God's Spies

The Stasi's Cold War espionage campaign inside the Church

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Pub Date 18 Oct 2019 | Archive Date 07 Apr 2020

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When the Berlin Wall came down, the files of the East German secret police, the much-dreaded Stasi, were opened and read. And among the shocking stories revealed was that of the Stasi's infiltration of the Church. Almost 10% of the Lutheran Church's workforce were, it appears, busy involved in spying on each other, and on the Church's congregations. The Lutheran Church was the only semi-free space in East Germany, where those who rebelled against the regime could find a way of living at least a little out of the government's iron grip. Even the organisations that smuggled Bibles were infiltrated.

When the Berlin Wall came down, the files of the East German secret police, the much-dreaded Stasi, were opened and read. And among the shocking stories revealed was that of the Stasi's infiltration...

A Note From the Publisher

Elisabeth Braw, a former journalist, leads a think-tank programme and regularly writes op-eds for The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Times (of London), and other publications. She visited East Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, eventually attending university there.

Elisabeth Braw, a former journalist, leads a think-tank programme and regularly writes op-eds for The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Times (of London), and other publications. She...

Advance Praise

"This is a work of more than historical interest. Elisabeth Braw's shrewd and often scathing analysis of the characters involved and the issues they are dealing with leads us to draw many lessons for the modern world, and to wonder how things could be diffrent. Well worth reading. " 
James Arbuthnot, the Rt Hon Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom

"God's Spies is a gripping account of the sinister work of East Germany's Stasi secret police in its decades-long attempt to manipulate and exploit people's most sacred and private personla beliefs. Elisabeth Braw writes with insight and sympathy, based on unique material from not only the victims, but also - in a rare feat of reporting - from the perpetrators [...] you will find this book unputdownable." 
Edward Lucas, author and columnist for The Times.

"This is a work of more than historical interest. Elisabeth Braw's shrewd and often scathing analysis of the characters involved and the issues they are dealing with leads us to draw many lessons for...

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Featured Reviews

This presents a very different aspect of Cold War espionage. One simply does not expect this kind of spying when we think of agents and spies - but here they are, local religions figures within the community of not only East Germany, but other Eastern Bloc nations and Scandinavia.

Author Elizabeth Braw injects a personal, human element, through both family recollections and interviews with still living Stasi Officers, in particular, Joachim Wiegard, the Director of the Stasi Church division.

There is a hell of a lot of information to take in ... this is no quick read, despite the almost conversational style of writing. The reader must immerse themselves in the period, the politics, the religion, the mindset of those being the Iron Curtain. Braw writes that " Stasi Church espionage was exhilarating and mysterious and repulsive ...".

The Stasi was a formidable operation, with 1.7 million informants, and literally half the population being spied on in the German Democratic Republic. Christianity was Communism's greatest foe as it it represented a competing world view. The Pastor-spies were focused on social groups and associations who attracted many dissidents, in an effort to keep the Church powerless.

We are introduced to a number of Pastor-spies and their activities, whilst Braw takes us back to her conversations with Wiegard, who never quite reveals all that he knows. These agents, we are told, did not expect to get wealthy - their instead received material and consumers goods (a luxury in the East); travel permits; promotions; medications; cars, books; things we in the West took (and still take) for granted - "... the bonus being an agent in your own country was that your employer can make your life more comfortable..".

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of East Germany, the Stasis files were not completely destroyed - and the identities of the vast network of spies, not just the pastor-spies, were revealed. Braw notes that whilst the Stasi were experts at collecting information, they not so good when it came to what to do with it all! There was the presumptions that the GDR would last so there was no haste to destroy anything or put this information beyond reach. People's long hidden pasts was being raised up like a proverbial Lazarus.

A recommend read for all Cold War and espionage enthusiasts.

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A historical investigation, through Stasi files and interviews, into the life and work of Department XX/4 of the MfS, otherwise known as the Stasi, in the GDR from 1959 until 1989.

The author speaks of this in terms of her personal interest on account of her father. The times and major characters are introduced. The bulk of the work follows the exploits of a few select IMs: some pastors, some theologians, a person working within Bible and Christian material distribution networks to disrupt them, and even a person who worked for Lutheran publications. The author sets forth, in extreme detail, the kinds of espionage in which they participated and the diligence in reporting.

The author does well at explaining the relationship between the Lutheran Church in East Germany and the government/Stasi: the Lutheran Church had its origins in what would become East Germany, and the state never felt it had the authority to dominate and suppress it. Department XX/4 used a much more soft approach than, say, the KGB: they generally avoided violence, but sought to maintain surveillance and stifle any kind of rebellion or sedition through the use of many informants (IMs).

The means by which pastors, etc. were recruited was particularly depressing. Some genuinely felt the GDR was the best way to go, were fans of communism to some degree or another, and did not require much persuasion to spy. Others found themselves in a compromised position, either because of sexual dalliances of their own initiative or because they fell prey to a woman working with the MfS who seduced them to this very end. Once they found out they were compromised, many were more willing to become IMs and provide intelligence than to endure the shame of confessing before the bishop. Yet it seems a very good number were induced to become informants because of the material benefits it would provide: the Stasi would advocate for them to get them better jobs or housing; they received a stipend; they might have better access to higher quality or to Western goods. It often did not take much to keep many of them satisfied.

Most of what we see the informants doing is precisely that: providing intelligence about who is doing what, and who might be more or less hostile to the regime. Any kind of such surveillance is a betrayal, and impossible to reconcile with God's purposes for His people in Jesus. Yet it must be said that the approach was very much soft-glove; some materials were destroyed, careers were ruined, we see a little bit of violence, but the legacy of the work of Department XX/4 is nothing like the KGB, Gestapo, or, arguably, even the CIA. This is not an attempt to justify what the informants did as much to provide context, for the fearful reputation of the Stasi does not seem to be as operative in what is revealed about the work of Department XX/4.

The biggest letdown of the work, to me, is in its conclusion. It traces the narratives well, and we find out in the conclusion why such focus has been given on a few people: most of the records were destroyed, some of the IMs have yet to have their cover blown, and the Lutheran Church in general seemed to treat the matter more as a huge embarrassment than an existential crisis (it was easier, for the most part, to want to suppress the knowledge of just how many of its pastors and officials informed on one another than it was to lay it all out in the open). The author provides some conclusions, but they don't seem very satisfying. Her sympathy for the director of the XX/4 whom she interviewed is understandable but an odd way to bring it all together. This book is certainly more about the journey than any destination.

Yet it does provoke thought, and depressing ones at that. Modern Christians tend to worry about the state as an obviously hostile and militant opponent, using aggressive and violent persecutorial techniques against it. This existed behind the Iron Curtain (see: USSR), and it might well exist again in the future. Nevertheless, this book could provide the blueprint for a surveillance state to use a similar "soft glove" approach to influence and infiltrate churches. It is not hard to imagine a few Christians who would approve of such a state and be quite willing to inform on their brethren for its advantage. There are already plenty of sex scandals involving "Christian" religious leaders; having a few people hired to seduce others wouldn't make it any better, and no doubt many such compromised people would inform rather than confess. Sadly, if the material benefits were good enough, many would inform based on that reason only.

This work unintentionally is a great critique of the compromises of churches in "Christendom" with the state (although it should be stated that XX/4 even had an IM among the Anabaptists, who very much resist "Christendom"). When an ideology is present that wraps the cross in the flag, many can rationalize to themselves that informing on fellow Christians to perpetuate the state is justifiable.

"What if it were to happen here?" is a sobering thought experiment. Worth consideration.

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The Stasi’s Cold War espionage campaign inside the Church.

Okay, I’m listening.

Now tell me some more.

That was my initial response when I heard the title of this book. Not to mention, I was somewhat impressed by the book cover too! Granted, that’s the paperback cover I’m referring to, not the hardcover – which is good, but not paperback version good. Fickle, I know.

In God’s Spies, journalist Elisabeth Braw invites readers to join her as a conversation partner, primarily with Colonel Joachim Wiegand – one time head of the Stasi’s Department XX/4 – and also with other agents and informers.

More than merely a competing worldview, Christianity was seen a direct threat to the communist regime in fromer East Germany, and all the more dangerous because of the Church’s international connection. The task of the notorious Stasi was to maintain a level of control over all aspects of East German church life on par with the same control it exercised over the everyday lives of East German citizens and in their doing so amassing vast records (and I mean really vast! They are estimated to stretch 111 kms if all lined out – see here) of every detail from the most incriminating to the most trivial.

In fact thanks to the vast volume of records, the testimoney of those spied on, and now the testimoney of Wiegand and a few others, details of the Stasi’s campaign against the church is now catalogued and chronicled here for readers. Braw’s obvious skill as a journalist sets forth a truly excellent and investigative documentary on the written page of the intrigue, self-seeking ambition, deceipt, double-crossing, scandal, and so much more.

Her work reads like a cross between a spy thriller at points. I was reminded more than once of the Tom Hanks film ‘Bridge of Spies’ and Radio 4 progamme ‘Tunnel 29’. It is an intriguing – and captivating – piece of investigative journalism. At first it did seem to take time to get into the book – with what appeared to be a lot of back-and-forth, forgetting who Agent so-and-so was and their Stasi handlers again and again. But actually, on reflection, it only helped highlight the sheer web of deceipt and entanglement that was part of the real life situation.

As a personal reflection there were two elements of the book which played on my emotions not including how Pastor’s spied and betrayed those in their care. First, the shock of learning that many of the smuggled Bibles simply never made it to their intended recipients – 30,000 sitting in the basement of the Department’s headquarters in 1990. Second, almost feeling sympathetic for Wiegand, despite what he was involved in, and still his resolve that he firmly believes in the East German cause, one cannot be helped but be drawn to him.

Whilst it may have taken a while to get into, in the end I am glad I read this book. It is a fascinating period of time in the not to distant past – the wall fell when I was four. Sure, it may leave reader’s with many questions of why within the Church others would pass information on about their fellow member. What we do have is a chronicle of this period – details of which are fading in memories.

Whilst it may not be appealing to everyone and it is an involved read, nonetheless it is certainly a worthy publication about a relatively unknown – perhaps overlooked topic- and ensures that the history is recorded so future generations may know – and hopefully learn!

You can find out more here at the Eerdmans Blog and also here at Lion Hudson.

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God’s Spies by Elizabeth Braw is a must read for anyone who enjoys genuine James Bond characters.

Review coming soon on litercurious.

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