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Opinion

Opinion: The Stasi, a timeless topic

Interest in East Germany's Stasi secret police files is unbroken, even 25 years after they were opened. Many questions remain - thank goodness, says DW's Marcel Fürstenau.

Almost 68,000 applications for an inspection of personal records in 2014 - that's a respectable number for Roland Jahn, the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic (BStU).

Pointing out that there were twice, even three times as many applications in the early years after the fall of the Wall amounts to statistics. The current figure is impressive because almost a quarter of a century has passed in the reunited country since the Stasi files were made accessible to the people. All the same, there are still many who dare a first glimpse, or maybe a renewed glimpse, into the abyss. Above all, the fastidiously laid out East German secret police files reveal despotism, human weaknesses, treachery and mistrust.

A task for all Germans

East German civil rights activists pushed through the opening of the files in the unification process, allowing a broader view - back then and today - of the nature of a dictatorship and its willing helpers. They could also be found in the free western half of a country that was divided for 40 years. Apart from systematic surveillance of its own population, West Germany was the Stasi's main target. So when Jahn calls coming to terms with the past a "task for all Germans", it's more than just a dutiful avowal. All the same, most people think almost exclusively of East Germany when they hear the word Stasi.

Marcel Fürstenau

Marcel Fürstenau: A lesson in democracy

Unfortunately, even the BStU's regular biennial reports haven't managed to change this one-sided point of view much. Jahn doesn't feel that's a problem. He couldn't convert people who make light of East Germany, so called "East German nostalgics", anyway. So he takes a pragmatic approach and points out the numerous publications and exhibitions about the Stasi phenomenon. His agency has staged quite a few, and they go with the times, like the new online media center. Using various formats, it illustrates how the Stasi observed people, intimidated them, even broke them.

Stasi, NSA

A new generation seeks answers, Jahn says. "What's the difference between the Stasi and the NSA?" young people ask him. Jahn, himself a victim of the Stasi, feels such questions are neither absurd nor trivializing. Both represent a "state intervention." A dictatorship's secret police is not comparable to an intelligence gathering organization of a democracy but a comparison can be helpful. The Stasi is ideal illustrative material. Had the files remained closed, we wouldn't have access to this timeless material. Opening them was first an act of liberation for the victims, but dealing with Stasi history as such is a lesson in democracy.

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