BERLIN, AUG. 22 -- You've got one of the biggest secret police operations in the world. You keep files on a quarter of the people in your country. Everyone's afraid of you.
Then your government falls. Your whole system collapses. The new bosses dissolve you. What's a spy operation to do?
If you are East Germany's dreaded Stasi -- formally the Ministry for State Security -- you hold a going-out-of-business sale.
Step through the once-forbidden gate on Normanenstrasse, through the courtyard of this sprawling complex where citizens once disappeared, sometimes for years.
Over here, behind the sign that lists the shopping hours (three mornings a week, 9 to 11:30), you are welcomed into the vast meeting hall, now lined with long tables piled high with merchandise.
But wait -- this is Germany, and there are rules. You want to shop, take a cart. No browsing without a cart. There are men here who enforce this, and given the locale, the compliance rate is high.
Now, first row on the left, how about some paper shredders? Very nice selection, five models, many with scraps of documents still stuck between the blades.
Need to light up an illegal demonstration for easy identification of troublemakers? These giant outdoor lamps should help.
The sale, being conducted under the supervision of East Germany's Committee for the Dissolution of the State Security Ministry, is designed to raise money for the country's strapped treasury in these final weeks of separate Germanys. East Germany will reunite this fall with West Germany, which, since it already has its own intelligence agency, doesn't need another.
This is also a way to clear office detritus out of Stasi buildings that are being reassigned. This, the Stasi headquarters, for example, is now home to a health clinic, some West German insurance company offices and the Oskar Ziethen Health Center ("Sauna for Everyone!" reads the sign outside).
The sale is a big hit. East Germans, struggling through the economic transformation of their society, search for deals on typewriters, coffee makers (spies apparently work long hours), and after-shave (an attractive spook is an effective spook).
West Germans have different shopping goals: They are on the prowl for camp -- souvenirs of 40 years of terror. Framed portraits are big: former Communist Party chief Erich Honecker ($6), Lenin ($4) and massive bins full of flags ($8 to $15, depending on size; the large ones are three-story-high, military-parade size).
There are microfilm readers, cartons full of tape reels, polygraph machines, notebooks, every kind of photographic equipment you can imagine. Everything guaranteed Western brands: IBM, Pitney-Bowes, Kodak -- no fooling around with lousy East Bloc stuff here.
A Stasi man regretfully informs us that the safes are all gone -- there was a run on them in the opening days. One of 85,000 East Germans who worked full time for the secret police (110,000 more were paid stoolies), he is now reduced to a temporary salesclerk. He is, naturally, shy about his name, but he volunteers that he was in the counterintelligence section. And what did he do there?
"The same as they do in the CIA," he says.
And what might that be, for those of us who do not work for the CIA?
"Ask them," he says.
He is more forthcoming about the sale. We need not worry about the supply in the sales hall; there are "plenty of freight cars full of this stuff."
Sadly, there is nothing here that says Stasi -- no stationery, no T-shirts.
"You could make a lot of mischief with ministry stationery now," the Stasi man said, and the point is well taken. To be identified as a former agent these days is to risk vilification.
"I was looking for the torture instruments," says Joachim Kleinert, a shopper from West Berlin. "They say they never had any. I'm sure those things are now all in the closets of all the former agents."
The counterintelligence man says the Stasi was misunderstood. Sure, "some of the people at the top were criminals, but most people did their work well. And now we are finished. No one will hire us. Of course, they should prosecute the ones who are really guilty." But, he says, much of the anti-Stasi sentiment is based on groundless allegations that "should be thrown on the garbage heap of history."
The inventory reveals a spy agency that honored achievement (piles of plaques, medals and other awards), remembered the family back home (a full selection of greeting cards) and knew how to relax (plenty of cassettes and record albums, heavy on Brecht songs and Handel concerti).
There are lovely dinner plates engraved with the image of East Berlin's stunningly ugly TV broadcasting tower, suitable for hanging.
And blankets, refrigerators, hats, uniforms, doorbells, farm implements, film editing machines, countless keys, file cabinets, thousands of dictating machines and enough letter-openers to supply the Stasi's 2,100 "mail surveillance" workers.
"You can see how the apparatus became too large," the Stasi agent says. "Too preoccupied with so many tasks that didn't have to be the business of a secret service.
"But for most of this stuff, there is a very simple explanation: We had to do everything from cook our own food to mine our own coal. This country did not work very well, so we had to do it all."
Right down to liquidating themselves.