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Germany

New Law Could Open Kohl's Stasi File

The German parliament amends a decade-old law governing access to the files kept by East Germany's secret police. The vote could make it easier for journalists and academics to access data on Helmut Kohl and others.

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Miles and miles of Stasi files: Coming to a newspaper or bookstore near you?

Few issues are as sensitive in reunified Germany as the keeping of the vast archive of East Germany's secret police, the feared and loathed Stasi.

Prominent eastern German figures like Katherina Witt and Berlin Economic's Minister Gregor Gysi have in the past sought to block publication of the clandestine information in their files. But the biggest case to date has been that of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl – the leader who stewarded the former communist east and the industrially mighty west through reunification.

Easier access for academics and journalists

An amendment passed on Thursday by the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, could make it easier for journalists, researchers and historians to gain access to those files in the near future.

A court ruling in favor of Kohl in March led to the closure of the Stasi files on prominent Germans, but the amendment to the hurriedly passed 1991 law governing the administration of the files passed Thursday could now make it possible again. The Christian Democratic Union, formerly led by Kohl, opposed the amendment. The Party for Democratic Socialism, the successor party to East Germany's communists and the party in which Gysi is a leader, abstained from the vote Thursday evening.

"The cloud over the law is now moving"

Marianne Birthler, the head of the Gauck Authority, which administers the files, cheered the vote. "The cloud over the law is now moving," she said. Birthler said it would enable the body to continue its "successful ten-year tradition of a journalistic and academic reappraisal of the Ministry for State Security."

The change means the agency in charge of the files must release some information about celebrities and politicians, but it can withhold data considered to be illegally obtained or disproportionately harmful to a person's personal interests.

The amendment allows for the publication of Stasi information on prominent Germans if the "information deals with the person's contemporary role or concerns how they carried out official duties or functions."

It also strikes a paragraph in the original law that would have enabled the subjects of files to request that information in the original documents be blacked out starting in 2003.

What it won't do is provide instant access to the controversial information – a provision is built-in requiring that the person who's file has been requested first be notified. It also allows them an opportunity to appeal the request. It will likely be taken up at the final summer session of Germany's upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, next Friday, but if not, the Bundestag vote will become law.

Bad news for the former chancellor?

A Federal Administrative Court in Berlin ruled in March that the former chancellor should be shielded from publication of information on him compiled by the Stasi. The ruling was final and came as a result of an appeal filed by Birthler.

At the time, Birthler said the ruling would have grave consequences for future study of East German history and its communist regime. Academics decried the ruling as a return to the stone ages of research law.

The Stasi often eavesdropped on conversations between western German political leaders, and critics of Kohl alleged that the files could contain information further implicating him in the party slush fund scandal that tarnished his reputation and led to his resignation as the honorary chairmen of the CDU in 2000.

It is still unclear whether Kohl's files will be released as a result of the amendment. Birthler said Friday that all applications must be considered on the basis of the new rules. But as far as Kohl is concerned, the battle is far from over. He says he will sue his way to the Federal Constitutional Court if the government seeks to release his files.