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Former Dictatorships Hoping to Learn From German Stasi Archive

DW staff (sp)May 12, 2004

Berlin's experience in tackling East Germany's vast secret police files has sparked interest beyond Europe. Former totalitarian nations Argentina, Iraq and South Africa want to use it to deal with their own brutal pasts.

The East German secret police kept millions of files on its citizens.Image: AP

A decade and a half after the collapse of former communist East Germany, the Berlin-based East German Stasi Archive hardly raises a ripple of interest within the country with the exceptions of the disclosure of sensitive files belonging to high-ranking politicians.

But overseas, particularly in countries trying to come to terms with their own totalitarian pasts, the archive's know-how and categorization methods in shedding light on millions of files maintained by the Stasi -- East Germany's secret police -- are considered invaluable.

In recent years, six former Soviet bloc countries -- Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary -- have used the East German archive to confront their own brutal pasts.

Marianne Birthler
Marianne Birthler, head of the Stasi Archive in GermanyImage: AP

"Coming to terms with East Germany's communist dictatorship has set standards for other states in dealing with their own communist pasts," Marianne Birthler (photo), head of the East German Stasi Archive told news magazine Spiegel.

File legislation model for eastern Europe

Set up in 1990 to investigate the biggest espionage system in history -- more than 2.4 million people are reported to have been placed under Stasi observation -- the archive faced a colossal logistical challenge.

Though the Stasi shredded thousands of files detailing their network of spies and informers in the run-up to the collapse of the governmnet on November 9, 1989, millions more were found bound in massive sacks or strewn around the secret service's offices.

Stasi Archiv in Berlin
Piles of Stasi files in the Stasi Archive in Erfurt, eastern Germany.Image: AP

In 1991, the German parliament passed a unique law regulating the access to files for both victims of spying and former spies. The law allows people who were spied upon to view their dossiers. They can find out who spied on them, but to prevent recriminations and revenge-taking, they are not given access to the spy's files.

This legal framework, especially, has served as a model for lawmakers in the former communist eastern European countries. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary have all passed similar laws opening up secret service files in their countries' in the 1990s and have been coordinating with the Stasi archive to prosecute members of the communist regime.

Argentina hopes to learn from Stasi Archive

The East German Archive's work is now generating interest even beyond European borders. Christian Booss, the Stasi Archive's spokesman confirmed that Argentina, Iraq and South Africa -- all struggling with their own past dictatorships -- are hoping to take a page out of the archive's book.

At the same time, Booss added that the Stasi Archive's role was to simply share its experience. "All we do is explain our work, answer questions. We're no experts who want to export our model worldwide," Booss told DW-WORLD. "It's more like we're offering our services, we're advisors."

Last December, Argentinean Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Pèrez Esquivel, who runs the Argentinean Memory Commission in Buenos Aires, paid a visit to the Stasi Archive in Berlin.

Leopoldo Galtieri
Former Argentine dictator Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, who was arrested in Buenos Aires on July 11, 2002.Image: AP

Though it was only last summer that Argentina lifted the amnesty laws that had protected the generals responsible for crimes during the military dictatorship that lasted from 1974 to 1983, the Stasi Archive has promised to aid Buenos Aires. Together with two foundations, the Argentineans will now study the German method of dealing with the espionage files.

"We could learn from the Germans"

BGSH Saddam Hussein
Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.Image: AP

A similar cooperation is planned with Iraq, which suffered under the brutal reign of former dictator Saddam Hussein. Like the East German regime, Saddam’s Baath Party maintained a vast archive of an estimated 300 million to 400 million documents, which many believe hold the key to the regime’s undocumented crimes.

Earlier this year, Hasan Mneimneh, director of the Washington-based Iraq Memory Foundation told DW-WORLD Iraqis could benefit from learning more about Germany's experience. "Germans are very methodic and very stringent on questions of privacy. We could pick up a lot from them," Meneimneh said.

Germany's Foreign Ministry is now planning to set aside funds for helping Iraqis come to terms with their past.

Booss however warns that the countries seeking help should first "secure their files, pass clear legislation and ensure the work is independent of day-to-day politics." However, he admitted, "Unfortunately these conditions don't exist in all the countries."