"Spy files back under lock and key," Reuters Feature (Berlin), 15 April 2002, by Philip Blenkinsop
East Germany's secret police archives, forced open a decade ago by hunger-striking protests, have slammed shut, ending a post-Cold War era of openness and possibly protecting those who suppressed a nation for 40 years. The meticulous note-taking of the East German secret police, or Stasi, has provided historians and journalists with an invaluable insight into the workings of a dictatorship that spent $1.6 billion (1 billion pounds) a year securing its stranglehold. The archives have been instrumental in trying the leaders of feared police operations, ending the careers of politicians tainted with the Stasi brush and breaking up friendships and marriages as former East German citizens discovered their trusted allies or spouses had informed on them.
Many of the 2.4 million people tracked by the Stasi, most just normal former East German citizens, have had access to their own files. The Gauck agency which oversees the archives has also allowed historians and journalists to peer into the records of so-called "prominent" people of historical interest. That open policy may be coming to an end after former Chancellor Helmut Kohl won a court case to prevent Gauck releasing parts of his 6,000-page dossier. The decision was based on the view that the 72-year-old Kohl, whose telephones were tapped, was a victim of the Stasi regime, and was legally entitled to withhold his file. "It's a real setback. Many documents are now simply not available...We reckon that about 90 percent of inquiries from researchers and the media will be affected. The documents have been rendered unusable," said Marianne Birthler, head of the archives.
People will still be able to view their own files, but researchers will now need permission to view the files of others which might be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. The ruling could also shield the guilty. "A former communist party official or a judge could claim the status of a victim and be protected. That's our problem now," Birthler said in an interview with a small group of journalists.
The Stasi tailed and tracked political opponents, both actual and perceived, Western politicians and many of East Germany's 16 million citizens. The archive's papers, if lined up flat, would stretch for 180 kilometres (112 miles). The Stasi's job was to prop up a government with a siege-like mentality built on Cold War paranoia which preached equality, but dealt out favours and privileges. "The Stasi was not, as some say, the cancer of the East Germany, but the heart. A dictatorship cannot function without a secret police," Birthler said.
The reinforced concrete fortress in central Berlin which housed the Stasi headquarters has two entrances -- the main one on display at the front and a red-marble staircase at the back, where chauffeur-driven limousines brought in the force's top brass. About 250,000 people were imprisoned by the Stasi for political reasons. Some were kept in solitary confinement and there was little openness about those in detention. Vehicles transporting prisoners in cramped conditions could, for example, be painted to look like bakers' delivery vans. "How were millions of people suppressed? Why could people not protest? You can learn how this dictatorship and dictatorships in general work. It's the first time that such an amount of documents have been saved from destruction. We need to keep them for future generations," Birthler said.
Christian Ostermann, head of the U.S.-based Cold War International History Project, said he was concerned about the possible restrictions on access to the files and the precedent it might set for other former Communist bloc countries. "The court finding might have global repercussions in particular because Germany's handling of the Stasi files has widely been viewed as a model," Ostermann said. "The decision also undermines the 'openness' legacy of the Kohl government which implemented the opening of the files in the 1990s. It's highly regrettable."
Bernd Schaefer, research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington who has studied links between the Stasi and the Catholic Church, fears that many files, now with most names blackened out, would lose all meaning. "We've been able to see the operations of the Stasi and the people responsible and the extent of their espionage in the West... What was important for the people was to know who did what, not so much for revenge, but to destroy many myths," he said. In mid-March, Czech President Vaclav Havel signed a law to broaden public access to its Communist-era files.
Plans to fight ruling
The Gauck agency, which receives 10,000 new requests a month, says it has been forced to pull down the shutters. For now, it will not release new files except to people seeking their own details and its website is closed as it checks to see if it is compliant with the new ruling. Birthler said they would try to get the ruling overturned but did not believe parliament would act in the near future. "It's not a good time for consensus politics with the election approaching. We have supporters in almost every party, but you can imagine that the Christian Democrats will not be in favour of change, out of sympathy with the decision on Mr Kohl," she said. The Stasi archive centre says Kohl should really have nothing to fear.
Germany has given researchers access to the unique file on public figures such as former chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. But personal details gleaned from the files, including sexual dalliances, were not made public. Indeed, Gauck agency lawyer Carl-Stephan Schweer has said that of the 2,500 pages the agency wanted to release on Kohl, all but 10 were banal. Some in the media had believed it would shed further light on Kohl's acceptance of $1 million in illegal campaign donations while in office. Some historians say the media campaign in pursuit of figures such as Kohl actually brought about the problem. "It is important to remember that the documents released would not have shed light on possible donation scandals. The documents released are only meant to show the activities of the Stasi," Birthler said.
(Philip Blenkinsop, Berlin newsroom: +49 30 2888 5215, fax +49 30 2888 5008)