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stasi files
The Stasi kept meticulous files on the East German populationImage: dpa - Bildfunk

Stasi past

May 20, 2011

East Germany's secret police force - more commonly known as the Stasi - was founded in 1950 to root out the "class enemy." It's widely regarded as one of the most effective and oppressive in the world.

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East Germans are very familiar with the letters MFS. They stood for "Ministerium fuer Staatssicherheit" or Ministry for State Security, more commonly known as the Stasi. At its peak, the Stasi employed around 274,000 people with an estimated 500,000 working as unpaid informers. That accounts for one Stasi agent per 166 citizens - making it a denser surveillance network than the Soviet KGB or Hitler's Gestapo.

Today, many informers view their involvement with the Stasi as an embarrassing secret. But some are willing to talk about the work they did supporting the communist regime, like Peter Wolter. He is now a writer for Germany's Marxist newspaper Junge Welt. Wolter used to live in West Germany and from there, provided the Stasi with intelligence reports.

"The Ministry for State Security was a very large authority, which covered areas authorities in West Germany would never work on, for example tracking the flow of illegal drugs," Wolter said. "So there was also a large overlap with police work. But what I did was to provide information to foreign intelligence headquarters."

It's estimated that more than 1,500 people based in West Germany fed intelligence to the Stasi. While people living in East Germany were very often coerced into becoming informers, those in the West tended to do so of their own volition. Wolter said it was "a completely free choice" to offer his services.

former Stasi prisoner in cell in Hohenschoenhausen
A cell in in the former Hohenschoenhausen prisonImage: dpa

"I was a communist and quickly realized that while handing out flyers and organizing meetings was important, I could perhaps have more leverage in a more official capacity," he said. "So I decided to make myself available to join my other comrades."

Victims still suffer

In the communist East, anyone even vaguely suspected of being an enemy of the state could expect to have their phones tapped, their apartments bugged, their letters opened and copied and even to be secretly photographed or filmed. It was all used as material for their personal Stasi file.

The worst case scenario, though, was to be picked up by Stasi officers for questioning at the central remand prison at Berlin Hohenschoenhausen, one of 17 scattered around East Germany. The facility lay in a top secret zone. Surrounded by a wall and administration buildings, the area didn't officially exist and was marked with a blank on city maps.

Kristal Davidson, who leads tours through the prison memorial center, said victims of the Stasi still suffer - even 20 years after the country's dissolution.

"As we now know from psychology, if you have a trauma that is not treated, it doesn't just disappear with the years, it actually grows into a bigger problem," Davidson said. "So we have to imagine that the vast majority is still facing even the worse problems yet and as most of them are not even able to talk about what they've experienced, it's still very tough for them."

Shocking files

The Stasi managed to accumulate a massive amount of surveillance material, much of which they attempted to destroy when it became clear the country was collapsing. Following German reunification, East German citizens were granted the right to view their Stasi files.

torn up files
Many files were torn up by the Stasi and are now being reconstructedImage: dpa

"People want to see their files for different reasons," said Xenia Schutz from the Stasi archives authority BStU. "They want to find out whether their friends were true friends or if they were unofficial informers of the Stasi. Of course, quite a lot of people were shocked because they did not suspect for instance that their wife or husband was reporting on them. We had such examples of people finding out about such shocking facts."

The Stasi was one of the aspects of life citizens in East Germany despised the most. But for those within the organization, it was a necessary part of life there, Wolter said.

"State Security was definitely important because dozens of intelligence agencies from the West tried to infiltrate East Germany," Wolter said. "So it was absolutely necessary to protect against that. And the Stasi did that very effectively - unfortunately, too effectively because they managed to turn a portion of their citizens against them."

No regrets

Twenty years after the collapse of the state which Wolter worked to protect, he said he still thinks his decision was the right one. He said he would make the same choice again.

"It's not at all embarrassing and I talk about it very openly," he said. "I can also justify why I did it. I didn't do it to accumulate personal wealth as is often insinuated. I did it as a conscious decision and this decision was not wrong. I would do it again today. The only regret I have is that I didn't work effectively enough."

As the self-styled shield and sword of the party, was the Stasi necessary to protect the state and the people? Or was it an oppressive, terrifying regime designed to keep citizens in line and prevent political dissension? Depending which side you were on, opinions are still mixed. What isn't in doubt, however, is that for some, the Stasi remains as much a part of contemporary life in Germany as it was more than 20 years ago.

Author: Gavin Blackburn (sac)
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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