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Germany

Stasi records take center stage in Berlin

A new exhibition about the former East German secret police is opening in the heart of Berlin. German President Christian Wulff will inaugurate the exhibition, which aims to highlight the victims' stories.

Shelves of files in the Stasi archives

The exhibition tells some of the stories in the archives

A new exhibition of records kept by the Stasi or former East German secret police opens in the heart of Berlin on Saturday.

The date - January 15 - is significant. Exactly 21 years ago, on January 15, 1990, East German activists stormed the redundant Stasi headquarters in East Berlin, and managed to salvage a significant proportion of the vast numbers of files, recordings and photos in the Stasi archive. Former Stasi officers had been in the process of destroying the material after the fall of the Berlin Wall a couple of months earlier.

Acitivisits in the Stasi headquarters on January 15 1990

Activists occupied the Stasi headquarters on January 15, 1990

The files now occupy more than 100 kilometers of shelf space. Until a few months ago, the authority in charge of the Stasi records was fairly inconspicuous, tucked away between other government offices in Berlin. Now it will be part of the capital's well-trodden tourist trail. The new building is just a few steps away from the famous border crossing, Checkpoint Charlie, one of the city's top attractions.

Few in East Germany escaped the Stasi's watchful eye. Since the archives were opened up 20 years ago, there have been around 2.8 million requests from people wanting to read what Stasi spies wrote about them. The new exhibition now puts their stories on the center stage.

Personal stories

For Marianne Birthler, head of the Stasi records authority, the personal tales are crucial, because they touch people's emotions.

"They're especially important and close to my heart," Birthler told Deutsche Welle. "They may not be a memorial, but they remind us of people who paid a high price for freedom, either because of their actions or because they wanted to exercise their rights."

One of those who paid a high price for freedom is Burkhart Herzel. He caught the eye of the secret police in 1969. He was a Rolling Stones fan, and he'd heard a rumor that the British rock group was going to perform in West Berlin, next to the Wall itself. Along with hundreds of young people on the Eastern side, 18-year-old Herzel was hoping to listen to the concert for free.

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones were rumored to be performing in West Berlin

The Stasi were alarmed and reacted swiftly. Herzel paid the price for his taste in music with six weeks in prison. Later he was arrested and imprisoned again for attempting to escape across the Wall, and for refusing to work. Herzel finally made it to West Germany in the mid-1970s. It turned out the Rolling Stones concert was just a rumor.

Attracting tourists

Birthler is hoping the exhibition will reach a wide audience. Above all she hopes to encourage people who lived in the former East Germany to come and see what's on offer. People who may think they didn't have anything to do with the Stasi.

"We show how everyday lives, sport, culture, the GDR’s national army, work life was all affected by the Stasi," Birthler said. "Sometimes the people didn't even realize. Everyone can take something away from this."

Marianne Birthler

Marianne Birthler hopes to attract foreign tourists

Alongside the victims' stories, the exhibition also examines the structure, history and methods the Stasi used. It was obsessed with recording the mundane details of everyday lives. The organization gathered much of its information with the help of a network of 100,000 unofficial collaborators, in a country of 16 million people.

The new exhibition attempts to get across a sense of the massive scale of the Stasi machine, even though the exhibition space itself is relatively small.

"We tried not to include too much information, so that it all makes sense for people who may not know much about the topic," the exhibition's curator Gabriele Camphausen told Deutsche Welle. "We wanted to express things in simple language, which isn't easy with such a difficult subject, and with the ugly language that is used in the documents themselves."

Space may be limited, but the organizers said they are still hoping to attract a large number of visitors. Marianne Birthler explains that the word "Stasi" has taken on a wider significance:

"The word 'Stasi' has become synonymous with secret police services across the world," Birthler explained. "People talk about the Stasi in Bulgaria and in other dictatorships. Our exhibition is located in an area which is visited not only a lot of Berliners, but also many tourists from around the world."

The new Stasi exhibition opens to the public on Monday 17th January in Berlin's Zimmerstraße, next to Checkpoint Charlie.

Author: Marcel Fuerstenau, Berlin / jli
Editor: Rob Turner

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