The Stasi: German Struggles with the Past

Article by Tom Hitchcock. Edited by Simon Mackley. Additiona research by Jack Barnes.

In 1950, five years after the establishment of an East German state, came the founding of the Ministry of State Security, the infamous Stasi. Working under the maxim ‘Shield and Sword of the Party’, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the West German media described their Eastern counterparts as ‘the most perfected surveillance state of all time’. Historians have estimated that the Gestapo had one agent for every 2000 people in Nazi Germany, while in the Soviet Union the proportion of KGB agents to the general population stood at one for every 5830. In the GDR, however, conservative estimates give the figure of one Stasi officer or informant for every 63 people, with more extreme estimates suggesting that the ratio was as high as one agent for every 6.5 people. Even the more conservative figures point us towards the conclusion that the GDR, through the Stasi, represented one of the most concentrated systems of policing the world has ever seen.

But it went beyond that. Comparisons to Orwell’s 1984 might be horribly clichéd, but they are hard to deny. In a state of around 17 million people, ordinary civilians were encouraged to take up the role of inoffizielle Mitarbeiter or ‘unofficial collaborators’, volunteers who informed the Stasi about the daily actions of their neighbours, co-workers, friends and even family.  All public forms of communication and broadcasting were state-controlled. Postal communication, especially to and from high-risk individuals, was frequently intercepted and inspected. Supposed criminals were detained indefinitely without trial and the Stasi used isolation, sleep-deprivation and torture to extract confessions. The comparisons are hard to deny.

The Stasi were a terror on the ordinary citizens of East Germany, who suffered simply because they happened to live in the east and not the west. But their enduring legacy is more than just rapidly fading memories of totalitarian brutality; crimes of the past in a state that no longer exists. The Stasi collected information, horded it in vast quantities and, in their offices and their archives, they reported on a population they were unceasingly suspicious of. In the 1980s, while the comparatively young Mikhail Gorbachev brought about Glasnost, the policy of political openness and transparency, in the Soviet Union, the much older politicians of the GDR clung their traditional ways and the Stasi kept up its meticulous documentation of the daily lives of its citizens.  It is estimated that in a mere 40 years of existence, the Stasi produced the equivalent of all German records since the medieval period.

The Peaceful Revolution, which brought about the end of the Communist government in 1989, took the Stasi by surprise. In their desperation to avoid prosecution, they barricaded themselves in their offices and destroyed the files they had spent years compiling. But their own thoroughness and rigour was their undoing. They shredded the files until the shredders burned out from overuse, and then began to tear them apart by hand. Once they had done all they could, they surrendered their buildings to the protestors. Those who had had run-ins with the Stasi had had their suspicions, but it was only now that the true nature of the Ministry for State Security was revealed to them. The citizens of the new unified Germany were presented with the question of how they were to come to terms with their past.

In approximately 15,000 sacks at the former Stasi offices, torn into countless pieces, were the intimate details of the daily lives of millions of East German citizens. And people demanded to see what was in them. One ironic benefit of the Stasi’s thoroughness was that they did not have time to destroy everything they had made, and so the question of whether those files should be made public was a pressing one. On October 3rd 1990 the young unified German republic founded a government branch to deal with the preservation of the Stasi records, the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives, commonly known as the BtSU. People were to be allowed to see the information that was collected about them, but with names of collaborators and informants redacted.

In 1995 the BtSU began to piece together the files that the Stasi had attempted to destroy. In a small village just outside of Nuremberg, a small group of Germans began, piece by piece, to bring the extent of the Stasi’s crimes to light. Complete files had, of course, been available for five years by now, but it was only natural that the Stasi had sought to destroy the most incriminating files first, and it was expected that more was to come from the workers who were quite literally reconstructing the puzzle of totalitarianism.

When the BtSU was established it was estimated that interest in the files was to last between 10 and 15 years. People came from all over Germany to view their files, perhaps to find out why they were constantly unable to work, perhaps to find what happened to a loved one, or perhaps out of sheer morbid curiosity to find out how much of their lives had been documented by the faceless bureaucratic machine. However, since its inception, the work of the BtSU has faced criticism and funding difficulties. Perhaps, some argued, it was better to leave the past in the past. What good could such attempts possibly have to a unified, forward looking German Republic?

Now, 22 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 7 years after the BtSU initially predicted interest in the files would have dried up, they still receive approximately 8000 file requests per year, and in 2009 this total was reported to have been no less than 100,000. In 2007 the German Parliament set aside approximately £4 million to finance the electronic reconstruction of documents through the use of an “unshredder”. As well as this, the critical acclaim for the German film The Lives of Others shows that interest in what the Stasi did all those years ago is far from over. When justifying the ongoing importance of his work, BtSU employee Günter Bormann said “The Stasi officers used their every last strength to destroy these documents in the dead of night. I don’t think they are insignificant.”

The question of the Stasi epitomises the fact that simple notions of ‘Crime and Punishment’ never tell the whole story. As someone who was born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I lack any sense of personal connection with the events of the Cold War, but German citizens are still trying to deal with what they went through in those 45 years and it is not an easy question to resolve. The work of the BtSU is part of this, a way for the nation to come to terms with its conflicted past, and this history is not going anywhere soon. As Marianne Birthler, after whom the BtSU is named, put it, “Working through the past doesn’t end in a single generation.”

N. B. It is almost impossible to convey the sufferings of the German people at the hands of the Stasi in a 1000 word article. For a more detailed account, see Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall.

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