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Agents of communist East Germany’s Stasi (state police) referred to its psychological terrorism against individual dissidents as Zersetzung – which translates as “decomposition” or “corrosion” – a reference to the severe psychological, social, and financial effects upon the victim. Zersetzung was designed to side-track and “switch off” perceived enemies so that they would lose the will to continue any “inappropriate” activities. Tactics employed under Zersetzung generally involved the disruption of the victim’s private and professional lives. Although they are illegal in the U.S., the same covert tactics are quietly used by America’s local and federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to suppress dissent, silence whistle-blowers, and get revenge against persons who have angered someone with connections to the public and private agencies involved.

The Stasi often used a method which was really diabolic. It was called Zersetzung, and it’s described in another guideline. The word is difficult to translate because it means originally “biodegradation.” But actually, it’s a quite accurate description. The goal was to destroy secretly the self-confidence of people, for example by damaging their reputation, by organizing failures in their work, and by destroying their personal relationships. Considering this, East Germany was a very modern dictatorship. The Stasi didn’t try to arrest every dissident. It preferred to paralyze them, and it could do so because it had access to so much personal information and to so many institutions.

-Hubertus Knabe: The Dark Secrets of a Surveillance State, TED Salon, Berlin