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Seeking justice

January 28, 2011

East German activist and political rights campaigner Roland Jahn was announced as the new head of the Stasi archives in Berlin. Since 1990, the records office has been open to those who want to find their files.

Roland Jahn
Jahn was born in the GDR but expelled in 1983Image: dapd

Well-known East German dissident and journalist Roland Jahn has taken over as Federal Commissioner of the Stasi records authority.

The records of the Ministry for State Security of the GDR (better known as the Stasi) are held in Berlin, with the head of the archives selected by the German Parliament.

"It's a great day for me," said Jahn. "The Stasi kicked me out of university, threw me in jail and ran our country by force."

He declared himself as a "lawyer for the victims."

The archives were established in 1990 following the peaceful revolution against the communist regime in East Germany.

They contain important historical documentation about the methods of the East German regime and its secret police. It is one of the largest archives in Germany with 111 kilometers of files, more than 1.4 million photos, films and tape recordings.

Who is Jahn?

Born in 1953 in Jena, Thuringia, Roland Jahn was one of the most well-known activists of the opposition to the East German regime.

Stasi files
Inside the Stasi archives are 111km of filesImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

He was thrown out of university – where he was studying economics – after criticizing the extradition of East German singer Wolf Biermann in 1975.

Jahn then became involved in opposition groups and protested against censorship and publicly supported the Polish anti-communist Solidarity movement.

Several times Jahn was interrogated by the Stasi and the police. Due to "public denigration of order" he was sentenced in January 1983 for a prison sentence of 22 months. However international protests meant he was freed after a few weeks.

Deprived of citizenship

Despite his dabble with prison, Jahn's opposition to the communist regime was undeterred. Together with other activists he formed the 'Peace community of Jena' and demonstrated with banners.

This prompted the Stasi to capture and lock him in a train compartment, from which he was deported from the GDR. He was deprived of his East German citizenship in 1983.

In West Berlin, Jahn became a journalist for both newspapers and the country’s public television. Even though he was still spied on by the Stasi, he smuggled cameras to friends in the East – and their film rolls back to the west.

Stasi files
The files contain highly personal informationImage: AP

"We sent these films to the West German public television and so we came to broadcast the reality of the GDR into the living rooms of GDR citizens," Jahn said.

Many East Berliners could often illegally pick up broadcasts from the West even though the communist state tried to block them.

Jahn's new role

As the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi files, Jahn is tasked with protecting the archives and ensuring access to the public, to researchers and journalists.

Günter Boorman from the Stasi archives told Deutsche Welle the role is one of "taking care of the files, as they contain sensitive, personal information about those being spied on by the Stasi."

Boorman said around 50,000 people a year ask the archives for access to their files. The role has a tenure of five years, with the option for re-election to a second term.

Jahn added he is not looking for revenge against his former oppressors, "I want justice."

Author: Catherine Bolsover
Editor: Andreas Illmer