During my first week as an intern at the Wende Museum, I was very confused when what seem to me two ordinary jars crossed my desk needing to be cataloged. After inquiring what the significance of the jars were, I was told that they were Stasi smelling jars. While this reply was meant to answer my question and end my inquires as to why these jars were important, it only served to create more questions. I had taken classes on Eastern European Communism but the term “Stasi” had only briefly been mentioned, so when the term came up again with these jars I was lost. But when I was researching these jars, I not only learned their purpose, I learned a great deal about who the Stasi were and what they did.
The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security), commonly known as the Stasi, was the official secret police of East Germany. It was widely regarded as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world. By having my introduction into learning about the Stasi through the lens of researching the smelling jars, I realized how intensive their surveillance was. The smelling jars used odour recognition to keep tabs on potential dissidents. The Stasi often collected the samples surreptitiously – breaking into homes to steal suspects’ underwear, or by wiping down chairs used during interrogations. The samples were then stored in glass jars, each carefully labeled with details of whom the sample came from. The idea that there were jars full of people’s scents as well as detailed records of people’s lives in Stasi buildings was pretty disturbing to me, because it illuminated the vast scope of power that the Stasi’s and the GDR had over the lives of the East Germans. It is pretty incredible to me how something that seemed so innocent to me, could mean so much.