Former Stasi police officer now a Nazarene lay leader
Helmut Warnstedt doesn’t look like a stereotypical, stern-faced German secret police officer. He smiles too brightly and too genuinely.
That may be because in 2003, when confronted with his previous life as an informer for the Stasi, he threw himself into the arms of Jesus and found freedom from the burdens of his past.
Today, Warnstedt is a lay leader in the Bonames Church of the Nazarene in Frankfurt, Germany, and is a theology student in European Nazarene College’s distance learning program.
The Stasi, short for Ministry of Secret Security, served the German Democratic Republic, commonly known as East Germany, until the republic collapsed in 1990.
At 17, Warnstedt was a rebel in the truest sense of the word. From 1969 to 1970, he frequently wired anonymous messages critical of the government to the local radio station in western Berlin. The Stasi intercepted every single one.
The Stasi discovered his identity by comparing samples of his handwriting. At 8 o’clock one morning, two Stasi officers appeared on his family’s doorstep and took Warnstedt into custody. The teenager was too young to serve time in prison. The officer decided that the very qualities which made the boy a formidable opponent could be leveraged in service to the Stasi.
The officer threatened to make a house search unless he joined their ranks. Warnstedt was furious. With his father, mother, two brothers, and his sister in his thoughts, he agreed to the Stasi’s terms.
Warnstedt began work immediately as a ticket master on the trains in and out of Berlin. He was to report any suspicious activity aboard the trains or in the stations’ cafes, such as passengers who seemed to be scouting for information on military objects or hints of conspiracy. He would watch colleagues and strangers alike. No one was beyond monitoring.
Once a vocal critic, Warnstedt became the eyes and the ears of the Stasi — albeit only under coercion.
Still rebellious, Warnstedt deliberately ignored “suspicious passengers.” He would report small bits of unimportant information, omitting anything incriminating. Theoretically, Warnstedt was working undercover… against the Stasi.
Warnstedt was transferred to a military regiment in 1971 and became close to an officer, believing him to be a good friend. Later he discovered the man was a member of the Stasi who had been ordered to spy on Warnstedt.
Surrounded by false friends, Warnstedt turned to some Christians in his regiment. In them he found his first true exposure to Christ.
Warnstedt’s mother had been Catholic while his father practiced no religion at all. Two of his fellow soldiers taught him what it meant to be “born again.” He had never heard of this before. He remembers a feeling deep inside that seemed to say, “These men and their story are talking to me. I should change.” He realized that his lifestyle, even before his service to the Stasi, was coming to an end.
While he watched and waited for a way out of the secret police, he spent the evenings in the barracks reading a New Testament. First, he wanted to know who wrote this book, the philosophy within, and what the life of a Christian entailed. Second, in his heart he suspected the power of that book was the same power to release him from the Stasi.
One day on patrol in 1972, Warnstedt brought the New Testament along. The patrol set out in pairs, and while one in each pair remained watchful, the other would rest. As his comrade slept in the shade, Warnstedt paged through Romans. He stopped at chapter 15, verse 9: “and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.'” Warnstedt felt his heart explode in recognition. The scripture meant him.
He murmured, “If you are the true God — if you are real — then show me now, this very minute. I must know! Is God really here, and am I on the right way?” Warnstedt sat in silence. The wind blew through the trees, the birds flew through the air, and his comrade stirred in his sleep. Nothing.
Pacing the area, he wandered over to a small tree and, feeling fidgety, he peeled bark from its trunk. As he fingered the branch, he noticed a slight irregularity in the texture. He peered closer at the symbol formed in the bark: a cross, of the clearest proportions.
“God is real!” he shouted inwardly. God had answered. Now, what would Warnstedt’s answer be?
Meanwhile, his relationships with the Christians at the Catholic church he attended had grown stronger. Although not yet a believer, Warnstedt eventually became comfortable enough with the church youth pastor to share his desperation to leave the Stasi. The pastor said if anyone could help, it would be the bishop.
Warnstedt obtained a meeting with the bishop and explained his complications with the Stasi. The bishop encouraged him, giving him courage to face his commanding officer.
Warnstedt visited his leading officer at a secret meeting place and declared his resignation. Enraged, the officer shouted, “The papers and documents forbid it! What? Do you write your own religion now?” He threatened to arrest and imprison the young man.
Wrapped in an unusual sense of peace and strength that he knew came from God, Warnstedt replied, “I am a Christian. I can leave. And I am going to.” Then he turned and walked away on shaking legs, with Romans 8:31 coming to his mind: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Six weeks later, Warnstedt gave his life to Christ. Warnstedt went about his life always looking over his shoulder for fear of the Stasi’s revenge until the official end of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) in 1990. The revenge never came.
He met and married his wife. She knew about his previous involvement with the Stasi, but for 30 years they did not speak of it.
As the years passed, Warnstedt’s relationship with Christ began to fade. In 1995, he shied away from attending church services. His family was aware of his growing disinterest, although he never told them explicitly.
In 1998, when Warnstedt moved to Frankfurt for a job ahead of his family, he began searching for a church for them to attend. He noticed the Frankfurt Church of the Nazarene and recommended it to his wife. In 2000, his wife and daughter began attending the church and got to know then-pastor Hans-Jürgen Zimmermann. Later, their adult son also joined them. They accepted Christ, were baptized, and became church members.
The family wanted Warnstedt to share their new joy in Jesus, but he rarely came with them. He didn’t want to hear about God, so he kept his distance.
In January of 2003, an exhibition of Cold War-era DDR documents came to Frankfurt. On the exhibition’s last day, Warnstedt decided to see it. The exhibition featured stories and documents about three of 200,000 individuals who had worked for the Stasi.
He recognized the wording in one of the documents — it was his.
Further documents showed him, for the first time, how the Stasi had monitored the mailbox to which he wrote those critical letters, all those years ago. Unbeknownst to him, in 1973 his leading officer wrote an account to his bosses of the last meeting between him and Warnstedt, in which Warnstedt ended his service to the Stasi. This account was shown in the exhibition.
Posted on the placard were copies of Warnstedt’s telegrams, reports by the other agent who spied on him, and memos between officers debating whether to arrest him after his resignation. It was all there.
Other visitors passed around Warnstedt as his breath caught in his chest. For a half hour his eyes ran over and over this account, which contained his words from 30 years before: “I have been found to God.” He knew his run from God was over. While he had avoided church, God had come to him. He was being given a second chance.
He jumped on the train and headed straight to the Church of the Nazarene, where he gave his life to Christ for the second and final time.
In 2009, Warnstedt found contact information for his old commanding officer. He felt God leading him to contact the man, so he called and before he could introduce himself, the officer recognized his voice. They agreed to meet at a restaurant, where they shared a long conversation. Warnstedt told his story from the day he left the Stasi to the moment he found Christ at the exhibit.
He gave a copy of the New Testament to his commanding officer with a short inscription written in the front cover. The officer slid his hand over the cover and said, “It is all over, and there is nothing left… but I will take this as a memory. Will you pray for me?”
Warnstedt is actively involved in the Bonames church, where he sometimes preaches and leads the service. He now holds a local preacher’s license.
—Church of the Nazarene Eurasia Region