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Domestic Intelligence: Buzzing Your Spouse

Long ago, in the death throes of the Cold War, I met an East German woman who had been betrayed by her own husband. He informed on her to the East German state security agency, the Stasi. He told his control agent about his wife's political activities. When I met Vera Wollenberger just a few days after she learned what her husband had done, she seemed the definition of a shattered woman. (Full story from 1992 on the jump of this post.)

Her voice could barely rise above a whisper. She kept the lights in her office off even as the sun set. She sat in the corner and did not look me in the eye. She spoke of her husband as if he were dead, and yet she clearly still loved him.

So perhaps it is unfair to bring up Vera Wollenberger in connection with spouseware, which is an invention of my friend and Washington and Lee journalism professor Ed Wasserman. Ed's flight of fancy takes off from real-life buzz marketing, companies such as BzzAgent that are hired by big corporations to get people talking about their products.

From there, Ed figures, it's only a small step to a new genre of downloadable programs from companies that will pay you to get your spouse to buy their products. That would indeed be the commercial version of the Stasi's use of spouses to inform on one another. We aren't quite there--that is, no one yet has the gall to ask spouses to use stealth marketing to influence one another's purchases--but we're awfully close.

Something like 85 percent of U.S. marketers are using buzz tactics to get their products sold, Ad Age reports. I dropped in on one such effort a little while back when I signed up to help a fledgling airline get the word out about its service. The deal was that if I would join other customers in talking up the airline to my friends, I'd rack up points that could eventually translate into free travel. If my friends actually flew on that airline as a result of my subtle and not so subtle hints, I'd get more points. I was to spread buzz by sending emails crowing about how wonderful my flights had been. Needless to say, I didn't progress beyond the sign-up phase.

So now we have to develop internal guardrails against our own friends' and relatives' enthusiasms, checking to see if their excitement about a recent acquisition or experience is real or part of a sales program they've signed onto.

If we accept this as a routine part of our daily existence, are we then so much better than the denizens of communist countries who had to suspect their neighbors and even their families of spying on them? Sure, one was potentially a matter of life and death and the other is mere commerce, but we're partners tumbling down the same slope. Happy sledding--and I say that not merely because I love Flexible Flyer brand sleds!

January 19, 1992, Sunday, Final Edition

East Germans Face Pain of Redefining Pasts;
Secret Police Files Opened to Public;
Woman Finds Out Even Her Husband Informed on Her

Marc Fisher, Washington Post Foreign Service

BERLIN, Jan. 18, 1992

Suddenly, Heinz Eggert understands the mysteries of the past 20 years of his life: the time he was almost forced off the highway to Berlin, the rumors that he had sexually abused children, the months when he was drugged at a psychiatric clinic. The Protestant minister found the answers in the 2,800-page file that Communist East Germany's Stasi secret police kept on him.

And suddenly, Vera Wollenberger knows more than she ever wanted to know about her husband, Knud. Her Stasi file revealed that the informer with the code name "Donald," the man who told the Stasi every imaginable detail about her longtime opposition to the government, was her own husband, father of two of her children.

Wollenberger's marriage is shattered. Eggert, who had been active in Communist East Germany's tiny opposition, says he has lost a large chunk of his life, time wasted dealing with students and colleagues who, it turns out, came to him not for spiritual advice or friendship but to fulfill obligations to the Stasi, the bureaucracy that kept tabs on 6 million of East Germany's 17 million people.

The Stasi files, 125 miles of documents brimming with detail on the most mundane moments and the most private thoughts of everyday people, were opened for inspection last week, and eastern Germans are clamoring to find out what their former government had on them -- and, more importantly for many, who did the talking.

The united German government printed 100,000 application forms for easterners who want to see their files. They were snapped up the first day. Now newspapers are printing the forms by the millions. The lines outside the Stasi files storage facility in downtown east Berlin stretch around the block.

Inside, there is only a tiny reading room and a single photocopier. But behind the public rooms lies the paper trail of a system obsessed with information -- the more damning and scurrilous, the better.

The files are stacked in endless piles, wrapped in string, in binders, in brown paper bags. There are single sheets tossed in a corner, laundry bags stuffed with unsorted file cards, massive cabinets filled with the names of informants listed by name, code name, even by street address.

The Stasi had, by most recent estimate, as many as 500,000 "unofficial co-workers," the agency's name for normal citizens it pressed into duty as snitches against friends, neighbors and even relatives.

"They did everything possible to denigrate me," said Eggert, who became interior minister of the state of Saxony after the revolution that toppled the Communist government in 1989 and led to the unification of the Germanys a year later. "There were threats of murder, my mail was always checked. I found letters in my file from relatives and friends that had never reached me."

Eggert learned that the Stasi assigned 50 agents to track his every move, sent informants to provoke him into anti-government statements and even found a doctor to inject him repeatedly with a virus that caused severe dysentery. A few days ago, Eggert went on national television and named the doctor.

Reinhard Wolf turned out to be working in the same job he held in Communist days. He was immediately suspended.

Wolf at first told a Berlin newspaper that he did not know Eggert. But 15 minutes later, he called back to say Eggert was a close personal friend. "I only wanted to protect Heinz," Wolf said.

In an interview, Eggert said he met Wolf Thursday and found him to be a "shadow of a man. He is ill. I talked to him because that is what we must all do now -- come to terms with our past. But I doubt we will ever really come to terms with it. The economy will improve and people will say, 'Let's leave the past behind and build the new country.'

"We already saw how that works in Germany. We never came to terms with the Nazi time, and we won't do it with the socialist time."

Eggert's file documents how the head of the Stasi in Dresden, Maj. Gen. Horst Boehm, ordered his agents in 1982 to "use operative measures to begin the destruction process" against the pastor. The Stasi campaign had begun quietly in 1968, when 50 agents were assigned to keep track of him.

But after the general's order, all subtlety vanished. Eggert began receiving anonymous murder threats. Then agents spread rumors designed to discredit Eggert, who angered the regime by counseling dissidents who wanted to leave the country. There were stories about Eggert abusing children, rumors that he worked for the Stasi.

When rumors proved to have no effect, the Stasi stepped up its efforts. Driving from Dresden to East Berlin one day, Eggert found his car suddenly blocked in all directions. The cars in front of him braked. The cars behind him did not. Just before he had to decide whether to crash or drive off the autobahn, Eggert's tormenters moved on.

Now he knows from the Stasi files that the incident was part of the official campaign to unnerve him. The next time, the Stasi left nothing unclear. In 1983, Eggert suffered dysentery and later complained to his physician of depression. Eggert was sent to a psychiatric clinic, where for six weeks Wolf kept "pumping me full of drugs to the point where I almost couldn't move," Eggert said.

Other files have shown that the Stasi used electric shock therapy and involuntary operations to press its opponents. And ex-Stasi agents have come forth this week to reveal that the secret police had indeed experimented with viruses that could be used to quiet or torture uncooperative citizens.

Eggert's tormentor, Boehm, killed himself in the final days of the Communist regime.

"These people -- and I mean especially doctors, lawyers and clergymen who abused their positions -- must be expelled from their professions," Eggert said. "But it will be hard to bring them to trial under a different legal system. That is why the answer is to publicize their names. The truth can be so painful that you want to die. But it is the truth. I know it now, and I feel decontaminated."

Of course, the whole truth will likely never be known. The reliability of the Stasi files is questionable. The secret police had custody of their records for months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Stasi agents not only were able to destroy or alter their own files, but also were able to make changes in other people's files, changes that might exonerate a guilty informant or even implicate an innocent person.

Despite such problems, the custodian of the Stasi files, an east German minister named Joachim Gauck, says every person has the right to know what the fallen government had collected about him. That will take years.

Only a few people have had a chance to read through their files so far, and most of them are prominent dissidents and political and artistic figures whose files are filled with the names of other celebrities -- writers informing on writers, even churchmen informing on fellow pastors.

The victims' pain has been terribly public. "What I have had to go through in the past few days, I don't wish on any man, not even my worst enemy," said Vera Wollenberger, who was once expelled from East Germany for six months and now serves as a member of parliament for Alliance 90, the tiny remnant of the grass-roots groups that launched the east's revolution.

The public collapse of her marriage and the repeated TV images of her husband freely admitting what he did have shaken her. Earlier, Knud Wollenberger had sworn to his wife on his children that he was not a Stasi mole.

But for six years beginning in 1984, he was. He signed a contract with the secret police promising to inform on his wife and her son from a previous marriage. Knud Wollenberger, 38, is a mathematician, a gaunt man with a scraggly beard. His wife says he is a loving and dedicated father, a man who seemed committed to the dangerous work of opposing the all-powerful state.

In a recent TV interview, he said the Stasi came to him in the 1970s and asked him to inform for them. "I didn't think you could say no," he said.

He was asked if he was forced to do it. "No," he said.

Was it voluntary? "What is voluntary?" Wollenberger responded, and then he was silent for a long time. Finally, he said, "Certainly, I betrayed my wife."

By Marc Fisher |  January 26, 2006; 7:51 AM ET
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Comments

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This is a test.

Posted by: Slim Shady | January 26, 2006 1:27 PM

Is there an Abramoff client list posted somewhere?

I'd like to know all the causes he was working for.

Are lobbyists required to list all their clients?

Posted by: Smitty | January 26, 2006 5:52 PM

It looks like Knud Wollenberger is still around. Here's a Wikipedia entry on him:
http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knud_Wollenberger

And here is a poem of his (in my opinion, a rather sad one):
http://www.kultur-netz.de/talent/lyrik/knud_wollenberger/ich_bin.htm

Both are in German, but are rather easy German, especially the poem.

Posted by: Mr. P | January 27, 2006 1:48 PM

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