Kristie Macrakis: MSU historian takes reader behind the scenes of East Germany’s Stasi

Historians in the News

In its day, the East German secret police, now known as the “Stasi,” was one of the most feared spy agencies in the world. But despite its reputation and seemingly unlimited access to James Bond-like technology, the best national security system couldn’t help an ailing communist regime, according to an MSU historian.

In her new book, “Seduced by Secrets,” MSU’s internationally recognized historian and Lyman Briggs associate professor Kristie Macrakis debunks the myths surrounding the East German Ministry for State Security, while offering insights into the workings of all spy agencies.

“Most people have a script in their head about what the Stasi was,” said Macrakis, who is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University. “They want to tell a different story than the one I’m trying to tell.”

The perceived script is that husbands spied on wives, children on parents and neighbors on neighbors. And while this story is true, it’s also an old one. In her book, Macrakis offers example upon example of the technology used by all spy agencies. Most of the techniques showcased are still classified in the United States.

“Seduced by Secrets” tells the story of how a spy agency was “seduced by the power of technological secrets to solve intelligence and national problems,” Macrakis writes. Unlike other books and films, Macrakis looks at the Stasi through the lens of espionage history.

For example, the CIA still refuses to publish invisible ink formulas dating as far back as World War I. Macrakis found an invisible ink recipe in the Stasi files and reproduced it working with a chemistry colleague.

“Even when the goals were achieved,” Macrakis writes in her book, “the daily activities of the spy world -- the running of agents, catching spies, tracking enemies of the state, and making spy gadgets, to name just a few -- led to the emergence of an insular spy culture more intent on securing power than protecting national security.”

In this sense, it was no different from other spy agencies.

Born during the Cold War division of Germany, the Stasi, according to Macrakis, “developed in the image of the KGB with a German personality.” And at the heart of its operations against the United States and the West was technology.

But not only did it steal much of that technology from abroad, it also created some of the spy world’s most inventive technological gadgets or techniques at home. Some of this fiction-like technology included methods we know from the movies, such as hiding spy cameras in household objects, but others were unique, bizarre and sometimes dangerous....
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