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God's Spies: The Stasi's Cold War Espionage…

God's Spies: The Stasi's Cold War Espionage Campaign inside the Church (edition 2019)

by Elisabeth Braw (Author)

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Title:God's Spies: The Stasi's Cold War Espionage Campaign inside the Church
Authors:Elisabeth Braw (Author)
Info:Eerdmans (2019), 288 pages
Tags:Religious: History: Twentieth Century

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God's Spies: The Stasi's Cold War Espionage Campaign inside the Church by Elisabeth Braw

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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.

**--galley received as part of early review process ( )
  deusvitae | Dec 2, 2019 |
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