Spy Games: Images from the Secret Stasi Archives

Spies from former communist East Germany demonstrate the art of disguise by donning fur wigs, fake mustaches and dark glasses in a Berlin exhibition of recently uncovered and once highly classified photographs. German artist Simon Menner, who put together the exhibition “Pictures from the Secret Stasi Archives,” said it should show how something that seems harmless, such as these images that could be shots from a spy film spoof, can harbor danger.

It is indeed astonishing that this field has not attracted more research, particularly here in Germany. After all, the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) was home to the State Security Service (STASI)—one of the largest surveillance apparatuses in history. Relative to the size of the population, the East German STASI had far more agents than the KGB or the CIA. After the wall dividing Germany was torn down most of the archive materials were opened to the public, and although access to these documents is subject to certain limitations, the sheer scope of this access is unparalleled among all the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Even in the West, nothing like this exists. So it was only natural that Simon Menner approached the authorities responsible for storing the STASI archives with his request to see more. The authorities proved to be both kind and helpful. Menner received permission to sift through the photos at the archive and to make several reproductions.

The portraits of obviously disguised men document STASI agents participating in a course on the ‘art of disguising’. They represent what these agents considered to be an inconspicuous appearance. And although the contemporary viewer may find these images rather ludicrous, they, too, record the measures the state used to repress its own population.

The photos Simon Menner was allowed to see in the STASI archive actually represent only a tiny fraction of the photos remaining there. Many of the snapshots he saw have not been looked at again since 1989. But each new decade’s anniversary of the fall of the wall and of German reunification brings with it, as one might well expect, yet another explosion of studies dedicated to the former East German state.

“These were used during courses on how to dress up and blend into society,” the 33 year-old artist said. “They seem pretty absurd now, but it was meant seriously — this is evil stuff.”

The exhibition runs at Morgen Contemporary in Berlin until August 20th.

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