Secret shredder in hanover

The practice of illegal postal surveillance in the 1950s in Germany

The stone of the attack, that was the "Communications of the Berlin Pedagogical Cabinet", an institution for the further education of teachers. Martin Deckart, a retired teacher from Bad Tolz, was pleased to read the following. But this was not possible because the local court had confiscated the notebooks. The reason: It was not "factual, pedagogical journals", but the content was "clearly inflammatory in the sense of Soviet SED policy".

Criminal proceedings were also instituted against the student councilor, but later dropped again. The year is 1955, and postal censorship by the authorities is as illegal as it is widespread. That the topic of surveillance "is no longer a unique feature of the GDR", but also in the Federal Republic of Germany was operated flatly and unlawfully, that is the core statement of the historian Josef Foschepoth from the University of Freiburg in his new book: uberwachtes Deutschland (Surveillance in Germany). Postal and telephone surveillance in the old Federal Republic of Germany."

Munich, Arnulfstrabe 60. Today, the powerful building along the railroad line to the main station houses the "Art Deco palace", a "office complex in warm yellow tones". The building used to house the "gray-green plastered" Oberpostdirektion, together with the Telegraph and Telecommunications Office. The official building comprised 40.000 square meters of floor space, five courtyards and 530 rooms.

Until 1968, some of these rooms had a special function: on 296.25 square meters in ten rooms, plus a corridor and a toilet, the secret U.S. surveillance office was housed here. It was the second largest allied monitoring center in rooms of the federal post office at all.

What happened there? A strategic postal censorship unit of the occupying forces, where, for example, in 1960 alone, some 4.6 million letters were sorted out. Millions of letters were removed from circulation, opened, evaluated and then returned to the postal system. Individuals were also targeted for surveillance; in 1958, this involved 2.077 people. For camouflage reasons, the entire mail of house groups had to be presented at once. The mail of the Bonn federal government and members of the Bundestag was also subject to this surveillance. In addition, millions of telephone lines, teleprinters and telegraph traffic were monitored.

Since this was illegal under the Basic Law, the three occupying powers in West Germany created the appropriate conditions by decree: As of 1950, the import of publications that endangered the security of the Allied forces was prohibited. This was the formula, according to the historian Foschepoth, for the establishment of a comprehensive "extensive surveillance and intelligence apparatus" in the western part of Germany by the western victorious powers. And at the same time the formula with which this surveillance could be concealed from the public, the parliaments and the courts. By 1968, according to Foschepoth, there were 28 surveillance stations of the Three Powers, with the Americans having eleven field stations, seven substations and a headquarters in Oberursel. The largest surveillance center was the Nurnberg post office with 21 rooms and 480 square meters, followed by Munich.

"Endangering the state" Mailings were "singled out" and "destroys"

There – and elsewhere – the German officials of the Bundespost did not remain inactive in the 1950s. Despite their oath to maintain postal secrecy, letters from the GDR and the Eastern Bloc were regularly opened in the post offices, "sorted out" and "destroyed", as it sounded at that time still after Nazi jargon hieb. In September 1951, the then Bavarian Minister President Hans Ehard (CSU) decreed that all public officials were to receive mail from the SBZ, the German eastern territories, and all the "Eastern states" had to deliver, as long as they contained propaganda. What was propaganda was not defined. The mails delivered were "by middle positions". This was done by burning on the spot.

So durfte in den ersten Jahren der Bundesrepublik so manches Feuer entlang der Zonengrenze von der ortlichen Polizei angezundet worden sein.

It was not until the Federal Ministry of Justice expressed the opinion that the material was useful as evidence for criminal prosecution that the "state-threatening" Postal items handed over to the judiciary. Now the public prosecutor decided on the destruction of. For example, the Bavarian State Office for the Protection of Property reported that in 1958 the Munich I Public Prosecutor’s Office alone had destroyed eight and a half tons of state-threatening writings, mainly from the Soviet Union "Soviet occupation zone", that is, the GDR – had been steamed in. The largest letter shredder in West Germany was located in Hanover and was housed in the basement of the local prison for camouflage reasons, in order to keep the destruction secret. This is where 55 percent of the sorted out mail ended up, including not only "propaganda material", but probably also up to 96.000 private letters from the GDR alone. From 1965, all incoming mail from the GDR was monitored and controlled via four central sorting offices in Hamburg, Hanover, Bad Hersfeld and Hof.

Kuhne’s interpretations of the circumvention of the Basic Law

How was this compatible with the basic right of secrecy of correspondence? Not at all. "In the Federal Republic of Germany there was a practice of surveillance which clearly and unambiguously contradicted the constitutional and legal provisions", so the conclusion of Foschepoth. In order to legitimize the illegal practice, as it were, around the fundamental law, through instructions, decrees and "Kuhne interpretations" a legal framework was built on the basis of existing laws. This included the so-called "Funf-Broschuren judgment" of the Federal Supreme Court in Karlsruhe from 8. April 1952. "Accused" were five brochures opposing the rearmament of the Federal Republic, the reunification of Germany and the conclusion of a peace treaty. In 1951, millions of such brochures were printed on behalf of the SED and sent to the Federal Republic of Germany. Of course, the German government did not hold back in terms of propaganda, but printed brochures and leaflets, 10.4 million pamphlets in the spring of 1951 alone.

In any case, the Karlsruhe court decided that the five booklets from the GDR were "for the preparation of a highly treasonous enterprise against the Federal Republic of Germany. They are confiscated." This ruling, the reasoning of which was never published, was to be used a few years later to legitimize the "Witch Trials", as the Suddeutsche Zeitung wrote at the time, were to serve. Meant were the trials around the prohibition of the KPD.

The de facto non-existent legal basis for blanket surveillance ended in 1968 with the so-called G-10 law. Thus, the surveillance of mail and telephone traffic was transferred to the West German intelligence services of the Verfangsschutz, BND and MAD. A total of 25 monitoring stations were set up in 20 cities in the Federal Republic of Germany. The basic equipment included a steam generator, an iron, a camera, a flash unit, a suitcase and a company car. Telephone surveillance was carried out as close to the post offices as possible for reasons of cost. "Now it was regulated by law", writes the historian, which was already hang and gabe without legitimation:

There had not been so much power and opportunity for political surveillance of one’s own population as there was from 1968 onward in the hands of the Germans since the end of the National Socialist dictatorship in Germany.

Finally, Foschepoth comes to the question:

What was the difference between a lawless and unlawful handling of postal and telecommunication surveillance in a constitutional state such as the Federal Republic of Germany and a "Unjust state" as the GDR, both of which had written the protection of the secrecy of mail and telecommunications into their constitutions?