Andreas Glaeser, “Modern Politics and its Ironies of Control”


Andreas Glaeser gave a lecture, “Modern Politics and its Ironies of Control: The Case of Late East German Socialism” at the Havighurst Center Colloquium “Secrecy, Sovereignty, and Power” organized by Neringa Klumbytė, Associate Professor of Anthropology, on September 22, 2014.  Sarah-Christin Müller, a Miami University Political Science major, and Dennis Kontorovich, a Miami REES major, interviewed Prof. Glaeser about his research on the East German Secret Police and politics of control and surveillance in socialist and liberal societies. The interview was transcribed by Dennis Kontorovich.

Andreas Glaeser is Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. He is a sociologist of culture with a particular interest in the construction of identities and knowledges. Andreas Glaeser is the author of Divided in Unity: Identity, Germany and the Berlin Police (University of Chicago Press, 1999) and Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism (University of Chicago Press, 2011).*

Sarah-Christin Müller: Your recent book offers an epistemic account of socialism and socialism’s failure in Eastern Germany. How did you decide to write the book?

Andreas Glaeser: Let me answer this question in two steps: First how I come to write on the Stasi in East Germany; and then how the book take the complex shape intertwining the perspectives of officers, opposition members, informants and party bureaucrats. So, the Stasi theme came up in two ways. I wrote my first book on post-unification problems in Germany based on ethnographic fieldwork in the Berlin Police department. The Police Department offered me an opportunity to see officers from East and West Germany interact at the same level of hierarchy. Now, during the course of my studies several of these officers and staff were dismissed because their employer had found out that they were former secret informants of the Stasi. Precisely because this problem became morally so charged, I got very interested in it; what did it mean to work for the secret police and what was the role the secret police played in East Germany? So, this is where one motivation came from.

The second motivation is much older than this. As a German sociologist I have been, embarrassed about the fact that in West Germany nobody really made a serious effort to understand how millions of people could have become Nazis, convinced Nazis, and work with enthusiasm for Nazi organizations. The point is: contrary to what was often claimed after the war, neither bureaucrats or other state functionaries nor the mass of Germans did supported the Nazi regime at gunpoint. A very large number participated out of conviction or else Nazi Germany would have never become this juggernaut. For me there was always a missing aspect on the research on Nazi Germany and once I became more familiar with the situation in East Germany through my work on postunification Germany I thought somewhat naively (naively because theories of totalitarianism notwithstanding East Germany was very different from Nazi Germany, indeed on a very different developmental trajectory) “Ah, so here is another German dictatorship” recognizing the opportunity that lay in the fact that the men and women carrying the GDR were still alive creating at least the possibility to ask them how they became involved all the way to participating in what we would consider egregious human rights violations, the suppression of any form of civil society worth its name. My idea was to contribute to the sociology of significant popular support for authoritarian rule.

When I got into this project I realized that only very few researchers were interested in understanding the GDR from the perspective of those who had carried the political system. The books that were published on the Stasi were mostly relying on the archives and they weren’t taking these officers as human beings particularly seriously. There is a deeply moralizing perspective undergirding much social science that really prevents us from understanding what is happening, because we aim to understand this world from the perspectives of its designated victims to whom we want to lend a voice. This is of course totally overlooking the fact that if there are victims than there are those who are victimizers and if we want to make the world a better place we have to attend to the dynamics that produce victimization. Yet, the victimizers very rarely understand themselves as such and not merely because they want to whitewash their cynicism. To the contrary, their self-understanding as moral beings contributes to the very dynamics that emerges. That is exactly what I wanted to contribute to as a sociologist, I wanted to understand these men as human beings and discover how it made sense to them to sign on with the secret police. I was interested in how their world view, their thinking and feelings changed towards the state over the course of time. That’s how I really got into it and the project just started to grow on me after that. I saw that the Stasi were involved in knowledge making practices, but the people that they were spying on, and the opposition, were also involved in knowledge making practices.  I really wondered what the conditions were for becoming either a staunch supporter of socialism, or for coming to oppose state socialism in its instituted form. This pushed me to really want to explore how political knowledge making works, knowledge in its discursive, emotive and sensuous dimension, and that’s what made me settle on the topic and that is how the book took the shape that it eventually did. This meant that I spent a lot of time finding the Stasi officers that spied on a particular set of opposition members so that I could interview them and find the secret informants they were using and interview them as well. So, while the Stasi and the opposition did not know each other personally, they had a strong influence on one another. It was key for me to get as close as possible to the real interactions that these people had during that time. In other words this was supposed to be a historical ethnography.

Sarah-Christin Müller: What were the challenges in your research with the Stasi officers?

Andreas Glaeser: The challenges were twofold. As an effort in historical ethnography, the first challenge was to match people ready to speak on all sides and documents available in archives into a relatively coherent historical scene yielding multiple perspectives on the same set of events from the perspectives of participants not just from the perspective of bystanders. Thus, I did not want to interview arbitrary Stasi officers from different cities and different kinds of units pursuing different kinds of tasks (and the Stasi’s ranged from passport control and body guard operations to foreign espionage and domestic surveillance). The next task was matching the cases managed by these officers with the opposition members who were ready to talk and whose files I could have access to. Furthermore finding the particular secret informants who mediated the relation between these officers and the opposition members was even harder. In post-unification Germany secret informants did not only have a particularly difficult time to find employment as they could be easily rejected for their involvement with the secret police, hence they were often moving away and few people knew where they were. Moreover, in public discourses secret informants came to be the object of much disdain, which made them generally reluctant to speak even where I could find them.

The second difficulty was the nature of the Stasi archives. They are unique in that outside researchers (not employed by the archive itself) have neither access to the catalogue of available materials, nor, as often in archives without catalogues, direct access to the documents themselves. This means that researchers have to tell employees what they are interested in. These will then tell an archivist what about that interest is about. Then the archivist retrieves material they think is relevant for the researcher’s work. Before the researcher gets the material it has to be censored to protect private information. Now that set up is a nightmare for several reasons. First one cannot form a reasonable opinion of the relationship between the documents retrieved to the rest of the holdings. Second the process takes very long which is deadly for researchers from overseas. Luckily, I chanced onto a privately owned archive and I got much more interesting documents there and they had the advantage of being uncensored.

Sarah-Christin Müller: In terms of your interviews with the Stasi officers, were they nostalgic for socialism? Where they passionate about what they used to do? Did they tell you true things?

Andreas Glaeser: During this research I had to learn to shed my liberal dispositions. This includes shedding all too quick of an assumption about nostalgia. Who was I, what did I know to say that the formulations they were using were nostalgic? So, how do you differentiate what is produced at the moment by these officers as a response to the interview situation as a response the interpretation of their work in public discourse and what actually is articulated as a historically accurate sentiment that actually occurred at that time? It was important for me to find the theoretical tools to be able to work backwards from the present moment towards something that makes sense as a historical sentiment in a historical situation. That is also the reason why working with both, documents from the archive and with interviews was so important, and with newspaper readings, novels, broadcasts, films from the time much besides.  The way I did my interviews was I took documents from the archives and brought them into my interviews. I said, “Well, on  April 7, 1973 you wrote the following piece” and you give the context of this piece and allow them to remember actually writing it. Most of the time the officer would at first say “You know, I have no idea what this is about, but the next time you show up we can talk more about this.” So, it turned into a give and take between archival documents and what you might want to call oral history in some sense. They both were informing and building on each other. Interviews were giving me the background details and the documents in conjunction with my theoretical framework that allowed me to ask whether a particular idea or sentiment was plausible in a particular context, were allowing me to more systematically elicit the historical sentiment of the time. I discovered that it was often easier to get to what might come closer to the real sentiment of the times by having the wives of the officers participate in the interviews (as they themselves had never learned very much about the work of their husbands during the GDR). Interestingly participating wives would occasionally interject in the interview and say “Well, that’s not how you felt then.” Which allowed me to draw interrogate the historicity of stated sentiments. This made the research even more interesting because I then wanted to learn more about why he and she remembered differently. This is why I have created, bit by bit, a relatively complicated theoretical apparatus so as to make it more plausible to make claims about that past.

Sarah-Christin Müller:  Well, building on that, how does your research on East German socialism and the Stasi help us understand politics of control and surveillance in other societies, including democratic ones today?

Andreas Glaeser: To my horror, after 9/11 I saw patterns of circular that is self-authorizing and closed political knowledge making and propaganda emerge within the U.S. and other western countries that were in some ways quite similar to what I had seen in East Germany. Really, it’s a question all over the world: How does a certain epistemological practice become circular and fold upon itself so that you can no longer be critical of your own understandings, that you can only see what you already seem to know or want to be true? So, what you want to do is understand epistemic practices and the conditions that keep them open to learning or lead to their closure. You also want to understand how these epistemic practices produce particular kinds of threat scenarios, what and keeps these scenarios affectively potent. I have learned that the combination of fear supporting hierarchy and secrecy and the certainty to possess firm knowledge is particularly prone to lead to such closure. Institutions of surveillance are, for example trained to take care of particular fears; and because their bureaucratic raison’d etre is bound up in the existence of these fears they produce evidence for their justification. The fact that the American invasion of Iraq remained almost uncontested in Congress, the fact that the mainstream media became all too willing instruments of government propaganda (including the August New York times) simply horrified me because they point to a massive failure of what you wish for in a democratic polity. The fact that this has led to no further soul-searching, in public debates about how such failure is the effect of particular institutional arrangements gives me further pause. The current logic of sacrificing personal freedom rights for what may appear as security necessity, that nobody presses, or has even the means to press for any evidence that is in fact the case, is awfully reminiscent of the kinds of processes of epistemic circularity and closure that I have studied in really existing socialism.

*The interview was transcribed by Dennis Kontorovich, a MU REES major. Dennis also participated in the interview.

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