1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

German president praises Stasi HQ storming

January 15, 2020

Thirty years ago, crowds of people prevented East Germany's feared secret police from shredding files in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged society to heed the lessons.

East German demonstrators break through the glass doors of former East German secret police headquarters
Image: picture-alliance /AP Photo/J. Finck

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Wednesday marked the 30th anniversary of the storming of the Stasi headquarters. On January 15, 1990, large crowds forced their way into the offices of East Germany's secret police to stop thousands of files being shredded.

Opening the Stasi archives had given reunified Germany a "deep insight into the mechanisms, into the efficacy of a dictatorship," said Steinmeier during a commemoration at the former Stasi hub in Berlin.

Around 7.3 million applications have been made by individuals, entities and researchers since late 1990 to view Stasi documents.

Lessons about the past could only be gleaned when the public knew what had happened and why, added Steinmeier. The president described the storming as a "profoundly democratic act" — in the wake of dissident rallies and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The archive was admired worldwide as a unique institution for its invaluable work, Germany's president added.  

Read more: Stasi's pervasive footprint across two Berlins

The storming was "perhaps more important" than the rallies, according to retired eastern German Catholic bishop Joachim Reinelt.

The January moment represented the "ultimate disempowerment of the scaremonger" police state regime, Reinelt said. The East German Volkskammer parliament dissolved with German reunification in October 1990.

Important signal 'worldwide'

Roland Jahn, a former dissident, has been in charge of the team that curates the former Stasi records in Berlin and 12 outlying regional offices since 2011. He says the 1990 storming became an important signal "worldwide."

"For the first time in the world, citizens occupied the offices of a secret police force to safeguard its files and to make them accessible later for society," Jahn told the Northwest-Zeitung newspaper.

"Great euphoria prevailed, but also a certain trepidation, a queasy feeling, to penetrate these premises," said Jahn.

People storm the Stasi HQ in Erfurt
Erfurt, December 4, 1989: storming an outlying Stasi officeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Archiv Gesellschaft für Zeitgeschichte

Overheated shredders

From the third quarter of 1989, Stasi officers began putting files through shredders, which became overheated, and had switched to manual shredding as the site was overrun in January 1990.

Some 111 kilometers (69 miles) of shelved files were left intact, alongside 16,000 bags of paper shreds.

Of these, only 23 bags have been reassembled using painstaking manual labor and computerized scanning technology to depict the original documents.

Two years ago, the electronic scanning was halted in the hope that future technical advancements would speed up the process.

Read more: Bundestag votes to regroup Stasi files in Federal Archive

The Stasi or communist-era Ministry for State Security Service, operated a large-scale spying network across East Germany and beyond, using tens of thousands of officers and some 170,000 informants to keep tabs on the then-GDR population.

ipj/rt (KNA, dpa, epd)

Every evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. Sign up to receive it directly here.