Germany and six former East Bloc countries have started a network for coming to terms with the crimes of the Communist secret police. Their goal: to share experiences at conferences and improve access to files.
The group wants international cooperation on the files
A symbolic spot was chosen to sign the deal: the European House at the Brandenburg Gate. Until the end of 1989, the Berlin Wall stood just a few meters away.
For Marianne Birthler, the head of the Federal Commission for the Records of the State Security Service of the former East Germany, it was the fulfillment of a long-held dream: to deal with Cold War secret police issues on an international basis.
The film "The Lives of Others" helped explain the era to a new generation
There has been contact between the countries in the past, but nothing systematic. The European network -- which will include the documentation agency of the East German Stasi, as well as their counterparts in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary -- is expected to change all that.
"One of our projects will be to provide information about our work in all seven countries, either via the internet or in printed form," Birthler said. "Of course, we will also host conferences. There could even be a joint exhibition. We'll have to see."
Different histories, different methods
While Birthler has plenty of plans, each country's method of dealing with the issue is quite different.
For example, in the Czech Republic, Communist crimes have been under investigation since the mid-1990s, and access to files just became possible 10 months ago, according to Miroslav Lehky of the State Security records agency in Prague. And compared with the Germans, the Czechs have many more files.
"(We have files) not only from Stasi, but all repressive state organizations from the Communist state. That includes military intelligence, civil intelligence, border guards. Now we have everything together, and can analyze it. And of course we want to open everything," said Lehky.
"I want to publish names"
The Stasi archives are accessible in Berlin today
Bulgaria is also playing catch-up. The records-historians there had to struggle for a long time before they got their own building. Now they have one. It is slated to contain an archive of all the former secret agencies. The goal of records-official Evtim Kostanidov, too, is to open up the archive to anyone who wants it.
"Another important job is to publish the names of those people who worked for the secret police, both officially and unofficially," he said.
For her part, Birthler hopes the European network will help spark initiatives, particularly in post-Communist countries that aren't part of the current group.
An example for others
"I could imagine that our cooperation would give strength to people who need it. Just the fact that we exist, and that we're visible on the European level," she said. Slovenia and the Baltic States are the countries that jump to mind, she says. At this point, she notes, they are all members of the EU.
Europe is reunited and free, Birthler said, but Europe wouldn't be Europe without an understanding of its diverse and contradictory past.