The Stasi stole people’s underwear to make a library of their smells.
When the Berlin Wall fell, merrymakers found something rotten at Stasi headquarters.
Hundreds of jars stuffed with pieces of fabric, underwear and old socks were labeled with people’s names.
A label on one reads: “Name: Herr [name]. Time: 1 hour. Object: Worker’s underpants.”
These jars held the scent of thousands of East German citizens.
The Stasi used the jars and specially trained smell hounds to perform a sort of scent lineup.
In one case of “inflammatory leaflet” distribution, the Stasi contacted ten thousand (yes, ten thousand) people.
In operation “Invocation”, they took smell samples from more than fifty people.
When they compared them with smells from thirty-six flyers, they found no match.
They had better luck with a suspect who was their own informant.
Although he claimed he was out of town at the time of the “crime”, his smell traces matched those on some of the flyers.
The jars can now be seen in the Stasi Museum in Berlin.
The original Stasi procedure was to hand subjects a yellow cloth and have them wipe an armpit or groin.
The surprised subject had no idea why.
They improved on this with “the smell sample chair”, a perforated metal chair with a tray underneath the seat.
A yellow cloth in the tray collected the sweat and scent which dropped down.
Finally, they broke into peoples homes and stole their clothes and underwear.
By 1982, the Stasi were working on smell vacuum cleaners that could secure smell traces within two minutes.
In the meantime, their smell differentiation dogs were trained using everything from plant hormones to musk.
Reportedly they even used female sex hormones.
To give you an idea of Stasi surveillance: Stasi men studied the angles of people’s TV antennae.
(Westwards was suspect.)
The smell of Stasi fabrics was recreated by Robert Blackson and his smell consultants, in an art exhibition called “If There Ever Was – a book of extinct and impossible smells”.
They also created the smell of the sun (similar to brass polish), of Hiroshima (metallic and pungent) and the Mir Space Station (the smell of sweaty socks – vodka and body odor meant that Mir’s air filtration system became blocked with formaldehyde and stopped working).
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.