A Brief Review of
God’s Spies: The Stasi’s Cold War Espionage Campaign Inside the Church
Reviewed by Cara Meredith
A couple of months ago, I stumbled across my latest Netflix binge: The Americans. Knowing nothing about the show other than it had been labeled “addictive” and threatened to teach me a thing or two about history along the way, I started watching the series – and found myself engaged in a story of Russian espionage on U.S. soil during the Reagan administration.
Likewise, in God’s Spies: The Stasi’s Cold War Espionage Campaign Inside the Church, author and historian Elisabeth Braw tells the story of a tangled web of spies in another part of the Eastern Bloc, namely that of East Germany. For history buffs interested in digging into one of the most deeply entrenched systems of espionage that sought to gain power through sacraments of Word and Deed alike, her writing won’t disappoint. As per myself, although Braw’s book didn’t meet my needs as a reader (and left me in want of a richer and perhaps more Hollywoodized version of this piece of history), I can still appreciate her breadth of coverage into the subject.
When East Germany allied with the Soviets and other Communist countries in 1949, its secret police agencies had already perfected the art of snooping. What better way to further infiltrate, maintain control and gain knowledge of its people than in the birthplace of Protestantism? Just as Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of Wittenberg Castle, the Stasi’s ecclesiastical department, known as Department XX/4, sought to nail “Christianity at every level, from parishes and dioceses to international institutions such as the WCC [World Council of Churches]” (xviii). Although many questioned the futility of this move, Braw notes that the church would have been that much stronger had the department not existed in the first place.
Of course, my mind wandered back to previous recruitment efforts of my own: for nearly a decade, I worked as a non-profit outreach ministry director. Because much of my time was spent recruiting, training and employing teams of dedicated volunteer leaders, a certain desperation existed in our ploy for volunteers. “We’ll take anyone!” I remember pleading into the microphone at one point, a sea of congregants tilting their heads to the side at the audacity of my plea. Unlike incautious efforts of my own, although the Stasi itself boasted numbers of nearly 80,000 informants, those recruited to be a part of Department XX/4 were significantly smaller in comparison.
In East Germany, recruiting agents proved a slow-going process: after all, vetting out individuals interested in working for peace and against fascism wasn’t something handlers could determine in a single meeting. A person who was uneducated in Scripture, for example, didn’t necessarily deter their prospects, for several recruits “opted for pastor training primarily because the church was one of the very few places that provided some degree of freedom” (39). Likewise (and unlike Philip and Elizabeth Jennings of The Americans fame), the department wasn’t alone in preferring agents who spied for material rewards, instead of those who spied for ideological reasons (xxiii). Backwards as it may seem, those who agents who preferred to be rewarded with washing machines, typewriters and even cars – rare items within the reigns of Communist control – were generally more flexible and less cumbersome.
So, were the agents’ hearts just not in it? I laugh even as I pose the question, for Braw makes clear that using the Church as catalyst and grounds for spying wasn’t about the heart in the least – but instead, the whole point was always to keep order in the country. As such, Christianity remained “Communism’s greatest foe because it represented a competing worldview, [and] was also a direct threat to the regime in East Berlin because it possessed a global network ranging from grassroots groups to international institutions” (xviii).
Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that forty years after it began, it was the Church that triggered East Germany’s 1989 peaceful revolution. Of course, in this “victory of faith over snooping,” when this happened, the Lutheran Church altogether lost power, both as an opposition forum but also a gathering place. According to the author, now only four percent of East Germany’s once-thriving Christian population regularly attends church (xxi).
God’s Spies may not have been as enticing to me as Hollywoodized versions of similar stories, but I also honor the work an author put into the work, just as I honor the myriad types of readers that exist in the world. So, for those history buffs who enjoy the occasional deep-dive into unexplored elements of history – including but not limited to those who donned holy robes and stepped into Father Confessor-like roles – Elizabeth Braw’s words will likely not disappoint.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com