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 most 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 considerations 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 and spoken not only to Paubel, but also to former visitors to the House of Young Talents.
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."
And he described a new problem that was beginning to make itself felt: "Recently, there has been a growing trend of people trying to acquire acoustic couplers or obtain information about them. The technology can be used for the uncontrolled transfer of data to the NSW using Deutsche Post’s direct distance dialing system. (Deutsche Post was West Germany’s postal system at the time.) Relatively large amounts of data can be transferred in a short time. The private use of such technology within the GDR has already been verified."
By 1988, modern data traffic over telephone lines, the precursor to the internet, had arrived in East Germany. In the future, he wrote, software would no longer require any physical medium to be disseminated. Which in turn would mean that it could no longer be intercepted during border controls.
But many citizens of the GDR, particularly younger ones, didn't even have access to a phone line, let alone to an acoustic modem that a telephone handset could be attached to in order to transmit code in the form of acoustic signals. For them, the computer clubs served as places they could go to swap software, just as the head of the AGG had written independently of the informant who had been sniffing around at the House of Young Talent.
"We swapped games there until the cassettes glowed," recalls Timo Ullmann, who was only 16 years old in 1988, in describing the cassette storage mechanisms that could be used with early home computers. Ullmann had his own C64 at home, meaning he regularly coopted his parent's TV set, since, unlike many other computers, the Commodore didn't require an extra monitor – it could be hooked up to a normal TV. Ullmann's father, who worked in foreign trade, had bought the computer using West German deutsche marks. "When I got it, I spent the first year playing just about every game I could get my hands on, including C64 classics like 'Defender of the Crown' and 'The Last Ninja,'" says Ullmann. "At the time, my father thought he had made a huge mistake by buying the C64." For a long time, though, Ullmann had no contact with others like him. But then, he happened to come across an official FDJ socialist youth movement poster advertising the computer club at HdjT.
For many gamers, the game-swapping that took place in these clubs was the only possibility they had for accessing computer games from the West, because they weren't sold in normal shops. You could only purchase them at government-run Intershop stores and payment could only be made in West German deutsche marks. And because a pack of 10 empty disks could cost up to 600 East German marks, young computer users usually opted for cheaper, although technically inferior, cassette tapes as their data storage media.
Interestingly, the East German were not violating the law by copying the games because software was not protected by copyright in the country. The Leipzig District Court had ruled in a landmark decision in September 1979 that it considered software to be "neither a scientific work nor a creative achievement."
Given the sheer amount of copying that was taking place at the House of Young Talents, the Stasi presumably had numerous sources for determining which games and software were being shared. The documents ZEIT ONLINE has obtained contain a list of all the games that, to the Stasi's knowledge, were available to the computer club in East Berlin in July 1987. Paubel says he doesn't even know himself everything that was being passed around.
The five-page list contains the names of 261 games for the C64. Most of the games have English names, but the Stasi generously translated them into German. It includes, for example, "Samantha Fox Strip Poker," a card game in which the then somewhat famous British pop singer, who had also worked as a Page 3 girl, was undressed. The game was translated as "Samantha Fuchs (German for fox) Undressing Poker." Looking at the list today, it takes a bit of imagination to divine the original English title behind some of the translations.
It's not just what's in the report that makes it so interesting, but also where it comes from: The deputy head of Division XV ("defense technology and mechanical engineering intelligence"), which was responsible for foreign espionage for the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance at the Ministry for State Security, had sent it to a colleague at the Berlin district Stasi offices, apparently at that colleague's request. In his letter, dated Sept. 2, 1987, the man from foreign intelligence referred to a "source" without providing any further description of that person.
It is not possible to determine the identity of that source on the basis of the documents ZEIT ONLINE has obtained. What can be said, though, is that at the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance, "sources" usually meant informants in the area of the operation, meaning overseas. This could be a so-called "A source," someone who had contact with someone who was working at a certain location of interest or in a field of interest. Or it could be a so-called "O-source," someone who themselves worked at a certain location of interest or a classic agent spying directly for the Ministry for State Security.
Raid Over Moscow
Twenty-three games on the list are marked with the word "index," having been deemed to be of "a particularly militaristic and inhumane nature," as the document notes. Interestingly, the Stasi's list was almost the same as a similar list kept by the West German government of games it deemed potentially harmful to minors. Most of the titles featured are shoot 'em up type games, including "Commando," "Blue Max," "Rambo" and the once infamous "Raid Over Moscow," which the Stasi called "Attack on Moscow." (We've also embedded a 1980s version of "Raid Over Moscow" at the top of this story that you can play, legally.)
The player's job in "Raid Over Moscow" is to destroy the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons arsenal, necessarily making it a political issue for the East German authorities. If the Stasi had discovered that you owned a copy of the game as a teenager, Ullmann says, "that could have caused a lot of trouble." But, he adds, "the love for video games clearly trumped fears of being caught by the Stasi."
Compared to today's games, "Raid Over Moscow" seems almost harmless, but it was too much for the West German youth protection authority, which put the game on its index in 1985. In justifying the move, the authorities wrote: "In older adolescents, playing (...) can lead to physical tension, anger, aggressiveness, agitated thinking, difficulty concentrating, headaches, etc." The game, which has been out of circulation for years, was removed from the index in 2010. Items on the list are automatically removed after 25 years, and there have been no requests to place it back on the index since.
In 1980s East Berlin, Stefan Paubel, who was employed at the House of Young Talents, wanted to ensure the computer club wouldn't be shut down because of the kinds of games that were being traded or played there. Paubel found a solution that was as astute as it was simple: He posted a sign on the wall stating, "It is forbidden in this club to play games that glorify war." Problem solved.
One game that the Stasi did actively seek to keep out of circulation was the strategy game "Kremlin," which had been developed by the small Swiss publisher Fata Morgana Games. In "Kremlin," the player takes over the role of a Soviet politician who then fights others to become the head of the party. One Stasi file notes that the game "contradicts the interests of the GDR due to its anti-Soviet statements." As such, it stated, import of "Kremlin" should be prevented under all circumstances. As evidence, a clipping of a review of "Kremlin" published in the West German C64 magazine Happy Computer is attached to the file. Meanwhile, the Stasi obtained the operation manuals for other games. The branch office in Leipzig, for example, obtained instructions for the game "Elite," a space simulation that came out in 1984.
For Volker Strübing, the C64 games provided an escape to "a new world, away from the often-dismal day-to-day life in East Germany." Like Timo Ullmann, Strübing was only 16 in 1988 and was a frequent visitor to the computer club at HdjT. The meetings created a tight-knit group of East Berlin youth who played video games together in their free time. They soon began developing their own programs and, like Strübing, making music on the C64. Strübing had bought his computer at an Intershop in East Berlin, having obtained the necessary hard currency from his grandfather in West Berlin.
Each Wednesday, the boys wrapped their computers up in towels, stuffed them into bags and made their way to HdjT, where they no longer had to worry whether or not the club's own C64 computers were available. "By GDR standards, we were really privileged in East Berlin with our C64s," says Strübing.
At the same time, officials from GDR customs and the Stasi were becoming increasingly desperate in their attempts to control the spread of Western video games. In a document from October 1986, an inspector stated that considerably more disks were being smuggled into the GDR than in the previous year. In East Berlin alone, 18,000 of them were finding their way into shops each month, according to the inspector.
Military Combat Operations
In order to counteract the unhindered dissemination of allegedly subversive software, individual Stasi district offices conducted random checks of disks in circulation on the search for prohibited content. A file obtained by ZEIT ONLINE shows, for example, that in the town of Glauchau in Saxony, Stasi workers searched "computer technology of Western origin with the corresponding game program," that a local government-owned wool and silk factory in the town of Meerane had acquired at a used goods store. The Stasi agents were apparently not very familiar with computer brands, referring in their notes to "Komodore" and "Adari." In any case, what they found on the disks was more serious: "war games in which military combat operations can be simulated with tanks marked with a red star."
The young soldier and Stasi informant who made his first visit to HdjT in East Berlin on Jan. 6, 1988, was soon keeping an eye out for any potentially incriminating games being swapped there. And at the computer club's next Wednesday meeting, he found what he was looking for. An 11th-grader had "brought an enormous quantity of disks with him that mostly had war games on them," the informant later told the Stasi, as the second "Operational Information" report from Jan. 16, 1988 notes.
The informant made a copy of the air-war action game "Ace of Aces" from the 11th-grader and then reported to his commanding officer that in the game, "it is possible with airplanes, submarines and other combat equipment to attack and bomb cities or fight military objects in a pan-European context." The end of document states that the informant had been instructed to get more information at the next meeting two weeks later. He was to obtain the "personal details necessary to identify" the 11th-grader and to "establish closer contact" with him. He should also try "to talk to the leader again (a reference to Paubel)."
That's the last document in ZEIT ONLINE's possession that contains any reference to the young informant who had been assigned to monitor the computer club at HdjT. There is no file in the data providing insight on the informant's subsequent activity nor is there any report by the informant's Stasi liaison officers that sheds light on the informant's next steps. And neither Stefan Paubel nor Timo Ullmann nor Volker Strübing can recall any encounters with such a curious young man. Nor were there any noticeable consequences for the computer club that could have arisen from the Stasi monitoring. Paubel continued to give his lectures on Western computers while Ullmann and Strübing continued diligently swapping games.
It wasn't until July 1989, just a few weeks before the mass exodus of East German citizens began at the Hungarian-Austrian border, that another unofficial collaborator "with basic knowledge of computer technology" visited the computer club at the House of Young Talents. He also quickly recognized that the club "mainly had the character of a swap meet for the exchange of software. For the most part, programs and computer games are traded."
The informant also met adults there, including a computer science teacher who owned a C64 and was "embedded in a private exchange ring for software." The files state the informant proposed identifying the computer science teacher in question and coordinating further measures with the Working Group for the Protection of Secrets. However, he did not consider it necessary to monitor the club more closely through, for example, targeted eavesdropping operations. The informant apparently assumed that the club was not a source of subversive political activity.
Computers Become a Danger
Only a few months later, the political situation changed completely when the masses began taking to the streets in protest in East Germany. On Oct. 10, 1989, the same head of the AGG at the Stasi's district administration in Berlin who one year earlier had described the private use of computers in the GDR, noted that content of the New Forum had been found on several diskettes in Berlin "relating to the increasing activities of the political opponent." The New Forum organization had a major influence on the citizens' protest movement.
The Stasi officer wrote that a list should be created of suspicious persons "who owned a printer and distributed political texts and games with a fascist character." Computers and computer software – whether games or word processing programs – were now regarded by the state as a potentially existential threat. The regime desperately tried to get the rapid spread of data media and software under control. But an attempt to censure computer owners, whatever form that might have taken, never materialized. One month later, the Wall fell.
Reflecting on the events that unfolded three decades ago, Stefan Paubel says he's rather disappointed by what is contained by the Stasi files. "I think the informants were remarkably naive. The reports are way too positive." But Paubel says he was also probably a little bit naive himself at the time given that he owned a dot-matrix printer, which the Stasi viewed as a potential device for the dissemination of political pamphlets. It was also probably a little careless that he had issues of the magazine Happy Computer from the West copied at East Berlin's city hall – a service he paid for with schnapps. But such shenanigans, which seem quite humorous in hindsight, went undiscovered at the time. "Sometimes, it also helps to have luck on your side," says Paubel.
Volker Strübing also finds it surprising that the Stasi didn't take a harder line against computer clubs and young gamers like him. "They had everything critical in the reports: Swapping software, a complete list of all the games glorifying war and computers from the West," he says. "But they apparently didn't have a clue as to what all this really meant." For example the fact that, even if they didn't represent a concrete escape from East Germany, they were tantamount to escaping the state's ideals.
But rather than having to fear negative consequences, the young people at the HdjT computer club tended to enjoy advantages, says Timo Ullmann. He says they were seen as welcome applicants to East Berlin's engineering college. Furthermore, starting in 1988, the government shortened mandatory military service to nine months for students beginning computer science programs.
Microelectronics was a "sacred cow" for the GDR, says Paubel. "Young people here were engaging with computers, which was an official political goal – in that sense it appears (officials) were willing to put up with a lot." Paubel believes that's likely the reason visitors to the HdjT computer club were able to get away with so much and also why they had opportunities to do things that would not have been possible anywhere else in East Germany.
Furthermore, academic literature available on Ministry of State Security's activities in the mid-1980s likewise shows that surreptitious surveillance and covert oppression were more typical of this time than open repression. The GDR regime in the 1980s was concerned about its reputation and was thus considerably more cautious in many areas than it had been during the 1960s.
A Warning Letter from the Lawyer
Stefan Paubel describes his experience with the computer club at the House of Young Talent as "the happiest time of my life." After the fall of communism, Paubel first worked in a computer shop and later became a media designer.
These days, he creates new street and city views using photomontages, and he has also written two books, "Old Manhole Covers in Berlin" and "Old Manhole Covers in Europe," with a third one in the works. Paubel still owns his old C64.
In 1990, Volker Strübing and other members of his computer-club clique developed the puzzle game "Atomino" for the German games studio Blue Byte. In the 1990s, he helped establish a series of public readings in Berlin called LSD – the German acronym for Love Not Drugs. The readings still take place today. Since May 2007, Strübing has been making "Kloss und Spinne," an animated sitcom on YouTube. He continues to write about the C64.
Timo Ullmann is the only one of the three who is still professionally involved in computer games. After the fall of communism, he studied computer science and worked together with others from the HdjT group at Terratools, a games company located in Potsdam near Berlin. In 1999, he founded Yager together with four colleagues. The company is one of Germany's largest developers of computer games and has more than 100 employees. "This all has its roots in the C64 and the computer club at HdjT," says Ullmann. "That was a wonderful time."
The computer club at the House of Young Talents continued to exist for a while after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the Ministry of State Security was dissolved in 1990. It was also around this time that the GDR gamers began having difficulties when seeking to copy or swap Western games – by advertising their needs and wants, for example, in the classifieds. And it wasn't the state authorities from the crumbling GDR who were on their case. Instead, the gamers were sent warning letters from lawyers – their first introduction to the wonders of capitalism that would soon take over.
In August 1990, two months before reunification and the end of the GDR, the remaining members of the computer club at the House of Young Talent in East Berlin decided to dissolve the club.
Graphic implementation: Steffen Hänsch, Moritz Klack, Jonas Parnow, Christoph Rauscher, Julian Stahnke, Julius Tröger
Historical consultation: Franziska Kelch
Editing: Dirk Peitz
Translated by Daryl Lindsey