If you have seen The Lives of Others, then this part of the tour may have a ring of familiarity to it. Our first visit of the day was to the archive of East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, known as Stasi. Our guide was Günther Bormann, the head of the Stasi Record Office Leitungsburo, who explained how the archive worked and how Stasi operated.
Founded in 1950, Stasi was charged with keeping tabs on all the people living in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It compiled photos, audio and video tapes, and paper files about the country’s citizenry. To do so, Stasi worked with so-called unofficial collaborators, who agreed to spy on their colleagues, friends and even family in the name of loyalty to the GDR and the Communist Party.
In 1989, as the Eastern Bloc crumbled, a women’s civil rights group in Erfurt entered the Stasi office and said, “This building is occupied.” Without orders from the main office, officials did not know how to react and left the office. This scene was generally repeated at the 15 regional, 205 district and seven special offices around the country.
Sensing their time in power was over, senior Stasi officials sent word to the main office that they should destroy files about important officials and by the spies they had in Western Europe. The 100 shredders they employed to do so quickly burned out from the strain, leaving Stasi with no choice but to tear the files up by hand. In the three months from the start of shredding to the time the main office was taken over, 17,000 bags had been filled with ripped up files.
After a new government took over and reunification began, it was decided to open the Stasi files so that the people of East Germany could find out what information had been collected about them.
If you are a former GDR citizen, you can fill out an application to view your file. Because the privacy of all citizens is protected by German law, the files need to be reviewed before they are released and redacted so that no information violates someone else’s rights. However, files and references to ex-Stasi officers or ex-collaborators are not protected. While only a collaborator’s code name will appear in a record, the full name can be requested.
Special rules apply to so-called persons of public interest, such as politicians. Bormann used Helmut Kohl as an example because the former chancellor had fought unsuccessfully to keep his file closed.
Reading the files revealed the subtle tactics Stasi used on citizens of the GDR. Bormann said that while the ministry had the legal ability to throw activists in jail, it was not politically savvy to do so. The less attention from the Western press they attracted, the better. Thus it was better to create minor disturbances to disrupt and frustration the opposition.
In one example, Stasi officers let the air out of the tires to a bicycle owned by a prominent activist, thus making her late for everything.
Another activist suffered through a more trying disturbance by the ministry. Stasi officials decided to cause he and his wife to get divorced within six months. Using the information they had collected, they introduced another man into the wife’s life. After a relationship between the two had been established, Stasi would leak it to the public and cause a scandal. The activist and his wife did in fact divorce, but once he read his file and learned what really happened, they remarried.
While learning what information Stasi had collected could potentially bring about closure to a painful part of one’s personal history, there are a couple of reasons why people may not want to view their files. One, they may not find anything all that interesting. Two, they may find that someone close to them was a collaborator.
Bormann was happy to report that the majority of people in the GDR were not collaborators. Most people that Stasi approached to become collaborators declined to do so. All told, there were 89,000 Stasi officers and 179,000 collaborators in a country of 17 million citizens.
Those that did work with Stasi did so over their own free will and, contrary to popular belief were not blackmailed into doing so. The ministry found that they could get more reliable information if they hadn’t coerced people into becoming collaborators. Even then, after a few years, the data provided by collaborators became unreliable due to the stress caused by being in such a position.
Only between two and five percent of the files were completely destroyed, despite Stasi’s best efforts. Most of those files were from the spies in West Germany. After the bags of ripped paper were discovered, a group of 30 public servants in Nuremburg went about piecing them back together. In 10 years, they have reconstructed 300 files. Bormann said that a pilot digital-based reconstruction program has been launched, and he hopes that this will get through the remaining files faster.
Bormann said that while the archive could be considered a depressing thing, he feels that positive experiences can come out of it. “After a dictatorship, somehow you have to deal with the past.” He reported that in a survey of people who requested their files, 95% said they would recommend others to do it. Since the archive was opened to the public, they have processed 5,100,000 applications.
What happened to all the former Stasi officers after the GDR fell? Bormann said that because they had experience in getting people to do stuff they didn’t want to do, they all became insurance salesmen.