done before the Wall came down.

Reflecting over a beer and Turkish kebab among the Plattenbauten afterwards, I reflected – as I often do now in the libraries of Corpus, Rhodes House, and the Bodleian – over my spy hunt and the story this piece of my research seeks to tell. I may not have been able to get Kretschel’s perspective on the history he played a small role in, but after my journeys to the archives of the Stasi this summer, I have obtained important information that allows me to round out the story of the socialist world’s engagement with Afghanistan and the Third World in the 1980s.

As a stroll through Marzahn will attest, the Berlin of those years was shabbier, scarier, and infinitely more self-congratulatory than the tentativeness that Berlin as capital of a reunited and economically robust Germany projects today. But it was also a Berlin that represented a quixotic mix of terror and cosmopolitanism. Just as Afghan exiles took up housing in parts of Marzahn in the 1980s, the leaders of Tudeh (the Iranian Communist Party) and Allendeist Chileans took refuge in East Berlin. But like the Afghan Communists, by 1989, they, too, along with their German hosts and Soviet masters, were historically passed by. Telling the story of how this global Third World Left went from supreme confidence that the world was going its way to horror at the speed of system collapse is part of my present calling as a historian. I hope to continue this project through future trips to the former Soviet Union, into archives that document in great detail the Soviets’ efforts to nation-build, to build an Afghanistan that would collapse – but only after their own empire did.

Döner: the real reason for any voyage to Deutschland

I have since left 70s socialist television towers and Plattenbauten for dreaming spires; and present events suggest that future historians looking, like me, to write on the history of foreign folly in Afghanistan will have an embarrassment of documentary riches to draw on far greater than what I unearthed this summer in Berlin. But between hunts for former secret agents, the elusive tell-all archival document, and the best döners in Berlin, I profited greatly from this trip to Berlin, and will remain grateful to the Palmer Scholarship for enabling it.

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One thought on “A Journey to Stasiland: Reports from Berlin Archives

  1. Maria Fuchs

    This story about Katrin Beck is really intriguing! What happened to her after she escaped to Pakistan? Do you know where she might be today? Were there more people taking the same road?

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