January 6, 1988, was one of those Wednesdays when the old baroque building in Kloster Strasse in East Berlin was teeming with activity. The building was called the "House of Young Talents" (HdjT) at the time, but today its original name, Palais Podewils, has been restored to honor its one-time owner, who was Friedrich the Great's foreign minister. That winter day, 70 to 80 people crowded into a first-floor room, normally the rehearsal space for a local children's choir. The computer club met there every Wednesday, a group of mostly young people, with the lion's share of them around 20 years old, but some as young as 16.
Similar clubs could be found across the German Democratic Republic (GDR) during the 1980s and there were around 20 in Berlin alone. But some of those attending this particular meeting at the HdjT had come from far away. And they had good reason. Because even though this was the "Central Clubhouse" of the communist youth organization FDJ, not a single one of the computers sitting on the tables had been manufactured in the GDR. They were all from the West.
On that January day, a C128 and two C64 models from U.S. computer-maker Commodore had been set up along with a floppy disk drive. Stefan Paubel, who had founded the computer club at the HdjT in January 1986 and was its leader, would not have accepted the domestically produced computers available in East Germany at the time – the KC 85 made by VEB Mikroelektronik Wilhelm Pieck Mühlhausen or the KC 87 from VEB Robotron. Both companies were state-owned, a fact denoted by the "VEB" abbreviation. "The KC85 really wasn't very good, so I asked the management at HdjT if we could use Western technology," Paubel recalls today. "Strangely, the director immediately agreed, and I got two C64s and a floppy drive at a used electronics store in East Berlin's Köpenick district. Paubel was allowed to spend a total of 25,000 East German marks on the equipment, paying 6,500 East German marks for each C64.
At the time, the Commodore model was the world's best-selling home computer. But had it been up to the West, the computers would never have found their way into East Germany. In 1988, microelectronics were still on the list of embargoed products maintained by the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom). Western states had agreed they wouldn't supply any technology goods to the communist countries of the Eastern bloc. But the C64s had made their way into East Germany nonetheless, and GDR customs officials allowed them to pass. They didn't have a problem with the import of Western hardware. But software, and especially video games, were another matter. Their content was of great concern to East German officials.
Graphics programs, though, were an exception and those were what interested Paubel most. He had studied mechanical engineering and discovered his enthusiasm for computers in the mid-1980s, leading him to establish the club, where he frequently gave lectures on graphics software and programming languages. At 34, Paubel was relatively old in 1988 compared to the club's mostly younger visitors, and they also tended to be much more interested in C64 games than graphics programs.
But one of those who visited the club on Jan. 6, 1988, thought Paubel was younger than that. He described the club founder as "around 25 to 30 years old, with a beard and metal rimmed glasses." That description of Paubel comes from a Jan. 12, 1988, "Operational Information" memo of the Ministry for State Security (MfS), the GDR's secret police, also known as the Stasi. The MfS had sent an informal collaborator, or IM for short, to HdjT to have a look and mingle with the visitors. The informant was also a young man, a cadre with the Guard Regiment of the National People's Army. The designation "cadre" could mean that he actually was a soldier, but the term was also used in the GDR for those under consideration for an official post. The young informant, who was apparently still in school, may have hoped the computer club visit would increase his profile. Either way, the observations he made there as an informal collaborator were then given to a Stasi officer, who in turn summarized them in his "Operational Information" report.
The document is part of a collection of Stasi documents pertaining to the youth scene in the GDR shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. They provide a deep look into how government agencies viewed computer games and computer enthusiasts – and how they saw the emerging information age. Now, three decades after the documents were created, ZEIT ONLINE has taken a closer look at them. In addition to Paubel, we also spoke to other former visitors to the House of Young Talents who first shared their memories last year with the gaming magazine Game Star.
Thanks to that "Operational Information," the number of people present at that meeting in January 1988 ("70 to 80 persons") and their estimated average age ("22 to 23") has not been lost to history. The IM also reported that he had been "normally but not suspiciously accepted" by the other people present and learned from his conversations that "several participants are in possession of a Commodore 64 computer, and having one is seen as a prerequisite for membership in the computer club."
The informant also noted down the technical equipment in the club's possession, including the Commodore computers, and passed that information on. The documents ZEIT ONLINE has obtained also contain an even more detailed inventory that appears to have come from a different source. The files even contain copies of the receipts from the used electronics store in Köpenick where Paubel bought the two C64s and the floppy disk drive. "They probably got the documents from HdjT leadership," says Paubel.
It was obvious to Paubel even 30 years ago that GDR state authorities were keeping a close eye on the activities at his computer club. He just didn't know exactly what the Stasi knew or who was supplying them with information and the channels being used.
On one occasion, Paubel was summoned to the office of the HdjT director, where a man Paubel didn’t know was waiting for him. The man asked him to produce a list of club members, but did not say which government entity he worked for. Paubel considered the request for a moment before refusing to provide the information. There was no real membership, anyway – the club was open to anyone who was interested, and many people came irregularly, almost all of them male. Paubel's refusal to name the visitors ultimately had no consequences whatsoever and he never again heard from the man nor was the request repeated. The files make it clear today that the Stasi knew of some of the club visitors anyway. Agency files include a list of names and contact information.
They Call Themselves 'Freaks'
In examining the files, it becomes clear that the Stasi began monitoring computer clubs established East Germany in the 1980s soon after their founding and started keeping tabs on the one in the House of Young Talent in 1986, the year of its establishment. A Stasi document from the agency's district office in Lepizig, dated March 15, 1985, reports on another club-like group in East Berlin comprised of "80 computer enthusiasts" who had joined forces and also planned meetings in Dresden. The "people involved in this alliance call themselves 'freaks,'" the document notes.
Home computers like the C64 represented an entirely new phenomenon at the time: It was the first time that computers had found their way into homes and in mid-1980s-East Berlin (to a far greater extent than in the rest of East Germany), there was a significant number of C64s. The Stasi was in charge of monitoring data security at state agencies and in GDR companies and did so through a division known as the Central Working Group for the Protection of Secrets (ZAGG), which also acted as a liaison between different departments within the Ministry for State Security. Many of these departments were monitoring the emerging computer clubs and also their individual members. The communist state, whose leadership had declared microelectronics to be a key industry in 1977, clearly wanted to know what people were doing with their computers.
On Nov. 28, 1988, the head of the Working Group for the Protection of Secrets (AGG), the local equivalent to ZAGG at the Stasi’s district administration in Berlin, drafted an interim summary of his "findings on the use of decentralized computer technology in leisure time." The four-page paper, astonishing in its technological savvy, today reads like a glimpse of the information age that was then emerging. Ultimately, of course, the GDR government agencies never really had to deal with the changes the new technology would bring: The Berlin Wall would fall only one year later, and, within two years, East Germany would cease to exist.
At the end of 1988, though, the head of the AGG in the Stasi district office in Berlin could not have predicted such a thing. In his report, the lieutenant colonel first listed the "interest groups" of private computer users in the GDR that were known to the Stasi, including the club at HdjT in Berlin, the C-16 Club Dresden, the Commodore Club Jena and the Atari Interest Group Rostock. He noted that activities at the clubs usually focused on the "exchange of software as well as the most diverse possibilities of hardware expansion."
A Firmly Negative Attitude
The Stasi agent also issued a warning to his colleagues in other departments: "Given that there are also members within the interest groups or computer clubs with a verifiably negative attitude toward the socialist state and social order, there is a potential danger that the interest groups or computer clubs will go in a negative direction. Exponents of the political underground are increasingly using computers, which are imported and procured through church circles, for example." He also wrote that "some owners of private computer technology ... engage in extensive trade in hardware and software. In many cases, the software in question are copies from the NSW (Eds: the "non-socialist economic area," meaning the West), which are then distributed in the GDR." The fear was that diskettes imported from the West might wind up in computers at state-run companies and that they could damage business computers if they contained viruses. The phenomenon the Stasi official was describing was hardly even known at the time.
He also made a number of recommendations for "preventative defense measures." They included such things as "determining the conditions that would facilitate the infiltration of interest groups and computer clubs by the adversary," "recognition of hostile-negative actions by individuals in connection with the use of private computer technology" and "determining which people are engaged in speculative trade in hardware and software, primarily with prohibited software with revanchist, anti-communist or anti-Semitic content."