In reality it’s “only” a pile of paper. Admittedly, an enormous, gigantic pile of paper. We’re talking about the archive of the Stasi Records Office in Berlin. Archivists usually measure this much paper in shelf-kilometres. There are 111 kilometres of paper files here, plus 47 kilometres of filmed documents. One metre of shelf space holds roughly 10,000 sheets of paper. An amazing statistic. This is what remained of almost 40 years of secret police activity in the GDR. An incredible amount of handwritten and printed paper. At best, you would think, this is a job for historians.
Of course, it would also have been possible to get rid of it all, the bitter legacy of the SED dictatorship in the GDR. After all, these files, which document the activities of the Ministry of State Security, also contain masses of evidence of human rights violations. Each case file represents a life in which the State Security Service interfered, an intervention in a biography that took away someone’s right to self-determination and caused hardship, perhaps because they didn’t want to subordinate themselves to the state ideology or simply because they wanted to travel to another country. These files, with their contents of betrayal, surveillance, imprisonment and subversion, could also have been viewed as poison for the beginning of a new society.
However, this enormous mountain of paper, to which citizens won access during the peaceful revolution of 1989, has become an important legacy for a unified democratic Germany. It was a courageous group of people who occupied local Stasi offices in the districts of the GDR from December 1989 onwards and then, on 15 January 1990, finally entered the secret police headquarters in Berlin-Lichtenberg. The Stasi records fell into the hands of ordinary citizens. Citizens’ committees and committed individuals were able to save them from the destruction already begun by the Stasi. And they struggled to ensure that these records of spying in their own country were made available to all citizens who wanted to discover their real fate.
The Stasi Records Office also commenced work on 3 October 1990, the day on which the two German states were reunited. It was a globally unprecedented undertaking. Never before had it been decided to make the records of a state’s secret police fully accessible to its citizens. How that was to be achieved had to be swiftly determined by the first few staff under the then Special Representative, Joachim Gauck. A way had to be found of making the records accessible as swiftly as the office and its staff grew.
How can you make these records available to the people whose lives were manipulated and even destroyed by the Stasi and at the same time preserve the right to privacy of other people who are mentioned in the records? How can you ensure the transparency of the state activities documented in these files while also observing rights of data protection and informational self-determination? The answer to these questions still forms the basis of the office’s work today: the Stasi Records Act.
In an exemplary way this law has succeeded in reconciling both these principles – on one hand, the right to privacy and informational self-determination and, on the other, the goal of transparency about state activity. For over 20 years now the legislation has been the solid foundation for access to Stasi files. In fact, many people from all over the globe – in recent times increasingly from the Arab world – visit the archive of the Stasi Records Office at the historical location of the Ministry for State Security to find out more about this legal foundation. They regard our many years of experience with the Stasi Records Act as a model to be followed and gain ideas for their own appraisal efforts.
The files are used in various ways. First and foremost, they serve those whose lives were influenced by Stasi activity to discover their own fate. People who did not function as the SED state ideology demanded are often able to read in the files how their lives and destinies were manipulated by the Stasi. They discover that their failure to gain a university place was due to a targeted intervention by the Stasi and not a lack of personal competence, that a planned escape from the country did not fail due to carelessness, but to betrayal, or that the continuous setbacks at work were the result of planned social exclusion.
The files are thus also witnesses of betrayal, opportunism and submission. However, they also document the fact that despite controls and repression people were not prepared to give up the freedom to live the way they wanted. They show that people preserved their decency, remained true to their conscience and demonstrated moral courage in the face of overpowering malevolence.
In addition to central access to personal records, however, the files can also be used by researchers and the media to educate the public about the actions of the Stasi. Access to the files is also permitted to check public employees or people in high-ranking positions in society. The files are also consulted to clarify pension issues and rehabilitation processes. People who were disadvantaged by the Stasi in their careers or spent time in prison can often only document that officially by consulting the Stasi files.
And society? Has it benefited from the opening of the records? The analysis of the GDR dictatorship has often resulted in heated debates. However, it is precisely the meticulous and painstaking depiction of repression contained in these secret police files that enables us to understand in detail how the Stasi functioned. It is the best prerequisite for preventing a repetition of this kind of dictatorship.
Knowing what it was like, discovering who acted how and why promote understanding. Clearly attributing responsibility and repaying debts are necessary steps. This is the only way that those who suffered most under the dictatorship and found themselves in prison can make their peace with the new society and heal their wounds. However, recognition and attribution are not only important for those who were persecuted, but also for those who come after us. After all, the better we understand dictatorship, the better we can shape democracy.
JOURNALIST AND CIVIL RIGHTS CAMPAIGNER. Roland Jahn has been the Federal Commissioner Preserving the Records of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic (GDR) since 15 March 2011. The GDR (1949–1990) was founded as a result of the division of Germany after the Second World War. Until the peaceful revolution and the fall of the Wall in autumn 1989 it was a dictatorship ruled by the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Jahn was born in Jena in 1950 and campaigned for freedom of expression in the GDR. After 1989 he intensively studied the consequences of the SED dictatorship.