Head of Stasi archive says countless files have yet to be read | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.05.2009
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Head of Stasi archive says countless files have yet to be read

Marianne Birthler, the head of the agency that oversees the archives holding millions of files collected by the former East German secret police, says many files remain untouched.

Stasi archive agency head Marianne Birthler

Birthler says her agency can't look through all the files itself

When West German policeman Karl-Heinz Kurras shot Benno Ohnesorg on the street in 1967, the violent death galvanized the German left. The episode of the peaceful protestor shot by the law-and-order-obsessed cop became a symbol for the battle between left and right in 1960's Germany.

The legal aspect was much murkier. A series of court cases failed to prove whether the shot that killed Ohnesorg was really fired in self-defense, as claimed by Kurras' lawyer. So Kurras was never convicted, due to a lack of evidence.

A discovery in a Stasi archive last week gave the events of 42 years ago a new twist – one that makes the political context just as cloudy. Researchers found that the former West Berlin policeman had worked for the East German Stasi, the secret police, and may have committed the crime on their behalf.

Former West Berlin police officer Karl-Heinz Kurras and his lawyer in 1970

Karl-Heinz Kurras and his lawyer, right, were able to beat the charges against him

Nothing's shocking

For many Germans this was startling news - not only that Kurras had been a Stasi agent, but that the archive was still uncovering secrets, two decades after the Stasi was disbanded. But the head of the agency that preserves old Stasi files, Marianne Birthler, said she wasn't surprised at all.

“Such revelations only come to light when somebody has a suspicion, a hunch. If you don't have any suspicion, you don't ask for the file. Nobody thought that Kurras worked for the Stasi, and that's why his file simply went unnoticed.”

She said that no one had ever even asked to see if Kurras had a file, including the many researchers who had come to the archive to do research on Ohnesorg and other student movement figures.

Birthler spoke to reporters on Tuesday at her agency's bi-annual press conference. The event usually attracts only moderate interest from the German media, but this year it was different. The press were there in force, and many outlets had argued in recent days that Birthler and her archivists should be undertaking a more active search for historically significant material, especially on West German collaborators with the Stasi.

Birthler defiant

The head archivist said her agency placed great emphasis on finding out to what extent West German institutions were infiltrated by the Stasi. She also asked reporters to look into the agency's list of publications.

“It's actually one of the best documented aspects of our work,” she said. “There are eight books dealing more or less exclusively with Western collaborators for the Stasi. To say that we're neglecting the topic on purpose is just nonsense.”

Birthler said that about 100,000 Germans apply every year to have a look at their own Stasi files, to find out what the secret police knew about them and to find out who might have been informing on them. But even that extensive rifling through the old folders barely makes a dent in the whole collection. It's said that if the files were lined up in a row, they would stretch for well over 100 km.

An archivist replaces a folder in a Berlin archive of Stasi files

Much much more where that came from

Still more secrets?

The amount of files is vast, and there are others that have yet to be reconstructed. Stasi personnel shredded and, in some cases tore to pieces a number of particularly sensitive documents in the waning days and hours of the fallen Communist regime. The probability of more bombshells is high.

Stefan Wolle, a historian who studies communist East Germany and is the historical advisor for the DDR Museum in Berlin, says researchers might find more documents linking the Stasi to the Ohnesorg shooting.

“I wouldn't put it past Walter Ulbricht and his comrades,” said Wolle, referring to the East German Communist Party general secretary and de facto leader at the time of Ohnesorg's death.

“Whether we talk about just the Stasi, or the entire East German leadership, they definitely pursued a strategy of destabilizing the political system in the West,” he said.

Author: Hardy Graupner (mrh)

Editor: Susan Houlton

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