Surveillance with consequences

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Citizens who lived in counties of the GDR, where the proportion of Stasi employees was relatively high, are in a worse economic situation today.

20.11.2019 · Economics, Social Sciences, Spatial Research · ZEW – Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research · News · Research result

Decades after the German reunification, the social and economic consequences of surveillance by unofficial employees of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) in the former GDR are still visible. Citizens who lived in counties of the GDR in the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, where the proportion of Stasi employees in relation to the population was quite high, are in a worse economic situation today than citizens whose environment was less heavily spied on. The reason for this is a general loss of trust in state institutions and the citizen’s personal social environment, as a study by ZEW Mannheim shows.

The results show that high monitoring activity by the Stasi has a negative impact on interpersonal trust, cooperative behaviour, and political commitment among those affected, incurring high costs with regard to the social capital of the persons spied on. The effect of Stasi surveillance on individual economic performance is also negative.

“People who lived in GDR counties with a high density of Stasi informants in the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall are unemployed for longer and have a lower monthly income than people from counties with fewer Stasi informants per inhabitant. Affected persons from formerly heavily monitored counties are also on average less likely to become self-employed,” summarises co-author of the study Professor Sebastian Siegloch, head of the ZEW Research Department “Social Policy and Redistribution”.

Stasi activities contribute to economic East-West divide

This finding confirms the general view that trust is an essential factor in pursuing entrepreneurial activities. Siegloch and his co-authors show that this relationship is significantly related to the educational level of the respective citizens. Those who have little trust in state institutions and their social environment invest less in their own education, which in turn sets a precedent for personal economic success. It is also known that the Stasi itself directly influenced the level of education within the GDR; critics of the system, for example, were denied access to universities

Overall, the results of the study show that Stasi activities contributed significantly to the economic East-West divide. “But it is important to emphasise that the Stasi alone cannot be held responsible for the differences between East and West. Other factors have also definitely played a role, such as the Treuhand (Trust agency) as a symbol of the ‘winding-up’ of East Germany. At present, though, we still lack solid scientific findings in this area,” says Siegloch.

As a data basis for the study, the researchers used the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), a representative survey of private households and individuals which collects data on income, employment, education, and health in the Federal Republic of Germany on an annual basis. Since 1990, citizens of the former GDR have also been represented in the SOEP. Precisely these persons up to the retirement age of 65 were considered in the study, even if they changed their place of residence after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Effects of Stasi monitoring are still noticeable

The researchers defined spying intensity as the proportion of Stasi informants in the population at the county level in the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The figures are based on files from the Federal Commission for Stasi Records (BStU). For the investigation, the respective value for the spying intensity per county was set in relation to individual trust in fellow citizens and institutions, and to the economic situation of those respondents who lived in the same county at the same time. For each individual GDR county, the study authors took into account its respective size, demographic composition, historical circumstances, and structure of its economic sectors, ensuring that the measured differences in the individual trust and economic situation of the interviewees were exclusively due to the spying activity of the Stasi.

Respondents who lived in GDR counties with particularly intensive monitoring by the Stasi in the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall spent an average of five days per month more in unemployment and had a monthly income that was 84 euros lower than that of persons from counties in which the Stasi was less active. If income not related to gainful employment is added, the income difference is 108 euros, with the probability of becoming self-employed being additionally 1.6 percentage points lower.

“The consequences of Stasi surveillance can still be felt two decades after the end of the GDR. However, the consequences of Stasi spying are decreasing from generation to generation,” says Sebastian Siegloch.

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